In her latest book, “Don't Sing at the Table,” Adriana Trigiani gathers life lessons from her grandmothers, sharing how their simple values shaped her life. An excerpt.
Chapter one: Viola
Yolanda Perin Trigiani (Viola) stood at five feet five inches, but seemed much taller because she was short-waisted and had long legs. In her youth, she wore wide-brimmed hats, festooned with peacock plumes and adornments (silk flowers, bands of grosgrain, velvet berries), making her appear taller still. Even as a girl she had mature, striking looks and a serious countenance. Her ancestry was apparent in her strong profile, upright posture, and quick stride. “Here comes the Venetian,” they'd say when she walked down Garibaldi Avenue in Roseto, Pennsylvania.
Viola’s thick, jet-black hair fell in smooth waves. She had a square jaw, a prominent nose with a high bridge, dark brown eyes that were neither large nor limpid, but dark and intense, with a downcast lid (later in life, she contemplated an eye job when her lids became heavy, and it was difficult to read or to see stitch work up close, but decided against the surgery). She had beautiful lips, straight, strong white teeth, and a wide smile.
Think Joan Crawford.
My grandfather, Michael (nicknamed “Dick”), thought his Viola was an Italian version of the stunning star.
In fact, there was a bit of Hollywood stardust to their early courtship — their first date was to the movies to see Joan Crawford in Montana Moon. (By the way, Viola argued years later that they saw Carolina Moon. When I checked the chronology and told her that Joan Crawford made a movie in 1931 called Montana Moon, my grandmother replied, “I was there. It was Carolina Moon.” Oh, well.)
My grandparents met when they were in their early twenties (he was four years older than she) in a pants factory in Bangor, Pennsylvania. She was tagged as a leader early on. She excelled as a machine operator, then was promoted to forelady by the age of sixteen. By the time she met my grandfather, she was a pro, with a few years of management experience under her belt and fifty operators to oversee. She mastered every machine on the floor, knew how to get the best out of her operators, and managed them to exceed their numbers and output. Operators that worked under her remember her clear, distinctive voice, which could be heard over the loud buzz of machines in the factory.
Viola and Michael’s love story was fraught with near misses. My grandfather left for a time and worked in mills as a machinist first in the Bronx and then in Connecticut. Viola thought she’d lost him for good. But he eventually returned to his hometown, the factory, and to her, and, in 1932, they married.
Michael Anthony Trigiani had southern Italian (Bari) good looks, dark hair, full lips, and gray eyes. In pictures, he also seems matinee-idol handsome to me, but that may be Viola’s influence on the subject.
Back when she was wooing my grandfather, Viola would make him lunch every day and leave it for him in the pressing room. Those lunches became a theme with her. She made Italian delicacies, small, elegant sandwiches made with roasted peppers or thin-sliced capicola on the best bread, buttered lightly and wrapped in bleached, pressed cotton. There were ginger cookies, the size of a quarter, or slices of almond-scented pound cake, or oil pretzels, and always fresh fruit, figs, oranges, or a banana. There were thermoses of hot coffee, or bottles of cold soda. She thought of everything — utensils, napkins, portable ambience.
At the end of the workday, Viola would pick up the empty basket and take it home to repeat the process the next morning. I wondered what my grandfather’s coworkers thought when their tough forelady extended this loving and gentle gesture to the man she loved each day.
Viola packed lunches throughout her life for all occasions: hampers loaded for long car trips, goody baskets left on doorsteps for someone in need, and later on, meals on-the-go for social excursions, including her gambling runs with her senior girlfriends to Atlantic City. Viola was not a warm, fuzzy character, but she showed her generosity and caring in those picnic hampers.
Viola was proud of her homemaking skills, even though she was never exclusively a homemaker. She was a working girl who became a working woman, ultimately co-owning her own blouse factory with my grandfather. A deeper meaning of the partnership was apparent in the name of the company: the Yolanda Manufacturing Company. Her ambition and determination was the engine, the driving force behind the founding of the mill, and the energy field that would sustain it for twenty-six years.
Viola had the guts and the vision to make the leap from dutiful employee to boss. She also had the work ethic and, now, the experience to court business and satisfy the buyer with a great product. My grandparents were good partners for one another; he was strong, intelligent, and possessed an easygoing nature, while she was a relentless fighter and a demanding boss. My grandfather attracted the investors to put them in business, but Viola’s fine reputation guaranteed that the mill would turn out excellent-quality blouses, on time and without error.
