Thursday, July 11, 2013

My Gramma Rose

Today my family lost a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, an aunt, and a friend.  She lived a fascinating life, she loved, and she is immensely loved in return. She will be sorely missed.

For the past couple of months as every phone call would wind down she would tell me how much she loves me and would inevitably remind me that she would not be around for much longer. No one wants to be reminded of mortality, I poo-pooed her morbidness to focus on the moment with her. 

On Tuesday evening we were called by my uncle that we should immediately travel in to town.  We arrived yesterday afternoon.  Last night before I left her room I kissed her on her mouth and told her how much I love her. She exhaled, pushing out, "Iloveyou," with all of her strength as a one syllable mutter. My cousin, Kim, was quietly humming, "You are My Sunshine." 

This morning, as my mother was sitting by her bedside, holding her hand, Gramma succumbed peacefully.  

I am sad for my mom.  I am sad for my uncle and his family. I am sad for her best friend, Miss June.  I am sad for myself. I know this sadness will pass. But, I am happy that G is no longer in pain or suffering.

This afternoon, as Mom, Dad, and I were taking a long, quiet lunch and reflecting on G I remembered I took a class a few years ago and wrote a paper about Gramma. 

In the Fall of 2011 I took a class, The History of Childhood in America.  The assignment was to interview a person that is alive prior to World War II and relate it to the readings for class. I chose my Gramma. I called her the evening before the paper was due, of course, and spent hours on the phone with her listening to her stories.  I had her on speaker phone, which I am sure she would not have liked because she had an audience of Pandora and Phaedra wide-eyed listening to every word while I furiously wrote her stories in shorthand. This assignment made me realize that Gramma was much more than just my Gramma, she is a friend.  I began calling her every week and for the past two years I have looked forward to reminiscing her stories and sharing my own with her. Here is the paper in its entirety.

