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When a dresser isn’t just a dresser
The simplest of objects hold emotion and family history
An estate lawyer told me once that she had seen a multimillion-dollar inheritance held up in a family fight over a teacup.
Yes, people can be that crazy. But sometimes objects have an emotional pull. They assume an importance all out of proportion to their actual function.
I was thinking about this recently as I piled folded clothes on my husband’s dresser.
My dresser is packed, like his. It has been clear for years that either we have too many clothes or the dressers, a matched set, are too small. The space constraints become worse in winter, since our sweaters, flannel shirts and jeans take up more space.
Neither Pete nor I will ever get rid of the dressers. We will make do.
Pete’s paternal grandparents used the dressers for decades. I never met his grandfather, who died in the 1960s. But I loved his grandmother, whose melodious name, Anna Panzarella, we eventually gave to our own daughter.
I first met Pete’s grandmother when we began dating and I accompanied him for his family’s Easter dinner. Extended relatives filled Grandma’s modest second floor apartment in North Buffalo. She was tiny, but it was clear that she was the hub of the family. She introduced me to artichokes that day, a novelty for me. I marveled at her trick of putting a hard boiled egg in the middle of some meatballs. The tradition was a holdover from the Great Depression to use less meat. Her frugality extended to other habits, too. She took in ironing from neighbors to supplement her small Social Security check.
Soon Grandma invited Pete and me back to her apartment. She served us her classic Sicilian tomato sauce, laced with olive oil and turmeric in one bowl, with pork ribs and meatballs in another bowl and ziti in a third. She mixed a little sauce on the pasta while it was steaming hot, the better for the thin layer of starch on the ziti to absorb the glorious flavor of the tomatoes. To someone like me, raised on store-bought spaghetti sauce from a jar, her cooking was a revelation.
Grandma didn’t eat, but she watched us with approval. She had just one question of me: “Are you Italian?”
I cleared my throat. “No,” I said. “I’m Irish.”
“Oh,” she replied and said no more about it. My ethnicity didn’t bother her, I soon found, because she included me in her tradition of giving each of her grandchildren $5 for Christmas.
A year or so after Pete and I started seeing one another, his grandmother had to move into a nursing home. She was then in her late 80s and her health was declining. She told her son Jesse, my future father-in-law, that she was ready to die. He mentioned it at dinner one night. It worried me. I had loved talking to her at family gatherings and her remark didn’t sound right. The next day I drove to the home. During our conversation I asked her if she really wanted to die. She shook her head immediately. “No,” she said. “I just want to feel better.” I understood.
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After Pete and I got engaged, we asked her to attend our wedding, insisting that the church could accommodate her in a wheelchair, but she demurred. So immediately after the service, but before the reception, Pete and I drove to the home to visit. I had worked in nursing homes for five years in high school and college. I knew that a visit from a bride would have the place buzzing for days. When we walked into her room, I in my wedding gown holding my bouquet, Pete in his fine new suit, Grandma cried, tears rolling down her cheeks.
I pulled apart my bouquet and put half the flowers in a vase by her bedside, a small gift to this gracious woman, who was now my grandmother, too.
When Pete and I returned from our honeymoon camping trip, we prepared to move to Boston, where Pete was to start graduate school. We had little in the way of furniture. But Grandma Panzarella had a surprise wedding gift for us: the dressers that she and her husband had used for decades.
Despite their age, they were in perfect condition when we put them in the moving truck all those years ago. Yet five moves, two kids and 40 years have left their marks -- a scratch here, chipped veneer there. And did I mention they are too small?
But Pete and I will never give them up. We have an unspoken agreement: If they fall apart, we’ll fix them.
Grandma died a year after we married. Her own modest wedding portrait hangs in our living room. And chipped though they may be, we still have her wedding gift to us. The dressers are much more than mere furniture. They are daily reminders of a grandmother’s love, and as I know now from having my own grandchildren, there is nothing sturdier than that.