Always Have, Always Will

The idea for this project came to me while I was grappling with how to honor my grandmother’s life, shortly after her death in 2017. My grandmother, who I and my cousins lovingly called “Nanna” was inspiring in so many ways. She grew up during the Great Depression as a first generation daughter in a Sicilian household. She was surrounded by powerful female figures who showed their strength in a way different than we might think of a strong woman today. Instead of donning suits and marching into male-dominated offices, they cooked, cleaned, managed households and, in many instances, provided for the family when their husbands couldn’t or wouldn’t. My great grandmother, Sarah, cooked in a school cafeteria and scrubbed the floors of churches to make ends meet, while her husband struggled with severe alcoholism and eventually passed away young in his forties. My grandmother Pauline, went to nighttime beauty school during high school where she worked for the owner of several beauty shops, a man named Clancy, who would pay the way for beautician school if they in turn worked for him for a year. She then went on to open her own beauty shop called Polly’s and run it from her home. She made enough money to send her mother, Sarah, to beauty school too so that Sarah could be self-sufficient without having to cook and clean for a living. My grandmother ended up meeting my grandfather, Tony, on a whim. He was visiting his family on break from military service in World War II, shortly before his serving time ended. His friend stopped by to visit him and asked him if he would like to go down to a church where they were putting on a musical. Tony, who had a voice that was known for sounding like Frank Sinatra agreed. He walked into the church and saw Pauline, then 18, singing Summertime. “Hey,” he said to his friend, “that’s the woman I’m going to marry”. And he did, about a year later. Tony and Pauline went on to have five children. Soon Pauline gave her beauty shop over to her mother and dedicated herself to raising her children, as women did in those days. When she was in her late twenties, a small conversation forever changed her life. Tony bought life insurance for the family, to which Pauline, who managed the mail and the bills, cancelled. “Why are you spending money on betting that you’re going to die”? She would ask, her depression-era mindset strongly impacting money management. “Honey,” Tony would reply, ever patient, “insurance is to protect you and the kids if something happened to me.” “Well,” she responded on a whim, “if you want insurance, then send me to college”. Tony agreed. “Okay”, he said. Pauline, not knowing where her statement had even come from, “it’s not even something I thought about!”, set off on a long journey to get her bachelor’s degree in teaching, taking one class every Saturday while Tony watched the kids. She kept it a secret from friends and almost all family, believing that if they knew she was in college, they would think something was wrong with the marriage. After becoming an elementary school teacher, Pauline eventually went on to get her master’s degree in psychology and become a licensed psychotherapist at the Jungian Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. She and my grandfather would frequently travel there and stay while she studied, splitting time for a while between Pittsburgh and Zurich. She opened a private practice in Pittsburgh and saw clients for over thirty years, up until a month before she passed away. During the last year of her life, she told her clients that she was going to fully retire in 2017 and asked all of her remaining clients to find a new therapist before 2016 ended. She fell sick in early December 2016 and passed away January 2 2017, two days after she had fully “retired”. My grandmother was an amazing woman. I was lucky enough to spend hours upon hours hearing her talk about her life. She always teased me, “Hannie, you ask so many questions! Even when you were a little girl, every time I would pick you up in the car, you would ask to hear a story. And unlike other kids, you didn’t want to hear a made-up fairy tale, you wanted to hear a story from my life, or about someone in the family.” It’s true. My favorite type of conversation is one in which someone is telling me something about their life,their family or their friends. If you know me, you know I ask a lot of questions. You could say I’m nosy, but I think more so, I’m interested. People’s lives, however outwardly exciting or mundane, truly interest me. From the time I was young until the last weeks of my grandmothers time on earth, I loved sitting next to her and hearing stories, many of which I had heard before, but that would always lead to something new, some new character or piece of information. Maybe that’s where I got my passion for stories, or maybe I was born that way. As a legacy to my grandmother, I want to create a project in which I gather real stories from real humans through the lense of how they met someone significant that changed their life. Because the interesting thing to me is, as much as you try to plan and curate your life, so much of what happens to you is who you meet. If my grandmother had fallen sick and hadn’t been at rehearsal that day, or if my grandfather had decided that instead of following his friend to the church, that he’d take a nap, they never would have met that day. They wouldn’t have gotten married or moved to the suburbs, had five kids and secretly carried out a college education. Or..maybe they would have. Depending on what you think about destiny. In this blog, I talk to people about how they met someone significant that affected the course of their life…romantic, friendship, familial – any type of relationship. This project is a tribute to my grandmother. She knew in my heart I was a lover of stories. Here’s to you, Nanna. Love you. Always have, always will.

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