Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Tribute...

The college radio station in my hometown would break from its usual alt rock format on the weekends.  It would turn the airwaves over to basically anybody who was willing to show up consistently and had anything resembling a cohesive programming sensibility.  One such weekend program was Festa Italiana.

I don't know exactly when Festa Italiana debuted.  Possibly before I was born.  It seemed like it had always been around.  It must have run for at least two decades; quite a commitment, considering it was just a few old guys lugging their personal record collections down to the studio every week.

Their biggest fan was my grandmother.

Grandma never missed the show.  It was the soundtrack to her Sunday mornings.  She knew at least one, but maybe all, of the guys who hosted the show.  She referred to it as "The Italian Hour," although I'm pretty sure it ran longer than an hour.

Grandma would call in requests every once in a while and make a dedication to a family member.  Then she'd call that family member to make sure they'd tune in to hear it.  When one of her grandkids had a birthday coming up, she made doubly sure to call in a request -- usually "Pepino, the Italian Mouse," a kind of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" meets the antics of Bugs Bunny.  It isn't a birthday song; but it's a kids song, and that was all that mattered.


As my birthday quickly approaches this year, I have "Pepino" on my mind.  It's taken on extra significance this year.

*****

Grandma was notorious for keeping a mental Shit List.  You could get your name removed from the list easily enough, but it was all the easier to get your name on it.  Skipped a family gathering to hang out with friends?  On.  Bent the rules during a card game?  On.  Mouthed off to your sister?  On.

It was how she kept us grandkids in check.  She wasn't much of a yeller.  She'd just look at you sideways, purse her lips, and maybe hold up a flat palm and twist it - "you're on your way to a slap."  That was all it took.  We knew it was time to straighten up and fly right.

I don't know what I did to end up so thoroughly on grandma's good side.  But I think I know how I stayed on her good side: by leaving town.  Like a great comedian, I went out on a high note.

My cousins would find themselves routinely on and off the list.  I avoided all that by leaving town.  As long as I called every once in a while, I was solid.

*****

Calling her was the easiest thing in the world.  She loved to get phone calls, but she didn't really keep phone calls.  Three minutes flat.  She'd answer the phone, recognize my voice immediately, tell me how much she loved me, and then go straight into end-of-call pleasantries.

If I didn't know better, I might be offended.  Why doesn't she want to talk to me?  But those quick calls were all she needed.  Just knowing that you were thinking of her.  It brightened up her entire week.

*****

If someone outside of the family ended up on the Shit List, that was pretty much it for them.  Grandma would be absolutely appalled to hear about one of her kids or grandkids being mistreated by a boss, coworker, teacher, or just anyone they had a negative encounter with.  Never mind the fact that, as the teller of the story, maybe you slanted the perspective slightly in your favor.  Didn't matter.  If you were hers, you were hers, all others be damned.  She was fiercely loyal.

Loyalty wasn't a value she taught; she simply lived it, and we learned by example.

So it was no surprise that, when she ended up in the hospital and things started looking bad, nobody hesitated - we all rushed to her bedside.  Three generations of family, from all over the country.

That situation's certainly not unique to my family.  But I found it almost comical, the number of people crowding up grandma's hospital room and the waiting room.  I didn't take an official count, but the number was probably approaching 40.

And that's her legacy.  That she could amass an army that would do everything to assure her peace and comfort.  This is what I hope she was most proud of.

Then again, it's funny to imagine she just took it for granted.  Of course she could summon 40 people to her side at the first sign of trouble.  What, you can't?

*****

I can't imagine how difficult it is to make the decision, when your mind is still so present and sharp, to let yourself die.  That's a strength and bravery I'm far from comprehending.

The only thing slowing her down in her final days was the pain medication she was on.  Between drug-induced naps, she was carrying on conversations with everyone, cracking jokes and singing songs.

In fact, toward the end, everything became a song.  Ask her a question, and the answer came with her eyes closed, her head swaying back-and-forth, and the words dancing out melodically.

*****

When she asked to listen to music, we scrambled to make that happen.  Did anybody have a small radio on them?  Her hospital room actually had an old Discman attached to the wall.  Did we have any CDs she'd like in our cars?  Do we really want to put headphones on her and cut her attention off from everything else?

Finally, one of my cousins took out her cell phone, opened the Pandora app, and searched for Italian music.  It was beautiful.  Like magic, Pandora seemed to be channeling Festa Italiana song-for-song.

Without missing a beat, grandma started mouthing along to each song, a big smile on her face.  She had her "Italian Hour" again, and everything was all right.

*****

In grandma's final moments, we all - nearly 40 of us - packed into her small hospital room.

Here's how my mom recounts it:
Around 8 PM we were all called into mom's room. We stood in perfect silence, keeping vigil as mom was crossing over. At one point she stopped breathing and we were sure she was gone. Everyone started crying. Then she took another breath. One of her sons said, "Okay mom, you're in charge. You're going on your terms." Through our tears, everyone started to laugh. It was while we were laughing that she took her final breath.

She went out on a high note.

*****


She was the last of my grandparents.  She was a guardian and a defender.  She was a guide.  She was a true matriarch.  She will always be remembered, and greatly missed.