My Auntie Mary Plagenza, a lifelong resident of East Boston, MA, passed away today at the age of 91.
The world has lost a funny, sweet, wonderful human being. My grandma has lost a sister and a friend.
We always called her "Little Mary" because she was a wee little person and in our family full of grand matriarchs with formidable bottoms, being tiny is indeed something to remark upon. She alway tiny. When she was born she was so small and weak that my great grandparents wrapped her up and put her in the door of a warm oven to keep her cozy throughout the night. In those days that was probably the only source of heat in the tiny walk up apartment they lived in. Her sisters, my Nana Rose and my Aunt Carmie would tease her about that for the rest of her life.
Little Mary grew up to be a strong and scrappy lady. She was an avid swing dancer and went out dancing regularly into her 80s. She was a talented knitter and could crochet almost anything as the copious baby booties, doll sweaters and monogramed blankets my sister and I have received as gifts over the years can attest. She had funny little buck teeth that I most certainly inherited and later corrected with braces and she had an infectious little chortle that I will never be able to get out of my head. She was always laughing or making jokes about something. Unlike my Nana she wasn't flaky and she lacked the flair for sarcasm that Auntie Carmie is famed for. She was just a happy, positive upbeat human being.
She was married to an utter sweetheart of a man, my Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe was famed for constantly shuffling around underfoot in the kitchen on holidays, peeping under pots on the stove when he thought my mom wasn't looking. He used to call my sister and I his little, "Patatas", Italian for potatoes. I never heard either of them complain or say a negative word about anything. They always seemed so happy and so in love. They were one of those elderly couples that was still always smooching each other. Uncle Joe passed away when I was a teenager but Mary never remarried. Until she passed away she would mention him with fondness, dare I even say schoolgirlish-ness, it was so evident that she was still in love with the kind, handsome, funny little man she married years ago. If I live to love somebody that way, I will consider myself a lucky woman.
Mary and my Nana were very close. Most Sundays Mary's son would drive her to my grandma's house and they would spend the day hanging out, chatting and drinking coffee with my Auntie Carmie who lives across they way. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting around the kitchen table with the three of them and my sister, telling stories and whooping it up. Now I'll never get to hear Mary's stories again.
I wish for so many things. I wish I'd actually gone over there and recorded them talking for Story Corps like I had planned to. I hope I listened hard enough to her when she was talking. I hope I can remember her, honor her. About a year ago, Mary's memory started to fail. We'd go to visit her and she'd forget things she'd just told us, eventually she needed reminding of who Kristin and I were. Last August my mother went to visit her and Mary didn't remember her either. This is significant because Mary was like a second mother to my mom. Shortly after my mom was born my grandmother had to have surgery and couldn't take care of my mother. As an infant my mom lived with Mary for several months, who cared for her as if she was her own child. By fall she was completely senile and they moved her into a nursing home two weeks ago. My mom and grandmother had been waiting for her to get settled before going to visit her, but her heart gave out unexpectedly. None of us got a chance to say goodbye.
I grieve for my grandmother who has lost a sister, I don't know how I could live without mine. I grieve for myself too though. Not only have I lost a loved one, I feel like I'm losing my family history too, my connection to my past and where I come from. There really is no geneology for my family. I come from simple people, who were born and lived and died in the same place, worked hard to raise families and put food on the table and didn't care about making a mark beyond that. They didn't write things down. The little I know about my great grandparents I know from the stories Rose, Carmie and Mary told me. Before my great grandparents, I know nothing. My ancestors were illiterate peasants in Italy who came here without records. In losing the elderly of my family, I'm losing a part of myself and my history, I'm losing something I had hoped to pass down to future generations.
When you are young your grandparents seem to have existed forever and it seems like they will always exist. I can't tell you how much I wished I had spent more time with my Papa before he became senile. As he started to slip away his testiness and unpredictability made him difficult to spend time with, so I pulled away, we all did. I could never have imagined my papa not knowing who I was or even who he was anymore, but this is what has happened. He sits in a nursing home all day now not knowing who he is or where he is or what day it is, I don't even know if he even knows what a day is anymore. In a strange way it is as if he is already dead. My Papa, a great man who flew planes in WWII, built massive brick buildings with his own two hands and used to sing "How Great Thou Art" in a rich baritone that still gives me chills to think about. My grandfather doesn't even know his own name anymore.
After I lost my own papa I realized just how fragile the lives of the people we love are. I started spending more and more time with my grandmother and my aunts. I started actually listening to their stories. I started actually telling them my stories instead of just reporting back facts in my life about how I was doing in school, my apartment, etc. I loved listening, I loved talking and sharing with them. It is never enough though, my Little Mary is gone and I still feel like I didn't know her well enough.
I write because nobody else in my family ever cared to write about themselves. I write to honor them and remember them. When I was in second grade I got a brand new notebook with a shiny pearlized cover and a fat new pencil and I vowed to write the story of my grandmother's life down. I realize now that part of the reason why I was so fascinated by it was because it is partially my story too. My aunts and grandma performed backyard theatricals, painted, crafted and drew, made their own clothing and were widely considered the most fashionable sisters in the neighborhood. That's where I come from, that's part of what makes me who I am.