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For Women’s History Month–My Grandma’s Story

March 8, 2023

NOTE: To mark Women’s History Month, I am sharing again with you a 2013 WORDWALK post about my maternal grandmother who was born in Italy almost 140 years ago.  As you read this piece of my family’s history, I think you will understand why I am re-posting this vignette during Women’s History Month.

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Zinnias for My Grandma on the 130th Anniversary of Her Birth

by Alice Jane-Marie Massa

            Before my memory begins, my one set of grandparents became known as “Grandma and Grandpa Farm” and my maternal grandmother as “Grandma Store.”  You guessed correctly:  My grandparents lived on a small farm; and my grandmother, whose husband died long before I was born, owned and operated a grocery store.  Thinking of my Grandma Store on this September 25—the 130th anniversary of her birth—I am astonished that in my youth, I spent so much time with someone who was born in 1883. 

            My memories begin to fade in when I was five and my grandmother was already 72 years of age.  Of course, to me, as a very young child, my grandma always seemed very old.  Nevertheless, as she had done for so many years, she was still working in the store—waiting on long-time customers.  Unlike most women of her era, Grandma Store was a businesswoman.  I can picture her behind the oak counter, beside the adding machine—which she never used because she preferred to add up the items of a bill in her head.  She was always wearing a mid-calf dress of black or gray print, with what appeared to me as the oldest-fashioned shoes to be made in the 1950s and 1960s.  The only other color I ever remember her wearing was a dark green sweater—except for the ever-present white, starched apron.  Throughout all these years of my memory of her, her long black hair, streaked with gray, was woven into one long braid and then twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck.  Large tortoise-shell pins held her bun in place at the back of her head.  I do not think she ever wore make-up, but she had few wrinkles and often had naturally rosy cheeks.  At that time, most older people I knew had false teeth; and I knew my grandma did also.  Dark-framed glasses covered her dark brown eyes so that she could clearly read all the obituaries in The Daily Clintonian.

On September 25, 1883, in the northern Italian village of Levone, Stefano and Lidia named their baby Domenica Marianna Allice.  Almost 67 years later, my parents named me after my maternal grandmother’s maiden name:  thus, the Italian surname “Allice” became my first name “Alice.”  I have always thought that, perhaps, I am the only “Alice” named after the Italian surname “Allice” because this surname is not at all common in the United States. 

            Sadly, I know little of my grandmother’s young life in Italy.  When she was twenty years of age, my grandfather, who had been in the United states from 1896 to 1903, returned to Italy to marry Domenica.  Then, the young married couple set sail from La Havre, France, on the ship La Lourraine, for America and arrived in New York on August 28, 1903.  When Domenica Mariana went through Ellis Island, she became “Minnie.”  Upon landing in the United States, the young couple had $80. 

After leaving their homeland—Levone and Cuneo, located in northern Italy—Domenica (Minnie) and Martino (Martin) first settled in Clinton, Indiana, and later created their home and businesses in the small rural town of Blanford, Indiana.  After the early deaths of their first two sons (one who died in infancy and one who died at age five), my grandparents were blessed with four healthy children—all of whom lived long lives.  In 1908, my grandmother gave birth to Zita; then, Peter (1910), Lydia (1912), and Mary (1914) followed.  In addition to the joy of these four children, my grandmother must have enjoyed music because my grandfather played a brass instrument in a local band.

            After establishing the grocery store in the early 1900s, my grandparents started an Italian bakery in 1914, the year of my mother’s birth.  My grandfather was the baker, in charge of the large, brick oven from where he took the crusty loaves of Italian bread and long, crispy breadsticks.  Despite the sudden loss of this husband, father, and baker in 1935—the family went on with the bakery until 1942.  At that time, my grandmother and her son Pete continued operating only the grocery store for the next four decades.  In March of 1982, Uncle Pete closed the grocery store for the final time.  Throughout all those years of having the family business, my grandparents helped numerous neighbors and extended credit to so many people—long before a credit card was even imagined.

            Since my grandfather was not only the bread baker, but also placed other main meals in the brick oven, my grandmother was not really known for her cooking skills.  Nevertheless, I remember many family members gathered around her big oak table for Thanksgiving dinner.  I distinctly recall so much lively talking that I thought I, as a young child, would never get a word into the conversation.

            Although my grandmother spoke English well, she naturally continued to speak Italian also.  We were equally embarrassed and amused by my grandmother’s shifting from English to Italian to tell a family member something about the customer who had just entered the store. 

            Despite some of her unusual ways, Grandma was quite tolerant of my cousin Carole and my making the store one of our favorite “playgrounds”—a place where we played many imaginary games, ate orange push-ups and penny candy, investigated new and old merchandise, and giggled through girlhood.  Rarely reprimanding us, Grandma was either quite patient or managed to overlook our antics. 

            Grandma’s two-story building was not only a playground for me, it was also a refuge during thunderstorms.  When my dad was working an overnight shift as a firefighter, my mother took my older sister and me to Grandma’s building each time an electrical storm popped up in the middle of the night.  I could never understand why we left our cozy house in the midst of a storm to go to Grandma’s big building.  Whether we slept in Grandma’s bed or on the roll-away bed in the living room, her very tall windows supplied a panoramic view of the lightning-streaked sky.  However, Grandma never complained about the midnight guests nor her adult daughter’s unusual fear of thunderstorms.  Grandma just quietly and calmly welcomed us into her home behind the store.  Before I was born, the bedrooms on the second story had been used, along with a spacious dance hall.  During the years I knew Grandma, her bedroom (which had once been a parlor) was always on the main floor—in a room off the kitchen/living area.

