It used to be when you married into an Italian family you not only gained a husband but you also gained a “live-in” mother in law. These women helped to cook, clean and raise children especially during the Second World War when fathers were away and mothers had to work.
When my parents married back in the 1930s, my father’s mother, Anna, came to live with us. We called her Nonnie and she ruled the roost. I remember my mother would cry every morning as she walked to work at the local battery factory leaving us, her three young children (me and my two brothers), in the capable but cruel hands of an aging widow who weighed 300 pounds if she weighed an ounce.
By the time we were old enough to drive Nonnie crazy, she was tired and a bit cranky to say the least. Of course we were no angels either and we would antagonize her and run away knowing full well she could never catch us. When were in our ‘tween years, we would slide underneath the bed – just out of reach. Or so we thought…until she got her ever present broom and would make a clean sweep / swipe at us. We laughed until we cried.
Nonnie was also capable of stealth attacks. She would sneak up on you while you were eating breakfast at the table and give you a “schiaf” (schiaffo all testa – smack to the head) just because.
Of course the weapon of choice for all mothers-in-law in that neighborhood was the trusty rolling-pin which cam in two sizes: short and long. I only saw my grandmother brandish it twice, once to chase a neighbor who hit my Aunt Sophie. Nonnie broke out the big one and walked over to the neighbor’s house to remind her that hitting someone was the domain of a family member and not a stranger – “And don’t you forget it!” And then she let loose with a string of some colorful curses in her native dialect.
As for the second time…
Nonnie was also capable of great kindness. She fed anyone who needed a meal. Back in those days we didn’t have homeless people we had hobos. These were men who rode the rails in search of work or a free life. We lived a few houses away from the railroad tracks and often times hobos would hop off of a box car and come up the street in search of a hot meal. And my grandmother was there for them.
Of course her kindness only extended to the kitchen. Beyond that, she could be ruthless, like the time when an inebriated woman, a stranger to the neighborhood, decided to take a nap on my grandmother’s pristine bed. Her sheets were her pride and joy, starched, embroidered and so white they were blinding.
Coming home one day from the local grocers, we noticed the front door was open. When Nonnie did a quick tour of the house, she saw this (poor) soul on her bed. Out came the rolling-pin again and the only curse word she knew in her broken English….
Luckily my quick thinking brothers woke the woman, who though disoriented, made a mad dash for the door as fast as she could while I tried to reason with Nonnie.
“Do you really want blood on those sheets?” I asked her.
Somewhat soothed, she paused long enough to think about it. And then she took the rolling-pin and lovingly rolled out the wrinkles on her beautiful bed.