Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dear Grandmom (Mont Alto, 1986)

A series of mental trails, today, have lead me to a memory; one I feel a decent amount of shame about. It's a bittersweet shame, made up of the sweetness of how loved I was and of the shame of having been a young, egocentric kid (like all kids) whose intrinsic sense of honesty often led him to believe that people were literal in what they said; or that, even if they actually were being literal, that I had no obligation to give them any more than they asked for...

Me, lower right, blue shirt, white sleeves. 1986.
Probably not thinking about Grandmom. 
I went to college at Penn State's Mont Alto campus, during my freshman year. It was a small campus of no more than 800 students. The setting was rustic and beautiful and it was all nestled against a "mountain." In the 1800's it had been a forestry school and, in fact, there were still forestry majors there, all flanneled up and bearded.

There were some older dormitories and some newer ones, all built between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The little building in which we got our mail was tiny -- maybe the size of your living room. Every few days I would go down there and check for letters. Pre-email, the box usually contained nothing but campus life memos: pizza party here; don't put your bikes there; stop calling the pizza place and ordering fries to be delivered to the chapel... I'd get a few real letters, but nothing consistent.

Except for letters from one person: Grandmom Tancredi. Marie Antoinette Tancredi, from Northeast Philadelphia. She lived in a row-home on a twelve-lane highway that roared day and night. She lived alone (her husband [the grandfather I never knew] having died of a heart attack in his fifties) and she lived strong.

My grandmother had been forced to leave school during the sixth grade. She was needed to work and to help support a family of ten children. Regardless of this, later in life, she went to community college and she somehow managed to become a bit of a world traveller; she'd been to Jerusalem, Japan, Italy, etc... All her adult life she had owned beauty parlours and made a modest living. In her later years, I remember her giving manicures in my mother's home salon. Grandmom's  husky voice would fill the house along with the chemical scents of her trade.

The mailboxes. 
I remember that voice and her round frame with a lot of affection. She was a full of love for her grandkids. She was sometimes loud, always honest (to a fault) and she had a confidence in herself that belied the doubts her sparse education and working-class life had placed in her head and in her heart. She was, in all ways, an Italian American grandmom who (it was agreed by all) cooked everything better than everyone else who ever lived; her pizza (now perfected by my mom) was not a meal but an experience; her gravy (yes, we Philly Italians call it "gravy") is a front-runner in my youthful memories.

As I was growing up in my South Jersey home, I would watch -- eagerly as a child, nose to the pane; languidly as a teenager, sprawled on the couch -- through the front window of our house for her to get off of the train from Philly on Sundays. She'd waddle in our direction, usually wearing a weird, pointed, knitted hat with dangling woolen tassles that she got in some foreign place ("I'm gonna start a trend...") and come in the front door weilding a brown bag stuffed with bagels the likes of which I haven't tasted since. We'd sit around the kitchen table and eat..and eat... For me it would start with tuna on a bagel and then turn into three more plain bagels.

She always called me "Chrissy" -- something I allowed no one but her to do -- into my young adulthood.

When I got to Penn State, eighteen, scared and lonely, I remember going to the mailboxes and turning the combination (letters of the alphabet, not numbers, were laid out in a sunburst pattern) during the first week and finding a letter addressed in her angular cursive; the hand of someone who never wrote much; who had used her hands for more practical work since having left school so young. Hers was a careful and deliberate script that probably took her three times as long to produce than it would take the average college graduate.

I don't remember the exact text of the first letter, but I remember the emphasis: "I'm going to write to you because I know it's nice to get letters when you are away from home. But you are a 'young fella' (this was an exact phrase) with work to do and fun to have, so you don't have to write back to me."

Me, 1986, in the dorm room. Responding to
this post before it was written? Heavy. 
And I didn't write back to her. Not once. Why? Because she said I didn't have to. What a self-centered creep I was for that. I had "more important" things to do: parties, reading, pick-up football games on the quad; prancing around playing composer more often than I played music; pondering Wordsworth during walks in the woods (really); falling deeply into purple prose love; filling my senses with everything around me. All of which was okay...

...except that none of it was more important than the little Italian grandmom who, once a week, probably spent hours at a time cobbling uninteresting, grandmotherly letters in order to stay connected with and to comfort her beloved grandson who was too busy having the time of his life to scratch out a simple, "Hi, Grandmom --- thanks for the letter. I love you." Just once. Just once, I could have written to her. ("But," says a mop-haired young me, sincerely shocked by the statement, "She said I didn't have to...")


It lives as a little black hole in my heart, now. How do I respect that eighteen-year-old me? It wasn't enough that it meant something to him that she wrote and whatever it meant to him; it should have meant more. He should have been a better man. Well, the man he has become would give anything, now, to be able to respond to a mundane, poorly-written letter from his grandmom. That much I know.

So, why not:
It took me 29 years, Grandmom, but thanks for the letters. I love you. Thanks for loving me with a kind of love I couldn't understand until now...
And, selfishly, I reap the warmth of her love, even years later. She is still giving while I take. But maybe that's the love of parents and grandparents, after all: the only true selflessness on Earth.

Same campus, different era. I wonder if they
wrote back to their grandmothers.
Weistling Hall (in my day, the student center) in the background.
Not sure, but the white building in the back may be the mailroom I used. 

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