Years later, when she’d recount the history of the founding of her factory, she always gave credit to the three men who lent them the seed money to open the factory. She didn’t rest until she’d paid them back, with interest. While she worked off the debt, she managed to run the mill, and also build a family. There was never any question in her mind that she would work after marriage, and would have help with child care for her four children.
Everything I ever wanted
Long summer days were workdays for Viola, as they were loaded with light, perfect for hanging laundry on the clothesline, baking, and cleaning. Viola rose early, and often started her day berry picking.
One summer morning, before daybreak, Viola drove her station wagon, the back loaded with empty baskets, on a winding road through Flicksville with walls of green corn on either side. She was on her way to a commercial farm loaded with strawberry fields, where you could pick your own and pay for them. Her baby sister, Lavinia, had the same idea. She too rose early, drove to the farm, grabbed a stack of empty baskets from her car trunk, and waited for the flatbed truck to take her up the hill to the fields filled with the ripest berries.
As the sun came up over the mountain, Lavinia saw the truck coming down the dirt road toward her. As it appeared in the distance, she saw a lone rider with her legs dangling over the side of the flatbed, surrounded by baskets filled with fresh-picked strawberries. It was my grandmother, well into her seventies, wearing cutoff jean shorts, a vibrant polyester blouse, and a sun hat. When she saw her baby sister, she said, “You’re late.”
Viola’s routine was to return to her kitchen with the fresh-picked berries and commence making pies, crust first. Viola’s fruit pies were works of art, sweet fruit in a delicate, lacy crust. I never remember a slice left over, they were eaten the day they were baked. She loathed sleeping late, didn’t understand it, never did it, and thought it a terrible waste of time. “I don’t understand why anybody would waste the morning,” she’d say. To this day, as a result of her example (and insistence), I can’t sleep late. I still get a vision of my grandmother’s face, much like Saint Thomas Aquinas had when he saw the face of God promising eternal life in exchange for a purposeful life. Once I’ve seen The Face, I have to get up. And, like Viola, I need eight to ten hours of sleep, so early to bed is a house rule. “It’s time for the Lily White party,” Viola used to say around eight in the evening. Some party. Sleep was part of her master plan to get more work out of you the following day. This good habit sustains me, and now I’ve passed the habit along to my daughter.
A particular summer day at Viola’s house stands out in my memory. I am one of seven children, Viola is one of six herself, so we shared the big-family dynamic. Therefore it was rare that we were alone, just the two of us. But on this particular day, we were. I was in college and was spending the summer with her, and had a job as a fry cook in a local restaurant. I had one day off a week, and Viola looked at my day of rest as an opportunity to get things done around the house.
So I washed her car.
By late afternoon the laundry, hung on the line in the morning, was ready to come down. Folding her bleached sheets was like folding cardboard. She never used fabric softener (“It gums up the machine,” she’d say). She was an early environmentalist. Viola was green before anyone thought about being green. Every day was Earth Day for Viola. She loved a low electricity bill and a wee water bill. It was a badge of honor for her to employ Mother Nature instead of Mother Maytag.
“Don’t you feel good?” she said to me on that summer day, inhaling the fresh Pennsylvania air. I didn’t want to admit I was exhausted, because she didn’t believe in it, so I lied and said, “Like a million bucks.”
“Come on,” she said.
I followed her into the kitchen. She took two crystal tumblers out of the cupboard and went for the liquor cart. She took the gold shaker and commenced making a killer batch of her Manhattans. Like a scientist making a brew to save mankind, she’d measure (by eye) sweet vermouth, whiskey, and a few tablespoons of cherry juice into the shaker. Then she’d gently shake the concoction like she was rattling maracas in a Carmen Miranda kick line.
She put the shaker aside (“Let it rest,” she said), and made our hors d’oeuvres: thin slices of fresh mozzarella, the ends of some crusty Italian bread drizzled with a bit of olive oil. Then she took out a canister and put a couple of oil pretzels she had made on the tray. (These resemble popovers with a hard-shell crust. When you bite into them, they are spongy and not too sweet — perfect with a cocktail.)
