My maternal grandmother passed away last night. She was 85 years old. It's amazing that she'd lived that long; she'd survived lung cancer (she was a nonsmoker) that cost her part of a lung over two decades ago, and she'd been near death several times in recent years. Each time she bounced back, but not this time.
I have a lot to say about her. I hope you'll indulge me a bit.
My grandmother really hadn't been the woman I knew for awhile. She and her second husband Nick (whom she married when I was a kid after 10 years of widowhood; he was always a grandfather to us) were able to make it to my brother's wedding in Montana in 1996, but it was their last hurrah. Nick declined pretty rapidly the following year and had died by the time my wedding came around in 1998. Ann had also declined and was not able to make the trip from New York to Texas. The last few times I saw her, most recently in June of this year, she was an increasingly smaller shell of the vibrant woman she'd always been.
She was my last surviving grandparent. Russell Abbruzza, my maternal grandfather, died before I was born. Charles Kuffner, Senior, was three years into a bout with leukemia when I arrived; he died when I was three months old. I had Jessie Kuffner in my life for 20 years and I miss her every day. We always called Ann "Red" because she had flaming red hair. As the senility progressed, she lost interest in fighting off the grey, but we called her "Red" anyway.
My earliest memories of Ann have to do with the beauty salon she owned. It was half of a combination beauty salon/barber shop she ran with Russell, the sort of place that was patronized by people who'd give you a funny look if you said the words "unisex hair stylist". Though the salon was her domain, the whole thing was named "Russell's Beauty Salon", which was written on an old-fashioned street marquee. One evening some lexically gifted pranksters rearranged it to spell "Russell Eats Baloney". Ann retired in the early 80s and sold the shop to a man who rechristened it "Vincent's Hair Care", but I could never go past the place without thinking "Russell Eats Baloney".
I was her first grandchild. When I was born, she started saving the tips she got for my college fund. Every Christmas I'd receive a big plastic container full of coins, representing a year's worth of gratuities for perms and cuts. My siblings got to share in this when they arrived, but I got the best of it for getting there first.
I got my hair cut at the barber shop when I was little, then later on I got haircuts from Ann at home. I hated getting haircuts and always put up a fight. She was doing me a favor, and it never took all that long, but I'd always try to weasel out of them. In retrospect, I have no idea why I was so obstreporous about it.
When Ann married Nick in the early 70s, he was running an Italian restaurant in South Jersey, a little roadside place called Visco's on the White Horse Pike in Mays Landing (exit 44 on the Garden State Parkway), not too far from Atlantic City. They had a little motel in the back. We'd pack up the 1970 Saab station wagon (with luggage rack on the roof), make the interminable 2.5 hour drive down from Staten Island, and take over a couple of rooms for long weekends in the summer. We'd eat at the restaurant (fettucini alfredo was my fave) and spend days at the beach by the boardwalk.
The restaurant had a bar attached, which drew a variety of questionable types and which utterly fascinated us kids. We really loved the pool table. One day one of us (probably me, I forget) got the bright idea to see what would happen if we dropped a Super Pinky ball into the corner pocket. Naturally, this gummed up the ball return mechanism (it was a pay table, so sunk balls went into a bin until the next quarter was inserted). I remember watching Nick crawl under the table to retrieve our ball, worried that we'd broken the thing for good. He got it out, and we learned our lesson.
Ann was a lifelong baseball fan, and the Yankees were always her team. She and Nick would regularly get into arguments over baseball, and when they did I was the ultimate arbiter. They'd call me on the phone whenever they'd reach an impasse, and whatever answer I gave was the word of God.
In 1981, when I was 15 and my brother Michael was going on 9, Ann and Nick drove us down to Orlando for a week at Disneyworld. They'd taken my sisters the summer before. We stayed at a modest motel and spent our days at the park. We were there during the time that Adam Walsh's body was found. Ann was overprotective in the best of times, and this must have kept her awake nights, especially since Michael was the kind of social and outgoing kid who'd talk to anyone. We all managed to have a good time. Really, since Ann was a world-class backseat driver, we were in far greater peril on the highways.
When I was in college, she and Nick came to visit me for a few days. They rented a car and stayed at a small hotel a couple of miles from the Trinity campus. The highlight of the visit was when she made lasagna for me and 20 or so of my closest friends. We managed to find the right ingredients at a restaurant that had a small Italian grocery in front - my grandmother would sooner have slept on the street than made lasagna with anything but real ricotta cheese. One of the newer dorms had a couple of small kitchens which we commandeered for the afternoon. My friends, who had already grown accustomed to the regular care packages of cookies and other baked goods that she'd send, were ready to adopt her by the time we were finished eating.
Nick sold the restaurant and retired around the same time Ann did. When they cooked at home, she was the head chef and he was the sous-chef and dishwasher. Every Christmas Eve they made a huge traditional Italian feast of pasta and seafood - fillet of sole, conch salad, fettucini with clam sauce, Manhattan clam chowder - plus fried zeppoles for an appetizer. For Christmas and other special occasions, they'd make cannolis. I'd kill to find cannolis as good as theirs.
The most amazing thing Ann made was the annual Easter bread. She stopped making it around the time I left for college, which bummed me out because it was my all-time favorite. I figured out why she retired from this when I finally saw the recipe. Here's the ingredient list, from the original handwritten instructions that my mother unearthed a year or two ago:
4.5 pounds hard sausage (preferably Abbruzzese brand)
2 dozen hard boiled eggs
2 dozen scrambled eggs
1.5 to 2 pounds Mozzarella cheese
1 cup parsley
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
3 pounds Ricotta cheese
That's the filling. The dough uses 5 pounds of flour, 2 dozen eggs, 2 pounds Ricotta cheese, one teaspoon baking powder for every cup of flour, and "a little salt". My mother's words to Tiffany upon reviewing this list were "No wonder all the men in our family died young". Tiffany revived this recipe last year with great success for a party we threw. She cut everything by one-sixth and still used every bread pan in the house.
On top of everything else, Ann was an accomplished knitter. Sweaters were her specialty. When my mother's brother Russ remarried and produced two grandsons (they're now 11 and 9), it was a new lease on life for her, and she knitted with a vengeance. I don't think either of those kids needed a store-bought sweater for the first few years of their lives.
My father has said that if Ann could have finished high school, she could have been President. She was sharp, she was focused, she did whatever she set out to do. She was barely five feet tall and never weighed more than 100 pounds, but woe to the bureaucrat or sales clerk who thought she was a pushover. Her children and grandchildren meant everything to her.
We love you, Red. Rest in peace.Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 14, 2002 to See, I do have a life!