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NOT your stereotypical grandma

There are a variety of Italian grandmother stereotypes in the media these days, and not surprisingly, my own grandma doesn’t fit any of them. Unlike the archetype we see portrayed in TV and movies, she never force fed me pasta while screaming ‘Mangia!’ and as far as I know, she never shuffled around the house in a button-up apron and worn slippers

Viva i nonni! (Photo by Luigi Mengato.)

Viva i nonni! (Photo by Luigi Mengato.)

My grandmother embodies sass, self-respect, and independent thinking. She has never been one to suffer fools, tolerate nonsense, or bite her tongue. I’m told she was always like this. She was one of five children, and the only girl at that. As such, she was a self-declared tomboy who had sole responsibility for the household chores. Even back then, she was tough and loyal: Her brothers often turned to her for protection and advice when faced with bullies and fights.

She married my grandfather, Joe, in her early 20s. By that time she had shed most of her tom-boy tendencies and was a total knockout. My grandfather was putty in her hands and together they had five children.

At 86 years old, little has changed and my grandmother, Angelina, remains a force to be reckoned with. From observing Angelina over three decades, I learned a variety of lessons about life, womanhood, cooking, and grooming, and I’m going to share a few of these pearls with you now. Without further ado, Angelina Festino’s guide to life.

• Don’t eat sweets. They give you acne.

• Eat fish. All skinny people do.

• When cooking or baking: after you’ve used an ingredient, put it away immediately, this way you never have too much to clean up at the end of your project.

• Travel the globe and see as much as the world as possible.

•Derek Jeter (pronounced Jettah) is a jerk and should be mocked openly and often.

• Sometimes you just really need to use the f-word.

• Never drive yourself anywhere. If you can’t afford a driver, have a son.

• When you see a spider, run for your life. They are all poisonous.

• When making biscotti, be sure to use anise of oil. It is not oil of anise. It is not anise oil. It. Is. Anise. Of. Oil. It is grammatically incorrect, and you don’t question it. Got it?

• Always have your nails done; french manicure is best and looks the most natural.

• A Manhattan always helps.

• If you are stupid enough to put your elbows on the dinner table, you deserve to be smacked.

• Always have your hair colored and curled.

• There is nothing more important than a strong and steady poker face.

• The beach is always a good idea.

• Always speak from your heart.

She taught me that last point recently in a nail salon. We’ve been frequenting LyLy Nail Salon in Stoneham for more than 10 years (pronounced Li-Li as opposed to Lie-Lie, in case you were wondering). As long-time customers, the shop owner knows us well; he calls me by first name and calls Angelina “Granma,” and on occasion “Granpa,” as he is still learning English.

On this particular Saturday, we were late to our appointment. We had been having coffee with my dad earlier and Grandma decided it was a good time to test my blood sugar with her new diabetes test kit thingamabob. “Give me your fingah,” Angelina demanded; I complied — you don’t argue with this woman. A quick prick of blood, a beep of the machine, and cuss by my grandma. “Damn. It didn’t work. Give me another fingah,” she said as she grabbed my hand.

Four fingahs, two band-aids, and 40 minutes later, my blood sugar level was normal and we were finally sitting down to pedicures. LyLy had a small TV turned on in the corner of the room and a golf tournament was airing.

“This is boring,” my grandmother muttered while shaking a perfectly manicured finger at the screen, “ask them for the clickah.” My manicurist, Amy, was happy to oblige Granma. I passed the remote control to Angie and she started flipping through channels. After a moment, she stumbled upon a Sox game, “this is much bettah.” Even though both of us have gossip magazines sitting open on our laps, we turned our attention to the game. Unfortunately, our boys were losing. To the Yankees. Worst.

“I hate that Jettha. I hate his face! I hate the way he combs his hair!”

“I do too, Grandma. He looks like a muppet.” At that moment, Jacoby walked up to bat. “On the other hand, I do love Mr. Ellsbury.”

“Who?”

“Jacoby. I love him.”

“Really … what do you love about him?” Her question caught me off guard.

“Well … ah … I’m no expert but he seems like a motivated ball player. And he’s handsome. Can’t hate that, right?”

She chuckled and nodded. “Have you ever told him how you feel?”

Again — her question surprised me. Of course I haven’t told Jacoby Ellsbury, a rising star on the Boston Red Sox, that I love him.

“Ah … no, Grandma. I haven’t told him how I feel.”

“Well you should. You should always tell people how you feel. Did I ever tell you the story about me and Papa? About how we met?” Her eyes remain glued to the screen.

“You’ve told me bits and pieces.”

“One day I’ll tell you all the details. But not here in the salon.”

If that story has anything to do with sex, I never want to hear it.

Ever.

Jacoby got a hit, but didn’t make it to first and Angelina was not pleased. “Dammit. Bunch a losahs today.”

“So … how in the world am I supposed to tell Jacoby?”

“You could write him a lettah.” She doesn’t miss a beat.

“A letter? Write Jacoby a letter?”

She turned to look at me. “Yea, you’re a good writer. Why not? You have nothing to lose.”

“What would I say?”

“Tell him how you feel. Write it from your heart.” And on that last word, haht, laden with her authentic Boston accent, she pats her chest with her palm.

At that point, I felt it was appropriate to break out in song — specifically, the old Exciters’ song, “Tell him that you’re never gonna leave him, tell him that you’re always gonna love him, tell him, tell hi — ”

“That’s enough, Danielle. You are a terrible singer.” I told you she was honest. She’s right, of course. I’m tone deaf.

I never did write Jacoby a letter. Are you surprised? It is not that my grandmother’s sage advice fell on deaf ears, but my feeling for Ellsbury weren’t exactly love-letter worthy. That said, I did take the lesson to heart. Or rather, to haht.

It seems to me that too often we take people for granted, and it isn’t until they aren’t in our lives anymore that we take the time to acknowledge what we love about them. And so, I’ve decided to write another love letter, this time to my grandmother. (Cue cheesy music and bear with me.)

Dear Grandma,

You aren’t like anyone I know, and I love that about you. You are fierce, loyal and bold, and I love that about you. You’ve taught me how to bake cookies and pies, make soups and sauces, and my stomach is grateful. You’ve taught me to think for myself, to speak my mind, and to go after what I want, and my mind is grateful. If you promise to never stop being you, I promise to never sing to you again in a nail salon.

Deal?

With love,

Danielle

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.

One comment

  1. Hi Danielle : I love this story, thanks so much for sharing. Your grandmother is so much like my Noni, she’s even from Puglia and has diabetes. So many of the same sayings and the same attitude. Do you know where your family is from in Puglia?