Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3148 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013


by David Ewald

Not long ago I tried watching the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Despite the awards, the accolades, the devoted following, I couldn’t hang with it. I made it through the first five episodes before admitting that I’d felt compelled to watch Nucky Thompson and Co. not out of a sense of genuine interest but rather out of a sense of duty to my grandmother. My grandmother, Mary Theresa Martini, was born in Chicago on March 12, 1920 and passed away in Phoenix on August 2, 2000. She had lived the last fifteen years of her life without her late husband, my grandfather Carlo, who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1936 at the age of sixteen; she’d lived the last twenty-five or so years of her life without any of her three children living at home with her; she’d lived her entire life without having learned how to drive a car.

Some stories I could call up from memory easily: how her sister Mary was struck and killed by a Sears-Roebuck truck before my grandmother was born, my grandmother then being named for her deceased sister who, at the age of five, had been playing in the garden in the front yard of the apartment in Chicago and had chased her ball into the street only to meet her demise, and my grandmother’s parents did not sue because it was the nineteen-teens in America and they were immigrants. How my grandmother had eloped to marry my grandfather, her first cousin, who was at that time a cook in the army, 1944, the war soon to end and not a death on his hands. How my great-grandfather Carlo, who would die in August of 1948 before any of his grandchildren were born, “hit the ceiling” when he found out his daughter had lied to him about going to work and had instead taken the train from Chicago to Mobile, Alabama, where first cousins were allowed to marry, and how after that he never spoke to his son-in-law, whom he’d known well from their lives together in the shared apartment complex in Chicago, choosing instead to speak only to my grandmother. How the janitor and his wife were the witnesses at my grandmother and grandfather’s wedding ceremony. How my grandmother’s mother, Francesca, did not live to know of that wedding, having died in a hospital in February of 1941, and when she was alive she would stand in the hallway between apartments shared by the two families, the Macioces and the Martinis, and brush her long black hair streaked with white and silver because it was cool there, and my grandmother would help brush and braid.

But other stories I was not so familiar with: her fear of doctors and hospitals and medicine, brought about in part because of her mother’s end, but also brought about, I suspect, from the time one of her cousins received a shot of penicillin and was found dead in bed the next morning. Her neighbor-friend Mikey who often tried to kiss her when they were living and growing up together in that apartment complex in Chicago, and every time he tried my grandmother would run away, and once when she wasn’t looking she ran smack into something, a wall or a door maybe, and busted her nose. But Mikey was always good to her and it wasn’t as if her father was going to allow her to date any time soon, if ever. Her father who during Prohibition would make his own white wine with his daughter’s help, young Mary helping to stomp the grapes and move the barrels into the basement, five barrels in all, and one night someone squealed on Carlo, who was alerted that the cops were coming—he was, after all, allowed only one barrel—and so a neighbor took down his fence and Carlo rolled all the barrels into that yard before the cops could get there. The mafia was around at that time, they used to call it The Black Hand, and a member of the Sicilian family that lived behind my grandmother’s apartment was murdered, but really they only bothered their own, and the summers were nice; her father would get friends and family together and they would start up an impromptu band, the washboard, the guitar, and in the heat of day the kids would unleash the torrent of water from the open fireplug until the cops came and shut it off.

It took the revelation that my grandmother was dying of cancer to learn or confirm all of that history. On two separate days, July 23rd and July 28th, 2000, I interviewed Mary Martini as she lay back in her recliner with the TV humming in the background. A metal bowl with which to catch her vomit lay in her lap. A towel had been spread across her legs. Much of her short curly dark hair had turned gray by then, and her skin had a yellowish tinge to it. She had lost considerable weight as well. I didn’t feel at all bad about asking her to speak of her past when I had not asked her to speak of it before. She did not express resentment until the end—and even then that resentment occurred when the tape recorder had been switched off and I was helping her from the bathroom. Even then her anger was not ostensibly directed at my insistence on getting her to open up but rather at my past behavior. Not the way I had favored my other grandmother over her when I was young, or the way I ended my phone calls with the words “you too” when she had said “I love you” to me (was I aware I had told her to love herself?), or even the fact that I viewed speaking to her on the phone from California, in my college years, as a chore, a burden, and that in the months before the too-late-to-do-anything diagnosis that her breast cancer had returned, the cancer having spread to her bones and liver, I had dropped off from calling her every week and managed to place calls once or twice a month at most, and then often only at the behest of my mother, her daughter. The past behavior for which my grandmother lashed out at me from her wheelchair in the narrow hallway of the house she’d lived in since 1958 was that of my nearly fifteen-year-old self, uptight, obsessive, unable to have any semblance of fun in the British Isles with the woman who had taken him. That woman was my grandmother. She had paid for the trip entirely, and I was unable to show gratitude because I could not get beyond the jet lag that kept me up every night of the trip. The memory of my actions would embarrass me later, but that August of 1993 I was not aware of just how I appeared to my grandmother and her traveling companion, a friend of her age she had brought along, I suspected later, so as to provide an outlet from always having to deal with me.

