Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Stories We Pass Down

As I write this, my last remaining grandparent, my paternal grandmother, is in critical condition on her 94th birthday. Grandma Picarella might not make it out of the hospital alive.

When my paternal grandfather died -- the first of my grandparents to pass, I regretted not knowing more about him. So I made it a point to get to know my other grandparents better.

I spent hours of one-on-one time with each grandparent, listening to the stories of their lives and of the people around them. They told me many stories -- some new, some I’d heard before and some that couldn’t possibly be true but were fun to hear anyway.

My maternal grandmother, Grandma Balsamo, once told me the account of when she was a child and swallowed so much bubble gum that bubble gum bubbles inflated from her belly button. That’s right.

Speaking of belly buttons, my Grandpa Picarella once told me the true story of how we get our belly buttons. God lines everybody up on a cloud in heaven and walks down the line sticking his finger into each belly and twisting a belly button into the skin, saying, “You’re done . . . You’re done . . . You’re done.” Then God sends us down to Earth. Evidentially, that’s the finishing touch on us humans before we’re born. Yes, that is the true story.

Grandma Picarella tells the tale of how she was blessed with a baby boy -- my dad. She and my grandfather ate broccoli -- lots of broccoli. When she wanted a girl (my aunt), she cut the broccoli out of her diet and, since she cooked the meals, out of my grandfather’s diet. And voila! A girl was born. That’s all scientific fact. Go ahead and look it up.

Family members have told some really true stories that I’m not at liberty to tell in my column, but that I’m anxious to pass down to my son at some point.

I’ve heard the family’s Mafia stories, which I’m told are all “just stories” because “the Mafia doesn’t really exist.” I know some fellow Italian-Americans who hate when their heritage is immediately related to the mob, but I’m told that my family is what it is -- for better or for worse -- because of its Mafia ties. I’m just excited to have one other thing that brings me even closer to “The Godfather” movies.

Then there are the anecdotes of Grandpa Picarella in World War II. I have Nazi pins that, I would learn, he took off dead soldiers.

So that’s why he had those swastika pins, I thought after hearing the stories behind the pins. I guess my grandfather wasn’t a Nazi after all. That’s good to know.

My grandpa traveled home from the war on the Queen Mary, and he carved his name on a rail on the ship. And guess what? When I visited the ship a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find his name. I suppose the ship’s been renovated.

As Halloween approaches, I remember scary stories that I’m told were passed down through the generations.

There’s the story of the Larry Monster. The Larry, as some of you may or may not know, is the latrine. When my family would go camping, us kids were warned that, if we dared leave the tent in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, we risked bumping into the Larry Monster, who resides in the latrine and comes out to eat children who visit his lair when they’re supposed to be in their tent with their parents.

I’d rather my bladder explode each night than risk a possible run-in with the Larry Monster. My parents would tell me, “Just go to the bathroom before bedtime like we always tell you to do, and you won’t have to worry about either problem.” Made sense.

There was also the Bloody Mary legend, which always came up around Halloween time. A long-lost aunt named Mary had killed herself in the bathroom of her home because she had married the wrong man. In those times, divorce was out of the question -- but so was suicide, so that’s why Bloody Mary is still on Earth as a ghost.

OK, so the story goes: If you go into your own bathroom, turn off all the lights, and say “Bloody Mary” three times in a row, you’ll see the apparition of this long-gone aunt of mine, Mary, appear in the mirror. Nobody I know ever tried it. Try it out . . . if you dare. I still don’t have the guts.

My dad tells the story of riding in Santa Claus’ sleigh as a boy. He told my siblings and me that Santa had never taken anyone in his sleigh before or since -- not even Martha Claus, Santa’s wife. She’s afraid to fly, my dad told us.

Yup, only my dad has ridden in Santa’s sleigh. But that all changed when I became a father. Now my dad and I have both been in Santa’s sleigh.

I have my own story that I plan to tell my son once he’s a little older. When I was a kid, I used to think there was a goblin that lived in the tree outside my bedroom window. There was a children’s Halloween book that told the tale, but I used to think, after reading that story, that the goblin really was sitting in my tree.

My imagination ran wild. My goblin was much more horrifying than the one in the book. I’d “hear” him moving around in the tree on windy nights. He’d just sit out there and wait for me to come to the window so that he could look me in the eye. Like Medusa, the mythical Gorgon, if my goblin looked me in the eye, I’d turn to stone. I never went to the window. My parents warned me not to get stoned.

My son has already come up with his own story. It’s the account of his birth. When he was in his mommy’s tummy, she lifted her shirt and launched him out of her belly into the air. He hit the floor sliding like a hockey puck. At the other side of the room, the doctor caught my son with a baseball mitt before he hit the wall. Then the doctor looked him over and said to Mommy and Daddy, “Here’s your baby.”

That’s my son’s honest-to-goodness story. I’m not sure where that comes from.

OK, so I began this column by writing about my dying grandmother and how I wished I knew her better, and how I got to know my living grandparents better by listening to their stories, and then I spilled all these crazy personal legends that I remember hearing from my grandparents and other family members when I was a kid.

Most of these stories have little to do with my grandparents or other family members. But then again, they have everything to do with them because of how these people told me the stories. They are stories that preserve the character of my grandparents and my family. And that’s more precious to me than just plain old history.

-October 2007

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