Remembering my Gram Helen Costanzo…
As some of you might be aware, my gram Helen passed away suddenly and unexpectedly this past Sunday. As you all know from reading my blog, she was an integral part of my life and the matriarch of our family. My sister and I got a chance to share the memories of her at the funeral and many people have asked for copies of our speeches. However, in the midst of everything, I realized I forgot to write down who wanted the speech, so I’m posting it here for anyone to print out. I’d also like to thank everyone for their kind words, thoughts and prayers for our family during this very difficult time.
I have learned so much from my grandmother. She has taught me about life, death, relationships, friendships, and most importantly, family. If it was not for my grandmother, my family and I would not be where we are today. She embodied the definition of true strength until her last moment on Earth and I couldn’t think of anyone better to have as a role model.
She was a wonderful wife to my grandfather. She raised three children doing her best to give them a great life. And when us grandchildren came along, she spoiled us through her greatest talent- her passion for cooking homemade pasta, raviolis, gnocchis, cookies, pies, bread, the list goes on and on. Every holiday and wedding, she is at the forefront of it all. Sometimes cooking for 40 people at a time, even at age 89 nothing stopped this woman from making anyone feel welcome into her home with a fresh bowl of pasta.
I remember one conversation about death that we had in particular once. She was never scared and I remember saying one day, it will all make sense. We both agreed that her and I would be in heaven one day hanging out with those loved ones who had passed on. I know things may not make sense to us now, and I almost feel selfish to say, I wish we could have more time. But one thing I know, she’s in heaven with my grandpap, her parents, and her sisters looking down on all of us. I believe she has become my guardian angel and I couldn’t ask for anyone better to watch over me.
My gram had altruistic love. She had self-sacrificing love, where she needed to help comfort and serve people throughout her entire life. She took pride in herself through organization and everything she did in her life was to make life easier on us. She even had her rosary beads, slippers, and church songs picked out for her funeral years before to make this process easier on my aunt. My dad and I joked that the only thing she forget was to freeze food so that she could cater her own funeral.
Gram- I will cherish the times we have spent together. You have thought my sister and I how to make homemade pasta and sauce- it will never be as good as yours, but we hope to keep the tradition alive. Some of my favorite memories with you were when I would stay over at Greenfield Ave on Saturday nights after work and I’d wake up to a breakfast with you on Sunday morning. You would always make a fuss over me and you made me my favorite- fresh coffee, one egg, one piece of bacon, toast and a hotcake. We got to talking over food about what was going on in my life and yours and I felt as though I could tell you anything. I’ll miss afternoons at Aunt Diane’s with you when you would make me lunch and we would talk over tea. When I came up for advice, you always gave the best. Any man problems I ever had her response was always the same, “Oh these men, they’re all crazy!”
My grandma wasn’t just my Gram, she was a best friend. I miss my Gram already, but I know she left the way she would have wanted to go. On the day she passed away, she had her hair, make up and nails done just so, she went to church, took holy communion, lit a candle, kissed all of her sisters goodbye, and spent her last moments in the presence of her three children. She left her way. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, but her way. Maria and I will tell you when cooking with Gram, the best advice I have is to watch because if you try to do things slightly different than her way, she tells you that you’re doing it wrong and pushes you aside.
I think I speak on behalf of everyone here today when I say, “We have so much respect for you as a wife, sister, sister-in-law, aunt, daughter, mother, grandmother and a friend.
Gram- Thank you for all that you have done for me throughout my life. You were the best grandmother anyone could ask for. I will try to live my life selflessly just like you have lived yours- trusting in God and family to make it through tough times such as this. I love you so much. It’s not goodbye, I know I’ll see you again.
Maria’s Final Thoughts:
On behalf of the Melchiorre and Costanzo families, I would like to welcome everyone here on this day celebrating the life and the memories of my grandma Helen Costanzo. In life there is a saying, that if you are a lucky person, you will go through life with a handful of true friends. I consider myself a very lucky person because instead of one handful, I have two.
My first handful consists of the normal childhood and college buddies who I’ve grown up with. They’ve stuck with me through and through and they have been there over the course of these last couple of days, which once again proves what type of friends they are.
However, my second handful consists of some people who I didn’t necessarily choose. Like the pre-bagged fruit in the grocery store, I acquired them all as a package deal. Even though you never do really know what you are going to get when you shop this way, the fruit of these relationships has been some of the most ripened and tastiest fruit out there. These are the people who I not only shared life experiences with, but these are the people that helped to create me and weave the intrinsic fabrics that make me who I am today. These people are: my parents, my sister, my husband and my grandma. Out of the five of my fingers, Gram is definitely the thumb. I have looked to her for her thumb’s up approval and altered what I was doing anytime she gave me the thumb;s down.
