An Anonymous Woman


March 02, 1991|By PETER E. DANS

When a celebrity dies, it's Page One news. Some deserve therecognition; others receive it despite idle or troubled lives because their fame demands it. Like other anonymous women, my grandmother didn't make a ripple in the press when she died at 95. She was both extraordinary and representative, like many unsung people who make our society go.

Born in 1895, she passed through Ellis Island in 1904, like many an Italian immigrant before her. She loved school and always remembered the prizes she got. Though smarter than all of us, she had to drop out of school after the 5th grade to go to work. Still, she passed that love of learning on to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My most vivid memories of her date to the years before I was 10, when we lived in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in a cold-water flat -- demolished in 1947 to build the Alfred E. Smith project. Heating, hot water and cooking all depended on the wood stove in the kitchen. By day, she kept house for my grandfather, uncle, mother and great-grandmother, who the year before her death at 96 was bedridden with a severe stroke. My grandmother bathed her, cleaned her, fed her and ''waked'' her there after she died. She also managed to work from 4 p.m. till midnight scrubbing floors in the Brooklyn Borough Hall.

She took care of me during the day while my mother was at work. When she had the time, we would play ''cowboys and Indians,'' ''cards'' or ''grocery store'' wherein our precious World War II rations were sold for paper coins. Then, in the early afternoon, she'd lie down for a rest before going to work. I, of course, would join her to ''rest,'' but soon would get bored. Most days, she would indulgently let me take a few falls on the bed. We even labeled them the ''Woolworth,'' the ''Chrysler'' and the ''Empire State'' buildings to designate their different heights. In doing so, she showed more consideration for a little boy's needs than for her own.

Every other Saturday, she would ride the New York Central three hours each way to Wassaic State School where she had reluctantly placed my uncle, a vibrant healthy boy until age 3 when meningitis left him retarded. At age 20, she had placed him in that state school because she could not keep an eye on him and do all the other things that needed to be done. Rain or shine, snow or heat, she would climb the steep hill from the Wassaic train station with a pack on her back containing treats my uncle liked. The poignant trips to that institution made indelible marks on my pysche and probably influenced me to become a physician.

Still, she was not somber or self-pitying. I remember her assembling CARE packages after World Word II to send to orphans and relatives in Italy. One day as we carried them many blocks to the post office, I asked her why she did it since we were so poor. She said they were for people less fortunate than we.

Each year, she would lead the municipal workers down 5th Avenue in the Columbus Day parade in her traditional Italian peasant costume and waving her American and Italian flags. Frozen in time in a yellowed newspaper photo is a little boy proudly walking by her side and waving a U.S. flag.

The ability to be unembarrassedly grateful for being an American was one of her legacies. She would take me to Nathan Hale's statue in City Hall Park and we would stop and read the inscription, ''I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.'' We also used to walk to Battery Park past the Fulton Fish Market, where relatives worked, and past the little alleys with the Dutch names like De Peyster and she would talk about New York's beginning.

She was no ''my country, right or wrong'' patriot, however. She loved America for its opportunities but could see its flaws and said we should try to make it better.

When the tenement to which we were relocated was also demolished, the Housing Authority placed my grandparents in a housing project in lower Manhattan and my parents and me in another in upper Manhattan. After my grandfather died, even though the neighborhood changed around her, my grandmother elected to remain where she had landed in this country and spent most of her life. As my parents and I moved to a rented house and then finally to a house of our own, she could have joined us, but she treasured her independence.

The neighbors protected her. A young black man she had befriended saved her from a mugging on her return from work late one night. A Hispanic neighbor, with whom she traded Italian dishes and chicken soup for tropical delights did the same when two toughs tried to push her into her apartment as she unlocked her front door. She loved going to the senior citizen's club and sharing her culture with the many Jewish people in the neighborhood. She taught them Italian songs and learned to sing Hava Nagila and dance the hora.

Because her life was hard, she looked forward to her old age and enjoyed it up to her last year. This she spent unhappily in a nursing home after a paralyzing stroke -- almost blind and imprisoned in a body that no longer functioned. Her name means ''the saints'' in Italian, and mercifully death released her to join them.

Though she was special to us, she was not unlike many other grandmothers. Cloaked in anonymity, they enrich the lives of those around them. Quietly and with dignity, they helped and continue to help make America what it is today. To paraphrase James Agee, let us now praise anonymous women.

*Dr. Dans is director of the Office of Medical Practice Evaluation at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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