Saturday, November 29, 2008

National Day of Listening

Friday was National Day of Listening, but I've decided unilaterally that the whole weekend is fair listening game. The goal is to collect a story from someone (and, if you like, share it on your blog).

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.]


RedHawk said...

So you are lucky to be around to write the blog.

RedHawk said...

But we are very glad that you are.

Conduit said...

That's horrific and extraordinary and wonderful all at once. Thank you for sharing.

On a side note, poor temper is indeed a longterm after effect of brain damage. I have first-hand experience of this, but I won't go into that here.

Ello said...

Now if that isn't the makings of a great novel there I don't know what is!!! That is an amazing story. I'm so glad you listened to it! I have one from my Dad. I'll post it for Monday.

Charles Gramlich said...

That pig story is the worst. About all I can say is Damn! It's possible repeated extensive blood loss like that could have affected her brain a little from very early. Could explain some personality things.

Queen of the Road said...

I didn't even know it was National Day of Listening (let alone Weekend) when I blogged about a wonderful story I heard from a friend about dogs that have a lot to be thankful for (a daring, cross-border rescue and a stay of execution).

Here's the link:

Ann Victor said...

Gosh! Poor grandmomrat. She's had a sad life.

ChrisEldin said...

This is too much for one comment.

I'm going to read to DH and be back. He thinks it's a sexy story. Just wait....

Ann Victor said...

My collection of stories is up on my blog

(Don't ask my why I couldn't create a link to this blog. I've done it before, but appear to be a techno-idiot today!)

writtenwyrdd said...

Wow, a crazy family story! It's amazing to hear stories like this. But the horror of the pig story really gets me. How awful!

My mom's family have been Mormon's since they started up,and there are a few stories about relations whom I haven't met, some because they shun us for not being Mormon and some because the stories happened before my mom was born. My favorite has to be mom's 'great uncle Jesse'.

Uncle Jesse was a crazy old coot and lech whom most people kept their kids away from. He'd sit on teh porch of his house in Phoenix, Arizona, and twirl a set of empty six shooters and pretend fire at anyone who happened by. He was an old time cowboy past his prime and the time of teh Wild West, but still lived there in his crazy coot brain. His cow pony used to be in a corral in the front yard, but it died. And he used to randomly shoot his pistols, but they took away his bullets. (Shooting became a problem when the city grew up around his ranch house, you see.)

My mother, then about six or seven, used to be the only one who would talk to him and listen to his stories.

Her favorite was the one about his time with the Hole In The Wall Gang. The Hole In The Wall wasn't a gang, precisely; it was a place in Wyoming where a number of outlaw gangs hid out. And we don't know which gang he was affiliated with there.

But the story goes that when he was a young man (likely about fifteen or sixteen) he joined up. And when he was sent to get supplies with another fellow they took the mules and headed to town. When they got back, they found the place a smoking ruin, and Jesse and the nameless otehr guy parted ways and tiptoed off into obscurity.

As Jesse was about 80 at the time, it seems unlikely that he was a young boy at the time of the Hole In The Wall's demise; but my mother was a tiny child and perhaps got the details wrong. Also, Jesse was known as a tall tale teller.

However, like many family legends, the colorful stories are the ones you remember, truthful or not!

Merry Monteleone said...

I love the Aunda stories... we have one in my family where the baby died and the next one born was given the same name... it was because the oldest son was named after the father's father, the oldest daughter after the father's mother... it was there attempt at immortality and the name living on was important...

I did a story on my blog for you, not that story, though maybe someday I'll tell that one.

Merry Monteleone said...

er, umn... I meant "their", obviously... I hate when I typo things like that... they make me feel un-edju-ma-cated.

Anonymous said...

Merry: I was heartened to see yu cuaght that typo. For a minut ther, I was wundering.

Cat Moleski said...

Ah! Yikes! Your grandma was one tough cookie. But what a fascinating story!