As the first born grandchild, I had three years of time when I was her only grandchild and I have to admit, she did spoil me. My gram always made a big deal out of everything and I mean, EVERYTHING I did. From attending my impromptu concerts in her living room, where I went “shopping” in Aunt Diane’s old closet dressing up in only the finest of what the 70’s had to offer, taking all the pillows off the couch and blasting Debbie Gibson screaming horribly to the music, to making her take me up the hill so that we could go to Freddy’s candy store, she would do anything to make me happy. I have so many memories from when I was a small child helping Gram fry meatballs down in the cellar, going swimming at Magee pool even though I was never allowed to go in deeper than 3 feet as swimming was never one of her strong suits, riding my bike in the alley behind her house, eating Oreo cookies for breakfast, and faking illnesses so that I could have some Pepto-Bismol just because I loved the taste. Although I never pushed the limits, I did know that I could get away with more at her house, which is probably why I wanted to spend so much time there.
As I grew up, our relationship deepened and matured. She was a grandma to me no doubt, but she also acted as my confidant, my best friend, my second mom, my therapist, and at times, my personal chef. Over the years, we’ve shared many visits and phone calls which will always hold a special place in my heart. Although I will NEVER be able to do her justice, I wanted to highlight ten things that I will never forget about her.
Gram never wasted any time. When I would call her in the morning to check in and to ask what she was up to, she would respond, “Oh nothing, I just cleaned the floors, scrubbed the bathrooms, did the wash, made some sauce, and made cookies for someone’s wedding, that’s all.” In a recent trip home a couple of weeks ago, while watching the Steelers, I was teasing her because every time she left the opponents scored. I said, “Gram, you better stay put, you are giving the Steelers bad luck.” She told me, “Maria, I love the Steelers, but they have to understand, I’m busy and I’ve got things to do.” At almost 90 years of age, she did more before 9 am than most people did in a week’s time.
Gram was proud of her heritage. She was born in Italy and she never forgot her roots. She loved Italian people and so much so that the first question she asked any potential suitor I brought home was, “Are you Italian?” You could imagine the pressure Joe Palmer must have felt prior to meeting her, especially because I told him that if my grandma didn’t like him, we couldn’t continue with the relationship. When we walked into her basement 10 years ago for Joe’s first visit, Joe was very nervous as a lot of was on the line. Joe may not have Italian roots, but he did come ready with some research linking his family to bringing kerosene to Italy. We walked up the steps to greet her, I gave her a kiss and before I could even sit down, she asked me to go over to my aunt’s house across the driveway to get some cheese. I am such a creature of habit and I was taught to never question my grandma so without any thought, I turned around and left leaving Joe with that ‘deer in the headlights’ look. As I walked down the steps, I heard her asking ‘the question.’ By the time I got back, I knew I was going to know the fate my relationship with Joe. When I got back, I could tell that things were going very well and that Grandma had taken a real liking to Joe. I called her later that night to get the real scoop and she said, “Maria, Joe is a nice young man, he may not be Italian, but his people did good things for the Italian people so that’s enough good in my book.”
Growing up and even today, I feel that same amount of pride about being Italian. I’m not saying that Italians are better than other people, but it is just a pride that I have about my heritage that I know it came from her. My senior year of high school, Gram took me, Kelly, Brittany, my mom and Aunt Diane on a trip to Italy and it was so wonderful to be able to share in this experience with her. It is something I will never forget.
Gram lived simply, and she loved Greenfield. Up until she moved in with my aunt, Greenfield was her turf and she was not much of an explorer outside of that. Although this was incredibly endearing, I learned the hard way to never to ask Gram for directions. One rainy night, my friend Matt, who was living in Shadyside called me while I was over at Greenfield Ave and he wanted to pay a visit. I, too, am not incredibly adept in getting places so I felt that it would be appropriate to ask Gram. I figured what the heck, she had the bar in Shadyside for years, she must have made this trip 1 million times, right? I passed the phone to Gram and learned very quickly as she spouted out, “Matt, go a little ways down the street, turn right, turn right, down the hill, left” that this may have not been the brightest idea. As Matt was asking her for further info, such as I don’t know, street names? She resorted to her favorite landmarks. She said, “You know where the Giant Eagle is?” His response didn’t suit her, “Yes, but there are two Giant Eagles.” She was completely taken aback. The concept of two Giant Eagles for this Greenfield girl was incredibly foreign. Her response was, “Just go to the good Giant Eagle and turn right.” Matt wasn’t really understanding what she was saying so she thought maybe she could put it in more simpler terms, and here is what I heard on her end of the conversation, “Matt, do you know where the CoGo’s is? No, Matt, do you know where Bruesters is? No, Matt, what about Silk Pagoda? No, Matt, do you know where Rialto’s is? What, you don’t know where Rialto’s is? Everyone knows where Rialto’s is.” Then Gram looked at me and said, “Maria, I’m giving you the phone back because I can’t help him.” Poor Matt arrived to the house some 2 hours later and I really have no idea how he found us, but let’s just say Gram’s directions, no offense Gram, probably didn’t guide his way.
