Is it really possible to understand another human being? Even though we may say that we are very close with friends or family, actually understanding why they do the things they do, or make the choices they make often remains a mystery. Of course, over time, we can generally obtain a fairly good grasp of the qualities that prevail in a person’s nature. In some rare cases though, we have to dig a little bit deeper, we have to look into a person’s past, we have to understand their experiences, their hardships and their triumphs. Although we each learn this lesson from a different person, perhaps I learned the most about difficult personalities from my grandmother, Irene Denicola.
The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to a hospital bed, her appearance failing, for perhaps the first time, to mirror the strength and determination that had defined her life. One could not have guessed, from the pain apparent in her eyes that this was a woman who had beaten cancer, heart disease, a paralyzing stroke, raised three children, and lived through the poverty of the Great Depression. But, to talk about her death is to miss the importance of her life, a life marked not with exciting tales and stories, but punctuated with the love that she had for her family.
Even though her love may have been what kept her through so many years of sickness, it was not always the emotion that one may have thought to associate with her. To see her with my grandfather, her husband of over fifty years, would have given a flawed impression as to who she really was. My grandfather, a slight, thin, and slow moving man, was an Italian immigrant, and had come through Ellis Island as a small boy. To see the peaceful nature he embodied was to appreciate his way of life; things were done when they were done, rushing served no purpose, and food could be counted on to offer a suitable delay to any task at hand. Unfortunately, this peaceful nature was of great offense to my grandmother, and she could be heard screaming at him over the slightest of infractions. In one memorable occasion, the two had a spirited debate over what time of the day it was (both having difficulty seeing the clock). In the seventeen years of arguments I witnessed, I never once saw Michael Denicola so much as put up a fight, he knew he had lost, and the act of defending himself would have proved a waste of breath.
If this proves anything, it should prove that Irene could fight with the best of them. Over eighty-two years of fighting had instilled in her the knowledge that nothing came to a person through luck or fortune, and that which a person had was that which they won. This was a woman who had to argue for sugar cubes during the Great Depression, who had worked fifty to sixty hour weeks to provide for her three children, and who had beaten cancer without so much as a single pill. Perhaps the most important lesson she taught me was that anything worth having is worth fighting for, and I still remember her saying to me, “Your going to do great things dear, and if anyone ever tells you any different, I’ll take care of them myself”.
Fighting was second nature to her, and if she ever seemed confrontational, it was simply because agreeing would have marked something almost offensive in her nature. I once washed her stare down our town’s chief of police after he had come to deliver the news that she could not have a handicap parking space in front her house, a small half-a-double in our town’s downtown section. To have heard the expletive filled rant that came from her mouth during that half hour speech would have turned a grizzly bear back on it’s path. Needless to say, she got her space, even though she had never driven a car, let alone gotten a driver’s license.
I remember that perhaps the greatest of my grandmother’s love, besides her grandchildren, whom she adored, was food. Even though she would always have a fondness for large Italian meals, nothing could match that place in her heart reserved for candy bars and pork chops. She could eat entire bags of Fifth Avenue candy bars without so much as a second of hesitation, and smoked pork chops acted as a suitable meal whether used for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. To see her eat was to appreciate the value of food, and it was surprising to think that a woman without any remaining teeth could eat with the speed and stamina that she displayed at nearly every meal.
For her, though, their came a comfort with food in her old age, a comfort that she had not been able to find throughout most of her life. It takes little to realize that food did not come easy for an immigrant family, and even harder was finding food during the Depression. Never once in her life did my grandmother take anything for herself, her life and her time had always been dedicated to providing for my mom and her two siblings. Life had not been particularly kind to Irene, but never once did she complain, and those bags of candy she could consume with such ease represented little more than the hard earned rewards for a life spent dedicated to the family she kept so close. I will always remember the generosity she displayed towards me with anything she had, the way she insisted I eat whatever was in her house, and the many hours she spent preparing food for me (she was always an excellent coo0k). As she was fond of telling me, “You better eat up now, you never know what tomorrow’s going to bring!”
I spoke before of Irene’s dedication, her principles and her way of life were steadfast with her until the time of her death. She hated drugs and alcohol with a passion, and frequently lamented that her neighbor’s were drug dealers and potheads. She could be counted on to alert the police to any wrongdoing, real or imaginative, and she would never consider abiding by something she knew was wrong, either legally or ethically. Some would call her actions nothing more than stubbornness, but doing so would only capture half the story.
Irene was a devout Catholic, and she would attend church everyday, regardless of the heat, rain, snow, her own painful arthritis, or any other factor. Even when she had trouble walking, she could still be counted on to make the two-mile walk to church, and then turn around and walk back home again. Her faith in religion and the goodness of God was perhaps one more thing that got her through so many hard times. Even in her sickness and her battle with cancer, her faith never wavered, and death was not something she feared. In fact, I think the only thing that ever really scared her was leaving her family behind. Her faith is perhaps most responsible for her steadfast dedication to her principles, and her iron clad ethics. Although she never once pushed religion on me, I remember attending church services with her, and I’ll never forget the peace and happiness that would shine from her face during the singing of the hymns.
Even though my grandmother has been gone for a year now, I can’t help but think of the life she lived and the way that she held so many family members together, family members that seemed to split apart rapidly after her death. I have no doubt that my grandmother will be remembered in a lot of different ways. However, I will always remember her as the woman who loved to walk barefoot with me when I was a little boy, who would have pizza with me every Tuesday, who would drop everything to sit and talk with me. She was a woman who loved candy and who could not imagine living without her small dogs. She never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud of me she was, and she never hung up a phone without saying “I love you”.
No matter what we may think, it takes a lot to understand a person, and the motivation and reasoning behind one’s actions are often more than we care to consider. When we truly understand a person, and their life, it can dramatically change the way we see them, and I will always see my grandmother as the most wonderful person that I have ever had the joy of knowing.