Yesterday, September 28, would have been my maternal grandmother’s 107th birthday. In reality, she died young, at only 58 years old. But here she is as a baby, looking sweet and innocent and totally oblivious to the difficult childhood she would have.
Norma Tomassoni was only six years old and the oldest of three children when her father, a coal miner, died in a mine cave-in. A few months later, her youngest brother was born. Times must have been tough for her young widowed mother, Mary Bartocci Tomassoni, who hung wallpaper for a living to support her children. Eventually she remarried and had another son. Besides that, I don’t know much about Norma’s childhood.
When I was a kid, we called her Nana. She was a seemingly quiet woman, but she was by no means meek. My grandfather was prone to taking risks and searching for get-rich-quick schemes. Unusually for a woman of her day, she separated out her own money and told him he could take risks only with his half. When he chased a business opportunity she knew would fail, she refused to relocate with him, but was still there with the kids when he learned his lesson and came back home, as she knew he would.
Nana was a wonderful cook and a magical pie baker. I have still never had a lemon meringue pie that came anywhere close to hers. An early riser, I remember her sitting on the back porch drinking black coffee as the sun rose and rabbits hopped around the birch trees in her yard. In fact, when it came to early risers, she was hard core. If my grandfather rose at 4 a.m. to use the bathroom, he would come back to find the bed made up so he couldn’t go back to sleep. And no bed in her house ever went unmade; I have never seen a housekeeper as neurotically neat as Nana — though my sister Karen comes close. Nana was known to vacuum several times a day. No cookie crumb or dust particle dared to fall on her floor. She wasn’t the indulgent grandmother; my other grandmother was the one who let us eat peanut butter crackers for breakfast if we chose. At Nana’s house, it was cereal or oatmeal. But she did keep covered milk-glass candy dishes around the house, and we were invited to take one now and then, as long as we didn’t overdo it.
Nana’s one bad habit was smoking. She smoked camels, unfiltered, all the time. In the end, the cigarettes killed her. She died in 1974, and to this day, she is probably the reason nobody in my family smokes. I wish I’d been able to know her when I was old enough to understand what a special person she was.