When I think of the Great Depression, it usually consists of a black and white photographic images flashing through my mind, like those of the infamous Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange.  The Great Depression was an economic slump that lasted between the years of 1929 through approximately 1939, the start of World War II.  Historically, these years consisted of widespread unemployment, little or no food, and housing shortages.  Most people were struggling to survive these hardships.  However, the images painted from the memory of my Gramma, Rosalie Ghelarducci, are anything but grimy children scrounging for their next meal while holding onto the coattails of their waif-like mother simply surviving day-to-day in the shanty town of Hooverville.  Rosalie’s memories paint a time, like any ordinary childhood.  The Great Depression was not a way of life; solidarity of the family was the way of life, the Great Depression was just the name of the era.
Rosalie was born and raised in Carnegie, PA, a small town located just outside of Pittsburgh, PA and named for Andrew Carnegie.  Rosalie is the sixth of seven children, the third of four girls:  Margaret, born in 1913; James (Jim), born in 1915; Raymond (Ray), 1917; Catherine (Kay), 1919; Thomas (Tom), 1921; Rosalie, April 27, 1925; and, Therese (pronounced Theresa), December of 1926.  With her parents, Auto and Rosalia, they all lived in the same house her entire childhood. Rosalie only moved, at the age of 22, after she married my Grandfather in 1947
 Auto was Bohemian.  He regularly spoke German and Polish in the house.  Rosalia was Irish. The white duplex house she grew-up in was directly next door to the neighborhood hardware store.  The house is the second building on the quaint block and diagonally across the street from the neighborhood church. It is nicknamed The Irish School and Church, which is also the private, Catholic school she attended. When looking out her bedroom window she could see the church and school.  Like the children in Nasaw’s Children of the City regulated to living within a few blocks of a large city, Rosalie’s whole life was contained within a few block radius.  
Rosalie’s mother was strict, period. If she wanted something done you did it then, not later.  “You know, your mother is very much like my mother.” (Ghelarducci) If the children did not do something immediately, “we would be on restriction.  At the time we didn’t know it was called ‘grounded’ but that’s what we got. She rules the house. She never said ‘Wait ’til your dad gets home,’ he had said, ‘Take care of it when you see it.’ 
When we were younger, our punishment was to go upstairs and put on our nightgowns, because she knew we wouldn’t dare go near the windows in our nightgowns. That was how our punishment was given.”(Ghelarducci)  Rosalie recalls a story when both her and Therese were sent upstairs for the evening for bickering, to be in their nightgowns. At this time, the two girls were old enough to figure out that they could crawl to the window and sit on their bottoms without their nightgowns being seen.  As they were sneaking views of the outside, it just so happened that Rosalie and Therese’s playmate from across the street was also on nightgown punishment in her own bedroom. The girls began making faces at one another and sticking their tongues out. Rosalia, who was sitting on the front porch thought she was the recipient of the face making. She marched directly across the street to notify the playmate’s mother.  The girl received a punishment, spankings from her own mother.  Rosalie and Therese came running down the narrow stairs of the four-bedroom house, screaming, “She was making faces at us, not you Mum!”  Rosalia cleared up the mistake and apologized. That was the last time Rosalie recalled receiving the nightgown punishment. 
Rosalia found other ways to maintain order in the household.  “When we were older if we were late for curfew you must of had a pretty good excuse or you weren’t allowed out the rest of the week. You had to stay home.” (Ghelarducci)  Rosalia was very strict and stern with the children, Auto backed her up. “They made it to their 49th anniversary but then my father passed away. I had hoped my marriage would have lasted to the 50th anniversary but it didn’t work that way.”(Ghelarducci) 
When asked, “What was your dad like?”  She responded, “Dad was quiet.  He didn’t raise a lot of problems.  He worked.  He played cards at the Saloon.  He would drink while playing cards, come home, drink a cup of coffee and go to bed. He’d go to card parties at the church and win many prizes.  He taught us cards; we all played different games.  He played with us.  I remember him giving me, what they used to call, ‘Dutch Rubs.’  This is when he’d take his newly grown whiskers and rub them all over my face to tickle me. I would giggle out loud, ‘Stop it Daddy, you're hurting me!” (Ghelarducci)
Very similar to excerpts of the 1920’s and The Great Depression read in class, the children of the Spirik household were responsible for contributing to the family.  They had chores.  “We all had our chores. We went grocery shopping; each of us carried our own grocery bags, two of them, one for each hand. If we got anything wrong, Mum made us take it back. She wouldn’t keep it.” (Ghelarducci)
As far as other chores, Rosalie’s mother kept it fair. Everyone took turns doing the dishes.  When the boys became teenagers, they were not responsible for doing dishes any longer.  At this point, the boys were required to work outside of the house doing odd jobs and different things to help support the family. Other chores included from time-to-time ironing and scrubbing the floors. Although, Ray enjoyed the task of scrubbing floors, and kept this job for himself.  Rosalie recalled that Ray would get up at 6am on Saturday morning and block off the stairs so nobody else could come downstairs to walk on the clean floors until they were dry.  He would also wax the floors and then cover them with newspapers to keep them clean until Sunday morning.  She does not remember why it was so important to have clean floors on Sunday morning, it just made sense.  
 The boys were expected to finish high school; however, the older girls upon reaching the age of 15 were removed out of school to get jobs to help the family.  Margaret became a housekeeper, “The rich family she worked for called her the maid, and changed her name to Maize while she was working, I don’t know why, never knew why.”(Ghelarducci)  When Kay was pulled out of school she became a housekeeper too, but she did not like it, and quit to work in a drugstore.  Rosalie was able to graduate from high school because when she was 14 she procured a job at the hardware store, next door to the house.  This way she was able to go home when needed and permitted to finish school.  Therese also graduated from high school; she then worked in an office.  It was speculated that Therese and Rosalie were able to finish high school because both Jim and Tom where in the Army during The War and contributing money to the household.  
