November 30, 2006 | A modest beginning: She was born into a world of horse-drawn conveyance, crowded tenements, telegrams, and ice-boxes. Her father, an immigrant Italian bricklayer, left the family fatherless when a building collapse took his life, and she was only six. Her hard-headed and hard-working mother, naïve of the language and an orphan herself, struggled but succeeded in keeping their six children together despite a lack of skills. Her family, though typical in its difficulties, was her touchstone.
She married twice. Once, poorly, to a man who-- despite charm and talent-- would leave her and their two children for another woman. And again, quite well this time, to the aptly-named Salvatore (saviour), a gem of a man who became the anchor of this drifting family, in a marriage of 58 years and in fatherhood to his new children. She lived through two World Wars and many more world conflicts, through the menace of the Cold War, and the Great Depression. She became a fiercely loyal Democrat for that last experience, and never abandoned the Party on principle. She worked when needed to support her family, and devoted herself to that family with all her considerable energy. She loved fun, and dancing, and Peach Schnapps, and popular music (of her day, anyway) and she never wavered in her loyalties. Once she liked you, you were in. The NY Yankees, too, benefited from this, although I don’t know if she ever forgave Joe Torre for that last season. And she was a helluva cook.
She was Martha Agnes DeCristofaro Rivoli Verna, my grandmother. The world lost a pretty remarkable person when she died this past Sunday, age 96.
Her last year was given over, after a lifetime of resolute health, to the hallmarks of frailty and age, and a debilitating sickness that made eating solid food impossible. Long deprived of the best of her vision, her cat-like hearing started to fail and hearing aids, though helpful, provided no real remedy. The joy of taste was now out of reach, though her sense of smell stayed keen. Despite some foggy periods that were probably due to mini-strokes, her astonishing memory never failed. To her last you could ask her to identify the name or marriage date or occupation of any relative, or remember details of her family that most might not consider important. She never gave up on anybody she loved, and had faith beyond even the most steadfast among us. She may not have realized it, but she had something in common with the U.S. Marines: Semper Fidelis—always faithful—was her way.
Always faithful meant a lot more: Always indebted for the least kindness; always cheerful in outlook, always modest in her appetites and her way of living. She took delight in the smallest things: a cup of tea, photograph of a great-grandchild, phone call from a niece. When she couldn’t join us, as usual, for our annual holiday to the shore, my kids brought her back mementoes of the beach: sand, wind chimes, a flip-flop. Judging her reaction, you’d have thought it incomparable treasure. To her, like anything that came from her family, it was.
What makes any of us special in this world, apart from the miracle of our individual souls, is what we do with what we are given. Certainly more might be expected from those who are gifted, or guided, or have more means. But any of us may make gold from lead. Martha turned a hard life, and loss, into one of unfailing dignity, kindness, loyalty, and gratitude. We will remember, and always love her for it.
Read more from Elizabeth Neville on the blog.