My Grandma Normandia was born in 1879 in Palma Campania, Italy. My dear Gordon was born on the same day in 1935. What are the chances that two of the people I loved so much in my life were born on the same day, 1 out of 365? When Gram was born, the population of her comune was around 7,600. I just looked that up to get a feel for the size of the town where she grew up before she came to America with her parents on the ship Brittania when she was sixteen.

I didn't forget to tell you about my Coney Island memory that still haunts me once in awhile and taught me a lesson. I was looking for a picture taken that eventful day and just found it. It was in May, 1940, and I was not yet five. Gram said she would take me to the beach if I could be up and ready to go by 5am so we could get to the bath house early to change into our bathing suits. I was so excited I could hardly sleep. Gram
always paid for a bath house so we could shower before we got on the subway to go home. There was no way she was going to allow a grain of sand into her immaculate house!

Grandma Normandia was an excellent swimmer and excelled at everything she did. She liked to swim in the Atlantic Ocean and that meant I got to go in the shallow water with her because she never let me out of her sight when she was responsible for me. It's a good thing, because that was the day an undertow pulled me out into deep water and I went under, tumbled upside-down several times, and swallowed too much salt water. I couldn't tell which way was up to reach the surface. Gram was right there to save me and pulled me out to safety or I wouldn't be here writing my memoirs. I was sufficiently frightened that I didn't go in the ocean again until I learned to swim at Camp Talako in Central Valley, New York, a few years later.

I was almost five. You may think I look tall for my age in the picture below, but Gram was only four-feet nine-inches tall and everything's relative. The other studio photos were taken before I was born. I was told Gram was pregnant in the center picture where she's wearing an elegant gown. I've also thought the outfit in the next picture w
as a little unusual, even for her. She is standing with her daughter, Angelina Carmela, probably on her Confirmation Day. Gram was 27 when Angelina was born and ended up having six sons and Angelina, her only  daughter. The great tragedy of her life was when Angelina died in 1921 when she was only 16. She was bitten by an insect in her sleep and she died soon after. I've heard it was a spider bite or a tarantula. What kind of insect it was depended on who was telling that old family story.  Everyone who was there has passed on. Maybe some day I'll send for Angelina's death certificate and find out the truth once and for all.

My parents had gotten married the year before that sad event. Mom was barely pregnant when Angelina died. Grandma declared the new baby would be named Angelina (little angel), following the Italian naming convention that the first daughter had to be named after her paternal grandmother, Angela Cernese. As my sister grew up she hated her name because she was named after a dead child. She was called Jean after that and even on her gravestone she is listed as Jean Lomuto. I thought her birth name suited her because Jean was an Earth Angel if there ever was one. She was 13 years old when I was born and was like a second mother to me until I was in my 40s. That's when we started relating more like sisters who shared many family secrets! I miss her so.

Priscilla and Gram
                      Normandia-May 1940 Coney Island         Grandma Normandia in fancy long dress     Grandma Normandia & daughter
                          Angelina's Confirmation

Grandma was a tiny, but powerful, mystical woman and well-known self-trained midwife, nurse and counselor. She ruled her domain. Her name was Giovannina Tuorto Normandia, but people called her Jennie. She also did mal' occhio which literally means bad eye, or explained as having the power over the evil-eye. It was simply called The Eyes in English. The belief behind it is that a person can harm you, your children, your animals, or even your fruit trees, by either looking at you, or them, with envy and/or by praising them too much.

Mom would say, for instance, that someone overlooked the baby, implying that a person's gaze on a coveted person, usually a child, had lasted too long. That was why after complimenting a child, she had been taught to say God bless you, to ward off the evil-eye.

Mal’occhio could be healed by women like my grandmother who had learned the secret healing ritual of The Eyes from an older woman. I watched many times as neighborhood women brought Grandma articles of clothing from their sick children and begged her to heal them. Gram did not want them to bring their sick child to her house since no one had cars and they would have to bring their babies many blocks in a stroller to where we lived. She didn't think a sick baby should be taken blocks away for a healing, especially in the winter.

