Love Thursday: A Grandmother’s Influence

Today would’ve been my grandmother’s 83rd birthday, and in her honor, I dedicate this post to Mam Mam.

I’ll never miss the smell of cigarette smoke. With my sincerest apologies to the late, great Dr. Seuss:

I cannot stand it in a car.
I cannot stand it in a bar.
I cannot stand it in the air.
I cannot stand it anywhere.

If there is one scent that I would associate with my late grandmother, it would be that–the stale, bitter, choking smell of cigarette smoke. Well, that and the rich, tomatoey aroma of her gravy (spaghetti sauce to many people) cooking on the stove. But that one I do miss.

Stereotypical but true, this was a Sunday tradition in our house–chairs borrowed from every other room and a table so full it asked for help from the nearby counter. Gravy, macaroni (spaghetti to many), meatballs, pork spare ribs, breaded veal cutlets, and tomatoes and onions in olive oil, all mixing with chatter and clanking silverware and plates to form my weekly sensory overload.

And then, after the sights, smells, and sounds had just about disappeared (although, let’s be honest, garlic sure does hover), my grandmother’s cigarette to celebrate.

An intoxicating aroma of food and love snuffed by one puff.

Mam Mam was a small Italian lady with a raspy voice perfected by decades of her favorite pastime: smoking. It drove me crazy. No matter what I did to show my disgust, it didn’t matter. Coughing violently. Swishing the air around with force. Hiding the cancer sticks. Nothing made a difference.

She had smoked since I could remember, and indeed, as she later told me, since she was thirteen years old, but I never did adjust.

She said her smoking was a favor to me; by stirring up my hatred for the dirty habit, she was ensuring that I’d never light up myself. A tricky card to play, it seemed, but maybe she was right, because I’ve never even been tempted to try it.

Whenever I saw my friends light up, I was transported back to a time when I couldn’t get far enough away from that smell, that burning in my eyes, that restricting of my throat. And I know I’ll never try it, because, quite simply, I *hate* it.

But my favorite little smokestack also gave me something far more essential to who I am: my love for the written word. No, my grandmother wasn’t a writer, and honestly, she wasn’t much of a reader either. I don’t know that I could have convinced her to read a novel if there were a carton of cigarettes in it for her.

Her first love was sewing, which she did for both a living and a hobby for most of her life. When she was young, her cat always had the latest gear, and when I was young, my dolls were beyond stylish; our dogs, to their relief, were spared.

So if she was neither a reader nor a writer, then how did she inspire my desire and need to write? Like many of my best and most influential childhood memories, the answer was found on Sundays.

The Sunday crossword.

If you put a crossword puzzle in front of my grandmother, you’d see the blank spaces reflected in the gleam of her eyes. I believe she was personally offended by the open squares, because she had already coffee brewed and pencils sharpened by the “good sharpener” in the basement by the time the paperboy delivered her weekly mission.

In any event, those strategically placed blocks and cleverly worded clues nourished her fascination with words and began a hunger in me that still continues. And Sunday was the best day to sate both our physical and mental appetites with its gluttonous Italian dinners and the paper’s perpetually perplexing puzzles.

Yeah, I still like me some alliteration.

Even when I was young and had no chance of knowing any answers, my grandmother let me poke around the puzzles. I read the clues and her answers, filing away that okapi fills the blank for “elk” and Edam is cheese. And of course I asked a lot of questions.

Eventually, when Mam Mam would hand me the mostly filled-in grid, I could offer a tidbit here and there–sports, pop culture, music, typical teenage topics were my specialties. And then as I learned more history and literature in school, I started to feel like I actually contributed.

Finally one magical Sunday, we finished a puzzle together, each of us filling in a few letters before handing it back. But that one Sunday soon blurred with many others because this happened frequently thereafter. We grew bored without a challenge.

And so, to up the ante (another crossword word!), Mam Mam asked me if I could find puzzle books–the hard kind, New York Times–in the bookstore in Philadelphia where I lived. So whenever I went home, I toted tomes of Times teasers, and they’d keep her busy for a few weeks.

Unfortunately, though, I was never home long enough to really play the old back-and-forth game. As a result, Mam Mam compiled an impressive collection of partially-completed crosswords before she died in 2001. I inherited those mindbenders, but they’ve lost something without my partner, the one to whom I could hand back the real stumpers.

Beyond that, I’ve noticed another interesting phenomenon–I am hesitant to change what may be her miscues (and to think in my youthful arrogance I had been proud to point them out!).

Now I have learned that when you’re left with a finite number of tangible memories of someone, it’s hard to erase them. Quite literally.

I know my Mam Mam, however, and I know that she would privilege the right answers over my odd sentimentality about the flag of her “E” that never touched the vertical line, the peculiar arch of her A, or even her O that had just the tiniest curl of hair hanging inside it. So I take eraser to paper gently now, and only when I am sure of what I am changing.

I do these crosswords with the reluctant but utter awareness that there is no one to double check my answers.

But I hold the intangible memories–yes, even the now-nostalgic smell of cigarette smoke–in my heart, where they have been written indelibly.

Happy Love Thursday everyone!

21 Beans of Wisdom to “Love Thursday: A Grandmother’s Influence”
  1. stacy

    That was so sweet. It’s wonderful to have that kind of influence in your life. (even with the smoke) I’m with you on the hating smoke thing. My dad smoked most of my life (never in the house) but as a result, I’ve never been tempted in trying it.

  2. Christine

    That was lovely.

    Happy Birthday MamMam.

