Friday, December 11, 2015

Over the River and Through the Woods

Every day, I think how my Mother would have laughed.

These days, you see, I have to get up around 5:00 a.m., now that I am that lowest - or at least, perhaps, most routine-dependent - form of suburban life, a daily commuter.

Mother was always up and about never later than 6:00, even on Saturdays, even on vacation, and it was a rare day that before 7:00 she hadn't had her coffee (and cigarettes), rid up the kitchen in case it hadn't been done the night before, gotten something for one of the day's meals going, done the crossword (and acrostic or cryptic on Sundays, and yes, of course in ink), and probably fitted in a load of laundry before heading out to work by 8:00 at the very latest.  I don't think the term "morning person" had been coined by the early '70s, but that's what she was. And we thought it was hilarious.

But now I'm one.  I pad out at 5:00 a.m. and get a cup of coffee going, fire up the tablet to start the crossword, get my breakfast, and eventually get around to walking the dogs before heading down to the Metro station at 6:30, a nice brisk mile and a half or so.  And every day I listen to Morning Edition, NPR's daily staple in the breakfast hours.

Which - in a roundabout way, I agree - gets me to my point, such as it is.

This is always a rather thoughtful week for my siblings and me, as over the past several days we've noted the anniversaries of the deaths of Mother Muscato (15 years ago already) and both her parents.  Something about the first few days of December, I guess.

I don't normally have a little weep on a Friday morning, but when I do, it's often in the first half of December, and today's emotional interlude comes courtesy of a feature of Morning Edition that airs most Fridays, called StoryCorps.  It's a program that gives ordinary people the chance to interview a family member or just record a memory, the results of which are then stored at the Library of Congress.  Today's memory was a young woman from Seattle recalling her grandmother, and it contains a phrase that set me off: "my first best friend."

It hit me, suddenly, that I'd never articulated it that way, but that's exactly what my grandmother was. Now, I know I frequently invoke the hallowed name of Grandmother Muscato, but the truth is (and I believe I've mentioned this before), in doing so I am generally conflating the very different lives and personae of both ladies who fit that bill.  Both were quite wonderful and are among the main reasons that I have such a keen appreciation for the glories and foibles of Middle-American life as it was lived in small Pennsylvania cities and towns in the first six or seven decades of the last century.  I miss both keenly, but the one who really made all the difference was my maternal grandmother.

The last time we were all together, the four of us siblings, my sister observed, and we agreed, that she was the only force of pure and total love we had ever encountered. Our parents were each in their own way to one extent or another problematic, and the other grandparents loved us dearly, but mostly while we were well behaved (my grandfather famously decreed that children were welcome in his house on their own only after "they could walk and talk and hold their water").  Not Gramma.*

Hers hadn't been the easiest of lives.  She was never in great health, starting in earliest childhood with a round of empyema (and isn't that a supremely Victorian-sounding thing to suffer?) that resulted in the removal of a tiny rib (ever after solemnly kept in a little envelope in the top left drawer of the ancient dresser in her dining room, and probably something of a major deal in 1898).  She married relatively late, having left a dead-end career on the regional Vaudeville circuit (as a child she had an act in which she sang, tap danced, and played the violin - all at once; later she danced and - separately - played the piano for silent pictures) for a secretarial program.  She was widowed after only a little better than a decade, and left penniless with a young daughter.  In later life she was dogged by cancer in various forms, in part because she was, like so many ladies of her generation, for decades an enthusiastic (if wholly ladylike) smoker, and in part because at one point she was in a chorus in which the costumes were decorated with radium sequins.  Toward the end of the Second War, she developed blood poisoning and lost a leg; we would have lost her altogether had she not been through some great good fortune brought into a program providing then almost unheard-of civilian availability to the new miracle drug, Penicillin.

And through it all - certainly through all the years I knew her, several decades later  - she was the most unflappably cheerful person one can imagine, if you can even imagine an unflappably cheerful person who is also not even slightly annoying.  She was a woman of deep if entirely private faith, of a generic and embracing sort, and just below the more attractive figures of the Bible, in her estimation, were (in no particular order), our greater English authors (British and American alike, but especially Shakespeare, Galsworthy, Dickens, and Alice Duer Miller), her grandfather (A Civil War veteran in whose house she was raised after her own mother was widowed young), the stars of the Silent Screen, Sarah Bernhardt (whom she saw just before the First War, in Pittsburgh), and Richard M. Nixon, whom she rather mystifyingly believed to be a man of extraordinary charm and culture (it was a more common reaction than we might today credit; Alice Longworth fell for him, too). Her adoration of Longfellow and La Bernhardt she took to her grave, but she followed the despicable goings-on of Watergate with equal amounts of disappointment and avidity.