She would diagnose the illness and if it was mal’occhio, she would perform a cure. It looked to me like a secret prayer and ritual using hand gestures that she made over a piece of the child's clothing that the mother had brought. Eventually she would start yawning, a signal that the healing was done. Then she would say, Go home, your baby is better now, and I guess most of the time, it was so. I asked her to teach me how to do it but she said I was too young. It could only be passed on to an adult at midnight on Christmas Eve and she chose a middle-aged cousin who wanted to learn the technique.

Many old Italians wore an amulet for protection against the evil-eye curse, like a
cornicello or corno for short, a little red horn. In Neapolitan, it is often made of red coral and called cuornuciello. I still have one. It looks like a chili pepper. Another amulet was a manofico which looks like a hand gesture. They might also choose to wear a scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a patroness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many became Carmelites, as my sister Jean did. Over the years, she gave everyone in the family a brown scapular. I still have mine.

At times Gram suggested an amulet or charm for the child to wear to ward off the power of the evil-eye in the future. My sister had to wear a red coral horn for protection when she was little. When she had her first son, Peter, she pinned the same coral horn to his diaper. I don't think she really believed in the old superstition by then, but she said she did it "just in case."

A manofico was a charm of a closed hand with the thumb tucked under the index finger but sticking out between the index finger and the middle finger. I noticed in her later years, my Mom often held her hand this way. I thought it was a tension habit but now I wonder if she was still warding off the evil-eye.

Italian horn -
                          Cuornuciello in Neapolitan             Italian
                          amulet of closed hand             Brown

Mom explained my grandmother’s odd behavior to me by saying Gram was "like a practical nurse." When I took my training to become a Reiki Master in my adult years, I noticed some similarities between Reiki and the mal’occhio technique as Gram did it. There were certain hand movements that looked similar to Reiki hand movements, and secret words said in a foreign language. Maybe just a coincidence, but I wonder. I'm not a superstitious person at all.

I was completely in awe of my tiny Grandma Jennie, the first powerful woman I had ever met. I am forever grateful for the model she set for me. She and my sister remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church until their last days on Earth. I respect their decision though as I grew up, a spiritual longing was stirring inside of me and I left the Catholic church in my twenties to search for I knew not what.

When Gordon and I met, we were both searching for a non-traditional spiritual home where we could be our most authentic selves about our inner spiritual beliefs, which happened to be similar. It was part of the attraction we had for each other. It was an interesting journey and we finally found The Seraphim Center in Gainesville, Florida, where people of all beliefs are welcome and there is no dogma whatsoever except to love one another. When Gordon and I wrote our wedding vows, we put a line in that said we promised to stay together as long as our spiritual paths were joined. It was that important to us and thankfully it never became an issue. The other line we half-jokingly thought of adding was that we would stay together as long as we never asked the other to live north of I-10! Since we both agreed on that one we left it out. It was a standing joke that we were sure people got tired of hearing but we never got tired of telling it. I'm  looking forward to writing about my wonderful life with Gordon, but it's not time yet.

I wrote this love poem about my Grandma Normandia a long time ago.


squash grew in her Victory Garden
and on her cast iron stove
she fried their yellow flowers with eggs
she turned them with her age-worn hand
and I saw ridges on her fingernails
and her sardonyx ring
olive oil did a golden bubble dance
and savory aromas consumed the air
in her upstairs kitchen long ago
spaghetti dried on wooden racks
and Concord wine was pressed in the cellar
and she braided my hair
she had magnolias blooming
in that Brooklyn back yard long ago
no one believes that now
our time together raced by so quickly
now I have ridges on my fingernails
and her sardonyx ring

I appreciate how blessed I was to grow up in my grandparents' house. Grandpa left his body when I was nine. I don't remember him well, but I got to be with Grandma every day of my childhood until she got her angel wings when I was just fifteen. She gave me that sardonyx ring on my 12th birthday and I passed it on to my youngest child, Priscilla (Cilla) when she turned twelve. The cozy house on Conselyea Street was torn down some years ago and a sterile condo was built on the site. Maybe I really can't go home again and sit on the stoop and see the magnolia tree in the back yard, but the sweet memories of those years full of Grandma-Love will never die.