My maternal grandmother, Filomena Gaita (née Carbone), was born as the eldest child in the family in Italy near Luogosano. In her early 20s she fell in love, but her father forbade her from marrying the man she chose. Filomena obeyed her father but was unhappy. At that time, she corresponded with a young man named Alessandro who lived in the US, and when he invited her to join him, she got on a boat. Three days after her arrival to Ellis Island, they were married. They both started working at Beattie’s Mill in Little Falls, New Jersey, built their house in nearby Totowa, and started a family.
Grandma Gaita had six children. At home she always spoke Italian, and her English was heavily accented. We always teased her about her broken English and she always asked us, “And how many languages do you speak!?” She could never pronounce my name correctly and always called me Chall. While she was raised Catholic, in the U.S. Filomena joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. One day they showed up at her door, speaking her tongue and she gladly accepted them. However, even though she was very religious, she never pushed her beliefs on anybody.
After my grandfather died in 1959, Filomena became the family matriarch. She was our glue and established many family traditions. Every Sunday, we all gathered in her house for dinner. She cooked in her basement kitchen and had a simple, long table with benches built by her husband, which sat 30 people. She was a fun, guffawing grandmother and her gatherings reflected this. People talked loudly at the table and children played either under the table pinching everyone’s toes or running outside.
Filomena had a wonderful garden, which gradually grew smaller as she aged. At the end of the summer we picked apples and tomatoes there and later turned them respectively into apple pies and tomato sauces. We made our own pizza and wine. She particularly loved children, and even though she did not celebrate any major holidays, because of her religion, every kid in the family always received a birthday card with a $5 bill from her. She was a forgiving person. Her own father, the same one who forbade her from marrying the man she loved, in his late days came to America and lived with her, even though his other children still lived in Italy.
When she was 89, Grandma Gaita got sick with anemia and slowly faded away. I spent her last days with her in her room, telling her what I saw through her window. Because of her religion she refused blood transfusions and for long time I was angry at Jehovah’s Witnesses for their rules. It took time for me to accept her decision and understand that she was not a sheep that would blindly follow authority, but instead she was a strong woman who lived and died on her own terms.
After her funeral a funny thing happened—a tomato plant grew from her plot among the flowers. Most likely a seed from the compost sprouted there, but she would have laughed at this so hard till she cried. Farming is in our blood. I am not religions myself, but I used to tend a little garden at the local church, where all the produce went to the Salvation Army to feed the poor. I always do my best to emulate my grandmother. I think about how she would handle something. She was an amazing woman and I love her with all my heart.