If you listened to a story and blogged about it, please leave me a comment with a link to your post! I'm making a catalog of stories.
Here's the story I collected, based on an interview with the Aunda (my Italian great aunt, for those new to the scene). The story is about my grandmother, who is notoriously mean. Her husband, who has had some significant brain damage from strokes, has had to be removed from her house to a nursing home (or a "compilation home," as the Aunda calls it) because my grandmother would keep sneaking up behind him and whacking him over the head with a frying pan. Just an example.
"Your grandma wasn't always mean," the Aunda told me yesterday, if not in so many words. "She used to be so nice. Everyone loved her and said how nice she was."
"Wow, really?" I said, surprised. "When was it she started to get mean?"
"Oh, about the time she learned to talk," said the Aunda. [ha.]
"But it was our fault," she went on. "We spoiled her."
To whit. (Names muddled to protect identities.)
The Second Fortuna
My grandmother--the Aunda's older sister--had an accident twenty years ago, a month before her sixty-ninth birthday. She slipped on the narrow cement stairs going down to her basement some time around midnight, fell down the entire flight, and was knocked unconscious. Her brain began to hemorrhage and swell inside her skull. She would have died if my uncle, who worked at the power plant and had to be at work at 4 in the morning, hadn't found her there around three. A miracle surgery was performed on her and saved her life, but in the process the doctors had to remove a quarter of her left frontal lobe. Among other changes this effected on her personality and function, it exacerbated the meanness.
But the Aunda thinks the meanness goes way, way back, and ties to the other theme in my grandmother's life: the accidents. My grandmother has had tons of accidents, many of them no less dramatic than the cellar stairs episode. As a result, she's lived her entire life being protected and coddled by everyone around her--"spolied," in the Aunda's words.
My grandmother, like Vincent van Gogh, was a replacement baby. In 1914, her mother gave birth to a baby named Fortuna in their tiny mountain village. Her father, my great grandfather, went away to fight for Italy in World War I. He came back in 1918 but was only able to enjoy his baby daughter for a few months--long enough for them to take a formal portrait of the family of three--before Fortuna was killed by the Spanish flu.
In 1920, when my grandmother was born, the family rejoiced. She was born a year after her sister had died (just like Vincent! seriously) and so they named her Fortuna, too. Her mother, of course, was nuts with worry about her, coddling her and carrying her everywhere and making a huge fuss about everything. She wasn't going to lose her second Fortuna.
My grandmother, however, was so accident prone she seemed hell-bent on thwarting her mother's plans. The first accident was when she was three. Her mother was frying strips of eggplant over their open fire when Fortuna, too young to understand fire but old enough to understand eggplant, reached directly into the oil with her right hand and snatched a piece of eggplant. The result was fried right arm. She gave herself such serious third-degree burns, removing all seven layers of skin from her wrist all the way to her elbow, that she almost died from blood loss. The doctor was only able to save her arm by removing three layers of skin from her left arm and grafting it onto her right. The scars are still visible to this day.
The second accident came the next year. Tsa Rosina, a dubious kind of aunt, was supposed to be watching Fortuna when a neighbor, Tsa Chiara, came by for a chat. Rosina showed Fortuna to the back yard and gave her a piece of cheese to give to the pigs, then went out to the road in front of her house to talk to Tsa Chiara. Fortuna was approached curiously by a pig, who started snuffling around her and quickly discovered the cheese. Fortuna, who was around four, began to panic, and instead of dropping or scattering the cheese she froze up with the whole block clutched in her hand. The pigs swarmed her, knocking her over and taking the cheese, and, once the cheese was gone, snuffling and rooting in her hands and dress for more. She was tossed and trampled on the uneven cobblestones of the yard, and in the process entirely eviscerated by their sharp hooves. When Tsa Rosina heard the ruckus and came into the backyard to drive the pigs away, she found Fortuna on the ground, her intestines hanging out of her abdomen and her torso smeared in blood. Her face, however, was deathly white. Although her eyes were open, she wasn't breathing. Tsa Chiara, having at least some presence of mind, reached into her mouth to see why she wasn't breathing. She was choking on a clot of her own blood, the size of a fist.
Tsa Chiara wrapped Fortuna in swaddling underclothes, doing the best to keep the intestines contained, and then cocooned her in a blanket. They climbed an hour down the mountain, collected my great-grandmother (who, understandably, went nuts), and then climbed another hour to the doctor's. By the time they got there, the baby had lost so much blood her face was blue. And yet she got through that one.
The third accident happened the next year, when she was five. She was playing in the front yard of the church with her friend, Della. After awhile, Della got tired of playing and wanted to leave, but Fortuna didn't want to leave. A tussle ensued at the gate of the church, and eventually Della escaped by knocking the church gate open. Fortuna, who had been clinging to the other side, was beaned across the head and knocked unconscious. She still had a large scar on her temple from where she nearly bled out.
The last accident I'll talk about here--there are some others--came in 1940, just after the girls had emigrated to America. The family was sharing a third story apartment in the Italian ghetto, and Fortuna and her sister (the Aunda) shared a bed overlooking the street. One night, the Aunda was having trouble falling asleep, and so was lucky to still be awake when my grandmother had her nightmare. She dreamed she was being attacked by a rapist, and to escape him she pulled open the window and made every effort to jump out. My aunt was quick enough to catch her, but wasn't able to wake her from her sleepwalk and wasn't big enough to restrain her. She started screaming and woke her father, who ran into the room and pulled my grandmother off the windowsill before it was too late. The next day, he nailed a board across the window. Sunlight, it turned out, was too dangerous.
As a result of her affinity for disaster, everyone around her has spent their lives looking after and taking care of my grandmother. This, says the Aunda, has to go partway to explaining the rest.
What's the rest? Well, that's a whole other story.
[This message has been approved by Momrat.]