 Rosalie is adamant that all of her siblings were treated equally. “Both genders had it the same. Mother never treated us better than the other. She treated as individuals.” Rosalie recalls a time in high school Geometry class when she was not being treated as in individual.  “Sister Marie Dolores called on me to ask a question. I told her, “I don’t know it.” She said ‘You brother Tom would know it.’ I said, ‘I’m not my brother,’ and I sat down and closed my book.  She told me, ‘Go to the office.’ So, I picked up my books and went to the office. When the principal walked in she was surprised because I had never been in trouble and was not a troublemaker; my mother wouldn’t stand for it.  The principal said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told her what happened and told her, ‘Also, my mother does not compare us at anytime.  She treats us as individuals.’ The principal said, ‘I’ll take care of this at dinner.’  I went to the Irish School, the whole school was taught by the Sisters of Charity. The Sister's were all nuns and they went to a convent to live every night.  They had dinner together. From then on, none of the nuns compared any of the students with our brothers and sisters.” (Ghelarducci) Rosalie still remembers her mother saying, “You are not your brother or sister; you are yourself.” (Ghelarducci)  
One of Rosalie’s playmates, while growing up, was Mildred Singleton.  Mildred lived a yard away.  Really, the families were backdoor neighbors, but their houses were around the corner of the block and on the other side of an empty lot.  “We never dared to walk through the empty lot, but always walked around the block to see each other.” (Ghelarducci)  When Rosalie and Mildred played, it was always outside.  They never knocked on each others front doors to play, it was only if either of the girls were on their front porches that they sought to play together.  Mildred never entered Rosalie’s home and Rosalie never played inside Mildred’s home. This was not considered odd, it just was.  Mildred differed from Rosalie only in that her skin is black, and according to Rosalie, “it wasn’t a big deal to play with colored people.  We called them colored people or Negroes, but mostly colored people.  And, Mildred’s mother and grandmother forbade entrance into white people’s houses.  Mildred had two uncles that were over six feet tall.  They played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1930’s.” (Ghelarducci)  At this point, I asked her, “Was Mildred’s family accepted in the neighborhood?”  Rosalie responded, “Oh yes, there was never a problem. They never went visiting though, and they kept to themselves. But, Mum was friends with her grandmother and mother, she knew the whole family.” (Ghelarducci)  When asked if Mildred having uncles play for a nationally renowned Negro basketball team helped to alleviate any possible racial tension Rosalie confidently responded that there was not any racial tension on their block or in the neighborhood that she could recall.  There never had been, “We didn’t really learn anything about race. We were taught to be nice to people and if we wanted to be friends we could; race didn’t matter.
One of the most interesting things I remember about Mildred is her wedding.  Years later, Mum and I were invited to Mildred’s wedding.  She married a fellow named, Carter, I can’t remember his last name.  When I saw Mildred, she was dressed all in white with a white veil. When she turned around, I saw her face.  It was as pale as ours are! She had so much make-up piled on, her skin was white and I said so.  My mother said to, ‘Sush!’ But, Mildred was beautiful. We only stayed for the wedding and not the reception. We were the only white people there. We didn’t feel unwelcome, we just felt out of place. We were asked to stay, but Mum said ‘No.”(Ghelarducci) The reflection of race is exactly as history recalls relations between Blacks and Whites in the Northern United States during the Great Migration and the Great Depression, races mixed socially and it was okay. 
She went to a parochial school with most of the children in her neighborhood.  It was a mixed gender school, with boys and girls.  Attending were mostly Italians, Germans and the Irish.  Rosalie cannot recall any other races attending her school, she had not thought about it.  Religion was there, and they went to church every Sunday, “Made sure of that! Mother didn’t preach or anything, just made sure we were in church.  The teachers were nice, they were nuns, they treated you nice.” (Ghelarducci) In school, they were taught the four R’s:  Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Respect.  In high school, she took courses in Shorthand, Biology, English, Religion, and Typing.  In her second year, she took German and Math.  At this point, I asked if she had any sort of McCarthy-like backlash from the community for being German and speaking German; keep in mind she was in high school during World War II.  She chuckled as she explained she had no problem because she always told everyone she was Irish. 
Growing up they did not eat many sweets, “It had to be a special occasion for ice cream, as far as that went.”  She remedies that now by having a bowl of ice cream every night before bed.  She believes that her childhood was a very typical childhood, like most everyone else her age.  “I was in grade school at that time (during the Great Depression) and I never knew we were poor.  Nobody ever groaned or complained about it.  We just pitched in and helped. I was so young at the time.”(Ghelarducci)  When asked, “How did the Depression affect your life?”  She responded, “We couldn’t get everything we wanted.  We’d have to save, which I still do.  I’m a bit, how shall I say this – conservative.  It’s just within the past five years that I feel I can spend a little more.” (Ghelarducci) 
As I sit and listen to my grandmother recalling her childhood during the Great Depression, I cannot help but to erase the sorrowful images of worn people with dirt under their nails, living hard lives, just barely scraping by.  Those images captured by Dorothea Lange are a distant memory.  Instead, I replace those images with recollections of fragile black and white photographs.  I see my Great-Grandmother with her hair twisted in a knot on top of her head, a face reflecting one that closely resembles my own Mother’s, smiling as she is sitting in a metal front porch rocker holding hands with her husband.  I see my Gramma, younger than I am now, beaming in a new suit in her backyard on her wedding day.  I remember a few summers ago, while visiting Carnegie, sitting on the floor by the window of my Gramma’s childhood bedroom, gazing at the stone church caddy-corner across the street and watching the people go to mass, thinking she must have done the same thing.  I imagine her life was much like mine was growing up.  At times, it may have been hard, but the family worked together, and it was not impossible.  Of her childhood Rosalie says, “Some had it better than others, but we didn’t realize it until we got older.  I’ve had a good life.”  (Ghelarducci)

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