Origins – and Aunty Mame

25 01 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about my origins lately, specifically about Gaga, my maternal grandmother. She passed away the year before I was born so I never knew her personally, and yet I know so much about her that she sometimes seems a real memory. I know, for example, that she threw amazing parties, parties during which she threw glasses into the fireplace, parties that lasted for days. She loved music, always had a purse full of lemon drops and her favorite Christmas song was “Oh Holy Night.”

My siblings−and pretty much everyone else who knew her—speak of Gaga with what can only be described as reverence, and I suppose I tell her stories in much the same manner, perhaps even more so since I have created this vision in my mind of what I imagine her to be.

Nearly a year ago now, back on the island of PSV, I got into a random, very deep conversation (with a total stranger) that somehow made its way around to Gaga. Suddenly there I was telling story after story about this woman I never really knew, stories that may as well amount to folklore given the way I seem to have romanticized him. But my new friend was fascinated, and insisted that I go home and rent the movie Auntie Mame, since Gaga and her parties and their craziness sounded so much like this lovely creature in that movie.

Well, it’s many, many months later, but I’ve finally seen this treasure of a movie, a late 1950s classic starring Rosalind Russel as the eccentric, entertaining aunt who breathes life and amusement into the life of her sheltered nephew when he’s entrusted into her care after being orphaned. Mame is a spirited woman to say the least, a flamboyant flapper type in the 1920s who makes her way through the hardships of the Depression with strength and grace, and who is strong-willed and spirited to say the least.

I don’t know that Gaga was really much like her, but I like to think she was, a fun lady who’s just a little bit crazy in the best of ways, a woman who knows how to live and who is fearless and unflappable. That’s how I envision Gaga, and perhaps why I idolize her so much. It’s certainly, at any rate, the way I’d like to be.





Thoughts on Origins

31 08 2009

In the past on this blog, I’ve  credited much of my obsession with travel and cultures to my maternal grandmother, Gaga. But, while Gaga did speak seven languages and travel extensively, it’s not entirely fair not to give some of the credit to my Grandma Russo, my paternal grandmother, and the grandmother I actually knew.

For my whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady (my mother tells me that, even long before I was born, and perhaps for her whole life, Grandma Russo was a little old Italian lady—and I’m inclined to believe her). She spouted crazy old adages like, “You eat mushrooms when your body craves wood” and was constantly “God willing” she would be around to see whatever event was coming up in a year, month or even a day. In a sense, she may have been Gaga’s polar opposite.

And yet, though she didn’t move to the U.S. on her own at age 22 or throw crazy 48-hour parties, Grandma Russo was fascinating in her own right, a real window into another time and another world. Not only was she a traditional New England woman but a representative of the “Old Country,” carrying on the traditions of Italy and passing them on to her children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Grandma Russo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was young, and by the time I was old enough to really appreciate and want to hear all her stories about Italy and Rhode Island, she wasn’t all there to tell them. But I still managed to retain a lot from her, including an obsession with our culture, through the songs and the food and the little sayings. All this came back this past week when I walked into Trattoria del’ Arte to have dinner with a friend, and there by the host stand were long strips of powdered cookie, curled and bubbled in the frying process, a cookie that I used to make with my grandmother. We called them Wandi but the host at the restaurant called them Guanti (I’ve since learned that the words are somewhat interchangeable and translate to something like “gloves.”

This brought back memories of visits to Grandma’s house, visits characterized by what might be everyone’s (Italian or not) stereotype of the Italian grandmother: little old lady rushing around whipping out a feast, all while saying she had nothing to serve you. But more importantly it brought back memories of cooking with Grandma, and with my father: pizza, pasta and, of course various types of cookies, including Wandi.  Our family’s English word for them was “bows,” because after cutting the very thin batter into strips and we tied them into knots before frying them and sprinkling the powdered sugar. Whenever I’d make them with Grandma, she would re-tie all my bows, to the ever-increasing anger of my father.

