I lost my Gamma last Christmas Eve, 2011.
I am saddened by her departure, I am angry that my children will not get to know anything more about the woman who meant so very much to me, and I am questioning whether or not there is more after we leave this place.
If you feel so compelled to stick around and read this, thank you. I wouldn’t say this is a tribute to the late, great Georgia Bruno, but it is my way of sharing just a few of the memories I have. I expect to shed some tears while I pen this and I know that I could never say enough wonderful things about her to truly do her justice. She was, without a doubt, the person I admired most in my 44 years.
The three pictures at the heading are 1) My kids with Gram during our trip to Vegas in 2009 for my sister’s 21st birthday. 2 & 3) me and Gram during my trip to see her the week after Thanksgiving, this year.
I don’t know much about my Gram’s life before she married my Grampa. I know she was from Texas and I know that while my Grampa was in the Navy, he met and fell in love with the very exotic Georgia. They were married until the day he passed away, January 6, 1991, from Alzheimer’s. After he passed, she moved to Arizona to live with my mother, the eldest of her four children.
The pictures below are of Gram and Grampa with their four children. That’s me in the purple plaid shirt behind Grampa. There were only four of us grandchildren at the time that picture was taken. She had 8 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchilren and 1 great,great-grandchild. Not a bad legacy, huh?
The two pictures directly above are of Gram with her 4 kids in Arizona during Christmas, several years ago (which you could have guessed by Chey’s hair). 🙂 The picture next to it was taken at the luncheon after her funeral.
For some reason, I have limited memories of my youth. I have a difficult time recalling things from that time. Call it age, call it selective memory, but it is what it is. When I hear others talk about events from our past, I am usually at a loss as I try to remember their stories. I do remember growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, for the most part.
Ashtabula, at that time, was very “Norman Rockwell’ish”. We had parades on Main Street, everyone knew everyone, crime was virtually non-existent. There was 1 McDonald’s, 4 high schools and no mall. What there was however, was family – and lots of it. Very heavily populated with Italians, we were related to many people in town, in one way or another – or so it seemed. We were the Bruno’s, Foderetti’s, Narducci’s, etc.
Spaghetti – Our family gatherings are what I remember most. Sunday spaghetti dinner at Grams was a given, and one of my favorite childhood memories. The best part was that she would cook the sauce for days and days. As kids, we would look forward to grabbing a slice of bread and spooning the sauce onto it. We would fold it in half and run off eating our sauce snack. There were always homemade meatballs and sausage, not to mention Grampa’s cucumber, tomato and onion salad. We always had blocks of fresh parmesan and mozzarella cheese on the table to be shred onto our plates. Gram’s spaghetti was by far, the best spaghetti I’ve ever had.
Thanksgiving – My Gram hosted every Thanksgiving meal at her home. Our entire family, which could be dozens of people, would gather at my grandparents house early on Thanksgiving day for an all day feast. Days prior however, the kids and mothers would gather for the ravioli making festivity. We would circle my Gram’s kitchen table, which had been cleared and appropriately covered with flour, and begin making the raviolis. It was a “right of passage” when the younger kids were finally old enough to participate. It was a family activity that we all enjoyed and have fond memories of. There was a very particular way you stacked the finished (raw) raviolis on your arm when transferring them from the kitchen table where each batch was made, to the dining room table, which was lined with wax paper and used to put them so they could dry out a bit before packaging them for the freezer. Upon delivery to the dining room table, each batch was carefully counted and that number written on the wax paper. Once all the “ravs” were made, we boasted about our final number, which was in the hundreds.
Everyone moved away from our little hometown. We’ve all grown up and now have our own families and as a result, we can no longer gather together in one group. The tradition of making homemade raviolis however, has continued! Each and every one of us still make them days prior to Thanksgiving – and it’s the ONLY time of the year we do it. We all stack them on our arms the same way, lay them on wax paper the same way, and count them the same way….at least I think we do. On Thanksgiving day we all call each other to ask, “How many “ravs” did you make?” It’s a great source of pride when you have the highest number of ravs for the year, which usually means you had the largest gathering.
The pictures below are of Gram being surprised when she came around the corner in her kitchen and someone was snapping a photo, and me at Gram’s house in 1969 (I am 2 years old).
