"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Window into Franca

There are many things about pregnancy that are a little unsightly. One of mine is varicose veins. Luckily I found a wonderful product that makes them bearable: pregnancy support hose. A bonus in addition to the boost they give my achy legs is that the stockings are a daily reminder of my grandma, my dad’s mom. In my every memory of her she is wearing hose and heels. She said that her feet were so used to wearing high heels that even after she retired she needed to continue wearing them. She could no longer put her feet down flat.

Francesca, or “Franca” as friends and family called her, emigrated from Italy alone at age 17 by ship, leaving her father, sister, and brother behind. Her mom had recently died and her father had remarried. Grandma had actually been born in the U.S., but her parents had returned to Italy when she was young. Franca’s aunt graciously offered to house her after she arrived in New York. Knowing she needed a livelihood, Grandma learned the sewing trade, became a dressmaker and soon met and married my grandfather, a dress presser. They both worked in the NYC garment district. My grandfather was American born too, and also of Italian parentage. “Sam,” Grandma’s pet name for her husband, whose real name was “Rosario” for the Rosary, died when I was six months old so I never knew the gentle man who was my dad’s father.

Of the couple, Grandma earned more money. At the end of her career she had worked her way up to the privilege of fitting the prototypes of cocktail dresses to live models. Her boss, Leonard Arkin, owner of the prominent New York dress manufacturing company of the same name, called her his “golden hands.” Franca was a working mom. She enlisted a kind Irishwoman, Mrs. Woods, to care for my dad, my grandma’s only child. Franca, Sam, and my dad lived together in an apartment – first a “walk up” and later a rent-control building – and never bought a house. But my dad had every best opportunity, including parochial education through college.

Franca cooked famously. To this day a sob wells up in my throat when I open a can of tomatoes. My parents tell me that Grandma worked magic with olive oil alongside Sam, who shared her enjoyment in cooking. They didn’t spare expense to buy the best cuts of meat and fish from the local purveyors. Their American dream included entertaining friends, playing cards, and days at the horse races.

When I knew Franca she was still cooking famously but her days of chasing down buses in high heels were over. She was mostly confined to an easy chair. I remember her stocking-clad and swollen ankles bulging over the buckles of her two-inch heels. Grandma still sewed. She sewed doll’s clothing for my dolls and later made dolls for sick children. She also knitted almost compulsively. The sewing and knitting kept her busy, because she couldn’t walk very well. She used a cane when I was young and later a walker, when she moved from New York to the town next to where I lived to be closer to my dad and my family.

I remember Grandma’s stockings drying and the sweet smell of her perfume in the bathroom of her Queens apartment. Now I am drying stockings, these vestiges of earlier times that are reserved only for very special occasions like a black-tie evening event, if then. I too have swollen ankles (although not very swollen, really).

Grandma died in 2000 at the age of 90. My other grandma, my mom’s mother, another New Yorker and the daughter of Irish immigrants, is still alive, and will turn 99 this month. But it is Franca and her determination – as an immigrant and working woman – that I am reminded of every morning as I pull on my support hose before getting out of bed.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Notes from a Semi-Reclined Position

I.Am.Fed.Up.With.Being.Pregnant! Although bed rest has brought its own blessings, I became grouchy and exasperated this week over my continuing quarantine here in the house and increasingly nervous about my upcoming delivery. I felt horrible barking at Girlie all through her morning getting-ready routine. Usually I coax her along, in a supportive yet firm manner.

I had early contractions last Friday and wound up in the hospital. Sensing I was unready to have this baby and acknowledging that he would do better with a couple more weeks in utero, my OB (who happened to be doing rounds at the hospital that day) sent me home with prescriptions for medication and bed rest. The combination is working, thankfully. But now I can’t go about my mom duties as needed and have to take rests after every task. Get breakfast on the table. Rest. Fold a few pieces of laundry. Rest.

I’m getting anxious about labor. I’m getting anxious about my ability to mother three children ages four years old and younger. Mostly I’m desperate to feel breeze on my skin and walk around the block! When I asked my OB Wednesday when she thought I might go into labor she was noncommittal. When I pressed her for her best prediction she said I might go another week. She was dead-on with her prediction on Toddler’s arrival date.

These days, lying in a semi-reclined position, it’s easy to worry about what may be and what can’t be. There is so much undone still. I have thought professional maternity photos would be fun, especially if this is my last pregnancy. I should get my daughter a new swimsuit before she starts swimming lessons in a week. But I need to let these things go… Talking with my mom on the phone put my situation into perspective. The priority now is giving this new baby, the new member of our family who will delight us and frustrate us in his own unique fashion, the best possible birth scenario, which means him staying inside me as long as I can hang in here.

I should be glad for what I have been able to accomplish on bed rest. I’ve been reading voraciously and scribbling notes down in my journal as if they are keys to the Meaning of Life. I’ve been thinking through and writing down ideas for my book. I’ve started an essay, a couple book reviews and several blog posts. Although I can’t move my body around much, my mind is spinning.

Beyond being thankful for having some opportunity to write this past week, the most inspiring aspect of my bed rest has been the support of family and friends. I’ve received emails of encouragement, meals, offers to do grocery shopping, and offers for housecleaning. (After I delivered Toddler two friends even cleaned my kids’ bathroom!) My in-laws have been over every day to take the kids to the park and let me rest for a couple hours every morning.

Before having children, isolated on the island of hubby and me in a new city, I remember praying for friends. I actually prayed for them, as if God would bother to arrange to send me friends. He did. A friend’s mom once said to me, “The Lord is faithful.” I didn’t know what she meant at the time. The Lord is faithful to us? Aren’t we supposed to be faithful to Him?

I understand what she meant now.