Exactly a month ago today, although I didn't know it then, was the last day my beloved grandmother, TT, would spend on this earth. I woke up this morning to find this precious bloom on my kitchen windowsill and wanted to share its significance via the eulogy I delivered at TT's funeral mass:
Thank you for filling this church and our hearts on this bleak winter morning. It means so much to our family that you’re all here to celebrate the life of a woman some of you knew as a friend, and many knew as a relative—after all, she was the youngest of ten Tampio siblings.
Her full name, she told me when I was little, was Sarafina Josephina Lena Tampio Ricotta. Most people called her Sara. But to me, she was simply "TT."
I gave her that nickname when I was three years old. Feeling grown up, I’d walk two doors down Lincoln Avenue from our house to her house, never knowing that my mom was watching me from the window on one end and my grandma on the other. I’d ring the doorbell and she’d act surprised, and I’d invite myself in for tea with her. “Tea! Tea, Grandma,” I would say, and she was TT forever after.
When you lose someone who was cresting her 96th birthday, it shouldn’t feel like a surprise, right? People tell you how lucky you were to have had her for so long, and how blessed she was to have lived a full life and reach a ripe old age. Those things are absolutely true, and yet…my grandmother’s passing somehow did feel unexpected. Although we did have her for a long time, somehow it could never be long enough.
When my Aunt Mickey called me early Sunday morning to break the sad news, she and I talked about the fact my grandmother always said she was born on a Sunday. Then again, she said a lot of things over the years. Most of them were true. Although she’d claim she’d given me her exact banana bread recipe, but try as I might, I can never get mine to taste like hers. I think she was leaving out a secret ingredient so that she could keep her claim to fame as Best Banana Bread Maker In All The Land.
April 7, 1918. That’s the day my Grandma was born, and it was indeed a Sunday. I know, because I looked it up online to make sure. That she also died on a Sunday is a poignant and fitting coincidence.
Sundays were family day. For as long as I can remember, we all spent Sunday mornings at mass together right here at Holy Trinity. Afterward, we’d go to someone’s house for coffee and whatever my grandmother had baked for us. Not just her banana bread, but apple bread and apple pastry and apple pandowdy and apple pies.
I remember watching her shape her fluted pie crusts, pinching the dough between her thumb and forefinger and making it look easy to get them perfect. It’s not easy. She’d use the leftover dough to make cinnamon and sugar curly cues for us kids. I’m going to miss her Danish Puff Pastry with almond icing. Orange sweet rolls fragrant with yeast. Pineapple upside down cake. Chocolate trifle.
And then there were her cookies. She’d bring them over in the waxed paper bags that come inside of cereal boxes. She’d wash them out and reuse them to bring molasses cookies, pineapple cookies, oatmeal cookies, press cookies, Italian chocolate cookies, and of course, her cucidati—fig cookies, which she called “fig-a-cook” in an exaggerated Italian accent. We all did. It made us laugh, and our family loves to laugh.
Especially Grandma. She had the silliest sense of humor and oh, how she loved a good pun. She loved a bad pun even more. I’ll miss hearing her say, when I would complain about my big feet, “You have a good understanding.” Or she’d warn me, after we’d spent the afternoon drinking several pots of tea together, “We’ll be sleeping in our ‘tea pee’ tonight.”
On summer Sundays when my grandparents still had their cottage at Greencrest, that’s where we would go in the afternoons. I can still see her kneeling in her rock garden in the sunshine, tending to her herbs and flowers—she always called them her “fleurs.” She had a green thumb and could make anything grow. She taught me how to root plants from cuttings when I was a little girl, and she always had pots on every windowsill with new little plants she was growing.
When my grandmother wasn’t working in her garden at Greencrest, she was dancing with us to songs from the sixties that were on the old jukebox in the cottage, or to our favorite original family anthem known as “Dance, Dance, Dance Till Your Underpants Fall Down.”
Not that she would ever allow her underpants to fall down. She was always impeccably dressed. My grandmother managed to look like a million bucks whether she was working in her garden in Audrey Hepburn pedal pushers or dressed in sequins to go dancing at Rusch’s with Grandpa. She wore a bikini well into her sixties—and wore it well.
Truly, she was the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen in real life. She had gorgeous Sicilian eyes that sometimes looked green and sometimes looked blue. She possessed the kind of striking beauty that might make others resentful if she weren’t just as beautiful inside. But she was.
My grandmother showed up at school for every concert and play I ever did, even came to my poetry reading when I was in college. She was always thrilled when I’d tell her that my teachers or classmates had thought she was my mom because she looked so young. Oh, she loved compliments. Especially about that gorgeous auburn hair of hers.
You would tell her that she looked pretty, and she would say, “Pretty ugla.” Then of course you’d insist, and she’d pat her hair and say that it wasn’t quite right, that “the girl” had cut it too short or made it too red or too orange, and yet she would know and you would know that it was exquisite, as always. She was exquisite.