            As my Grandma Store aged and my cousin Carole and I became an age of double digits, we thought that we should be waiting on customers.  We tried to urge Grandma to sit in the back of the store—beside the large, wooden refrigerator—or in her own living area.  Waiting on customers was much easier than convincing Grandma to stay aside while we turned our well-practiced “playing store” into real transactions. 

            The store was my grandmother’s life.  After traveling all the way from Italy to Indiana, she never returned to “the old country.”  Only once did she take a long road trip:  after the death of her brother, my dad (her son-in-law) drove her to Pennsylvania so that she could attend the funeral.  Otherwise, she only left the store building to go to the homes of nearby relatives—but not often.  Once when my mother was driving my grandmother, my cousin Carole, and me back home from a visit to the farm of Grandma’s second daughter, the local deputy sheriff of St. Bernice decided that my mother was driving too fast for Highway 71.  I was astonished that my mother was pulled over by a law enforcement officer, but Grandma Store quickly converted into an award-winning actress to save her youngest daughter from receiving a ticket.  With a fine mixture of Italian and English, my grandmother very dramatically intoned: “Oh, my!  Oh, my!  I am so sick—so sick.  What a bad headache I have!  Oh, Marina, I need to go home.”  Well, that deputy took one look at my seemingly sick grandmother and gave my speedy mother only a quick verbal warning.  As soon as we drove away from the St. Bernice official, my cousin and I could no longer contain our laughter.  To the dismay of my mother and the grand-actress, my cousin and I laughed uproariously.

On summer evenings, Grandma would sit on a metal lawn chair on the lawn between the store building and her son’s home.  She watch the cars go by, neighbors walk by, and cars park in the lot of her eldest daughter’s Italian restaurant.  During spring and summer days, she sometimes left her store and residence to tend to her zinnias that grew in two flower beds bordered by diagonally placed upright bricks.  One bed of zinnias was to the east of the water pump, and one was to the west of the pump.  Besides the larger zinnias, Grandma had nurtured some zinnias of a smaller variety; her flowers were a myriad of colors.  I have always equated these sturdy flowers with my grandmother.

            During the seasons of giving, Grandma’s gift-giving policy was strict:  whatever she gave to one adult child, she gave to all.  The same held true for all the grandchildren.  For example, all her daughters and her daughter-in-law were given Hudson Bay blankets; then, there was the time when each received an electric mixer and then a mangle (large appliance for ironing).  While Grandma Store gave much, she guarded much also:  although cash was at easy access in the store’s wooden cash register and in the large safe in the storage room, Grandma always kept a close watch on her purse.  On many birthdays, each grandchild’s gift was a savings bond. 

            While in the final two decades of her life, Grandma Store did not want any of us to divulge her age.  If one of us began to mention Grandmother’s age, she would bring her index finger to her mouth and hush any comment about her specific age with a shake of her head. 

            When in the ‘60s and ‘70s, shouts of women’s liberation rang through the land, I was not too affected because my grandmother and all of my aunts (from both sides of the family) had always been prime examples of “working women,” of women who were modern before the more turbulent eras.  My grandmother was a strong woman who raised three very strong daughters who were extraordinarily close with each other and their one brother.  In the final years of my Grandmother’s life, her four surviving children cared for their mother.  Although my mother had a full-time job, she rarely missed driving fifteen minutes (over a road with one lane of gravel and the other of bricks) to the nursing home to visit her mother. 

            Shortly after my Grandmother’s 95th birthday, she passed away on October 10, 1978.  I only wish I had asked her many more questions about her young life in Italy and her early years in America. 

            When my sister and I returned to Indiana this past July, we went to the cemetery to pay our respects at my grandparents’ graves.  Although we placed a bouquet of silk flowers on Grandma Store’s grave, I wish we had placed there for her a bouquet of

fresh-cut zinnias.

Post-script:  In my mother’s address book, we have found much more than addresses, birthdates, and anniversaries—we have found some dates and information that I have used in this essay and in some of my other writings.  Although my mother did not keep a diary nor a journal, I do appreciate all the family information which she did diligently record over many years.  Additionally, I thank my cousins Carole and Donald, as well as my sister, who provided and/or confirmed some of the dates and places mentioned in this essay. 

            From trying to write personal narratives about my family tree, I have learned again and again one very important lesson which I want to impress upon each reader:  ask your oldest family members all the questions that you can about your family’s history; and in whatever mediums possible, record those family memories.  As you enjoy the present, keep in touch with the precious moments of the past!

            In the comment section, please leave a note about your grandmother or about Grandma Store.

Alice, one of eight grandchildren of Grandma Store

September 25, 2013, Wednesday

** Alice and Leader Dog Willow are re-posting this piece on March 8, 2023, Wednesday.

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2 Comments
  1. Susan M. McKendry permalink

    Alice, I remember reading this interesting post and enjoyed reading it again. After reading it in 2013 and another post in 2018 (not sure which one) I was inspired to fill an old water trough and plant seeds of a multi-colored variety of zinnias. Then somehow I forgot about them until I ordered seeds for this year. So this year, I will again think of your grandmother when I enjoy their beauty. As I get older, it seems a good idea to plant more flowers and less vegetables. The care for both is about the same; the difference is in the harvesting and preserving!

    • Hi, Sue–Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this blog post! Your
      philosophy about planting more flowers sounds like a great idea to me. 
      How sweet of you to remember my grandma with your own planting of zinnias.

      Take care, and enjoy the snowshoeing!

      Alice and Willow

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