“Gilly, I want to talk to you. Come with me to the parlor.”
What could my grandmother want? Why the sound of serious urgency in her voice? This was something new.
I loved being in my grandparents’ country home where the comforting scent of pine reminded me of evergreens and sandy soil outside. It was nothing like our home in Germantown, where the “Dream Castle” homes had cold, craggy granite exteriors.
My parents and I looked forward to our weekly visits with my maternal grandparents. Sundays were always special; after our afternoon feast, selected members of the household were invited into the parlor to hear my grandfather’s prize collection of operatic 78-inch records playing on the Victrola. Grandpop and my father would listen to Beniamino Gigli, Enrico Caruso, Renata Tebaldi and others, with eyes closed, absorbing each aria with rapture.
But today there was no musical interlude. Grandmom wanted to talk to me alone. Entering the parlor, she motioned to me to sit on the sofa, worn from the use of 14 grandchildren who often used it as a trampoline.
I sat next to this 72-year-old woman, who also looked worn. Grandmom had birthed 13 children, of whom only six survived. She always appeared aged with her salt and pepper hair, densely wrinkled face and translucent skin revealing blue ribbons of veins pulsating through her delicate fingers. I loved stroking her soft hands.
She was strong, however. Among the two overstuffed fuchsia armchairs in the parlor, was her prize possession, a black, wooden player piano. Grandmom had worked in the cotton mill for the money to buy that ebony instrument. She wanted the sound of music to permeate her home as it would surely bring many happy times to her family.
At this moment Grandmom was not smiling. She looked serious and intent on what she was going to say to me. We sat in silence for several minutes. Her hands lay still in her lap.
Gilly, you are 15-years-old and growing nicely. There is something I must tell you now.”
“What is it, Grandmom?”
Her hands then began to fidget, and it was difficult for her to speak.
“When I was young, we didn’t know about anything. No one ever spoke about personal matters, if you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t know what you mean.”
Could this conversation be about “The Birds and the Bees?” I heard grownups use that expression, but no one ever expounded on it to me.
“Then let me put it this way. When I became a lady, I thought I was dying. I was so scared, but I was too ashamed to talk about it with my mother. You are growing up fast; it’s my duty to warn you about something.”
She clutched her hands rigidly on each knee as though they were giving her the necessary support to get through this uncomfortable conversation.
“Gilly, when you go out with a boy, never let him… never let him touch your…”
Silence reigned again as Grandmom paused for a much-needed breath and reflection on how to proceed. She began to wring her hands as though that motion would make the words burst forth. She tried again.
“Never let a man touch your… ” Again, her words ended abruptly. Now I was really curious.
“Touch what, Grandmom?” I asked, my voice rising with impatient curiosity. “Never let a man touch your… knee. That’s where it all begins!” I looked down at one of my kneecaps in wonder.
If a man were to touch it, would it fall off, or something?
“That’s where what begins, Grandmom?” But there was no answer. I looked up and Grandmom had disappeared.
Dr. Gilda Rorro Baldassari is an educator and writer actively dedicated to all aspects of her Italian-American heritage. Her memoir will be published in Spring, 2018.