My adorable, second-cousin Eleonora has a small apartment in assisted living. She is 94. When she and her sister Sadie moved to this Presbyterian Homes complex–regular apartments, cottages, assisted living, and the “health center”–in 1998, they were still vigorous. Eleonora still drove. They did a lot of their own cooking, though extraverts as they are, they enjoyed dining in the main building with lots of other oldsters. I’d visit and dine with them, smirking inwardly at how they flirted with the men. Sadie never married, and Eleonora’s husband Dick was killed in June, 1945, when his ship was blown up in the Pacific. It was one of the two tragedies of her life.
When Eleonora talks about Dick, and “the war” (always World War II), she remembers the war’s end. She and Sadie were on a bus going downtown Pittsburgh (where they were born and grew up). As their bus wound its way down the steep Pittsburgh hills, a rumble of noise grew louder and louder. Suddenly all the other passengers were standing up, shouting and hugging each other. “The war’s over! The war’s over.” Sadie and Eleonora sat silent and depressed in their seat. “How come you’re not happy?” jibed the passengers. “What’s wrong with you?”
After a few moments, the bus driver came back and bent over them: “I think you’d better get off. Don’t try to go downtown today.” His face was kind and concerned.
“My husband was just killed,” Eleonora said. “We can’t be happy.”
Now she talks much more freely about these difficult times, about spending months early in 1946 in St. Petersburg, FLorida, taking care of my grandmother Rose (her aunt) who was dying of ovarian cancer. About my uncle Frankie, who was of course her cousin, almost exactly her age, coming back from the war in Italy. “He was completely changed,” she says. “He used to be full of smiles, and such a kidder. Now he hardly spoke.” There’s a myth s recently surfaced about Frankie. As a member of OSS (which eventually became the U.S. Secret Service) in Naples and Rome, Frankie (like all four brothers, my father included) spoke flawless Italian. He told me years later that his job was to teach whores “bed manners” before they visited the American officers.
Now I’m hearing from Eleonora that Frankie helped Gen. Mark Clark chase down Mussolini. That he was part of General Mark Clark’s mission to Germany to sign the peace treaty at the end of the war. Do I believe this? No. But Eleonora gets a kick out of telling it–her hands quiver, the family trademark smirk spreads across her face and lights up her startlingly blue eyes (from the Sicilian side, those eyes. My mother, the snob, used to insist they were evidence of Charles of Anjou’s incursion into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I always pooh-poohed that Charles of Anjou had anything to do with the family in Palermo. Though it’s true, the French and the Spanish tromped all over Italy’s lower regions.)
In the last six months, Eleonora has become disaffected with life in a way no one could have predicted. After surviving, even triumphing over losses of her one child (who died shortly after it was born) and then her husband, after keeping a household going for decades–she and her sister Sadie created a home for their sweet and oh so savvy mother Josephine–all by themselves, working women from the mid-1950s to their retirement in the early 1980s. After moving out of the District of Columbia, then away from Silver Spring, Md., to this Presbyterian complex in Dover, Delaware, after surviving many health problems–everything from heart attack to broken bones, after even adjusting for a time to Sadie’s death in 2009 from lung cancer–Eleonora is suddenly often unhappy.
“I feel at home here,” she says, indicating the familiar pictures on the wall, the overstuffed furniture she and Sadie have always preferred, the arrangement of bills and Bible which indicates she is still in control of her affairs. “But when I open the door and step into the hall, I say to myself, ‘This isn’t my home. Who are these people?'” We talk about this a bit: the fact that the workers in this complex are exceptionally kind and caring. That she enjoys the minister, a “young” priest-cum-preacher, young meaning 50. That she has a special friend, twenty some years younger than she, who has become her link to the outside world. But Eleonora insists it is “family” she misses most. “I’m the only one left,” she said. Which is entirely true, she is the only one left of her generation. Of younger ones, she has me and my sister, she has our cousin who calls her regularly from Pittsburgh. But of the family who peopled her childhood and adulthood, none but she is left.
Thus her joy is to talk to me about the past. About “the boys,” meaning my father and his 3 brothers. About the steep hills and heavy snows of Pittsburgh. About the silly stories of her father who used to dress us as a priest, acting out for the family his disguise during World War I, when he had to follow through and actually preach a funeral. Nothing like tweaking the Catholic Church to make these Italian Protestants giggle. As we talk, these dead and gone rise around us in the lamplight. Eleonora is young and vigorous again. The shocks and losses are painful yet she survives. And the crowning accomplishments of her life can be enumerated and enjoyed again: her years as a nurse, helping others in Washington, D.C.. Each time we visit, I hear again about someone in the government who came to her for counseling. Or some snafu in front of a large audience as she began work for the American Cancer Society. Or some insider tip about a president or first lady.
I love these recountings of the past, of little Aunt Jo who at 16 traveled from Scranton to Tampa, as a missionary to the cigar makers. Of the grandmothers, both from Italy, who spent their last years in Pennsylvania, going from daughter to daughter–sometimes two “nonnas” in one house. Of “Uncle John,” my grandfather and the patriarch of the family because of his commanding presence and success in so many professions. Always these imposing adults unbend to small girls at the edge of fish ponds, to rascally boys teasing their girl cousins at the dinner table. It was a life crowded with characters and family events. For Eleonora, so full of life, it is painful to have all this disappear like smoke. That’s why whenever we are together, we light little fires of remembrance, call up the light flickering on their faces, and impersonate their voices again and again.