By Jacqueline Cioffa
Those who live on in our minds, those ones we can hear eyes closed, are the familiar bonds that can never be broken or diffused. I’m a mutt, Black Irish, German with a pinch of Italian thrown in. I know this because I have always been curious about where I came from, and more specifically the people I came from. Family is heavy sometimes like the two tons of butter my grandmother’s father used to make his baked goods.
A simpleton baker, living somewhere in Pennsylvania with five daughters who would go on to replicate his Christmas cookie in too large batches because it was easier than breaking down old traditions and hand me down recipes. The sisters and my grandmother would choose to move upstate to The Finger Lakes, God knows why. Perhaps for the majestic trees, pristine beauty and perhaps it reminded them of home.
They even ended up living on the same street. The house I grew up in belonged to my grandfather and his German baker’s wife bride, and the familiar sound of their ghosts lives on the wind that blows through the open windows in summertime, the peonies that still blossom each spring, and the solid frame of oak walls. Sisters, raising families on a nowhere special street where their children, and eventually my brothers played outside making forts and mischief. The basketball hoop still hangs above the garage door. I can hear the bounce of the ball in my sleep sometimes.
My grandmother was a sturdy beauty, solid German stock, tall and the matriarch of my family. I would know her only in my dreams, and perhaps as passersby in heaven when she was coming and I was going. She would die peacefully in her sleep at fifty-three years old rocking the foundation this old house was built on, and almost burying her family whole.
Life’s dramedy is not lost on me, that I am swiftly approaching her age. Time, more time is not something our ancient roots can guesstimate or buy.
My grandfather, I loved him well. He was an Irishman through and through, came from County Cork with his family when he was twelve. An immigrant, he must have been so scared looking up at the overpowering Lady of Liberty while dreaming of a better life in America. A man of honor and pride I can guess he’d be so ashamed and disheartened by his adopted country today.
He never finished high school, and yet through hard work and a steel mind he was able to build a successful plumbing business. He was a fixer of things, analytical and a quiet man. He met his beautiful bride in our small town where she kept the books for another plumbing business. Fate, coincidence or God’s hand reaching down, I wonder?
They lived in the same house I grew up in, starting the business out of the garage and the chicken coop raising a family and saving their pennies. My grandmother dreamed of owning a camp, a tiny cottage where she could fish and enjoy the majestic beauty of crystal clear water and pink swirled sunset sky. She got her camp, and enjoyed the brief summers with her kids, but time would not be kind cutting her life short. So close to my age when she died, that is a heavy reminder to wear. Her stories I know only secondhand from her daughter, who would be the responsible mother I grew to know and love.
My mom still bakes her molasses cookies every Christmas, gifting them with pride as precious parcels of tradition and love for aunts in aprons. Memories of them busy in the kitchen laughing and baking grandiose portions.
When my grandmother died, my grandfather did not speak for a while. He would end up hospitalized, shock treatments. But that time was not spoken of fifty years ago. He was quieter than before, perhaps less happy-go-lucky Irish.
When he came home, my mother moved her family into his house. Him I knew and loved well. He had silver hair, rimmed glasses, a gold tooth, wore cardigans, and carried a coin purse. He was a quiet man who spent his days tending to the business and evenings reading the Reader’s Digest in his recliner, with me squirming in his lap.
I love to say I was ‘his favorite’; he let me sit with him while squeezing my hand, and on Saturdays and Sundays we’d visit my cousins, grocery bags full of junk food bought with his Social Security check. He was so proud of that check; he called it his “free money”.
Which it wasn’t; he’d worked his whole life for that check. On a special occasion, and only on special occasions when there was a family party, he’d dance the Irish gig. I thought he was the coolest person I ever met, and I giggled and giggled trying to keep up. I was eight and he was a giant, a six-foot plus gentle giant who rarely smiled but when he did his grin lit up the walls with glee, and four leaf clovers danced under my feet.
Luck of the Irish, I was lucky to be a Black Irish, German, and Italian mutt. My mom rolls her eyes whenever the ancestry.com commercial comes on. I roll my eyes right back. Where you came from sometimes serves as the roadmap to all that you are, all that you have been and perhaps where you’re headed. Sometimes it’s nice to have a cheat sheet.
I’ve been asking my mother for stories since before I can remember, etching them on my brain, and storing them in the mind memory app that cannot be erased. For the hard days when I don’t know exactly my place, or forget who I am.
I would have shock treatments just like my favorite Irishman and my dad but that’s a different sob story.
My father’s father and his grande, crazy Italian roots, fig trees and ancestry added spice and flavor to our family. He was solid stock, the guardian, the jokester and the gatekeeper. There was an overabundance of love in his house even though his family was poorer than dirt and he did not have the easy upbringing, he provided.
Never complaining, always giving, he grew up in the typical Italian home. He had too many sisters and brothers, worked to the bone, the mean strict father, the adorated mother, and of course the Catholic Church. Blind faith. His was a less than happy home even though he was forever smiling. My brother and I brought my dad back to Italy to visit in his father’s birthplace. Bursting with pride, you could feel the sense of importance tradition held. The fierce, strong, capable man, my father who rarely cried grew teary-eyed. It was magical. Sometimes you can go back, if only for a brief visit. It’s nice to know where you come from.
The house with 37 windows that has lived with the present occupants, my family, and past familiar inhabitants feels both traditional, wrapped up with a red bow and sometimes filled too many ghosts. It has been a shelter from storms that almost broke this family, welcoming a young husband and wife buying the dilapidated property seventy years ago with hard earned dollars and dreams of a better life in America. My grandfather returned to Ireland in his seventies, kissed the Blarney Stone and met an old woman, with tears in her eyes that remembered waving goodbye to him as he set sail for the States. He would survive the arduous, brave journey, and the lighthouse would shine brightly on his American family, his simple house filled with love, tragedy and laughter. There would be many days where the house would be full of family, not strangers and its doors were open. They would remain open throughout my childhood, and adult life for any traveler who needed a respite, and a friendly face.
I would leave that home, the restless teenager anxious to experience the world on my own for many, many years. The gypsy, of mixed and sometimes messy races lived in both palaces, and squalor. I felt equally at home in Hamburg, Milano, Little Italy or an Irish pub talking to strangers.
In all my travels, I never quite found a dwelling, a different house where the ghosts spoke to me as clearly or as kindly as inside an old, inherited familiar home.
Jacqueline Cioffa. Feminist. Mental Health Advocate. Poet. Activist. Dog Lover. Model. Celebrity Make Up Artist. Stone Crab Enthusiast. Humanitarian. Author of the poignant soul stirring saga, “The Vast Landscape” and “Georgia Pine,” Jacqueline’s work has also been widely featured in numerous literary magazines, and anthologies. She’s a storyteller, observer, truth teller, essayist, potty mouth and film lover who’s traveled the world. She believes passionately in using her voice to advocate to help and inspire others. Look for her column, “Bleeding Ink” with Feminine Collective, or visit jacquelinecioffa.com.