This never bothered me, though. For me it was all about the process of making cookies with my grandmother, and today it’s all about the inspiration that experience instilled in me: a love of my heritage, which has translated into a love (and desire to explore all aspects) of Italy.

 Grandma Russo and her legacy

Grandma Russo and her legacy





Flashbacks (or Something More)

15 04 2008

I think Argentina’s stalking me. Or haunting me. Or calling to me in some strange mental telepathy sort of way. Or perhaps I’m channeling Argentina and making it all up. Whatever the case, it’s been cropping up a lot.

It’s going to seem hokey, but while there I felt I had some sort of spirit/force/what-have-you watching out for me. I’m pretty sure it was Gaga, my maternal grandmother who passed away before I was born but who, I’ve always been told, had a strong adventurous spirit and was in all an amazing woman. I grew up jealous that my siblings have Gaga stories and I never got to know her. In my recent adventures, it only seemed right to speak to a strong female force in my life—who, incidentally, came to San Francisco from Hong Kong (by herself) at age 22, knowing no one (and my mom was worried about my move to NYC).

In my recent adventures, I got to know Gaga. Just when I was feeling exhausted or sick or lonely, I’d get pulled into a parade at Carnaval or stumble upon a beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremony. And it always seemed that I’d recently asked her for help. Call it what you will, I think my grandmother was looking out for me.

Then I came home, and during the job-hunting struggles of late I’ve had the distinct feeling that Gaga is giving me the silent treatment. Last week was especially rough (a separate post all to itself), and I went into the weekend feeling particularly frustrated and all around glum.

Then on Saturday I sat in Washington Square Park to enjoy beautiful weather and a band playing the greatest hits of Marvin Gaye. The man on the bench next to me was wearing a bracelet, a wooden saint bracelet that just about every male in Argentina sports. I happen to have one of these bracelets. It was given to me by Dario, who I met on a bus to Buenos Aires at the end of my trip. This experience warrants a separate post in itself, but for today’s purposes, it’s only necessary to say that in a particularly weak moment I called on Gaga and then met Dario (which happens, in addition to everything else, to be my nephew’s name). He gave me not only interesting conversation and perspective but a bracelet by which to remember him.

I wore the bracelet the rest of my trip and periodically put it on now that I’m home. It’s not fashionable, but it makes me happy. I wasn’t wearing it Saturday (I put it on when I got home), but the sight of another wearing it here in New York gave me that same sense of happiness, and a sense of peace that this is indeed a small world and a good one. I didn’t talk to said male because he seemed to have lost that Argentine friendliness, but I vowed to email Dario and tell him about it. (I have yet to do this, but I will. And then I’ll blog about it.)

Since then, Argentina’s been all over. This morning in DailyCandy there was a deal for a Pachamama massage at the Iguazu Day Spa, and while I didn’t make it to Iguazu I am definitely simpatica with Mother Earth (as the Pachamama is also known). I won’t be getting the Pachamama massage any time soon, but it seemed a weird coincidence since I keep hearing about things from Argentina.

Perhaps more bizarre was my experience yesterday. After an afternoon of struggling through the headache that is taxes (yes I’m one of those brilliant people who waited until the last possible minute) I heard a street band on my way to work. This is not uncommon (see above), and yet yesterday’s band was different: something about the horns and the rhythms was distinctive. Though I was surrounded by tall buildings and fast-walking people, for a second I turned the corner expecting a group of brightly colored diablos dancing around on a dusty street.

Perhaps it was my tax haze, but it seemed so real I was almost there, and I really did expect a parade. Is it all coincidence? Wishful thinking? Or am I simply going insane? Or could it be Gaga telling me to hang in there and remember my adventures (and her)? The jury is still out on all that. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear Dario’s bracelet and to remember my parade.

And for fun, this video I took in Tilcara which captures my diablo abduction. You’ll see the girl next to me be pulled into the parade, then I laugh before my diablo grabs me and chaos ensues as I get pulled into the parade. It’s like the Blair Witch Project (except much less scary… and real).