To an odd and solitary child, she was a magical companion. While one was still small enough to take advantage of it, she had the most inviting lap, as on one side one could sit astride her artificial leg, while on the other, one nestled cosily on the real thing (if that side weren't already, as was frequently the case, monopolized by an elderly and grumpy Cairn Terrier).  She had an endless stock of battered, wonderful storybooks - Milne and Uncle Remus, Beatrix Potter and Kipling and so many more - and a wonderful way of telling them, as well as a tempting cut-glass candy dish in the front sitting room filled, frequently, with M&Ms, and seasonally with spun-sugar candies in bright Christmas colors.  She was a sympathetic listener and an excellent talker, in turns (as long as it wasn't baseball season and the Pirates weren't playing; on her front porch, with the transistor radio on and a frosty glass of Coca-Cola next to her, she was for a little while as close as she ever came to unapproachable).  While she wasn't, like our other Gramma, a born cook and chatelaine, she never failed to come up with something lovely, and it's one of my life's goals to make as good a deviled egg as she.

Years after she was gone, my father (one of whose few saving graces was that he revered her) mentioned that in the Depression, when she was living with her mother in the small town in which she'd been born (rather than our comparatively cosmopolitan nearby city), the neighbors kept a special eye on them, for the two women were a magnet for the hobos then making their way along the train tracks and roads of those hard times. The wandering men would leave chalked runes on the the houses of "easy marks" for food or a little cash, and the neighbors would come and remove them from Gramma's, knowing that the ladies of the house both had little enough for themselves and would never have had the heart to turn anyone away even if they'd understood why their house was chosen and not, say, the MacPhersons down the block.

Toward the end of her life, when I was a teenager, she came to live with us, which pleased neither Mother nor, I think, she herself, prizing as she did independence. It was a difficult time in many ways, and one that as a wildly unhappy adolescent I was in no place to make any easier.  Even then, she was unfailingly loving; the only unkind thing she ever did, at last, was go and die on us, in 1979.

Now it's 36 years later, and I'm here writing on the table that once sat in her dining room, on the chair in which she used to sit opposite me for those endless suppers of roast chicken and egg noodles.  The fabled candy dish sits not far away.  She is part of my life, every day, and I cannot begin to estimate how much richer that life is because of that.

Of her own grandmother, today's StoryCorps participant, Chloe Longfellow, said, "She used to tell me that the sky was black velvet and the stars were holes that had been punched in the ceiling of heaven. And that was how our loved ones looked down at us and saw if we were doing wrong, or if we were doing right, or just check in on us every so often. So, every time I look up at the sky, she’s there."

And that, O Best Beloveds, is why, sitting at this old drop-leaf at an ungodly hour, I had a little weep before taking my own elderly, grumpy terriers for their morning walk.

* Another family foible: we actually called both eligible ladies "Gramma," but through some subtle alchemy in the way we pronounce the word, there is never the slightest doubt in our minds which one we have in mind. Drives the spouses crazy, that much I know.


  1. She is part of my life, every day, and I cannot begin to estimate how much richer that life is because of that.

    I feel the same way about my grandmother.

    And thanks for the StoryCorps link.

  2. What a beautifully written, heart touching tribute to your grandmother. We called the only one I knew Gramma. As kids we'd want to sit on her lap but couldn't because she was, well, there just wasn't enough lap to go around.
    She died on Christmas Eve, after an endless series of setbacks. I watched her die a little more every day.
    I was an organist at the time, so she was assured of a grand funeral at the church where I played. I don't remember playing Christmas Eve mass the year she died. I don't remember playing Christmas Day, either, and I have selected memories about her funeral, but the priest insisted I play it, so I did. There wasn't a dry eye in the church, especially mine.
    I gave up playing the organ a few years later because my ex-wife did not or would not understand my devotion to something beside her. I wish I had wised up about her sooner, but things are what they are. For many years following, on Christmas Eve I would be going about my business and find tears rolling down my cheeks. I don't mind it now, because they're tears of love.