Friday, April 19, 2013

My Grandmother: A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

"Mama Rosa knew a lot of medicine. She probably never heard of the word 'genetics,' and if she did she probably didn't understand it's importance. But before her son got married, Mama Rosa wanted not only to meet the woman he was marrying, but her mother, her father, her sister, aunts, uncles, and any other kin. As Mama Rosa was fond of saying, 'The acorn don't fall far from the tree!'"

--James A. Freeman, MD

Those words are quite ironic considering Grandma Rosa's past. 

I remember that I had my own room at my grandma Rose’s home. It was cozy and quaint --and best of all, all mine. I stayed there a lot as my father and mother were very, very busy adults who had me "later in life." (I suppose “Susan” was a much nicer name than “Oh shit!”) I loved my grandma’s house. She cooked and cleaned, taught me to bake lemon meringue pies, watched spaghetti westerns, and had a baby Jesus atop her TV. I remember her yelling out to the good guy, "Watch it! Watch that snake in the grass!" And then she would go about change baby Jesus' vestments in accordance with whatever Catholic holy day it was. Yes, she was Catholic – Sicilian Catholic, not Catholic light, as I am.

She went to church every morning, dropped her quarter in the offerings box, lit a candle, and said a prayer -- all before mass. Then she would genuflect at the pew, slide down the bench to her same spot, get down on her knees and begin to pray the rosary. She prayed that rosary over and over, again and again throughout the entire mass. I always wondered if she ever heard one word of the sermon.

She was quite an interesting person. She too was a rebel. Apparently, I come from a long line of rebellious women. Anyway, she was one of many and I think the oldest of the girls. Let’s see, there were six for certain, perhaps seven (I cannot be sure): Guyatano (they called him Guy), Rosa, Angelo, Mary, Lawrence (they called him Bootsie; I don’t know why), and Tina.

Their mother, “Great Grandma Louise” was still alive when I was a little girl – and man was she alive. She was the meanest woman I had ever known in my five years of life. We’d go to visit her and she would yell and scream about my new shoes and how people are starving and here I am in new shoes. Wow. I was five so of course, she scared the hell out of me. She’d make me take my new shoes off – she wouldn’t have them in her house. She spoke Italian and barely any English, as I recall. However, like most of us, she knew how to curse you in many a language. My mom would send me out of the house and into the garden to see the strawberries and such while my dad and she visited with Great Grandma Louise. I always thought it odd that we would go visit this cranky old lady without my Grandma Rosa – after all, wasn’t it HER job? Great Grandma Louise was a hard core Sicilan, a very black or white, “my way or the highway”...well, no -- more like “my way or you’re dead to me” kind of woman. She was EXTREMELY Catholic -- I mean nervy enough to call out the Pope when he was being “stupido!” She’d say, “Che cosa che problema?!” Actually she would yell it. Now that I’m older I realize it may have been poor hearing that caused her to yell. However, poor hearing had nothing to do with her being angry all the time.

Her daughter, my grandmother, could not have been more different. She was the perfect grandma. She clearly chose me as her favorite grand child and all my cousins knew it. Though I don’t believe they hated me for it. I think because I was so much younger than they and my mom simply wasn’t as engaged in the mothering thing, as my grandma was. I was forbidden to drink Coca-Cola or eat donuts or cookies so what was it grandma let me do every time I was there? Yep. She’d say, “Now don’t tell your mama” and she’d send my grandpa out to get freshly made donuts at Sims’ Bakery on Railroad Avenue. When I’d awaken before school, hot donuts were on the table...along with a cold Coke. I scarf down this breakfast of champions before I would walk by myself across this huge field that separated my grandma’s house on Bubba Street from my elementary school.

I remember thinking how lucky I was to get to stay at her house for days on end. I never thought to ask her where my parents where and why I was staying at her house. However, as I grew older I began to ask about my grandma and why she never went to see Great Grandma Louise. As it turns out -- Great Grandma Louise banished Rosa from the family.

