June 10, 2011

A hard life

Although I spent my early years in close contact with my grandmother, even sleeping in her bed as a small child, I can't say I knew her well. I don't recall her voice though I can still see her clearly in my mind. And I remember her scent. It made me feel secure.

She had encephalitis, an acute infection in the brain. She got this terrible disease simply by being bitten by a tse-tse fly. It happened in Italy when she was 14. Her life hadn't even begun and it was already ruined. Sleeping sickness, as it was then called, is overwhelming. Pain, lethargy, confusion and the urge to sleep -- these symptoms colored her days ever after.

Maria Baiocco, my mother's mother, had few good moments but she wasn't bitter or angry. She was in pain all the time and this was all she could focus on. However, there was a way out: sleeping. It was her only relief and she slept and slept and slept. At any hour of the day or night you could expect to find my grandmother sleeping, either in her bed or on the living room couch.

My grandfather was the most loving caretaker imaginable. He did everything for her while raising my mother and her sister, holding down a full-time construction job and doing all the cooking. He was an amazing man and she was lucky to have him. He did these things for her willingly and, like her, he wasn't bitter. It wasn't their way.

My grandmother never learned to speak English and my generation never learned Italian. We, myself and my cousins, couldn't speak with her. But then she rarely spoke to anyone. She was not social in any way. I remember that she would give any child that came near her a nickel or a dime to go away. It was the permanent headache -- it really did her in.

Maria's tough life ended badly when she was run over by a bus and killed. She was in her early 50s and had been on her way to an evening church service when she was struck. It seems unfair that a life like hers ended like this. But life isn't fair.

Still, her existence wasn't joyless. My grandmother had this quirk. Although she wanted to do nothing but sleep or go to Mass, there was one thing she loved to do: ride the Parachute Jump at Coney Island. My poor, sick, hardly functional grandmother would hop on the ride whenever possible. She adored the feeling of falling. I guess it took her pain away for a time, at least as long as it takes to drop 350 feet. So Maria Baiocco always had this one thrill up her sleeve: Coney Island was just a subway ride away.

Another thing she enjoyed was teaching us kids to crochet. I have made many doilies, my friends, and several afghans. Oh, yes, I can crochet up a storm. But she did something even better: she taught us the secrets of Cat's Cradle. I am a champeen Cat's Cradler. I'll take anybody on and it's all my grandmother Maria's doing. She didn't use language to teach us these things -- she showed us with her hands. This was the way we communicated. I remember those times warmly and I can feel the gentle touch of her hand on mine like it was yesterday, guiding my fingers into the right position. And I remember her joy at those times. Beneath all the pain, she was a good person. I never doubted that.

Looking back I wish I could have been some help to her, but I was only seven when she died. My grandmother may not have experienced much joy in life but she created children who went on to create more children -- and here I am, along with all the others (including that famous artist, Cousin Carmine). Even a sad life can have positive effects. Thank you, Maria.


cm said...

That was a beautiful post Keith. Since I wasn't even born before she died I never got to experience what she had to give. I can verify the fact that Grandpa was an amazing man. I remember him pretty well. Thanks for this post and thank you Maria.

Artichoke Annie said...

Hi Keith, I read your post last night and really was taken by the tenderness of the story you related. Yes, I teared up a bit as well.

Gosh, I have heard about sleeping slickness but never realized what a painful and debilitating decease it is/was. A remarkable women to be able to carry on in her own way through it all.

The telling of the relationship between a grandmother and grandchild in various dimensions really hit home for me. I loved my grandmother (had only one) and I remember almost everything we ever did together. I think my relationship with her had a major influence on me as I took on the role of a grandmother. It's fun to hear what my grandkids remember now about things we did and to know they will carry these experiences with them well into yet another generation.

Thanks, Keith.

writenow said...

Two comments and no mention of the Parachute Jump? Anyway, thanks guys. Maria certainly deserved a blog post, and probably much more. I felt I had to immortalize her in some way. You know, my grandfather moved back to his hometown in Italy many years after her death (he wanted to help his sons-in-law start a new business first) and married Maria's sister. That, at least, sounds like a nice ending to a good life.

Artichoke Annie said...

Parachute Jump? - Oh, my I avoid them at all costs. My Coney Island experience was waiting at the bottom of the roller coaster ride for my friend to do their thing. I'm a "keep my feet on the ground" kind of gal. lol Well, except for airplanes, I do do airplanes, big and small.