"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.


  1. I love this! You have such a talent Laura. I hope you do continue to write.


  2. I appreciate the encouragement Whitney! Capturing my ideas in words is hard but I always feel so much better afterward, like I've come back from a run or something.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post. The women who went before me are needed inspiration when I get overwhelmed with being a woman today.

  3. Laura
    How your grandmother must be beaming when she looks down on you and your wonderful family! She was so in love with you and your brothers and did
    love to cook for everyone...and how she cooked!!!!
    Your grandparents were always very much in love and Uncle Sam (your Papa) doted on his wife until he died. They were a loving and wonderful aunt and uncle to me and my brothers and I still think of them regularly, with much appreciation for having had them in my life.
    Sunday dinner with your father and his parents was a wonderful family event with amazing Roast Beef and the best plain sauce I have ever had!!
    This generation could learn a lot from people like your grandparents, who enjoyed the simple things in life and worked hard for everything they had. Your father was their pride and joy and his special relationship with his father was
    lovely to watch. I'm sorry you didn't get to grow up with that gentle, loving grandfather, yet you reflect so much of his spirit in yourself. I'm thrilled to be witnessing the beautiful Garufi legacy.They would be so proud!!!
    Much love,
    Aunt Claudette