Present – One thing about Gram was that she was always there. She was at every birthday, holiday, sporting event, she was our chauffeur when needed. She was there for my first dance, fixing my date’s tie, she was there for the birth of my daughter. We had serious talks, she was a shoulder to cry on any time I needed one. We performed in plays and musicals at the local theater together. She was there to babysit us and always there when we needed a place to stay. My Mom had to take care of personal business in California for a while when my brother and I were very young. We lived with Gram for a long time during that period. Her home was our home. She was my 2nd mother; as reliable, as loved, as respected. She taught me to be nice. I know that sounds silly, but she did. Some would probably say she didn’t do a good job there, but I try. She was present throughout my life. I never once dreaded having to go see Gram, or wished we didn’t have to go to her house, or would rather have been spending time with someone else. She was never that “old grandma” who pinched your cheeks and smelled funny. She was just Gram – cool as a cucumber, always with something positive to say, Gram. I truly cherished her, always.
Here is evidence of what I mean by Gram being present.
Warming Up – If you were standing in Gram’s kitchen, looking out the back window of the house, you could see Lake Erie. Often during the cold winters, parts of the lake would freeze. I remember many times when me, my brother Dean and my Aunt Chey would grab our ice skates, bundle up in multiple layers of clothing; sweaters, hats, earmuffs, gloves, mittens, scarves, long-johns, double socks, and head out for a day of skating, usually with other neighborhood kids. We would stay out as long as we could stand the cold. When we decided we could no longer take it, we’d run into Gram’s house to warm up before round two. The “warming up” ritual included stripping off every layer of clothing and fighting each other for a spot to put our wet things on the radiator that stood just inside the living room. To get a visual, look up above at the picture of me in Gram’s house. You can see one of the many radiators in the picture. There were mittens, socks, hats and sweaters covering every inch of the toasty warm radiator. Gram would be ready to give us all a cup or two of hot chocolate – with marshmellows of course, and a bowl of warm chicken noodle soup. We would fill our bellies, warm our toes, check to see if our things were dry enough (which they usually weren’t), and bundle back up in our semi-dry clothes to hit the ice and snow again.
Picnics – The largest gathering of family we had regularly was the summer picnics at Aunt Patty’s house in Lake Shore Park. Every single family member; aunts, uncles, cousins, second, third and fourth cousins would gather. It was not surprising when I would see a schoolmate and find out, for the first time, that we were somehow related. One thing that stands out to me is the watermelon fruit basket. Either Gram, my Mom, or one of my aunts would make the traditional watermelon basket. It would be filled with rounded cantaloupe, musk melon, watermelon and strawberries and grapes. The kids (me) absolutely loved it and for some reason, it’s what I remember most about the enormous amounts of food at the picnic. The picture below is not mine – nor is it a perfect representation of how awesome my family made it look, but you get the idea.
I remember running around the yard playing freeze-tag with my cousins, playing in the grass, watching the Uncles play Bocce Ball, and just being joyful. One of the most disheartening things I’ve had to deal with since having my own children is that they never experienced things like this. They didn’t grow up around family, they have no memories of summer picnics and sadly, don’t even know most of their family. We all moved away from Ashtabula a long time ago, and our children will never know the kind of family love, bonding and joy we shared in our youth. Again, the pictures below aren’t of my family, but they capture the energy and spirit of this memory.
Piano – Gram had this old, upright piano in her dining room. She also had a pretty slick organ, but the orange – yes, orange, upright piano was my favorite. I sat at that piano for hours upon hours. She had several music books and though I couldn’t read music, I would thumb through those books until I found a few I thought I could teach myself. Hey Jude and Born Free were the winners early on. I “sort of” taught myself what each note on the right hand was and would practice over and over and over, I’m sure to Gram’s dismay. The amazing thing about Gram was that she would let me sit there, truly for hours, hitting the same notes over and over trying to memorize a new song. Occasionally she’d say “Sounds good babe”, or “You’re getting it”. Only after hours of what must have been nerve crushing, bone shaking, pounding, constant, repeating strikes on the same notes would I get, “It’s time to try a different song babe”, or “Okay Tam, let’s take a little break”. She was so supportive. I think of myself and my level of patience and I know, without a doubt, I couldn’t have tolerated it for even a fraction of the time she did. What a great Gram.
Now, when Gram got on that upright….look out! She played the meanest, funkiest, blues and jazz songs ever. I couldn’t believe how fast her fingers would move. She made that thing rock and we loved to listen.
This is the upright, after it was painted white from orange, and holding gifts, but buried under there is that fabulous instrument that gave me hours of joy and gave Gram hours of teeth clenching. If you click on the image to enlarge it you’ll see that sitting atop the piano is a picture of my Aunt Chey, Me and my little sister. I never doubted how much Gram loved me.