I remember a night in Manchester that plagued me with sleeplessness, so much so that I resorted to pacing the one-room flat and coughing and making other intrusive sounds just to wake up my grandmother and her traveling companion, just so they could share in my misery. I’m afraid this was not the worst of my behavior. I searched town after town for a sleep aid that worked, and when I did find a shop not closed for holiday or Sunday or what-have-you, I eagerly put my grandmother’s money down for the drug, and when that drug invariably didn’t work, I would stumble bleary-eyed through the next town to reboot the quest. My grandmother and her traveling companion were not the most easily mobile of travelers, and, in retrospect, to drag them around as much as I did, for me, all me, seems an act of cruelty. Yet they stuck with me; they were of that generation, the one that had made the tour of the British Isles possible.

Not long after I’d returned to the States, I thought of writing a novel based on my experience of traveling through England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland with my grandmother. It was to be a YA novel in which the wizard Merlin of Arthurian legend was released from his centuries-long slumber to rampage across the countryside in search of...what, I didn’t know and didn’t plan to figure out in any serious manner. The Irish Republican Army, of which I’d suspected our tour guide of being a dangerous, wanted member, was wrapped up in the plot. The main characters were a fourteen-going-on-fifteen-year-old boy and his disappointed grandmother. I didn’t think to include a love interest. I believed all these elements would combine as if through the force of magic or my willing them with a kind of Tommyknockeresque telepathy.

Really I had no idea what I was doing, what I was setting myself up for. I was setting myself up for failure in the eyes of my grandmother. I had failed her. I saw it in her eyes and heard it in her voice in the hallway of her house that late July day in 2000, the tape recorder still in my hand but no longer running. “You behaved like a little boy,” she snapped; a moment before, I had started to apologize in my clumsy way for what I did on that trip. I was taken aback by the vehemence in her voice. She hated me. My own grandmother truly hated me. She remembered how I would walk far ahead of her in my childhood neighborhood, alongside my favorite grandmother, the fun one, not aware that while I could pick grandmothers she could not pick grandsons; I was her only and she was stuck with me. She remembered how I’d laughed out loud at her when I was just ten years old and presented with tickets to see a Sesame Street musical, such a silly thing for someone who had obviously outgrown the little kid stuff, and I thoughtless, callous, forgetting that just two years earlier I had wanted to watch the Sesame Street movie repeatedly at her place, the last time I’d visited, and that this was the last time she’d seen me also and so was in fact the last point of reference on which she had to go. She remembered the many times I had failed to hug or kiss her forcefully, the many times I was late with my thank-you notes, the stilted, scripted, woefully short phone conversations, the time when I was five or six and refused to eat the eggs she’d cooked for me, preferring instead to watch Saturday morning cartoons, only when I went to the living room the TV depicted the crucifixion, and I was aware only of my grandmother’s and therefore my mother’s anger toward me over the breakfast refused. My grandmother remembered, also, I’m sure, the fact that I never did go to the Newman Center on campus when I was in college as she’d urged me to do; she remembered I had gone to confession but had never been confirmed, the number of times I’d bowed out of attending Sunday mass, those evasions adding up as I grew older, until she stopped asking. What she didn’t know was that on Easter Sunday 1997, instead of going to mass in Poway, my father, mother, sister and I drove down the hill to Mission Valley to watch The Godfather on the big screen. We were never to tell. And my mother nervous during the drive, saying things like “We shouldn’t be doing this” and “This is wrong, this is bad,” yet enjoying the experience.

Years later, after my grandmother’s tongue lashing, I would attempt to capture those stories and her anger in fiction. But I couldn’t do it. I certainly couldn’t do it well. Only the first couple of pages ever materialized of that planned YA novel set in the British Isles. In June of 2001, at the start of my post-college graduation backpacking trip through Europe, I managed a few journal entries addressed to my late Grandmother Mary. “Dear Grandma,” each entry began. My idea was to concoct a fictional journal of a grandson apologizing to his deceased grandmother for his infantile behavior during his last trip to Europe. It’s possible it would have ended up fiction. I completed three or four entries before giving up. I didn’t want to apologize then. I was really only doing it, I had to admit, as preparation for the graduate writing program I’d be attending in the fall.

