Upstairs Love

By Lisa Romeo

Thinking about this essay anew, I’m reminded of stories heard at Noni’s knee, about living in near-poverty through the Depression and WWII—stories of sacrifice, fear, and steadfastness, of neighbor helping neighbor, of putting the greater good above self, of ingenuity and hope. I hope we can make that generation proud.”—Lisa Romeo

When I was a young girl in the 1960s living in a leafy New Jersey suburb, I spent a small chunk of every Sunday afternoon visiting my beloved Noni, my mother’s mother, at the Paterson apartment she shared with spinstered Aunt Mary. Theirs was a $40-a-month, fourth-floor, two-bedroom walk-up with linoleum floors, a concrete yard, and an oversized stove where gravy (“tomato sauce” to everyone else) simmered for hours; where eels sometimes lived in the bathtub before meeting their end, where polenta was stirred; where red peppers, laid directly on gas burners, sizzled and popped their charred skins.

Noni raised my mother, her two sisters, and a brother alone in that flat in the 1920s and 30s after she’d tossed out her bigamist husband. Noni relied on her only son until he left for war, then had to ask each of her three daughters to quit school (before each reached 10th grade) and get factory jobs sewing nightgowns to keep them afloat. Noni—illiterate in English but good with figures—kept the books for neighborhood numbers runners (illegal lottery), which made her popular on the crowded streets of four- and six-floor tenements in her gritty industrial city. Their neighbors were immigrants like Noni—Italian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Polish, and Irish—and to hear Mom and my aunts tell it, everyone got along, looked out for one another, but dated and married only within “their own kind.”

Until I was about seven, in all seasons but deep winter, Noni was usually on the speckled sidewalk when we arrived on Sunday, talking with neighbors, pitching pennies, keeping an eye on someone’s toddler. Her flowered thin cotton dresses, covered by even more threadbare smock aprons, floated above sensible shoes and sturdy calves encased in black hose. A squat woman toting a fair dollop of extra weight around her middle, Noni nevertheless moved swiftly—to play games with her grandchildren, to break up a fistfight, to catch the “buzz” downtown.

Before Mom learned to drive, my father drove us in his Cadillac with the fins in back. He’d kiss and hug his round mother-in-law, and tease her that the week before she hadn’t sent enough meatballs, and she’d blush and smile under his gaze. When she was at our house, Dad always seemed at ease with Noni—this grandmother I loved more passionately than anyone in the world, this grandmother who loved me back with a fierce, playful warmth, who called me “Scootch” and let me sleep with her and even kept her bedside lamp switched on when I asked.

Noni was as different as could be from my other grandmother, the austere, jaded woman Dad dutifully pecked on the cheek before settling into a cup of espresso and jawing with his taciturn father and whatever handful of brothers and brothers-in-law were performing their own required Sunday appearance. Grandma was someone I never wanted to visit, someone with plastic on the furniture, a two-acre concrete yard, hard marble coffee tables I was not permitted to touch, and who rarely moved from the kitchen chair her daughters-in-law and 12 grandchildren had to approach with elaborate deference. Even as a child, I knew that Dad had grown up eating meat regularly during the Depression, his father’s scrap metal business steadily providing, his five sisters attending nursing or secretarial school or teachers’ college.

These two grandmothers lived six miles—and several emotional galaxies—apart.

When we arrived at Grandma’s house, someone inside had to first unlock the screen door. Always it felt like a place you could enter, but not a place that took you in. A place where my grandparents periodically called my mother a puttana, spitting the word across the kitchen table, and reminding anyone present, again, how she’d stolen their son from them decades before.

When I could, I often tried to sneak into the backyard without going in the house, pretending I was eager to see the huge dog that petrified me, the dog with a larger fenced run than half of Noni’s entire city block. Grandma fed that dog table food and Grandpa trained him to bark and growl at anyone who wasn’t the two of them—necessary to chase off the occasional drunk who’d stayed too long at the next-door bar Grandpa owned. We routinely traveled from our hilly, serene suburb to Grandma’s house first on Sundays, then “stopped off” at Noni’s on the way home.

