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Mother's Day Remembrance: Benedetta at 106

Mother's Day provides a chance to think about our mothers and about those who came before them -- the often unsung heroes of countless families. Charlottesville writer Debby Prum remembers her grandmother -- who lived for more than a century and left her family with many amusing memories. 

My grandmother, Benedetta Boccaccio, turned 106 in January.   She was born in 1909 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  That year, our country commemorated the 44th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. On average, a worker earned 22 cents an hour. Sugar cost 4 cents a pound and a dozen eggs would set you back 14 cents.

Benedetta was six at the start of World War I, that terrible war to end all wars. At age nine, she managed to escape the Spanish Flu, the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. The oldest of twelve children, Benedetta left school at age 15 to work in a thread mill.

At 18, two years before the great depression, Benedetta married Gaetano, a barber by day, a writer by night. Neither was a lucrative profession. As she raised her five children, Benedetta lived a life that wasted not and therefore, wanted not. As her grandchild, I learned that lesson firsthand when my pet chicken showed up as the main entrée at one Sunday dinner.

Except for church on Sundays, my grandmother rarely left her little pink house in Hartford, Connecticut. She never learned how to drive, never flew in an airplane, never rode a bike, and possibly never rode on a train. As a child, she did travel by ship to Italy. But mostly, Benedetta stayed home and slept in her own bed, thank you very much.

Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1909

My grandmother never warmed up to new-fangled machines.  Even in her eighties, she used a push mower on her lawn. However, my grandmother did warm up to television. She especially loved game shows. In her tiny den, I’d watch The Price is Right and Queen for a Day. On the latter show, people told their hard luck stories. Then the audience would select the most deserving person to receive help. Many times, I’d weep as each contestant spoke. Those tales of woe definitely shaped and may even have warped my worldview.

This past fall, my son and I drove to Connecticut and visited Benedetta who was 105 at the time.  She entertained us with several of her favorite songs, including, “I like coffee. I like tea.  I like the boys and they like me.” After singing, she said, “No, I’m too old.  The boys don’t like me any more.” Then, of course, she’d giggled.  There’s nothing quite like the sound of a 105-year-old giggling.

Soon after our visit, my grandmother began to “time travel.” Visitors would never know which era they’d find her in. Once, she was trying to catch the bus so that she could see my great-grandfather before he died. (He’d passed away of Parkinson’s Disease in the 1940’s.) Another time, she was furious with her husband, Gaetano, who hadn’t shown up in days. (He’d been dead for about twenty years). The saddest, though, was one evening when Benedetta frantically tried to search for her five children—thinking they were still out playing after dark.

I couldn’t make it to Benedetta’s 106th birthday party this past January.  But I heard that she rallied and was very much present and in the moment, drinking coffee, eating a doughnut, laughing, singing and enjoying her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. After that day, her health went down hill. She passed away on Friday March 6th with a grandchild holding her hand. 

She had made it through the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and too many wars. She had outlived her husband, many of her friends, nine of her siblings and two of her grandchildren. What it had been like to say that many good byes?

As I helped my mother write Benedetta’s obituary, I wondered how to sum up 106 years. What makes up a life? Perhaps it is years of kneading bread dough, pouring cups of milk, picking sun-ripened tomatoes from the vine, sewing on buttons, singing hymns, praying prayers, wiping bottoms, wiping away tears and… cracking a joke then giggling only the way a 106-year-old can giggle. Rest in peace, Benedetta Boccaccio.

To hear more of Deborah Prum’s work, check out  First Kiss and Other Cautionary Tales or her blog.    

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