On a small field outside of Naples, my grandmother, Maria Michele (also known as “Mimi”) was born in 1927 to her loving parents and sister. Upon immigrating to Brooklyn on a steam liner from across the Atlantic, she welcomed three additional siblings. Mimi came from humble means, but was rich in love both given and received in the traditional southern Italian household in which she was raised. Although she appreciated her heritage, she learned to change her ways in order to adapt as a “modern” American girl.
Not only was she incredibly beautiful, but also her vivacious personality dazzled many with her signature laugh, grace, and vibrancy. Many a time, she was referred to as the cat’s meow during her days of swing dancing and attending various big band performances and events at the local social halls. Her passion was the famed Glenn Miller until she met the love of her life, Joey—who was the most desired bachelor on the block. Although Mimi and Joey knew each other from the old neighborhood, it wasn’t until their chance encounter at Lowes Movie Theatre did Joey ask to escort her home safely. After a first kiss in which Joey exclaimed, “Where have you been all my life?”
The young couple soon married and started a family of their own—moving out to the “country” in Long Island in which they made their home for over 60 years. Suburban life became the norm and Mimi and Joey took great pride in raising their most special and beautiful children, Lillian and Sammy. Mimi devoted her life to her little ones and so proudly watched them grow into wonderful individuals they presently are—from teaching them the everyday manners of “please” and “thank you”, through instilling prayer, to invaluable life lessons of maximizing their potential to achieve anything their hearts’ desired. She was most generous with sharing her personal experiences and guided her family through sound and sensible strategies for cherishing the simple beauty of life and faring its difficulties with integrity and sensitivity—being kind to themselves and others on their paths.
But then the most impacting events happened in Mimi’s world—the arrivals of her beloved grandchildren. With profound sadness of losing her first grandson at birth, she was the source of strength for her daughter and her son-in-law to heal from such tragedy. Her patience and love for her daughter was the biggest gift she gave her and in turn, Lillian repaid her mother ten fold.
I had the unique experience of living next door to my grandparents for the first eight years of my life. As an infant, Mimi cradled me in her arms from the time I woke until the time she would rock me to sleep. The only time I was returned to my own mother was for when she nursed me…and once she finished, I was all Mimi’s once again. As I got older, I became more of a little companion; listening attentively to the stories of her youth, swing dancing with her to all of her favorite songs, and admiring her so when she would get dressed up and put on her make-up at her vanity before Saturday night dinner dates with Joey and their friends.
Although it was initially difficult to leave my grandparents upon my family’s move, it was soon realized that they were only a 10-minute car ride away. Over the years, both Mimi and Joey frequently attended school functions, performances, baseball, soccer, and volleyball games, dance and piano recitals, science fairs, art exhibitions, and graduations in support of all their grandchildren…as they couldn’t be more proud of our accomplishments and successes, yet providing us with unconditional love, support, and comfort in all aspects of our lives. What I truly admired most in my grandmother was our long talks about love, life, and everything else in between. I confided in her regularly and was most appreciative of her non-judgmental, truthful, and sensible advice. Later on, not only did we converse in English, but also we tried our best between her old Neapolitan dialect and my “proper” Italian.
She had a great understanding of the workings of the world and how to handle anything that came her way. Most impressive was her battle with cancer…spanning 22 years of her life. Not once did she ever complain or have self pity. She fully trusted God and her beloved saints and whole-heartedly appreciated the devotion of her husband, children, and grandchildren—as we all banded together to make it as positive as possible. In her final days, she was more loving, gracious, peaceful, and kind of heart…receiving immense love from her family and giving it back to us in return. She peacefully slept hand in hand with her husband, Joey, surrounded in his love and devotion as she passed away…the most beautiful ending to a love story surpassing 62 years.
A mother. A wife. A friend. A neighborly companion. Throughout her life, Dorothy fulfilled all of these roles and more. To me, she was Gramz – with a Z. My beloved grandmother.
In a world that always seems to move too quickly, Gramz slowed things down.
Her tendency to pause played out literally and figuratively. There was that time when we watched “Bridget Jones Diary” and Gramz — hard of hearing and not very good at understanding British accents — kept asking me:
“Wait, what did Bridget say?” “What just happened?” I had to pause the movie several times to explain it to her. At the time, it annoyed me. Now I wish I could keep hitting the pause button.
And then there were the times when she and I would sit for hours, often at the kitchen table, and talk about work, life, and relationships. Her presence created a safe haven for me, a space where I could laugh, vent, and cry free from judgment.