Partying – This little digest wouldn’t be complete without talking about partying with Gram. My boyfriend said something the other day and he was totally right. He said, “Babe, you should be so grateful that you got to know your Grandmother like you did. Not many people can say that they grew up with their grandparents and went out partying with their grandparents.” I never thought it was unusual, but I guess it was? From the time I was 16 years old, I had a fake ID. The main reason I had the ID was because my Aunt Chey sang in a band and this way I could accompany my Mom and Gram to her bar performances. I wasn’t allowed to drink though, it was just so that I could go in. Yep, I hung out in the local bars with my Mom and Gram on the regular. Me and Gram, and Grampa when he went, would dance and sing and just have a blast.
Around the time when I was 18 or so, I remember several road trips to Erie, Pennsylvania. There was a Brown Derby restaurant / bar there, and since there were very few bars like that in Ashtabula, we would go there to party. Me, Gram, my Mom and Aunt Chey would drive to Erie, drink, dance and just enjoy the live music.
There was one particular night that I will never forget. On the way home from Erie after one of our outings, I was driving because my Aunt and Gram were pretty hammered. We were singing and just carrying on during the drive when Gram decided she had to pee – right now! I pulled over to the side of the interstate and Gram literally dropped her drawers right next to the car to go. I couldn’t resist the urge, so while she was squatting, I pulled forward about two car lengths, totally exposing her to the highway traffic! There wasn’t anything she could do but finish the job, but boy was she yelling my name from the side of the road! It was hysterical. About 20 minutes later, during the same trip home, Gram fell asleep in the passenger seat. I decided to mess with her again. This time I pulled into a rest stop on the interstate, and pulled the car as close as possible to the back of a parked semi truck. I was so close, in fact, that I was almost under it. I put the brights / high-beam lights on and told my Aunt Chey that when I counted to three, I wanted her to yell with me as loud as she could. I counted to three and we both started screaming, which of course alarmingly woke Gram up, and when she thought we were about to rear end a semi, she started screaming too. It only took her a second to realize we were messing with her and her first reaction to our awesome prank was to punch me in the arm. It was the best road trip ever and she was a great party friend.
Another great party story was when Gram came to visit me, my Mom and Aunt Chey in Arizona with her best friend Trudy in October of 1986. We spent a good part of their visit doing shots of Snakebite, my Grams favorite shot of Yukon Jack and lime juice. (bleck!) The best night though was this one particular night. We were all sitting around the living room; me, my boyfriend at the time (Brad), Mom, Aunt Chey, Chey’s boyfriend Ron and friend Tyrone, Gram and Trudy, discussing our plans to go to South Mountain that evening. We were explaining to Gram and Trudy that the view of the valley from South Mountain at night, overlooking all the lights was breathtaking. As we were all chatting, Gram and Trudy start giggling like little school girls and exchanging devious little looks between each other. We, the rest of us, were glaring at them with suspicious eyes and asked what they were up to. Only after several requests to share the secret did my Gram whip out a little baggie with, guess what….a joint in it. We about died laughing. My Gram had never used or tried any drug in her life and she decided that she wanted to try pot just one time and this was the time. We couldn’t believe it and as we laughed hysterically at her little baggie, she said, “What? You think you guys invented this stuff??” to which we laughed even harder. So that I don’t incriminate myself or my family, I’ll leave out the rest of the details. Well – I will say that the funniest moment I’ve ever had with my Gram was when we were driving to South Mountain later that evening, in the back of Chey’s boyfriend’s pick-up truck and my Gram and Trudy were laying on their backs, in the bed of the truck, with their feet sticking straight up in the air so that all the passing vehicles would “get a show”, while we all laughed out of control.
The pictures below are from that night. One is Gram, headband and all, at the top of South Mountain. The other is her and Trudy in the back of the pick-up truck that night. I wish I had one of the legs up in the air, but….
There were many, many nights of karaoke with Gram as well. She was there when I sang my first song ever, The Rose, at my bachelorette party. Mind you, this was in 1992, before karaoke was even a “thing”. She was there when I entered the karaoke contest at “Val’s” in Ashtabula, cheering me on. In fact, as long as we lived in the same city, she was always there for me. “The Rose”, by the way, was read by the Priest at her funeral. I also sang it, through a few tears and with the help of my Aunt Chey when I struggled, at the luncheon following her service. She was a Rose, a gem, my hero.
