As I stood at the stove last Sunday afternoon, cooking sausage, I realized I was: 1) wearing an old robe 2) with an apron over it and 3) had on a sweater over the whole thing.
I am my own grandma.
The only thing missing was a tissue tucked into my sleeve. It was not a casual omission.
Unlike everybody else’s ethnic grandmother — “ethnic” here meaning grandmas who did not read Emily Post or dine off the fine china they inherited, or who were rarely glimpsed chewing on a toothpick secured right behind their bridgework — my Sicilian grandmother never had a Kleenex tucked into her sleeve.
Mine had a real linen handkerchief. She carried it in one of her housecoat’s gigantic pockets.
You remember housecoats, or as they were more daintily called, “house dresses”? As a phrase, it’s no longer widely in circulation. “Casual wear” has replaced it. For my female relatives, “casual wear” implied something altogether different: It meant they could place the white elastic band holding up their orthopedic stockings below the knee. Formal wear (appropriate for baptisms, confirmations, parole hearings) meant the elastic band would have to remain over the knee.
House dresses are still available; I did my research. The only problem procuring them is that you’ll need to order from the kind of website where the pitch for their stylishness can be summed up by the following: “Zip-Front Housecoats for Elderly People — Faded Flowers Pattern.”
It’s as if the editor of Vogue penned that evocative line herself.
One advertisement for housecoats shows six vaguely expressionless women, all around my age. With a smile, a little rouge and dressed in garments looking slightly livelier than gabardine prison uniforms, each one of these women could audition for a role played by Lorraine Bracco or Liza Minnelli. But work is work, and I only hope the six of them went out dancing after the photo shoot.
Back to my grandma’s housecoat pockets: Actually, we always went back to my grandma’s pockets, because she carried in them everything you would need to get through the day or start life in a new state.
You wanted hard candy, loose change, a little pencil, a bobby pin, a safety pin, a pre-threaded needle, an aspirin, Band-Aids, stamps or rubber bands? She had them on her person at all times. Those pockets carried what are now carried at bodegas.
But not a paper tissue — not in my family. Her use of the handkerchief wasn’t because she had pretensions above her station (our station was Avenue U), but because the Barrecas have always had a fetish for fabrics. My grandmother did piecework at home — finishing buttonholes and doing fine work by hand — and my grandfather was a tailor.
The handkerchiefs might have started life as scraps from dresses made for cotillions or gowns created for debutante balls. It didn’t matter.
These handkerchiefs were always carefully folded — never crumpled — in her pockets. Before she performed whatever cleansing ritual was necessary, she opened the square so that the inside of the cloth was used for the disgusting part (nasal discharge, drool, crumbs from a pilfered pignoli cookie). She might well have spit on the handkerchief before wiping off somebody’s chin — oh, don’t act shocked — but she made certain that any debris was folded on the inside of the fabric.
She had standards.
Keeping dirt, debris and mess in control is why poor women wore house dresses and aprons. The rest of the time, they were cooking, washing, cleaning or giving birth. Of these, cleaning was the hardest.
Lynne Ferrigno, a friend from New York, remembers that one of her aunts, Zi Marie, was famous “for scrubbing the corners of her kitchen floor with a rag. On her hands and knees. With a heart pill on her tongue. When we visited, it was never ‘Hello,’ it was ‘Zi Marie, get up!'”
I could do worse than become my own grandma, or Lynne’s Zi Marie, or any of the strong women who raised us. Our strengths emerged from theirs; we build on their heritage and transform their resilience and competence into our own. We’re good at providing, cleaning up and making what we’ve been given even better than it was.
We have a whole lot of love up our sleeves.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut. This column was originally published in The Hartford Courant.