I thought the light blue wall was a likely background for the portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary that hung over the head of her bed as I looked in her bedroom from the doorway. There she sat, wrapped in a pink-knitted shawl, all 4’9” of her, enthroned against three pillows. Her long white hair was pulled back into a neat bun and a scapula hung around her neck as she clutched her crystal rosary beads in her worn, wrinkled hands. She was praying with such fervor that I was afraid to disturb her trance. As I walked beside her bed, she opened her eyes and smiled, reaching out to hold my hand. With rosary beads dangling ,she continued to mutter her prayers; a soft ,soothing drone. I glanced over at a Blessed Virgin Mary statue on her dresser. More rosary beads hung down to form a curtain of black, silver and brown on both corners of the mirror; a gold crucifix hung on one wall, while a picture of The Sacred Heart was on another wall, in between family pictures. It was like being in a shrine. My great-grandmother, Rose Ranze, seemed like a saint to me. She was always praying and her children and grandchildren before me, adored her. She was staying with my maternal grandmother, Nan, in the room next to the kitchen when I was visiting for the summer. I remember that she had some kind of heart problem and was frequently rushed to the hospital, but on that day, she seemed comfortable.
“Katadina,come a here” she motioned while making the sign of the cross after kissing the tiny silver crucifix on the rosary beads.
As I sat on the edge of her bed, she pulled me close, her rosary beads woven around her hand and fingers and kissed me on the forehead. The rosary beads tickled the back of my neck as I melted into her embrace,”God a bless,God a bless” she said.
Katadina, tella me, you wanna be a nun or you a wanna getta married?” she asked with a smile.
“Oh ,Grandma, I don’t know” I answered, sitting up. I never knew the answer to that question any time she had asked me. I often wonder what her response would have been if I had given her a definite answer one way or the other. I think she would have been alright either way, but making any kind of commitment seemed out of the question at that moment.
The sweet, warm smells drifted in from the kitchen. The sounds of the pots and pans clanking together and my Nan humming was so comforting as I soaked up that moment.
“How ‘bout something to eat?” Nan summoned while pulling the fresh bread out of the oven.
“Mange, Mange, Katadina “ Rose replied, while glancing over at me.
I helped her out of bed and we walked arm and arm to the kitchen table. My Nan stood by the stove, wiping her hands on the front of her red gingham apron waiting for us to sit down. My mouth watered as I watched her scoop out the steaming pasta fagiola and butter the fresh bread ,the soft yellow butter melting and spilling onto the plates ; the blending of three generations in one scrumptious moment in time.
“Mange!” Nan declared while placing the hot bowls and bread plates in front of us.
“First we a must a saya grace” making the sign of the cross again ,Rose led us in prayer.
Rose came over on the boat, from Italy, in 1895 when she was a teenager. She met her husband, Ernie in America and they had nine children. One son, Ernest ,died at the age of eighteen of tuberculosis and one daughter ,Rose, died at the age of one of pneumonia. Soon after, my great-grandfather died at the age of thiry-three, leaving her widowed with seven children to support. He had owned a bar and the business was lost after his death. Rose was pregnant with my great-aunt Jenny at the time. I often look at the photograph of my great -grandparents taken right before my grandpa died. Rose was holding my grandmother while two of the brothers stood on each side of their parents, stiff and stoic. I wonder how long after that picture that their lives were shattered and Rose was thrown into poverty. Soon after, the doctor who delivered her last child had wanted to adopt her, but Rose would have no part of that as she believed that God would provide. My grandmother, Carmella, and my great aunts and uncles would frequently tell stories of Rose’s faith, courage and creativity during those times.
“Momma would go to the butcher and ask for leftover blood from the chickens so she could fix us blood pudding, a mixture of cornstarch, sugar and chicken blood. She had no money and couldn’t afford to buy meat. Sometimes the butcher would throw in chicken parts and we would feel like we were having a feast.” Nan would tell us cousins as we sat around wide-eyed ,trying to relate.
“When it thundered, Momma would say the angels were bowling in heaven. We would all run into our bedroom and hide under the covers but she always came in to comfort us. The girls slept in one bed and the boys slept in another bed.” Uncle Freddie would laugh at the vision of seven little kids scrabbling under the covers.
Rose was somewhat of a legend to our entire family. No one could ever truly understand how she managed to bring up seven children while living in poverty. To my adult mind, it seemed that she simply trusted in God and He had provided. She lived to be eighty-three, surrounded by her seven children and their families who had all gone on to marry well and live comfortable lives. God had provided. She was right.
But, at the time I was not too keen on becoming a nun, thinking that I really wanted to get married and have a family. Her presence was powerful though and my ten year-old mind was fearful that I would be rushed into the convent before I had a chance to experience my life. It was a combination of fear and awe that I felt in her presence. And yet, she was so loving; always holding my face in her hands and kissing me, ”Quanda Bell, Katadina!”
“Mom, I think Grandma Ranze wants me to be a nun. Do I have to be a nun?”I asked one day. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I envisioned the scene of walking into a convent. I was convinced she had the power to determine my destiny or that she at least had enough influence to make it happen.
“Kathy, if God calls you to be a nun, you will know it and you will want to go into the convent.” she replied with a smile.
“Oh”, I replied, relieved in a grateful and enlightened way. I could actually serve God in other ways.
My mother put my fears to rest that day. But the image of that tiny woman and her unwavering faith stayed with me to shape my faith and my responses to life’s challenges. I would have no idea what challenges I would have to face, but when my time came to experience them, I would find strength and courage from my memories of this remarkable woman.
Faith is a gift I have been blessed with, through my great-grandma Rose Ranze. She is with me daily as I pray the rosary.