    And my mother was an infrequent smoker and I never picked up the habit to avoid the hypocrisy of my years of posting no smoking signs wherever she was.

  3. Karen

    What a lovely tribute to someone you clearly love so much. It is wonderful to have someone of that generation be such an influence in our lives.

  4. LinleyShea

    I’m glad I read your blog because I just discovered that Thursdays are “Love Thursdays” and I had no idea! (: That’s exciting!

  5. guinness girl

    Aww, that was really sweet! I love the expression “my favorite little smokestack”.

  6. Christina Arbini

    Wow, you look just like your grandmother! VERY uncanny resemblance. 🙂 I loved reading your memories of her. Made the memories of my own grandparents come flooding back.


  7. Waspgoddess

    Thank you for sharing a really beautiful memory. And thank you for reminding me of love thursdays.

  8. Fran

    That was so sweet. My “Gu Gu” was a smoker and everything you did I did. And reading what you wrote has made me miss her something awful. Thank you for bringing back the memories.

  9. Barb T.

    What a sweet tribute. Your MamMam sounds so much like my Dad. They had much in common, the crosswords and the smoking, as well as the aversion to picking up a novel. I worked on the puzzles with him, too, and tried to learn all those obscure entries that he could just pull out of his head. When I was three I said, “Daddy, can I taste your cigarette?” He looked at it, then at me, and said, “Sure” and let me take a puff. That fixed me right there. He has been gone almost 19 years now. The last thing he did was walk me down the aisle.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. You were my first commenter on my first post!

  10. Kali

    What a wonderful, loving post. You have such a way with words! Thank you for sharing Mam Mam with us.

    My father was a chain smoker, and I have never been tempted to try it. It wasn’t until I went to college, then went back to visit my parents, that I realized how bad it smelled!

  11. PastorMac's Ann

    What a wonderful tribute to your precious Mam Mam. I so enjoyed this post because in so many ways she reminded me of my own mom.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Thanks.

    Happy LT

  12. Bongga Mom

    How wonderful to have so many memories of your grandmother. Thank you for sharing your love for her with us.

  13. The Other Girl

    What a beautiful post. And Christina is right; you and your grandmother could be twins.

  14. sognatrice

    How interesting that so many of us had the same anti-smoke experiences with those we love!

    As for the family resemblance, I have that picture of my grandmother here, and many people have asked whether it’s me. I never really saw the resemblance–actually I look so much like my mom (who, um, is *not* this grandmother’s daughter), but after having so many people point it out, I suppose it’s there. Funny, I never really thought I looked Italian (my grandmother was 100% Italian) 😉

  15. nyc/caribbean ragazza

    Beautiful post, thank you for sharing memories of your grandmother.

  16. Leigh

    My grandmother – “Nannie” – just passed this week; she was 89. She was waked on 1/25/07, which would have been her 60th wedding anniversary (my grandfather passed in 1988).

    I’m hiding out on my couch right now googling for blogs about grandmothers; I’m totally at sea right now…I have a big loving family nearby but I need some quiet, and some others’ articulation about their elders.

    I really enjoyed your post, and look forward to reading others on your blog.

    PS: Nannie quit smoking in her early 80s to support her son who was quitting at that time!

  17. JT

    I’ll always remember Mam Mam and my mother playing Scrabble for hours at that kitchen table. You could cut the smoke with a knife. I even remember bringing one of those ashtrays with the battery operated fan and filter over for them…but that was like taking a water pistol to a forest fire. And once, when I actually objected to their smoking…Mam Mam just said, “You are right, Sweetheart…but if you really care about us…you will promise Mam Mam (she always went third person on me for emphasis), to remember what you are saying and never start this terrible habit…because I am telling you from many years of experience, that once you start, you may never be able to quit. And (as she looked over at my Mom) I just hope you will someday, Diane.”

    At a doctor’s visit, about 15 years later…the habit was scared out of my Mom’s life. She was told that if she didn’t quit smoking, she would probably die a very young woman. She decided to quit cold turkey…and at 64, she is still with us and hasn’t smoked another cigarette in over a decade.

    My father also decided to quit, but it was too late. Just a few months after he quit, he suffered a mild stroke, which revealed major heart disease…and without going into the sad details of an ever progressive decline in one’s health, when suffering from a combination of progressed heart disease, diabetes and then, the aftermath of open heart surgery…his life ended a few rough years later, at the ripe old age of 61.

    Much like you, I was raised in a house with parents that smoked…yet neither I nor my brother ever have.

    Perhaps, there is something to be said for their child rearing methods of torture by second hand smoke…that’s enlightened us to avoid following them down such a risky road.

    I cannot wait until this world decides to do the right thing and ban the damn things forever.

    It is truly one of the world’s biggest examples of how much further we still need to evolve as a planet. To even consider that there are any redeeming needs, (sans $$$ and greed), for the manufacture, sales and inhalation of tobacco products is absurd.

    For if it weren’t for this crap…so many Mam Mams and Dads of this world would still be with us to enjoy much more richer lives!

  18. Paolo

    Did she speak English as a second language? That’s a really impressive hobby if so… an even moderately difficult cruciverba kicks my butt.

    Buon compleanno (in ritardo) a Mam Mam.

  19. 08.14.2008

    haha…just reminds me of my grandma… i remember when she once smoked before she finally quit. I really hated her smoking and would always ask her smoke in the back garden and i did not care if it was the coldest night in the UK, i would make her stand in the snow.

    Now she has gone these are the things i miss the most…

    Pellet stove help’s last blog post..Mt. Vernon AE Insert By Quadra-Fire

    So true, so true….

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