Rosa ran away from home at age 16 and got a job with the railroad. It is beyond belief that she survived at such a young age -- and in that era. With that, she saved enough money to get through nursing school in New Orleans and ultimately became a Registered Nurse.

Somewhere along the line she met a professional gambler. Wow -- how exciting that must have been. He was older than she but they got along well and had fallen in love. He asked her to marry and she said yes. She told her mother of her happiness and in Great Grandma Louise-style, she was exiled from the family. Why? Because he was Jewish. Alvin (Al) Freeman was a brilliant professional gambler who decided to take my grandmother as his bride. Yes, they travelled and gambled and swindled and saved. Perhaps history has it that she used some of that money for nursing school. As I am not exactly certain of the chronology, I cannot be sure. Nevertheless, they had some fun. When Rosa got pregnant, they settled down. She practiced nursing and they had three children, James, Robert, and Joan Lee. (Yes, all the women in my family went by two names not just one – Joan Lee on my father’s side and Joan Lou on my mother’s side, and then there is my mother, Janet Sue, of course).

My grandfather was accustomed to being treated poorly because he was Jewish. The sick-and-twisteds of the world were alive and well then as much or more than they are now. His own father had changed their name from Friedman to Freeman so they would not be known as Jews. It was a measure he took to protect his family. He went to great lengths to do so. Oddly, the poor fellow was struck by lightening and killed in the doorway of his home – or so the story goes.

Anyway, Rosa and Al settled down and raised their three children. Unfortunately, when James (may father) was only ten, Al died, leaving Rosa to raise three children on her own – and that she did. She became a hard-nosed, no holds barred, git ‘er done kinda gal and was going to “make it” at all costs. She REALLY did walk four miles to work and four miles back each day to keep food on the table. It sounds cliché but in this case – it is not. It was easy in a small town, raising three kids who were Jewish (they decided on Judaism as their faith at the time) as a single Catholic woman. She really did not know what to do with the children as far as their faith went, as she was raised by such a strict Catholic, she felt they may suffer for being not enough of either. With Al dead, who would teach the children? She decided to raise the children Catholic after all. However, by then, my father had known and loved the Jewish faith. It spoke to him. He made the switch, however and they were all raised Catholic in small-town Louisiana. It made things a bit easier for my Rosa, I am sure.

I remember stories of a chilling night when the kids had run out of firewood and they were home alone as Rosa was at the hospital working. They were so very cold, they made the decision to chop down every door in the house, save for the one to the outside and the one to the bathroom. They burned the doors as firewood and tried to collaborate on what to tell their mother when she came home. As the story goes, they lived in a shotgun shack on the wrong side of the tracks. People used to tease them and say, “You’re so poor, even the blacks won’t talk to you.”

For those who knew my father, they know he grew up to help many, many, people of every race, religion, and age – he even helped those who made fun of him and called him “monkey” as a child.

Over time, Rosa raised some fine children. She did remarry -- the Fire Marshal -- oddly enough. She continued to practice nursing at the local hospital, long after her son ended up owning it. She continued to praise her baby Jesus, in the house my father built her. Together, they all went on to value God, family and education, in that order. She was quite a tough cookie and proved to be an amazing woman. A woman I am proud to emulate and blessed to have known.

She had gone in for exploratory surgery, as they feared she had a tumor in her stomach. After finding her insides riddled, they removed most of her stomach. She did not do so well after that. I remember that I was going on my senior trip during her surgery. Knowing how close she and I had been, they did not want her to die while I was gone so they kept her on life-support until I returned. Upon return I went to the hospital. I was immediately regretful for seeing her so white, weak, lifeless.

Grandma Rose died the night of my first cousin Lisa’s wedding. She was a lawyer marrying another big-time lawyer and it was quite the extravaganza at the Pentagon Barracks along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. Her father was a high-ranking elected state official at the time so everyone who was anyone was there – except my Grandma Rose. I miss her – and to this day, when I look to find a strong, smart, driven, never-give-up role model in my life, I see only her. She still moves me.