Christmas – The irony of Gram passing on Christmas Eve is not lost on me. Christmas Eve was when all the family would gather for Christmas dinner at Grams. My Gram, mom and all the aunts would spend days and days baking ahead of time and the treats on Christmas Eve were to die for! Church windows (a kind of cookie) were my favorite, but there were also peanut blossoms, rum balls, pecan tarts, thumbprints, pizzelles (Italian waffer), and more. There were bowls of all kinds of nuts that had to be cracked to enjoy; walnuts, pecans, nigger toes (a Brazilian nut), and more. The adult women would be in the kitchen making our traditional Catholic Italian, no meat (we weren’t permitted to eat meat on Christmas eve or Christmas day) Christmas meal; garlic pizza, smelt, breaded shrimp, cocktail shrimp, and garlic & oil vermicelli.
All of us kids would be in our Sunday best, all dolled up, running around the house like crazy people. I remember the ladies in the kitchen constantly yelling, “KIDS! Settle down!!!!”, while the men sat in the living room encouraging us to continue. The tables were always set so beautifully with the best crystal that was rarely used but for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The adult seating was in the dining room and the kids seating was in the kitchen. We never sat with the grown-ups, that’s just the way it was. We didn’t care much about dinner anyway. We just wanted to rush through dinner so that we could get to the gifts and as you can imagine, us kids were always the first ones done eating.
Once dinner was over though, the gift exchange would begin. The job of passing out gifts belonged to the children. We would excitedly read tags and proclaim the owner’s name out loud as we scurried to deliver it and get to the next, secretly hoping we would find more with our own names on them. It was a huge event, everyone had a spot and a pile of wrapped boxes. I’m not sure how we afforded it back then, but we were always blessed with lots of great gifts from each and every member of the family. Christmas Eve WAS our family Christmas and it was usually at Grams. Christmas day was spent opening Santa’s gifts with our immediate families, though most of us ended up back at Gram’s for leftovers. Surprised she passed on Christmas eve? Not a bit.
This picture is of Gram cooking something up in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, around 1983.
As I returned to visit Ashtabula during December of 2011, for the first time in many, many years, I was saddened by the change in Ashtabula. Businesses are boarded up on Main Street, houses all over town are falling apart, the community is welfare-ridden, drug use and crime rates are high. It no longer felt like “home”. Home was family, joy, love. There isn’t much of that there any more.
The first of my two visits to Ashtabula in December was to see Gram. Let me back up though…Gram was living in Vegas with my mother when she got cancer the first time. Since her doctors were all in Phoenix, she moved back there and lived with her youngest child, my Aunt Chey. Chey nursed her back to health over the next year or so. When Gram got the clean bill of health showing she kicked the lung cancer’s butt, she moved back to Vegas with my mother and my Aunt Chey moved to Jacksonville, with me. Things were good on all fronts and as Chey adjusted to her new life in Florida, Gram’s life got back to normal in Vegas. Flash forward a year and we get news that Gram’s cancer came back. Though we were saddened, we knew she could beat it again. Georgia Bruno is a rock, my friends. I don’t think any of us had any doubt she could recover once again. Then a few months ago, Gram made the announcement that she wanted to “go home”. She wanted to go back to Ashtabula, Ohio where all of our family, especially her husband, my beloved Grandfather, Charlie Bruno, are buried. She wanted to move back and stay in a nursing home that is run (Head Nurse) by her best friend of many years, Trudy (pictured above). We, the family, discussed it, talked about options, talked to her about it not being the best decision, and though we didn’t think it was best for her, it was her decision to make. She stepped on a plane in Vegas, destination Ashtabula, and walked into that nursing home, on her own. Over the course of a month or so, her health started deteriorating pretty quickly. She was in and out of the hospital, then back to the nursing home. First she was dehydrated, then her oxygen levels were off, then she wasn’t taking the right meds, blah, blah, blah. This went on for a couple of weeks and that’s when I made the decision we would go see her. The motive however, was to whip that nursing home into shape and find out why they weren’t taking better care of her.
So….I took my kids and my boyfriend and we spent a week there, talking to her, listening to her stories, making posters for her room at the nursing home, listening to her sing her favorite old songs, taking pictures. I spoke to Trudy (Head Nurse / Best Friend) over and over about the care she was receiving. I got an exact list of the meds, her activities, etc. I had this plan that I once I left, I would call the home every morning to find out what she had taken, and what she had refused, if anything, and I would communicate that to the whole family so that we were all in the loop.
When we were leaving at the end of that week, she happened to be back at the hospital. The picture below is from our last visit and was her idea. She wanted one of everyone looking at her, and her looking back. I wondered why she suggested that, now I know.
These are the posters my daughter Hailee and I made for her room while we were there.
She had some good days and bad days while we were there, but I got to talk to her, hold her hand, encourage her to get stronger. My boyfriend got to know her a little bit as she told him stories of her youth. My kids were able to listen to her sing and give her words of encouragement, and show her love and support. Having a picture of her with my kids (below) means the world to me.
It was a good visit and I made the decision we were going only two weeks before we did. I guess I knew, deep down, that I wouldn’t see her alive again. I cried when I left the hospital on the last day of our visit.
My next visit was 10 days later, for her funeral.
I know I am blessed for having 44 years worth of memories with my Gamma. I am also blessed that I got to see both her and my Grandpa just before they passed, and was able to say goodbye. The picture below is my Gram and Grandpa holding me at my Christening when I was only a few months old. I saw this picture for the first time this week. I had a life time with her. But now I feel guilty. During the last few years I didn’t talk to her as much. She was in Vegas or Phoenix, I was here in Florida. She was fighting cancer, I was trying to save my business. No excuse, whatsoever. I’m also so very frustrated with her. Years and years ago I bought her a journal for Christmas. I begged her to start writing down stories, chronicling her life. I told her that I didn’t know enough about her and where she came from and one day she would be gone. About two years later I asked her how it was going and she said she hadn’t started yet, but she would. So the next year for Christmas I bought her a voice activated tape recorder. I told her that she should carry it around with her and whenever she thought of a story to tell or a neat factoid that none of us knew, to record it. I told her I would put it all in writing for her and that she could just send me the little tapes. A couple years later I asked her how it was going. She never started, go figure. So now I’m mad at myself for not being a total pain in the ass and bullying her into telling me stories. Who will tell me now? Why didn’t I call her more often? Why didn’t I ask the questions and listen to the stories myself? I was so damn busy with my life that I let hers slip away from me.
I struggled a bit, after returning to Florida. I kept it together pretty well while in Ashtabula, but the reality that my Gram is gone has really hit me. I’m sad. Really, really sad. Standing next to her open casket, touching her empty shell of a body, looking at her lifeless face was a first for me. In all of my 44 years, I’ve never attended a funeral for someone I was this close to. (I wasn’t able to attend my Grandpa’s funeral). It wasn’t her, obviously. It didn’t even look like her. I kept expecting her to move, to breath, to open her eyes. She didn’t.
Since returning home and trying to move on, knowing that she is in a better place, I found myself doubting my beliefs. What if that’s it? What if when we die we just stop? What if there is no better place? My faith and belief has always been that dying on earth was just the first step into living in Heaven. I’ve always believed that my family members and loved ones who have passed are watching over me. Only with the passing of my Gram have I really thought about it. I want to know where she is! Is she really okay now? Is she really happy and without pain now?? Because the thought of her just stopping – just being that shell I stood next to – makes me lose it, it scares me. It makes this sadness I feel unbearable. Is she really with Grampa and other family members or is she alone?? Is she conscious of who she was here?? Does she even know we exist here? Has she forgotten us? Will I see her again? I know there is a God, I believe that with all my heart, but I just miss my Gram.
On my 40th birthday, I received a card from the “Arizona Family”, which was my mom, my little sister Terena, and Gram. I always looked forward to the sweet words they would write in the card. This is the note my Gram sent me on my 40th.
You can click on it to enlarge it, but it says, “Happy B’day Tam! Remember – you are only as old as you feel. From what I’ve seen of your actions you are definitely not forty – I’d say some where around sweet sixteen! Follow your grandma and live your life in the fashion you enjoy. I love you and hope you have a beautiful life! Grandma Bruno” Well Gram, I have followed you and I do have a beautiful life, thanks to you.
When my daughter was just over 3 and my son only a few months old, Gram came to visit us in Virginia, where we lived at the time. While walking around a flea market, we came across this man who was making life-like molds. We decided to have one made of Gram, my daughter and son’s hands, wrapped together. The details on the mold are unbelievable. They are literally down to the fingerprint, which you can’t see in the photo, but can on the actual mold. You can see her chipped fingernail, her veins. I’ve looked at it in a whole new way since she passed. She will always be a part of me and I pray I see her again one day so that I can tell her just how much she meant to me.
I love you Gamma, and always will.