The first time I remember crying in front of her was when my parents left on a trip to Nantucket. As they waved goodbye to me from the ferry, I yelled, “No, don’t go!” “Nooo!” I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. We never really are.
Gramz scooped me up in her arms and lifted my veil of tears.
Me with my paternal Gramz (far left) and my maternal grandma, who is 87 and another important person in my life.
“We’ve got the whole week together,” she said, a big smile on her face. “We’re going to make it a fun week. We’ll go to the beach, and eat ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, and go to that playground you really like.” She came to understand my little world.
Children are highly attuned to what each adult in their life can provide them, and I knew early on that my grandmother could give me stability. As a child, I found comfort in her calmness, peace in her presence.
When I was 11, my mother passed away from breast cancer. As the weeks, and months, and years passed, Gramz helped raise me.
She lived with me and my father a few days a week and she cooked all the meals my mom used to make. She wanted to add consistency to our uprooted routine. She stayed by my side when I struggled and never gave up hope. She listened and gave me advice that I still hold close to my heart.
“You get back in this life what you give,” she’d always say.
Since finding out about Gramz’s passing, I have been thinking about the intricate bond between granddaughters and grandmothers — a bond that has been a defining part of my life.
When my mom died, my grandma became the hub around which the whole wheel revolved, the stitching that held together the patches of our family quilt.
She was a reservoir of advice, a strong-willed woman who proved that when we lose someone we love, when we think that feeling of emptiness will never go away, someone else often steps in or enters our life to fill the void and ease the pain.
Gramz teaching me how to make her delectable stuffed peppers. My cousins and I hope to turn her recipes into a cookbook.
Gramz, who grew up during the Great Depression and sometimes went to bed hungry, never wanted her family to feel empty. She nourished our bellies, our minds, and our hearts – with her home-cooked meals, her wisdom, and her love.
She learned how to cook from her Italian mother-in-law and came to develop the same Italian accent when describing the food she made: pasta e fagioli, pizzelles, lasagna with ricotta cheese.
She couldn’t eat the majority of meals she made. She had celiac disease — meaning she couldn’t eat “wheat, rye, barley or oats,” as she’d say, in that order. Still, she made pasta and pizza and bread for her family (and would occasionally steal a tiny bite). That’s the type of person she was: selfless and hyper aware of what people needed to feel full and whole.
My grandmother felt whole when surrounded by family – her children, her grandchildren, her in-laws, her late husband Frank and, later in life, her partner Gordon. She continued to bless our family with her wisdom, patience, and unconditional love until her final days.
As I walked through her house this past weekend, I saw dozens of family photos, envelopes stuffed with prayer cards, and pouches full of Rosary beads. My grandma went to church regularly and volunteered at the church’s thrift shop. She bought most of her wardrobe from that thrift shop and easily became the best-dressed 92-year-old in Cape Cod.
When I was younger, I always hoped Gramz would live long enough to see the man I would marry. She did, and was incredibly fond of Troy. When I moved to Florida after college, she worried about me being so far away from our home in Massachusetts. Once I married Troy, it gave her peace of mind to know that I had a life-long companion.
In thinking about her faith, I was drawn a bible passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:
“For everything, there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is wanted.”
It was my grandmother’s time. Knowing her, she would want us to remember that as people are plucked from this earth, new seeds are planted, and new flowers are forever blossoming. The regenerative cycle of life helps us grow; it keeps us grounded.
Gramz touched each and every one of us in this room. When I think about her impact, I think about one of her favorite movies — “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In it, an angel-in-training named Clarence gives a dispirited man named George Bailey a look at what the world would be life if he had never been born. At the movie’s end, Clarence gets his wings and George realizes his impact on this world.
Our world would be much different if Dorothy hadn’t been here. She was the best gift we could have received, and having surely gone to Heaven, she will continue to bless us with her generous spirit. Knowing Gramz, she is probably already working hard as an angel in training, and is well on her way to getting her wings.
It seems fitting that Gramz’s name was Dorothy, which is Greek for “a gift from God.” Dorothy was that, and so, so much more. May her beautiful soul forever live on in our hearts and minds, and may her memory nourish us all the years of our lives.
I turned this photo of me, Gramz, and my dad into a pillow and gave it to Gramz last Christmas. It was the last photo I ever took with her. She loved the pillow and took it to the rehab facility where she stayed for several months before passing away. It’s now on my bed at home. If you click on the audio clip below, you can hear a related voicemail she left me and Troy on Christmas Day.