I loved that you could stop in to surprise Grandma at the nursing home on any given day and find her in her wheelchair fully dressed, wearing stockings and makeup and jewelry, with a fresh manicure and of course every hair in place. And I loved that when old age caught up with her not long ago and she was forced to wear Depends, she complained that they made her look fat.
(Image to the right: my sister Lisa and me with TT on our final visit, Christmas Eve 2013)
Perhaps the most meaningful thing about the fact that my grandmother entered this world and left it on a Sunday is that she was a woman of tremendous faith. For her, it wasn’t just about going to daily mass or singing in the choir or putting dried palms under the mattress or not eating meat on Fridays—though she did all of those things.
But for all of the joys and blessings in her life, she faced some terrible hardships. Losing her firstborn son, my uncle Bertie, to cancer when he was eight years old was a tragedy she never got over, and yet, she lovingly spoke of him as her angel in heaven, and she knew that she’d see him again. She told me that her mother came to help her take care of my mom and my aunts after Bertie died, but she had a stroke and my grandmother took care of her until she died in the same bed where Bertie had died a few months earlier. How did she bear it?
I remember her weeping to my mom about her lost son and mother decades later. I watched my mom comfort her and I learned, in those moments, that sometimes a daughter must take care of her mother. It was a lesson I would live out years later, when my mother’s breast cancer advanced and I made the sad trip home to nurse her through her final days.
On the day my mom lapsed into her final coma, my grandmother showed up, as she often did, to visit on her way back from getting her hair done at the Studio.
My mom hadn’t wanted to tell her the terrible truth about her health, and we were sure Grandma was in denial. Now it was undeniable. Seeing her car pull up in front of the house, I knew she would be devastated when she came inside and realized that her precious Sissy was dying.
We were all emotionally exhausted and depleted, but I realized what I would have to do. A daughter takes care of a mother. Now I’d have to fill my mother’s shoes and support my frail grandmother, helping her bear unbearable sorrow.
But my grandmother shocked me. Instead of leaning on me, she gave ME strength that I didn’t realize she possessed. She reached inside and summoned the inner strength and tremendous faith that allowed her to quietly go about tending to her precious dying child for the second time in her lifetime. In the days that followed, she sat for hours beside my sleeping mother, stroking her hair, holding her hand, talking to her, soothing, praying.
No mother should outlive her child, and yet my grandmother had outlived her two eldest. In those sorrowful days, she not only taught me something my own mom could not teach me—how to bear the heartbreaking loss of a mother much too soon—but she taught me something my mother had only begun to teach me: what it means to be a mother.
If I had to choose the highlight among the many qualities that defined my grandmother’s life, it would be motherhood. She mothered her children and she mothered their friends and their spouses. She mothered her grandchildren and her great grandchildren, whom she affectionately called her little “Granna Grans.” She mothered my sister and brother and me when our own mother was gone.
(Above: TT with my brother, sister and me on her 90th birthday)
Although I was her oldest grandchild and will be turning fifty in October, I would still reach out to TT not just when I thought she needed me, but when I needed her. I had lost that maternal love once in my life, and she had helped me through. Now, it’s lost again.
But not really.
I still have the potted hibiscus plant my mom gave me in the hospital nineteen years ago when I gave birth to her first grandchild, my son Morgan. He came here today from his college campus in Geneseo, which is full circle because of my grandma.
Her parents had lived there before she was born, and her eldest brother and sister were born there. Grandma was always thrilled that my husband Mark had gone to college in Geneseo. Although the fog of old age had slipped in by the time Morgan was ready to go, it lifted sometimes. When he told Grandma where he was going to college, she lit up and told him—without being reminded—that Martin and Jennie were born there.
Grandma was growing old, and Morgan was growing up, and the hibiscus my mother gave me when he was born has grown into a tree. But it’s a sparse and fickle one. If it blooms at all, it’s once a year, putting out a single big, beautiful red flower as if it just wants me to know it’s still capable. The bloom lasts just one glorious day and then it closes up and falls away.
Somehow, though, ever since my mom died, the hibiscus usually seems to bloom on a day when I need a splash of hope. It bloomed on my boys’ first day of school the fall after we lost her, a day when I was desperately missing her and knew she’d have been calling them to wish them well. One year, it bloomed on my birthday.
This January 4th would have been my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was a bittersweet milestone. That afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to see that the hibiscus had given me my one flower of the year on that day.
Two days later, on my father’s birthday—January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany--when my husband and I were dragging our Christmas tree out the front door, we accidentally bumped the hibiscus and snapped off a branch. I did what my TT had taught me to do. Instead of throwing it away, I put the branch into a glass vase on my windowsill to take root so that I can use it to create a new plant. In spring, I’ll put it into a pot of soil on the windowsill, just as she would have done.
When I left home to come to her funeral, I noticed that the cutting had not only sprung new roots, but it had a fat bud where a flower was about to open.
My grandmother’s passing marks the end of an era for our family. We’ll miss her puns and her fig-a-cook and her glorious red hair and those pots of new little sprouting plants lined up on the windowsills. But I promise you we won’t miss the love. Not really. Because the love is never gone. It doesn’t die. It lives on in all of us, putting out new shoots and blooming forever.