During the worst of the Depression, she told me, there was barely enough money. Sometimes a meal for all eleven of them would be stewed tomatoes picked from their garden and poured over stale Italian bread. That was how families did it back then, making a little go a long, long way. Over time, Grandmom Chillano came to think she was richer for having suffered through that period in her life with her sprawling family. She might have minded sewing all those penny labels at the time, but she never let on that she minded it in retrospect, because it helped to define her, and build her character, and put food on the table.
Grandmom's last days were difficult. When I got word that she didn't have much time, I was living down in D.C., trying to make my way as an activist. My grandmother was in the final stages of Alzheimer's, a slowly devastating disease that can drag down whole families in its wake. Some folks, when they get a grim prognosis like that, they simply check out. They say, "Oh, that's awful. Call me when it's over." But that's not how we O'Donnells roll. We hear a piece of news like that and we rally. We say, "Oh my gosh. Only three more weeks? That's not nearly enough time." And we drop everything to be at our loved one's side, for whatever time we have left.
That's how it happened with Grandmom. We all rallied together. At the time, my father and grandfather hadn't been getting along, but even they put aside their differences. We did it because we wanted to make Grandmom as comfortable as possible, to make her death as peaceful and beautiful as possible. It became so much more than that, because the experience knitted us more deeply together as a family, in a profoundly beautiful way.
That colorful quilt I wrote about earlier? We wrapped ourselves beneath it and held each other close.
There's a profound encyclical on suffering from Pope John Paul II, in which he talks about how suffering can unleash love. That's how it was for us at my grandmother's passing. Her death brought us together and reminded us what it meant to love each other—fully, truly, unconditionally.
In many ways, my grandmother's death played a formative role in my life. On paper, and in every outward respect, I was already a young woman; I was deep into my twenties, making my own way in the world; and yet when you're swallowed back up by family, surrounded by aunts and uncles, you fall into some of your old roles, your old ways of being with each other. I think in times of extreme stress or hardship, this is especially so. We all had our roles within our family dynamic. My brother and sisters and I were all "kids" in the eyes of the "adults," and it fell to them to make all the really, really important decisions.
But that all changed through this experience. At one point my grandfather turned to me and said, "I don't know what I'll do without Grandmom. I don't know how I'll manage."
It wasn't just the thought of losing her that was weighing on him. It was the process of actually losing her. Caring for her was hard, really hard, and it was taking its toll. He didn't say as much but it was clear, so I said, "Grandpop, how about I spend the night and take care of Grandmom for you?"