She poured the Manhattans into the ice-filled tumblers, added two cherries to each glass, and said, “Let’s go.” She carried the drinks outside, and I followed with the snacks.
She usually took cocktail hour on her folding chair under the shade tree by the kitchen window. But on this day, I felt compelled to break her routine.
“Let’s go sit in the field,” I said, grabbing a garden chair with my free hand, and we walked toward the top of the hill overlooking Viola’s lawn. The fringe of towering pine trees around the property seemed as tall as a city skyline. The low wall of fieldstone in the distance looked lavender as the late afternoon summer sky turned the color of a ripe peach. I lay down on the grass while Viola sat in the lawn chair.
Viola had lived alone since my grandfather died. If she was ever lonesome, she never let on. Somehow, caring for the home she’d lived in with her husband and continuing his efforts to keep the land in perfect shape gave her a deep sense of fulfillment. Her home meant everything to her. She prayed to never have to leave it. Viola never got over the fact that she lived in this majestic Tudor, that she owned it outright, so she took care of it like a castle, a steward of the house and the land, knowing her time in it was precious and now fleeting.
We sipped our cocktails and talked. Our relationship had changed over the years. At first I was in awe of her, then scared of her, but eventually she became my friend. These were the years I would love the best, when I was young and she still seemed to be. She had short, wavy, silver hair now, and her knees were bowed from arthritis, but in every other respect, it appeared she had not changed in the twenty years since I was born. She was still gutsy, and in fact she got more so as time went on. It was as if she wasn’t going to let anything get her, not old age nor sickness nor death. For a long time, I imagined that she’d never die. If anyone could skirt death, it would be Viola, by sheer determination.
When she saw an elderly lady (around her age) crossing the street slowly, she turned to me and said, “She’s not slow because of her age. That one moved like a turtle when she was young.” Viola would not accept old age as an excuse for giving up or giving in. She had her armor on.
The sun began to slip over the Blue Mountains. Hot summer days in northeastern Pennsylvania cool off quickly at twilight, and the temperature was near perfect. The sky colors were like an Impressionist masterpiece, saturated blues with streaks of lilac, soft corals hemmed in milky beige. I could see the first flickers of fireflies in the trees. Even the cocktail turned more beautiful in this light. The cherries glowed at the bottom of the amber mixture.
This was bliss.
I’m not much of a drinker, but Viola’s cocktails were delicious; they had a woodsy taste that burned my lips (the whiskey, evidently), but then went down sweet (the vermouth) and cold, as a lovely and immediate buzz ensued. After the chores that culminated in washing the car, I came to appreciate that lovely buzz. It meant we were finally off the clock; miracle of miracles, there was nothing left to do around the house.
“Every once in a while, have a drink,” she said. “When you’ve earned it.”
This advice comes from the same grandmother who sent me a tin of her cookies when I was in college. The note said, “Eat one cookie at a time.” I’m still not quite sure how to eat them otherwise. (Viola’s letter provided great entertainment to my roommate Cynthia, for whom I gave readings of the letters in our dorm room at Saint Mary’s. Cynthia, raised by steel magnolias from Alabama, said, “Dang. Your grandmothuh has mine beat. Mah grandmothuh sends me a tin of cheese straws, but she nevuh tells me how to eat ’em.”)
There is nothing like the quiet in the country; you can think, and you can breathe. The scent of sweet grass hangs in the air and every once in a while the night-blooming jasmine plays through like delicate perfume on a sophisticated woman. I didn’t crave nature or peace and quiet in my youth, but now I understand my grandmother’s need for it. It gets harder and harder to think amid the noise of the world, and lately it seems that the volume dial has been cranked to the max. I look back on my time with Viola and remember the value of silence.
Viola was lucky enough to find a place she could make sacred. She’d had this kind of peace on the farm as a girl, and now, in her advancing years, she retrieved it, held on to it like the best of her memories. Her home became her final passion and mission; she was determined to hold on to that house, the rolling hillsides, and the fringe of forest. As luck would have it, she never had to leave the place she loved — she lived there until she died.
“Did you ever think you might remarry?” I asked her.
“Never,” she said.
“You never had a date after Grandpop died?”
“No. Although I did let a man buy me a hot dog in Atlantic City once.”
“That’s not a date, Gram.”
