There are very few images of her, and she has her eyes closed in all of them, or her gaze lowered, or her head turned away from the camera. Several of the photographs are yellowed and faded, their subject rendered ghostly, but even the sharpest can only hint at her; her soul is not exposed. Her maiden name was Assunta Miranda, but she went by the incongruously perky American name of Susie. She was born in Brooklyn of Italian immigrant parents, and she lived at three addresses in the course of her life: Carroll Street, First Street, and Coney Island Avenue. Her destiny was defined by her marriage to my grandfather in 1910, the sons that she bore him, and the framework of family she claimed. She never looks youthful in the pictures I have seen, but she was only 55 years old when she died on February 9, 1947, numbers I can state with precision because I am looking at the mass card from her funeral, an odd little artifact that somehow landed in my possession. It’s all I have of hers. Maybe it’s all that remains.
My father sent her a small satin pillowcase during World War II, a soldier’s gift. I saw it when I was a little girl, held it in my hands, wondered if it had pleased her. It was pale blue, with a pink rose and a gold fringe, and it was inscribed with the words “Long life to her, for there’s no other, could take the place of my dear Mother.” These sentiments were sincere, too, for my father spoke of her only with tenderness and love. I wished I could have known her, this woman who put the tenderness in him, for he was in many ways maternal, a father who bathed us and brushed our hair, who tended to us when we were sick, who even cooked our meals.
So I knew she was a force for good, and I imagined she was strong, but everything I learned of her was clouded with references to tragedy and long illness. At some point I began to understand that my grandmother’s story had been shaped by sadness, and that if she had lifted her eyes in those pictures I would see this very clearly. My mother, whose recollections are blurred by old age, is the only one left who knew her at all. But though memories are lost and the pictures are faded, I cannot accept her vanishing. I am looking for her.
She appears again and again in letters my father wrote from home to his brother Joe, who was then stationed in the Philippines. Sometimes I can even hear a fragment of her voice in these letters:
“I am trying to write you a letter with Mom seated at the table biting her nails, and I’m listening to her talk of every subject under the sun. So if this letter does not read well, we will blame her. I am reading every word as I write for her benefit. Now she is saying, ‘Listen. Tell him I am giving him my wedding ring to give to that girl when he comes home for good, and my wristwatch that Poppa gave me as a Christmas present. Tell him the house full of kisses and nobody can take Joey’s place.'”
Or, “Mom was telling me to write you something nice, like Aunt Nettie’s baby being born dead and other such pleasant topics. She came in a moment ago, all excited because of a passing truck with a P.A. system electioneering for F.D.R.”
The fact of her poor health is ever-present. What was the illness? I vaguely remember being told she had multiple sclerosis, but maybe it was kidney disease. Or something else. I will never know.
“Mom gets two hormone injections a week and she is improved,” my father wrote. “I have a new doctor and he is showing some results. She will never be 100% but if we can improve her and then keep her at that point I’ll be more than satisfied. When we first took her to this new doctor her blood pressure was terrific, 250. He took it down to 200 in two weeks. She is calmer and complains less. This summer I hope to send her to the country for a month.”
“Enclosed is another picture of Mom. I think she looks better. Don’t you?”
“Right now Mom is near the window in the front and I can hear her from the kitchen talking to someone. Her blood pressure has gone down a bit but I can’t tell you much more until a more comprehensive report next week.”
One afternoon my grandfather came home bearing gifts to pack for shipment to Joe. My father was in the midst of his letter-writing and documented the event in this way: “Mom is lying on the couch taking it all in, grinning happily at Pop’s vilest curse words as he packs things around to fit in the boxes. Each curse seems to strike her like a loving caress. Now comes a long and tender story of how at the age of three I was made happy by Pop’s departed sister at Christmas with all kinds of toys. As the story goes back thirty years, there is much incidental detail as it progresses, also a few thousand deviations. But Mom is happy only on her excursions to the past. She seems to live only in the past and perhaps it is for the best to be able to escape the harsh realities of the present. But not too much of it, or one loses grips with reality, as she has lost it.”
Why was she only happy in the past? Why did she lose grips with reality? A clue other than frail health was delivered to me in childhood when my mother told me that Susie had in fact borne four sons instead of the three I knew, but one of them died as a toddler, a horrible death having to do with a washing tub filled with hot water. When I tactlessly presented this tale to my father for confirmation, he turned angrily to my mother and asked, “Why are you telling the kids about my brother Harry?” I knew then it was true.
But there was yet another cross to bear. “She was sick,” my mother told me long ago, “but she knew he was running around. She knew everything that was going on.” This, too, was an odd thing to share with a ten-year-old girl, but it was all written clearly anyway in the inky residue of bitterness I had witnessed in the aftermath. By the time I was born, my grandfather was married to his mistress, a woman named Rose whom my father and uncles barely acknowledged. If Rose approached me, I was pulled away. I never saw her again after my grandfather died in 1965.
As I read further along in my father’s letters, Susie begins to emerge as a sentimental person, someone to be pitied and protected, child-like.
“Mama being the baby of us all waxed sentimental over Thanksgiving,” wrote my father in November of 1944.
And in December: “Maybe we’ll eat at Uncle Ray’s for Christmas. Mom is like a baby and she has her heart set on it so I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t comply with Her Majesty’s request.”
Another time: “I took Mom to Aunt Mary. She looked so sweet and pathetic. Perhaps it is the compensating law of nature, that she, the relentless fighting tiger for her brood, whose sole fight has been a savage and unselfish one for her family, perhaps in not too wise a manner but with unequalled sincerity, has now become soft, and sweet, but even yet her every thought is of her family.”
Every thought was of her family — nothing could change that.
“Mom is in the bedroom beaming with joy over the fact that we’re making you packages.”
“Mom sends love. She is happy you wrote and the mere sight of your envelope brings out smiles not only to her but all of us.”
“Took Mom to Aunt Nettie’s after one year’s absence. Of all nights who pops in but Grace Miranda, her father, mother, her brother Ray, and Albert, their respective wives and two mutual friends. Together with Uncle Ray, Nettie, Flo, Teresa, Connie, and the old lady, it was a convention. You couldn’t hear yourself talk. When that mob got to howling I jumped in the car and went for a ride. When I got back Mom was still there listening intently at the loudest speaker (they all spoke at once, only noise counted here). The dirt was coming thick and fast, it was such beautiful scandal. She was happy, bewildered, but also enraptured…”
I love knowing that her relatives invited her over for gossip and cake, that she fit into that world and enjoyed it. I try to imagine her smiling, or better yet, “beaming with joy”. It is clear that she was honored and loved and commanded fierce loyalties that outranked her husband’s infidelity, and while I am certain there is no greater pain than the loss of a child, there were people who cared and stood by her.
Did she go to the country for a month one summer? It might have just felt like exile. I think of her at home, sitting at the kitchen window, eating an orange, looking down at the familiar and indifferent street. I suppose she hoped for more. Her life was hard and short, and her story is an old one, but it is not small or simple or insignificant.
I want so much to reclaim her, to render her real, to flesh out the faded image before me. I cannot seem to do it.