November 28, 2015

Grandma's Holey Secret

Nonna Isolina and Grandpa Rizzolo
By Cookie Curci
When I was a little girl, Nonna told me enchanting stories of life in the old country and of her new life in America. I loved these ancestral tales. Each one gave me a clearer picture of my relatives and a better understanding of my family.  
One of my favorite family stories was one that Grandma often told of her early life in America; how she and grandpa felt a great wonderment and excitement when they arrived in their new land; how they left their towns and villages of Italy and came to America to find work in the golden state of California.
Grandma and Grandpa told us how the young immigrants had heard fantastic tales in the old country, tales of how the streets of California were paved with gold. But when they got here, they learned three things: First, the streets were not paved in gold, second, the streets weren't paved, and third, they were expected to pave them.    
Like many of his fellow immigrants, Grandpa went to work paving the roadways and laying railroad tracks in the city while Grandma worked part-time in the canneries while caring for her home and children. When Papa came home from work he'd eat a hurried supper then rush off to night school to get his education. After Grandpa graduated and attained his American citizenship he went to work full time on the cannery lines and part-time in a shoe repair shop. He labored on the night shift so that his days would be free to take care of the children, allowing Grandma to attend school and receive an education.
Grandma anticipated her first day of school in America. The day of her first class was a very important moment in her life, she knew that she needed an education to become a good citizen of her new country.
On the morning of her first class, Grandma rushed to dress for school. Though she didn't have much of a wardrobe, what she had was clean and well pressed. As she slipped her feet into her best pair of long black stockings, Grandma's happy mood dissolved into horror as she discovered her toes came poking through huge gaping holes in her socks.
"Forget your socks, mama, you haven't time to mend them now, you'll be late for class" urged Papa." I have a surprise for you, Mama, something that will cover up those holes in your socks."
With that, grandpa handed grandma her high button shoes. Only now, her old shoes gleamed with brand new leather soles and shiny black laces. She could see her reflection in their shine. Grandpa had worked extra hours at the shoe shop to repair his wife's old and worn high-top shoes.
Grandma's eyes glistened with pride and gratitude as she placed a kiss on her husband's cheek. "I will look like a fine lady in these shoes, Papa", she exclaimed.
"Hurry now, Mama, hurry", Papa warned, "Or you will be late for your first day of school. Slip your feet into these  shoes and no one will ever see your holey socks. It will be our little secret," smiled papa.
Grandma had no time now to darn her tattered stockings. She did what Papa suggested and slipped her feet inside her high button shoes. She quickly laced them and rushed out the doorway, pausing only a moment for Papa to kiss her good-bye and to hand her two one dollar bills for her classroom tuition. Grandpa and the children waved to grandma until she disappeared from sight on the morning trolley.
Arriving at school that day, Grandma felt uneasy in a classroom filled with strangers. At the head of the class was a stern-looking teacher by the name of Mrs. Peabody. The teacher was dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a pristine starched white collar and matching cuffs. On her feet. she wore tightly laced high-buttoned shoes. To her nose  a pair of small, wire rimmed glasses clung tightly. In her hand she held a long, slender, ominous looking pointer stick, which she used both for pointing and intimidation.
That morning, the teacher passed a large empty bowl around the classroom, instructing each student to drop their tuition fees  into the container. Each student complied. One of the more affluent students paid his fee with a bright two dollar gold piece. After collecting all the money the teacher placed the bowl on her desk. Later, that  afternoon, when Mrs. Peabody tallied up the tuition money, she discovered the shiny gold coin was missing. Convinced that one of her students had taken the gold piece she demanded that everyone in the class empty their pockets, purses and wallets on her desk.
The students reluctantly obeyed, but still no gold coin.
Angry and frustrated the teacher took her search one step farther and demanded that everyone in the classroom remove their shoes and socks. A small gold coin could be easily hidden in the rim of a high button shoe or stocking.
One by one the students removed their shoes. Everyone that is, except Grandma. She sat there, frozen with embarrassment, hoping and praying the missing coin would be found before she had to slip off her shoes.
"Well, we're all waiting" said Mrs. Peabody, her sharp voice cutting through the silence, her pointer stick aimed at Grandma's shoes.
For what seemed like an eternity the entire classroom stared down at grandma's feet. Grandma had been so proud of her newly repaired shoes, to remove them now in front of her peers and expose her tattered stockings would be a great disgrace. Grandma's continued reluctance to remove her shoes convinced the teacher of her guilt.
Mrs. Peabody marched Grandma off to the principle's office where she immediately telephoned Papa. He gathered the children and rushed down to the school to defend his wife's honor. He explained, in his best broken English, why his wife was reluctant to remove her shoes. "My wife no take no money...she a good woman...she got the big holes in her socks, that's all she got, ma'am."
The school principle allowed Grandma to remove her shoes in the privacy of his office. He soon discovered the only thing grandma was hiding was a pair of unsightly socks. Grandma returned to her classroom, but all that day a shadow of suspicion hung over her.
Late that afternoon, just before the dismissal bell, Grandma was exonerated of any wrong doing. When Mrs. Peabody raised her right arm to write the class assignment on the black board the missing coin fell from the cuff of her sleeve. The coin rolled across the room in plain view of all the classroom. The stiffly starched cuff of her dress had accidentally scooped up the small coin as she counted up the money earlier that day.
The teacher's face flushed red with embarrassment. The wayward coin rolled past the entire student body. Struggling to keep her composure, as well as her wire glasses on her nose, she raced after the coin. As she ran, the snickering laughter of her students followed her across the room.
That day, Grandma’s teacher learned a lesson more valuable then a gold coin. Mrs. Peabody would never again rush to judgment.
That afternoon, when Grandma returned home from school, Papa was waiting for her on the front porch. Exhausted from his night job, he was quietly napping in his front porch chair. Cradled in his hard-working hands was grandma's darning basket. Inside the basket were Grandma's stockings. Papa had carefully and lovingly mended each and every one.
In later years, Grandpa became a successful businessman. He took a special pride in gifting his wife with stockings made from the finest silks and woolens. Though Grandma appreciated these stockings, they were never so dear to her or so well loved as those old cotton stockings, lovingly mended by her husband's callused, hardworking hands.
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