When we arrived at Noni’s apartment building, I only wanted Noni, her body, her lap, her laugh, her arms. If she wasn’t outside to greet us, I flung myself up the three flights of rickety wooden back steps. Dad, though, stayed out front, where he smoked a cigarette or two and walked the length of the sidewalk, waving to men on stoops and eventually got back in his Caddy. Sometimes he’d drive off and return for us later, a pile of newspapers and a pastry box on the front seat; other days, he simply sat in the car.

Upstairs, I was at home and in love with every small room and crowded corner of Noni’s “house.” Upstairs was where—on Saturdays when I stayed with Noni and Aunt Mary for a few hours or overnight, my parents out dancing or at a business dinner—Noni let me eat too many root beer ice pops, jump on her bed, rummage through the old trunk she’d brought over from Italy. Upstairs was where I learned to roll meatballs, crochet (sort of), and sing along with Mitch. Upstairs was where I was allowed sit on Noni’s lap at the front window while she leaned out to gossip or sing Italian songs with the other old ladies in windows across the alley. Upstairs was the safest, funnest place, the place where love overflowed, where I began to understand about mothers and daughters.

Upstairs, though, was also where I noticed keenly my father’s absence and I could not understand it—not then. Even after Noni’s right leg was amputated and she was hardly ever waving to us from the sidewalk, Dad would stay downstairs, park the car, stay put. I used to wonder why he wouldn’t want to be upstairs, where Noni welcomed all, where I don’t remember anyone tensing up waiting for someone to call them a terrible name. After Noni died when I was nine, I think it may have occurred to me that remaining outside could have been a kind of loyalty to his own mother. All I wanted, though, was more time upstairs, and if Dad came up, maybe we could stay longer.

“Going to come up?” Mom almost always asked as she opened her door, juggling empty food containers, an edge to her voice.

“Give her a kiss for me,” he’d say, waving with the hand holding a cigarette.

In my little kid way, I’d sometimes cajole and plead and ask Why not, Why not, Why not? I never got an answer, only, “You go on, kiddo.” Other Sundays, being upstairs with Mom, Aunt Mary, and Noni, wrapped in love and acceptance, welcome and warmth, I barely noticed his absence.

Men, after all, men who weren’t the grandsons she squashed against her breast and tried to fatten up with ice cream and buns, occupied that space rarely and only for short bursts. Aunt Mary’s first and only “man friend,” who came calling when she’d passed 45 and departed after a year or two, rarely stayed longer than the length of one meal or television show. Uncle Mario and Uncle Joey stopped in some Sundays—I think Noni loved them and I don’t remember hearing her say anything not nice about them. But mostly, upstairs, I remember women and girls—Noni, Mary, Aunt Antoinette, Aunt Ida, my older sister Cathy, my female cousins—and the strong and assured sounds of female voices decorating the air without interruption or correction.

On Sunday, after no more than a half-hour in Noni’s kitchen, it was time to leave, and she’d send the two of us off with containers of sauce, sausage, and meatballs, a slab of cake, a bag of zeppole, and sometimes, a dime for me. And a command: “You tell your daddy I love him.”

We’d tell him, when we got downstairs, crossed the wide sidewalk, and settled back in our car, the one bigger than any parked on that city block, the car that turned heads as we glided past. As Dad pulled away, I’d be tilting my head, from the backseat of the Caddy, so I could watch, for as long as possible, my Noni leaning out the upstairs window, waving and tossing kisses.

Some Sundays, if we made the visits in the wrong order, we’d have to next drive to my other grandmother’s house. There was no upstairs there.

A slightly shorter version of this essay appeared first in Ovunque Siamo: New Italian American Writing, Fall 2019.