I’ve heard it said that there is no true altruism; this I believe. For everything my grandmother gave, she expected something in return. The something almost always was affection in its many forms—the “I love yous” and hugs and kisses on the cheek and notes and talks and phone calls and visits and the ability to sit with her and play cards and just do something together. From my perspective, false altruism worked the other way: I gave the emotional in exchange for the material—the toys when I was young; later, as I grew older, the money she would send sometimes with no birthday or holiday or celebration nearby, and I suspected then that the money was sent in hopes that I would call more than anything.

This was our relationship, and if I’m to be honest about it, I’ll fess up that my education was increasing while hers had stopped at her high school graduation, and I suspect this was a reason why we were unable to talk much even when we did talk. She had worked most of her life as a secretary, and when she died stacks of papers and bills and loaded envelopes, many of them from her decades of employment, were found all over and inside the desk in the den that had the wood-paneled walls and sofa and piano and TV and recliner, the last thing in which she sat. She was a retired secretary who had been dissuaded from attending business college by her father, and I was bound for graduate school. Was there anything, really, on which we could connect?

The fondest memory I have of my Grandmother Mary—and I have several, most of them involving cooking and eating—is of the day she agreed to watch The Godfather III with me. I remember being surprised: here was this long and violent movie, and my highly religious and prudish grandmother wanted to watch it. Really wanted to watch it. So we took the morning and sat on the couch side by side for nearly three hours as Coppola’s final installment played through to its tragic conclusion. And my grandmother liked it. She liked the movie. I was in high school at the time, this was a few years before she would die, and at that time I very much hung on to what people thought of the movies I owned and screened. My self-worth was tied to my friends’ and family’s opinions of my opinions of my favorite movies. If they didn’t like one of my movies, I took it to mean I was less worthy in their eyes, and thus I was less worthwhile a human being. But that day my grandmother validated me in a way she never had before and never would again. We talked about the movie as if she were my co-editor on the school newspaper’s entertainment section. She had of course seen the first two movies, and she agreed with me that the third installment, despite valid criticism of Sofia Coppola’s lackluster performance as Michael Corleone’s daughter, was a fitting and well-executed end to the saga. We discussed Italian heritage. We may have even discussed our Italian heritage. Of all the days I spent with my grandmother, that is the one I will remember most fondly.

Until my interviews with her a week or so before she died, my Grandmother Mary would only occasionally talk of her childhood in Chicago, in the twenties and early thirties. As a child she would hear of bodies being found in the alleys, of major alcohol raids and bootleggers arrested. As a child she knew all the big mob names, figures, the faces. She was born, as I said, on March 12, 1920, almost two months after the official start of Prohibition and the official start of the events depicted in Boardwalk Empire; and this fact, her date of birth, and her connection to Chicago were, I admit now, the reasons I stuck with the series for as long as I did.

But I could not do it. The final episode for me was “Nights in Ballygran”, which takes place on and around Saint Patrick’s Day 1920, only a few days after my grandmother was born. I forced myself to keep watching because I wanted to see what life was like then for my grandmother, I wanted to see at least something from her childhood on the screen. The music, the way they danced, the way they talked, the way they parented and the way the children played—all this had been captured for me when I couldn’t capture it myself. Now that I’ve admitted defeat, failure again, I realize that this too was an impossible fiction, another way of trying to make up for what I had not done with her when she was alive and not on the screen. I had hoped to follow her life through this series, season after season, the twenties folding into the thirties, the nationwide ban on the sale and distribution of liquor becoming increasingly tenuous and foolhardy. I had hoped to live a little with her, but I know now I have as little interest in the series as I had in her past when she was alive.

I would like to tell her here that I’m sorry, but that wouldn’t be enough. The night after her funeral I slept on the hard sofa in the den in which I’d last seen her alive, and in my sleep that night I dreamed I was crossing a busy street in downtown Phoenix the way my father had done to meet my mother, just his date, his girlfriend then. Only in the dream it was my Grandmother Mary walking toward me from the opposite direction, and we stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and looked at one another, and she smiled.

“Are you okay, David?” she asked.

“I’m okay, Grandma,” I said. “Are you?”

“I’m okay,” she said, and then she was walking past me to where I could no longer see her.

That will have to be enough.



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

David Ewald’s

work has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Eclectica Magazine, Metazen, Denver Syntax, Spectrum, and elsewhere. His novella, Markson’s Pier (co-written with Stuart Ross), was published in Volume XI of Essays & Fictions. He serves as Nonfiction Editor for Eclectica Magazine and lives in California.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury