Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Boss at 90

True story: When my maternal grandmother was two years old, she was almost left for dead.

An epidemic that had spread across Italy was thought to have claimed her. As she tells it, she was laid out in a coffin for the visitation when her father bent down to kiss the forehead of what he thought was his daughter's corpse... when his glasses fogged up.

To think what would've been if he didn't bend.

Thanksgiving always begins early for my mother's family -- which, from an orphan widowed when she was 39, now encompasses her seven children, 26 grandchildren, somewhere around 35 great-grandchildren, not to mention the assorted spouses, in-laws, and hangers-on who simply enjoy the parties. And the tradition continues again today as Gram, the Boss, marks her 90th birthday.

While her descendants are now so numerous that they've never all been in the same room simultaneously, almost everyone has returned to the matriarchal seat to celebrate and to make her happy in the way she loves best: by eating up, spending time and paying tribute with envelopes containing the big bills she grew up and grew a family without. (Her money quote: "Money makes the blind, see, and the lame, walk.") Keeping with this, I'll be making my donation, with thanks for graces received. But also, with eternal thanks, she'll be surprised with a special gift from the hand of our Holy Father.

As even she would tell you, my grandmother's story could fill several volumes. The overarching theme, however, would be the faith she's received, lived and taught. It is the guidepost of her life, her greatest source of consolation, fortitude and richness, and she maintains that the only way she could have ever joyfully traversed the difficulties of a life marked by poverty, loss, extreme hardship and the challenge of sailing to this country alone, knowing no English and possessing nothing but belief and the determination that comes from it, was with the help of God.

In sum, everything she's done and everything she is could best be summed up in the most powerful testament of the true Christian: she gave her life that others might have it more fully.

As veteran readers know, the last year has been a bit of a rough ride, as the Boss has endured various difficulties of age. Ever-stubborn, she remains in the saddle at the house where she's laid her head for the last 63 years. But in testimony to the values which she's lived and taught -- chief among them sacrifice -- at least one of her children has been with her around the clock since last December, rotating on 24-hour shifts. She can no longer make it up the steps to her bedroom, but we know that, for her, to leave her home and the place at the head of the table she's held for 50 years would be the one heartbreak she couldn't bear.

In her haler days, I once saw Gram walking through the woods behind my aunt's house in Virginia. As the terrain was steep, she was given one of the fallen tree limbs to keep her steady. All of 4'9", the limb was taller than she, and I couldn't help but keep the image in my mind of the Boss as our shepherd. Going further, given the word's roots in the offering of sacrifice, it could be said that in her example of selflessness, conviction, defense of her own and purity of heart, hers is the greatest priesthood we who have experienced it will ever know.

The long-standing charge of the church was to be especially solicitous of "widows and orphans," both of which she's been. Were it not for the Vincentian nuns who raised her in the orphanage and, after my grandfather's death, a weekly helping hand from the parish at whose altar four generations of us have marked our key moments of the journey, her life and ours would have been much different, much more difficult. It's a constant reminder that, for all its internal disputes, the church's place must remain with those who are without, those who struggle, those who believe while working themselves to the bone, those who look to us to serve as the uplifting and provident hand of God, whether emotionally, materially, or spiritually. Lose that, and we lose everything.

They say that I'm more like her eighth child than her 20th grandchild, as I spent my first days in her house and, seemingly in a direct line, have inherited what are distinctly her sensibilities, her values, her phrases, her intuition, affinities and distastes. She reads my mind well, and while the Scriptures say that grandchildren are the "crown of the aged," from her, this grandson has always received a mother's love. I am what I am -- or at least, I attempt to live as I do -- from the lessons I learned at her master-class of the virtues, given from a kitchen table by a professor with a formal education that ended at eighth-grade.

On a personal note, my favorite moment from this whole experience came over the summer, on taping the interview for NPR. I was asked if a member of my family could be interviewed for the piece.

Little did its religion correspondent imagine that she would find herself at the Boss' table.

Despite usually having a tough time with her short-term memory, the interviewee brought her "A-game," completely reveling in the experience of having a microphone in her face. And leaning against the kitchen counter, beaming, it took a lot to keep me from sobbing at the sight that, in her lifetime, she had gotten the validation of seeing -- her analogy -- a "branch" of her tree done good on the nourishment and endurance of its "trunk."

Her voice didn't make it on-air, but the experience of it remains the most meaningful gift, and that interview is one of the few recent things she's been able to recall. (The Boss often reads reader mail, especially when it's in Italian. She gets a real kick out of it.)

As her "branches" gather to celebrate the gift of Gram, I ask anyone who enjoys these pages enough to do so to please join me in a prayer of thanksgiving for the person whose faith, ethic, love of family and love of the church are my foundation. And please pray, too, that she may enjoy the blessing of health and the continued ability to share her wisdom. This student of hers has much, much left to learn, and I would be shattered if she left me an orphan just yet.