Monday, January 28, 2013

Mary Burrill remembers Grammie

Grammie was the most stable figure in the world. The whole family revolved around her like electrons. They would spin around, cast off, and attach themselves elsewhere.
Busy, busy, busy electrons; housework, jobs, events, lessons, illness, births, deaths. Grammie was always in the middle, always stern, stable, practical, "elemental".
How do you squeeze her life onto a piece of paper?
She went from sailing ships to man on the moon and deep space exploration. She lived through the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, The Korean "Conflict", Vietnam; The Spanish Flu, the great depression, the cold war. She saw Lindburgh fly the ocean, the telephone, electric lights, radio, television, vitamins, antibiotics. Ice boxes became refrigerators, scrub-boards became washing machines, coal and kerosene heaters became central heating.
There was a miserable marriage with no divorce. She had eleven pregnancies and survived all but four of her children. (That couldn't have been worth doing!)
From Salina. Italy to Ellis island; Massachusetts to Maine how did that little woman(-5') adapt and adapt? (Don't answer that, I know.)
As soon as I was old enough to walk the mile or so from our home in Littleton, Maine to Her's on the Johnny Farm I spent weekends from Friday night until Sunday afternoon with Grammie.
When Uncle Bill and Uncle Phil came to live with her I had them, too. (Of course, Friday- Saturday nights were party nights so the uncles were often out one or both of those nights until late.)
So- There was a lot of quiet time. I could count on fish on Friday night,hot dogs and home baked beans(made with olive oil), on Saturday, and a big Sunday dinner. (If I'd had my way it would have been her Spaghetti and meatballs every day.)
We would read a lot, listen to the radio(Uncle Phil was often broadcast), play the Victrola or play a rousing game of Canasta...all by lamplight.
There was much quiet and much talk.
These are some snippets of what I remember of what Mary Rose Cincotta Cafarella told me; subject, of course, to the changes of time and place for both Grammie and me, make allowances please!
1. She loved and admired her grandfather: "He owned a lot of sailing ships. They went all over. They'd be gone for months at a time." While the men were away the women took care of family life, made decisions, and provisioned the next voyage.
2. Grammie told me her home on the island was very large: "You could put this house inside of it."---this house was nine rooms, two sun-porches, a connecting shed, with a small three story barn.---(keep in mind her age when she left the island was only nine years old. Things shrink when you grow up.)
She was fond of remembering how she and her cousins would get up at night"..when everyone else was asleep..." and stir up the ashes in the stove to roast sweet potatoes. It was fun and a treat.
From her bedroom she could see "three volcanoes smoking in the distance"...(I don't know the names of the volcanoes, although I feel fairly confident of Stromboli, the other two may have been vents.)
The upper stories of her house were living space for the extended family. There was a balcony with a walled courtyard. The understory was a large open storage area where her mother kept her loom. It was also storage for hardtack, large containers of oil, olives, wine, water, etc. for voyages.
In season citrus fruit was picked from trees growing near the house.
(3) These are some random statements which she made:
a. In the old days they stored food they wanted to hold in covered cauldrons in deep holes.
b. There was only one well on the whole island.
c. Nobody drank cow' milk. (And she never did. M-M-M- Cornflakes with grapefruit juice!)
d. They would cross between the islands on rocks that were exposed by low tide to visit relatives and friends.
e. When we went to visit my grandmother's house we were dressed in our very best clothes. We sat very quietly in the hall. When we were taken in to see her we had to kiss her ring. She was a Spanish princess.
Then we could go to the pantry and behind the door was a bag of dried bread. We could have a piece of it.
Here is the "Spanish Princess" thing.
The explanation I always got was that there was a Vasquez connection here and a Naples connection to royalty. All of which I never understood.
Gram always said:"All of that doesn't matter in AMERICA." (proud to be an American)
f. They kept chickens and goats.
g. "My father(Grammie's father) was a protest-ant." He was a Catholic but he "protested" the power of the Pope." (This was OUR father's protest too and why he wouldn't let me be baptised when Grammie and Aunt Jennie tried to kidnap me.){Our Father refers to Richard Mitchell who married Grammie's daughter Mary}
h. "When his children were born he would go right out on the street to find two witnesses. We were baptised immediately.
If you go to that church you can go right in and look up my baptism in the book.
i. "One time we saw my father's ship come into the harbor. My aunt let down her hair so I could hold her braids and she swam out to the ship with me on her back."
(She never learned how to swim.)
j. "I was sent to Naples when I was nine years old. My Uncle was a priest and his sister was his housekeeper. I did housework in return for learning how to read and write and speak English."
k. My mother was like a doctor. If someone got sick or hurt they sent for her. She was like a Chiropractor. She could snap bones into place."--(homeopathic-chiropractic)
l."My grandfather had to sell the sailing ships because the ships were going to steam."---This is what Gram's point of view was. (Bill, You have a better historical perspective here with the grape blight.)

(4) Shortly before she died Gram was staying with Fred(Mary Burrill's husband) and me. I took her to see Louis Riccardone(My sister's boss who was an Optometrist) for an eye exam.

He told her that her left eye was blind. Th retina was detached and had been for years. He asked her if she had ever injured it.
Such a look came over her face.
She said that when she was very little she had been leaning over the balcony to watch her brothers playing in the courtyard and she fell. She hurt herself so badly in the eye and headaches wouldn't stop.
When I asked her if she had told her mother about the pain she said, "Yes. She hit me in the head and told me to stop crying."
So, was the retina detached in a childhood accident or did that happen when the snowplow hit her or possibly some other miserable moment in her long, action-packed life? We'll never know.

(5) How do you suppose that little "Golden Girl" (I always picture Cousin Millie when I think of Grammie as a child) who watched volcanoes smoking from her bedroom window and picked ripe fruit from her balcony ever found herself on a backwoods farm buried in ten feet of snow with a howling wind, a coal stove and two oil lamps?
I was told that when Uncle Bill and Uncle Phil took the apartment on Fair Street in Houlton(Maine) they physically removed her from the farm. Until her dying day the only thing she wished for was to be back on that farm.

(6) Three things that she said to me guide my thinking about myself even today:
a. She called me a left handed Christian because I am not Catholic.
b. Gram always said I was "lazy" because I did not function well (couldn't do assigned chores) as a child. I wasn't diagnosed with Thalasemia Beta until my forties. I now over-function so nobody will call me lazy.
c. "people like your father(Richard Mitchell) and me who have worked with our hands in the dirt all our lives aren't afraid to die."----You just become a part of everything.

Gram lived such an "extra"-ordinary life. I've drawn such strength from her example. She is my treasure and secret source of power. (Thanks Gram.)
I am your grand daughter,
(Daughter of Mary Carolina Cafarella Mitchell McLaughlin)
Mary Rose Mitchell Burrill
Lakeville Maine, USA
April 6, 2008

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