“I guess not.” She sipped her drink. “You know, when I brought Grandpop home from Rochester ...” In a last-ditch effort to save my grandfather’s life, my grandmother took him to the Mayo Clinic in the spring of 1968. They had heard of experimental cancer treatments, and Grandpop’s local doctor recommended he try them.
They went to Minnesota and tried the new treatments, drastic radiation sessions and chemotherapy, but it soon became clear that were not going to work. So, at Viola’s insistence, the doctors stopped the treatments. They flew home, so my grandfather could die in peace with his family around him.
“We flew home from Minnesota,” she said. “And we were sitting on the plane. And your grandfather said, ‘You’re young, Viola.’ ” She was sixty years old at the time. “And you’ve got a couple of bucks. Be careful.”
And then she said to him, “Don’t worry about me. I had everything I ever wanted.”
This was one of their last conversations. As soon as my grandfather returned home to his bed, he stopped speaking entirely. Viola’s diary tells me that he died at 8:15 that evening. (This entry was the last she ever wrote, even though she lived twenty-nine years beyond his death.)
I knew, around this time of day, when the work was done and the cocktails were poured, she missed my grandfather. I also knew that as the years passed, she missed him more, not less. She had regrets, but she was a widow who wasn’t going to make things right by finding a new husband and growing through new experiences. Her job was to keep everything nice — the garden, the house, the property — and all of that effort was in his honor. She had a sense that it was her duty to continue to make him proud, even though he was not here to enjoy her efforts.
Viola was not a sentimental woman, though she could be moved to tears by Lifetime movies and photographs of missing children on milk cartons. Love wasn’t something she talked about, but rather would show, by making a meal that would please my grandfather, shipping a perfect lot of blouses from the mill, or meeting payroll. I don’t believe they talked about their feelings very much, from the things Viola told me, but it was clear they acted upon them. They showed their love for one another. Even though their temperaments were different and they had individual approaches to problem solving, they had an underlying devotion to one another and their marriage. Viola saved the cards and telegrams he sent to her, and more telling (at least to me), Michael saved those she had sent to him. Reading them now, I understand how they felt about one another. They did not have an easy time of it. Viola’s ambition was an ongoing challenge for him, and I’m sure he sometimes hoped for a more traditional wife. At least, this is what Viola told me.
Viola, despite her proud demeanor, had a heart, and in her own way she could articulate the details of the rooms in it in a way that an artist might, in one brushstroke in a single perfect shade. She had regrets, she’d later share, but she knew what they were and why she had them. She told me she had made many mistakes, with her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and her employees. Those regrets often kept her up at night, and when I would visit, she’d wake me up to talk them through. She believed in atonement, but mourned that she could not atone once those she loved had died. Viola never practiced self-deception; she was as clear in her thinking as the cloudless sky. Viola owned up to her shortcomings — or at least, she did to me.
I was lying on the grass, next to her in the chair, a summer snow angel at this point, stretched out and one with the earth beneath me, as though I was carved into it. My arms were behind my head, pretzeled to make a pillow. The crystal tumbler rested in the grass like a jewel. Suddenly there was a great whooshing sound. I sat up and surveyed the sky. There was another blast of this strange sound I’d never heard before, but no movement. We looked in the direction of the forest, a expanse of green trees beyond the property line, but the leaves on the trees were still.
The noise grew louder.
I looked up at Viola; she was more curious than scared. She wasn’t always so trusting of the universe. When I was a girl, she made us stay indoors one summer when it was reported that bits of Skylab had broken off from the lunar station. NASA determined that errant shards of metal might drop into the earth’s atmosphere, through the clouds, and onto children playing outside in northeastern Pennsylvania. That was the summer I learned how to embroider. But this day she didn’t run into the house, nor did she advise me to seek cover. She sat there calmly and looked to the origin of the sound. I followed her gaze up and over the trees.
Suddenly, in the purple sky, the edge of something massive, round, and strawberry red rose from the green forest. It grew larger and larger, towering over the height and breadth of the tree line below it.
This mighty red thing cleared the treetops and revealed itself. It was a hot air balloon, with a dangling gold basket suspended on cords, climbing higher and higher into the sky.
As it sailed over us and then out of sight, I looked up at her.
“Are we drunk?” I asked her.
And she said, “No. Just lucky.”