Magic. She was magic. And although she performed the same routine everyday, her audience always went away happy. I know because I was the audience.
The magic started early in the morning. That’s when “nanny” let herself into our apartment in the Bronx. Now, there’s something you’ll need to understand before we can go any further. We’re Italian. The translation for grandma in Italian is “nona.” I can’t tell you how I got nanny out of nona. But it stuck. Nanny was my grandmother, my mom’s mom. Her name was Madeline Gallicchio.
OK, so nanny was my wake up call. I’d hear nanny turn the key in the door lock and I’d jump out of bed! The magic had begun. Nanny usually had fresh jelly donuts or Kaiser rolls with her. At 3-years-old, it was like Christmas morning every morning. I’d sit on nanny’s lap and eat my jelly donut. Nanny would sip some coffee and thumb through the morning newspaper. I knew what was coming.
With each turned page, we got closer to my favorite part. It was a little comic strip. A cartoon character shared a bit of advice on living well. Nanny would read this to me. In simple terms, she’d explain what a 3-year-old could take from this little bit of wisdom. Then a hug and kiss and off to work at the butcher shop she went. But, nanny would be back!
It was Christmas morning. I must have been about 9-years-old. I remember Santa Claus bringing me everything I wanted. Well, almost everything I wanted. There were more toys under our Christmas tree than any two children could have played with! And I was an only child. (My sister didn’t come along for another three years.) I was so happy. I remember telling my mom and dad how much I loved Santa. After all, he brought me everything I asked for. Everything, of course, but that one basketball game.
You would think I shouted, “gentlemen start your engines!” My mom jumped from the couch and walked quickly to my parent’s bedroom. She returned in a second with another beautifully wrapped present. Mom said something about why Santa left the gift there rather than under the tree. Of course, whatever it was she said, I was convinced. I was 9. So, I opened the gift. It was that one game I didn’t get, the basketball game.
Consider yourself introduced to Maria Fama, my mom and Madeline’s daughter. If I had a need that wasn’t met when I grew up, I certainly don’t remember it.
Maria was the sure thing, the glue, the one in a million.
Nanny did come back and I had to be ready. She’d get home from work every night about 5:30. Remember, I’m 3-years-old. I couldn’t tell time by using the clock. But, I could by watching my TV shows. When Gumby, Pokey and Lucy were finished, I positioned myself at the window.
The bus stopped at the top of the hill. Nanny hopped off that bus with such a vigorous step, you’d think she was just starting her day. You’d never imagine she had just finished an eight hour stretch trimming meat at Daitch Shopwell (a local supermarket.) You’d never imagine she spent that time on her feet in a freezer. No. She jumped off that bus with a focus. Her second act was about to begin and she never, ever let down her audience.
I’d open the window and wave. Nanny had her hands full with shopping bags, but she always managed to give me my cue. Nanny’s wave was notice I had about ten minutes to get ready for our special trip. And I needed to bring a couple of things along with me. I couldn’t forget the sugar cubes.
Within 20 minutes we were in the park. I’d sit on nanny’s lap on our favorite bench. My back was to her chest. Nanny would wrap her arms around me and announce that tonight we were going to count all the red cars that passed by. When we saw that red car, how she would giggle and bounce me up and down. I can’t imagine a more enthusiastic reception for anyone or anything. That was nanny’s magic. She could take the usual and make it extraordinary.
When we finished our counting, we’d walk to another section of the park. That’s where the policeman was waiting, sitting on his horse. You were wondering about the sugar, weren’t you? That horse seemed to know nanny and I had his treat. He’d lick that sugar from my little hand as if to say, “I couldn’t wait another minute.”
Nanny bought me every Matchbox car, every Tonka truck and every Christmas decoration there was. But her time was her greatest gift to me. Whether hours on the kitchen floor building blocks or dressing up for Halloween or playing Santa Claus, nanny’s greatest gift was her complete presence in every moment we shared.
I was 3-years-old and I needed surgery. I was scared. But I knew it would be OK. I knew because my mom was with me. I remember sitting on her lap in the hospital. We were sitting in a dark hallway. It wasn’t warm and it sure wasn’t friendly. But my mom was all the security I needed. With her, I knew I was safe. No one would hurt me.
Mom had packed an overnight bag, one for me and one for her. When I got ready for bed, so did she. I fell asleep in her arms.
The surgery was successful.
Ten years later, I was scared again. We had moved from the Bronx to the suburbs. I was 12 and adapting wasn’t easy. What was really tough was breaking into the local clique. The neighborhood kids weren’t too keen on admitting a new city kid into their group.
One afternoon I was riding my bicycle. I was about a half-mile from home. A group of boys jumped out from behind the bushes and started taunting me. One boy started swinging. I don’t know how she knew, but she did. Mom appeared out of nowhere sharing a few choice words. The boys never bothered me again. In fact, within a few weeks we were all playing baseball in my backyard. Mom invited everyone in for cold drinks.
My mom doesn’t understand why she is “special.”
I guess that explains why she is.