When I was a small girl in the 1960s living in the leafy New Jersey suburb of Cedar Grove, I spent a chunk of every Sunday afternoon visiting my beloved Noni, my mother’s mother, at the Paterson apartment she shared with spinstered Aunt Mary. Theirs was a $40 a month fourth-floor two-bedroom walk-up with linoleum floors, concrete yard, and oversized stove where gravy (“tomato sauce” to everyone else) simmered for hours, where eel sometimes met their end, where polenta was stirred, and red peppers, laid directly on gas burners, sizzled and popped their charred skins.
My mother, her two sisters, and a brother were raised in that flat in the 1920’s and 30’s by Noni alone after she’d tossed out her bigamist husband when my mother turned ten. Noni relied on her only son until he left for war, then had to ask her three daughters to quit school and get jobs (my mother in the ninth grade), to keep them afloat. Noni—illiterate in English but good with figures—kept the books for neighborhood numbers runners (illegal lottery), which made her popular on the crowded street of four- and six-floor tenements in her gritty city. Their neighbors were immigrants like Noni—Italian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Polish, and Irish—and to hear Mom and my aunts tell it, everyone got along, looked out for one another, but dated and married only within “their own kind.”
Until I was about seven, in all seasons but deep winter, Noni was usually on the speckled sidewalk when we arrived, talking with neighbors, pitching pennies, keeping an eye on someone’s toddler. Her flowered thin cotton dresses, covered by even more threadbare smock aprons, floated above sensible shoes and sturdy calves encased in black hose. A squat woman toting a fair dollop of extra weight around her middle, Noni nevertheless moved swiftly—to play games with her grandchildren, to break up a fistfight, to catch the downtown “buz”.
Usually, my father drove Mom and I the six miles from our hilly, serene suburb in his Cadillac with the fins in back. He’d kiss and hug his round mother-in-law, and tease her that the week before she hadn’t sent enough gravy and meatballs, and she’d blush and smile. Dad always seemed at ease with Noni—this grandmother I loved more passionately than anyone in the world, the grandmother who loved me back with a fierce, playful warmth, who called me “scootch” and let me sleep with her and even kept her bedside lamp switched on when I asked. Noni was as different as could be from my other grandmother, the austere, jaded woman who was my father’s mother—the woman he pecked quickly on the cheek. Grandma was someone I never wanted to visit, someone with plastic on the furniture, a two-acre lawn, hard marble coffee tables I was not permitted to touch, and who rarely moved from the kitchen chair everyone had to approach with elaborate deference.
These two grandmothers lived six miles—and several emotional galaxies—apart.
When we arrived at Grandma’s house, I tried to sneak into the backyard without going in the house, eager even to see the huge dog that sacred me, the dog with a larger fenced run than half of my Noni’s entire city block.
When we arrived at Noni’s apartment building, I only wanted Noni, and if she wasn’t outside to greet us, I flung myself up the three flights of rickety wooden back steps. Dad though stayed out front, where he smoked a cigarette or two and walked the length of the sidewalk, waving to men on stoops and eventually got back in his Caddy. He didn’t drive away and return for us later, he simply sat in the car, smoking and sometimes reading the newspaper.
Upstairs, I was at home and in love with every small room and crowded corner of Noni’s “house.” Upstairs was where—so many times when I was allowed to stay for a few hours or a weekend—Noni let me eat too many root beer ice pops, where I learned to roll meatballs, crochet (sort of), and sing along with Mitch. Upstairs was where I was allowed sit on Noni’s lap at the front window while she leaned out to gossip with the other old ladies in windows across the alley. Upstairs was the safest, funnest place, the place where love overflowed, where I began to understand about mothers and daughters.
Upstairs though, I noticed keenly my father’s absence and I could not understand why he almost never came upstairs. Not even after Noni’s right leg was amputated and she was hardly ever waving to us from the sidewalk. Dad would then park the car, and stay put.
“Won’t you come up?” Mom almost always asked as she opened her door, juggling empty food containers, an edge to her voice.
“Give her a kiss for me,” he said, waving with the hand holding a cigarette.
In my little kid way, I’d cajole and plead and ask Why not, Why not, Why not? I never got an answer, only, “You go on.”
After no more than a half-hour in Noni’s kitchen, it was time to leave, and she’d send the two of us off with containers of sauce, sausage, and meatballs, a slab of cake, a bag of zeppole, and sometimes, a dime for me. And a command: “You tell your daddy I love him.”
We’d tell him, when we got downstairs, crossed the wide sidewalk, and settled back in our car, the one bigger than any parked on that city block, the car that turned heads as we passed. As Dad pulled away, I’d be tilting my head, from the backseat of the Caddy, so I could watch, for as long as possible, my Noni leaning out the upstairs window, waving and tossing kisses.
Some Sundays, if we made the visits in the wrong order, we’d have to next drive to my other grandmother’s house. There was no upstairs there.
Lisa Romeo’s memoir, Starting with Goodbye , is the story of a midlife daughter reconnecting with the deceased father she didn’t feel close to in life. Lisa has published hundreds of short memoir pieces, essays, nonfiction narratives, and freelance articles in popular magazines, newspapers, and websites, and in many literary journals and essay anthology collections. Those include work in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brain Child, Inside Jersey, Under the Sun, Longreads, Hippocampus, Brevity, The Chronicle of the Horse, L’Anne Hippique, and many more.