She was a pioneer of her time. Grandma was the first one to ‘go green’ being environmentally conscious before anyone even knew what that was. When you looked in her cupboards, you would find stacks upon stacks of recycled Ricotta cheese containers that she used to put leftovers in to take home. She even recycled foil. When Joe first came into the family, he looked in our fridge and said, “Maria, why does your family own so much Ricotta cheese?”
Gram was incredibly warm, hospitable and her traditions rooted in Italian food and culture. Gram loved having people over to share one of her home-cooked meals, each one included her staple homemade pasta dish. Nothing made her happier than gathering people together to delight in the joy of her pasta. At any given holiday, you could find the house filled with family as well as any other stragglers and transplants. I’ve had the pleasure of bringing several people over to the house for the holidays. In addition to the normal American holiday traditions, we always had spaghetti. Actually until I went to college, I had no idea that other people didn’t share the same Italian fare during the holidays. The first time I had to spend a holiday without my family I waited for the pasta and when it never came, I realized how special holidays at her house really were. Whenever I brought over my Jewish friend Sandra for Easter (Passover for her) and Gram offered her some pasta, which, of course, she had to politely decline. As she explained to Gram that she can’t eat pasta for this small time, Gram’s response in shock, “That is really sad Sandra, you are definitely missing out. Maybe you could make an exception today because this is home-made?” And there was another time that I brought Nabil, my Pakistani friend home for Christmas. Gram always loved him and as they sat down and talked, she asked him, “Nabil, how does your mom make her home-made pasta?”
If Gram was a contestant on the show Survivor, she would have won. Over the years, our family, unlike many others, has been presented with challenges, but my Grandma faced these challenges with the utmost dignity and class. She was the true matriarch of our family always carrying the heaviest load to make it lighter for everyone else. However, her survival nature also came in handy for everyday life occurrences. One cold day a couple of winters ago, she accidentally locked herself out of the house leaving her stuck inside the garage until my aunt got home from work. Instead of panicking, Gram just simply wrapped herself in plastic sat and prayed until my aunt got home. My dad always says that the definition of courage is composure under pressure and that is what she had.
She had an amazing memory. No matter what story I would tell her, she would always remember even sometimes when I would rather of her forget. A few Christmas’s ago when Joe and I were living in LA, we travelled to Pittsburgh for the holidays and on our way back to LA experienced the normal holiday travelling disaster of having our flight being oversold. We volunteered and got two free plane tickets so when Easter came around the next year and I told Gram that we didn’t have the money so we couldn’t come back to Pittsburgh to visit she said, “Maria, what about those two free tickets you have from the Christmas trip, you can come just use them.” What Gram didn’t realize is that were initially going to use the tickets for a getaway, but after she said this, Pittsburgh bound we came.
She wasn’t afraid to call you out when necessary. I remember one day about 15 years ago going to the Sheridan apartments with her. There were men working on renovating one of the apartments and they told Gram that they couldn’t rip up the floors without buying some expensive machinery, which they wanted her to pay for. She looked at them and then looked at the floor asked one of the men for the scrapper, and then she proceeded to get down on the ground in her dress and started pulling up the floor. She then got up and said, “See, if I can do it so can you, get back to work.”
Gram was honest to default and in the end, she was always right. I remember one conversation vividly we had a couple of years ago when I told her that I was going to run a marathon. After telling Gram that I was going to be running 26.2 miles, Gram’s response was, “Why would you ever want to do something like that? This isn’t a good idea.” I explained how I wanted the satisfaction of accomplishing something challenging and that I was running for charity. To that she replied, “Whatever, but it’s not for me.” At about mile 18, I realized that when all my bones even my fingertips were pounding with pain, Gram was right once again.
Gram was in incredible shape. At age 80, my dad and Gram had a conversation about being in shape and jump roping. Gram had thought she could out jump my dad to which he said, “there’s no way, Mom.” So we ended up going down to the basement for the challenge. I hedged my bet on Gram and not surprisingly she won by a landslide. Up until the very end, she was active and could run circles around us all.
It is no secret that I have had the pleasure and the gift of sharing a very special relationship with my grandmother Helen Costanzo. One of the things that struck me the most about this experience is how touched everyone has been over it. I’ve had many conversations and received countless phone calls and e-mails from my people who were equally as heartbroken over her passing. People keep saying how much she touched their lives. Gram, as you look down on us from heaven today, I hope this eulogy gets a thumb’s up in your book. In closing, in honor of Helen Costanzo, may we all love our families, live simply, and give plentifully to others. Amen.