By Rosalie Tirella
A few weeks ago, I walked by the kitchen calendar – a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) calendar – to see if Mother’s Day did indeed fall the next Sunday, May 13. I smiled when I saw the photo of the rescued animal of the month right next to the “Sunday, May 13 – Mother’s Day” date: it was a color photo of a Golden hamster that some sweet PETA staffer had saved from a most horrible death! There sat the little cutie pie – on doll house furniture! In this case a hot pink plastic wing back chair. Adorable!
The little brown hamster reminded my of my “mothers” – my Bapy and my mom.
There I was 10 years old and a fifth grader at Lamartine Street School! There I was: a chubby kid who would soon have a little hamster walking and circling about in the palm of her chubby hand! A little girl who was setting up house … for an adorable little teddy bear!
Who bought the cage for me back then for my little hamster girl “Joy” and then my little hamster boy “Ben,” even though she was saw them as little rats without the long tail? Who bought the little test tube water bottle to hang on the hamster cage? Who bought the lime-green wood shavings for the bottom of the cage? And the box of Hartz hamster food? Who paid for all the silliness on a minimum wage pay check that should have gone for more important items.
Mom of course! Mrs. Tirella! A woman bowled over by poverty, a peripatetic, volatile husband and three little kids, who were growing up in a gritty neighborhood, fatherless, poor … . Still we managed to have fun, have adventures. I remember the day we got Joy. Mom, on Sunday, her only day off from the cleaners, took her three girls to Woolworth’s in downtown Worcester to buy what she considered to be …. a RODENT.
“Don’t lose him, Rosalie!” she had warned me, afraid that my new would escape his cage and “get into the woodwork” of our aparmtent and breed with the wild mice and wreak havoc on her tidy flat with the vinyl red sofa in the living room and the old Victrola in my sisters’ bedroom.
Still, despite here reservations, Mom bought my hamster for me. I can still picture my mother, standing off to the side in the Pet department of Woolworths, watching with a serious look on her face – my mother usually wore a very serious look in her face – as her favorite daughter (she could deny me nothing!) picked out a white little powder puff of a creature and then she shelled out a good chunk of her spending money so I could by my hamster and all the accoutrements – lime green woood shavings, test tube water bottle, metal exercise wheel – even a plastic play log to hide/sleep in. Then we – my mom my two sisters and I – walked home.
Once home, Mommy #2, my Polish immigrant grandmother, Bapy, would shove herself right into the mix, smack dab in the middle of my adventure, hovering over me in her flannel nightgown overwhich she had thrown another flannel night gown (she never wore dresses or even dusters) – just layers of flannel night gowns – even in summer. Bapy always smelled kinda ripe because she came from Poland and didn’t believe in baths or showers (you could catch a cold). She took sponge baths, during which she never really took over the night gowns she was wearing, just kinda washed under around them. I once watched in amazement. I was little and fascinated – she cussed in Polish, telling me to mind my own business. Thank God for diversions like hamsters!
My mother, by this time, had gone back to her routine; cooking Sunday dinner for her three girls, paying the bills at the kitchen table and boiling eggs for Bapy’s snack. We lived with Bapy and father who was Missing in Action – MIA – at the moment. She hated my dad and liked being the boss of the household. AND … she liked her boiled eggs. Seventeen years of life with Bapy – a dumpling shaped cutie who at 76 pretty much continued the Old Country ways she had brought to American in the 1920s. I never saw Bapy eat anything BUT hard boiled eggs and hard boiled egg sandwiches. She ate hard boiled eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She ate them with her Sanka coffee that my mother made for her and that Bapy wasked us to warm up for her during the day, usually in a small pan of boiling hot water.
“Rosalie, make me my Sanka!” “Theresa make me my Sanka!” “Stephanie, make my Sanka!” And we kids would drop everything and run to her egg stained coffee mug and place it in the pan of water on the stove, turn up the gas flame and walk away … (me grumbling).
Bapy was a total survivor, a woman who ate hundreds of egg yolks but didn’t keel over from high cholesterol; a woman who hobbled about on arthritic knees but dulled the pain with a few aspirin a day; a woman who had two of her chidlren die at birth but went on to live to see four grown kids and a bevy of grandkids. Pushy. Very pushy. My mom conferred with Bapy on important matters and even when she didn’t ask Bapy, Bapy opined (aloud) for hours. The apartment was never ever quiet, until we went to bed – and even then Bapy wouldn’t go to bed. Instead she would doze on her easy chair at the head of the kitchen table. Waking up to go to the bathroom … or secretly feed my pet hamsters bits of bread from her egg sandwich. I would wake up to see mu VERY FAT hammies surrounded by bread chunks or birthday cake.
“Bapy!” I’d yell at her.
“Rosalie smart girl, but Missy Bossy!” she would declare in the middle of the apartment.
There she was on her throne – at the head of the kitichen table, where my mom had parked her lumpy old easy chair. No back room – or even bedroom – for this grandma. Oh, Bapy!
“Eat, Theresa!” she would say to my fussy kid sister, who was alway skinny/knobby kneed. But when my father threw in his two cents about his daughter’s weight: “Don’t you feed these kids?!” he would yell at my mother – Bapy’s face would get all red and twisted and she yell: “Shut up, you red devil! My father had red hair and later auburn colored hair, even though her was 100% Italian; his people were from Northern Italy, a place my grandmother urged him to return to And if he laughed at Bapy’s – this little whirlwind’s – feistiness, she would ratchet thiings up by maybe tearing her egg sandwich in half and throwing a good chunk of it at my father’s puss.
So many times I think of all the mothering I had as a kid. A world filled with opinionated, bossy, determined, sad, funny women. If it wasn’t my mom running the house (in a nice but firm way – she put us kids out to work at 14 and 1/s), it was my Bapy lecturing in Polish and pigeon English about my father, colds, ponies, ham, my aunts, our weight, our prettiness, our shoes, money matters, doctors …. and my hamsters.
My father used to say to my mother: “That’s right listen to Bapy! She’s a lawyer, judge and Indian chief!”
My Bapy would get up out of her chair as if to slug him but she was 4 feet, 11 inches high. My father just laughed. Which enrage Bapy and usually sent some egg sandwich my dad’s way.
On Sunday’s, mom would turn on the radio to the Polka show. It was the high light of my grandmother’s week. She would sing along to the old Polish songs and try to teach them to us! Sometimes she would get up and try to Poka but she was too crippled. So she would urge my mother to take over for her, and my mom would grab one of us kids and try to teach us the Polka’s steps. She was excellent! When we were really little, 3 and 4, it would be bath night on Polish radio night and my mother wouldn’t teach us to dance but let us run around the kitchen naked to the Polkas. My grandma, sitting chubby and happy in her lumpy chair, would tap her feet to the music and try to tap our buck naked little fannnies as we ran by her … squealing in dleight!
I pity kids today. Most grandmothers live in assisted living or nursing homes. Parents don’t want their parents budding in with their child rearing; they want to focus on their kids and not aging parents who also are people with needs. And today’s parents most likely wouldn’t want the perepetual chattering/bickering that filled our Green Island apartment, courtesy of all the people living there. It is much easier to enjoy grannies from the edge of a hospital bed in a home or a fancy meal spread out at Tatnuck Arms – a chandelier in the dining room, my friend once gushed to me, after she and her sisters placed their 85 year old dad there.
He was dead in less than a year.
But it was a convenient thing for them to do. It was certainly less messy, unlike my childhood and … Bapy’s hardboiled egg sandwiches.