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My Grandmother's Tears

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Dancers.jpgBy C.J. Valenti

My Grandmother is the archetypal Old Italian Lady. Standing no taller than five-three, with beautifully trimmed hair and exquisite-looking jewelry, she is the portrait of a successful woman.

"Come on-a, Grandmom-a," she says, herding us into her sleek black van. "Let'sa go."

We pile in, my brother and sister in the back, while I ride shotgun. My brother didn't have any opposition to this but, my sister Talia consistently questioned my right to the front seat. I tell her off with a complicated reason, always unrelated to the fact that I just got there first.

"Because God said so," I lie, buckling in. Lapping up Talia's puzzled face, I snicker and adjust my chair. I turn on the radio and start to flip through. My Grandmother starts to drive and the channels are as erratic as her driving. Classical. Metal. Hip-hop. Nothing we'll agree on. Time for Q-102 or something. Some bee-boppy song starts to play, and my Grandmother starts to cry.

Ever since she was diagnosed with Leukemia, tears have become her dogma. She cries at any moment, solemnly, uncaring of the eyes around her. Sometimes we didn't ask, other times we did, prepared for a tale from the old country. Feeling indulgent, I ask about the tears.

"The music," she says, gasping for air. "So-a beautiful. It reminds me of when I was a little girl," she pauses, collecting herself. She puffs out her chest and asserts the air of a woman who'd been through hell and back, and recounting her stories, I can confidently say she's been there. "We used to dance-a," she explains. The bee-boppy song is coming to an end. "We used to dance all the time. In the street. It made us so happy," she says. I see the cobblestone streets of Sicily, the broken-down houses which I've only experienced in my mind's eye. I smell the bread and tomatoes circulating through the air. I'm there for a moment. My Grandmother's eyes are filled with tears. "We were so happy," she cries. Her sincerity is unquestionable, the tears and tone in her voice affirming that she was once truly happy. It shines through now, through wrinkled skin and auburn eyes, as if she wasn't dying. I look at her, and then back to the radio. I cannot think to do anything but dance, but there is no music. All is silent. I can hear my heart.

And then the familiar opening to "Kids" begins to play. The rhythm within is uncontrollable. I turn to my siblings.

"Makin Mama so proud," I lip-sync, bopping my head to the beat. My sister is unamused, giving me the "I'd rather be anywhere else but here," look. Fortunately my brother is receptive, bopping his head with me. I scrunch my face up and stick my tongue out to him. He mimics my face and starts to catch the rhythm. "But your voice is too loud."

The instrumental part of the song comes again. I begin to whistle and my brother joins. We go on and on with the song, until I'm moving in my seat. Suddenly I notice my Grandmother moving too, bopping to music and lyrics which she could hardly understand. Music transcends all barriers.

The song is filling our car now, my sister the only unmoving one. I turn the volume up, expecting my Grandmother to ask my to tone it down, but the volume change only makes her move faster. I start to laugh and my brother joins in, and my Grandmother too. She sticks her tongue out and moves with perfect timing. My sister is statuesque.

"Control yourself," we mime. My sister cracks a smile. We've got her now, I think. I turn back to the two of them and continue to sing. "Take only what you need from it."

 And now my sister is smiling, unashamed of her rows of crooked teeth. Smiles become laughter, and laughter prompts her to move. She dances modestly, compared to our foolish thrusting bodies, but she's gotten in the spirit. The song continues, the beat infectious, until the entire car erupts into a chorus of:

"A family of treeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!"

 And then the music ends, and laughter ensues. We are all smiling, the young, the old, the alive and the dying, music uniting us in an uncharacteristic and impromptu dance party. I look to my Grandmother, the archetypal Italian lady, and for once I see her smiling instead of crying. In this moment I see her beauty, something that had faded from youth but that was no less striking. Suddenly I understand why she cries. She knows she'll eventually stop dancing.

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