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November 2015: “Being There”: Presence and Thanksgiving

At this time of year, it’s hard not to think about all the individuals who have had a hand in helping me stay above water throughout my lifetime.

I bring to Thanksgiving a long list of “buoys.”

I got thinking about what has meant the most to me in those key relationships. What became clear is that the people who have had the biggest impact have affected me mostly by their presence.

By “presence,” I mean my connection with them was rooted not in expertise, advice or material aid, but in who they are and how they carried themselves.

Grandmother #1

At the very top of my gratitude list are two tough, kind-hearted women who framed my childhood: my grandmothers. Each, by her presence, played a pivotal role in the unfolding of my life, work and relationships.

My dad’s mother, Ella Bridget Cunningham, helped raise me and my four siblings from infancy to young adulthood. She lived in our house all those years, enabling both of my parents to run their respective businesses.

Ella – we called her Gram – was a kind yet streetwise “flapper” who drank, smoked and used “unladylike” language. Queen Elizabeth would have been horrified.

Gram always kept a stretchy rubber strap on the knob of her bedroom door, threatening to use it if we crossed her. I remember her swinging that strap only once. She whacked the board of an in-progress checkers game, sending pieces and players flying. (My brother and I had promised to clean the basement, and she didn’t appreciate our detour).

Over a long period, Gram shared snippets of her hardscrabble upbringing in Riga, New York as the oldest of six children of Irish immigrant parents; Her marriage to a man who ended up a schizophrenic; the legendary fish fries at her Clinton Avenue restaurant, “The Red Wing;” Her tales of saloons, hoboes, lost loves, travels and adventures.

The colorful characters and worldly exploits of Gram’s unsheltered life became part of my family tree. Direct in speech and stare, wary of insincere apologies, intolerant of pretense, lying, cheating and greed – these were her calling cards.

Underneath that no-nonsense exterior flowed the tender tears and fierce love of a woman who appreciated the simple joys of watching her grandkids grow up, day by day.

Grandmother #2

My mother’s mother – Anna Santamaria Nicolosi – showed up with a similarly strong presence in my life. An uneducated Sicilian immigrant, she left the impoverished lifestyle of her parents and siblings, never to return, arriving at Ellis Island at age 22 in February, 1906, wearing only sandals and a cotton dress.

She and my grandfather, a salt miner, raised their six children in an 800-square foot migrant shack – woodstove, no plumbing – in rural Livingston County.

Early in life, I observed the remnants of Gramma’s material poverty – the outhouse in back, her two pots and two pans, the dirt floor of their basement stacked with crates of fruits and vegetables scrounged from post-harvest fields and orchards.

But what I remember most is the kindness of her smile, her welcome hugs and the homemade soups, pies and pizzas that communicated what her broken dialect could not: “You are at home here.”

After Gramma’s death, we gathered for a simple Mass in a small rural church to celebrate her 98 years of life. In my eulogy, I spoke about Gramma’s hands – the hands that sewed a dress for my mother, cleaned re-usable rags in the winter cold, clutched her rosary every afternoon, canned apples, beans and tomatoes in the fall, and bundled her kids’ faces on blustery days.

The Treasure of Presence

Today, grandparents commonly express their love by giving material gifts, helping with homework, attending games and concerts and uttering verbal assurances such as “I love you,” and “You’re special.”

My grandmothers didn’t do those things.

Instead, they bestowed upon me the enduring treasure of their presence: a combination of interested listening, beckoning facial expressions, rootedness in an accessible place, and the stories of life they told and re-told.

By their presence, my grandmothers connected me to the long history of my ancestors in Ireland and Sicily. To know them was to know my origins. I walked into adulthood with the quiet confidence of belonging to a large, multi-generational clan.

I view Thanksgiving as a time not only to summon living family members to the feast, but a time to reflect for a few moments on the presence of my grandmothers, and other important ancestors whose merits and failings I have benefited from.

Their presence continues, and I am privileged to pass it on.

4 Responses to “November 2015: “Being There”: Presence and Thanksgiving”

  1. November 01, 2015 at 1:15 pm, Justin Copie said:

Humbling and thought-provoking John. Your introspection is always genuine and most appreciated. We underestimate how impactful those in our lives who came before us really have on who we are today.

  1. November 02, 2015 at 2:48 pm, Katrina Roby said:

This is the fruit of living.

But what I remember most is the kindness of her smile, her welcome hugs and the homemade soups, pies and pizzas that communicated what her broken dialect could not: “You are at home here.”

  1. November 02, 2015 at 5:01 pm, Chuck Montante said:

Thanks John, your grandmothers sound very familiar. My live in Sicilian immigrant grandmother Gaetana left a legacy of recipes, skills, but most important an ethic of hard work and love of family.Though she spoke no English, there was never any question that she loved us and I remember her beaming smile with our antics. I draw from that heritage in that no matter the weather or the distance I spend Fridays with my 3 grandsons in Buffalo every week. They have a houseful of STUFF but I have faith that jumping in a leaf pile of our creation will be a memory that will last their lifetimes. Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. November 07, 2015 at 10:25 pm, Krista Breithaupt said:

John, Your appreciation of your grandmothers resonates with me. I felt the resilience and presence of my own 2 grandmothers every day as I struggled to adapt to a new life with a brain injury which left me partially blind, weak and ended my successful career in the science of assessment. . My non-nonsense Scotish Jane taught me by example how to live in the present, and my cerebral English Francis, who attained university education in an age when women were guided only to domestic tasks, showed me how to dream big and break down obstacles. The presence ofthese remarkable women in my life up to their passing at ages 97 and 98 shaped my own strategies to be a positive influence in all the relationships I’ve been blessed to experience. Thanks, indeed.

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