My grandmother, Genevieve Napolitano Arena, was born 100 years ago today in Maspeth, Queens.

She was a wonderful grandmother.  During the brief 11 years that I had her, she made the most of our time.  Nana spent as much time as possible with her grandchildren.

She was warm-hearted and generous; quick to anger and had the ability to see right through your act.

In short, she was a typical Italian grandmother.

Her mother and father were from Italy, outside of Naples.  She married a man from Sicily.

Like my father’s mother, she was one of 10 children.  Her mother, the great Celesta, married three times and outlived them all.  With these husbands, she put together what we would now call a “blended family.”

My grandparents with two of their children. My mother is the little girl in front.

Nana had a great sense of humor and loved to play jokes on people.  Upon seeing the school bus pull up during a visit to our home, she would jump up and say, “Where’s my purse.  I’m going to hide.”

I would then come in searching for her.  I had seen the car outside — plus my grandfather was sitting right there.  Jen didn’t drive.

She would jump out at just the right moment.  I knew it was coming.  But, I loved it all the same.

She was a wonderful cook.  Although she died 34 years ago, I can still smell her sauce cooking on a Sunday.  She always started it with pork neck bones.  Her meatballs were otherworldly.

I would often see her go out to the garden and come back in with a plate full of dandelions and other greens that looked just like weeds.  She would then turn this batch of rabbit food into a delicious frittata.

She was old school, and not shy about using the back of her hand.  It was all right.  Although it stung, I knew I deserved it.

She cursed like a sailor — in two languages.  The first words I learned in Italian are very bad — they involve not-so-nice acts.

More than anyone else in my childhood, Nana saw through the artifice and could see the real me.

I remember one time, while visiting our Soprano-like relatives in Brooklyn, I made a game out of pushing all the doorbells down in the entryway to the apartment building.  You must understand, this was back in the day when you could leave a little kid out on the sidewalk in Brooklyn alone to play.

I was a kid from the suburbs.  I didn’t know anything from city living.  I thought, “Hey, there are all these buttons here.  I’m going to push them.”

The ensuing furor was pretty bad.  Neighbors coming down and screaming in the street.  I was down the block at the candy store, safely watching from a distance.

When I came under suspicion, Nana defended me to the hilt.  There were a lot of threats in Italian.  She shielded me with her big, flappy, grandmotherly arms.

However, on the way back to Nassau County, she turned around and shot me daggers from the front seat.

Staged "goofy" picture.

I know what you did, was all she said to me.  That was all that needed to be said.  The lesson has remained with me for nearly 40 years.

During a field trip to a nature preserve one day, I had the opportunity to touch a snake.  I politely demurred.

When I saw Nana, I told her about my trip.  Now, it was a well-established fact that Nana hated snakes.

With a twinkle in her eye, she said, “It’s a good thing that you didn’t touch that snake.  If you had, I wouldn’t have loved you anymore.”

Yeah, right.  As if that would have happened.  I knew she was teasing.  She was a world-class ball-breaker.

After raising three children of her own, she had to take on more — under the worst of circumstances.

Her daughter died from cancer at the age of only 31, leaving behind two very young children.  While still grieving, she realized that the children’s father was unable to care for them.  She took them in.

She worked hard all of her life.  She never had a retirement.  She was still cooking and cleaning and mothering two children when she died at age 66.

I loved being around her.  I loved her voice.  I loved her smell.

She certainly wasn’t perfect.  But, who is?

I still miss her.

— The Major

My grandmothers, Mary & Genevieve, 1964.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Teresa Lancer on February 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Thank you Michael,

    I miss her very much and dream about her at least three to four times a week. I try very hard to live up to her reputation as being a fun grandmother. I Love her very much and I love you for writing this. Mom


  2. Posted by lisa on February 13, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I miss her a lot & her sauce was the best. I still remember her “smell” & the love in her arms.


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