My grandmother likes to joke that when her time comes, she’ll ask to be buried with a spoon in her hand. The reason for this? Because, she says, once she gets to heaven, she plans to eat a limitless supply of desserts. To which I always reply – “Grandma, when in your life have you ever held back on dessert?”
Today marks the 99th time my paternal grandmother will celebrate her birthday. One more year and she will have spent a century on this earth. Margaret “Peg” Lagana was born on D-Day, December 12, before D-Day had even occurred (she was already a 26-year-old wife and mother when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941).
And yet, this woman – who remembers her father’s original Model-T Ford and the days when her old man brewed ‘bath-tub gin’ in their home during Prohibition – can talk with you about the most en vogue Hollywood films, the latest political election, and will offer such sage advice as: “Don’t ever get caught on one of those ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos.” She rises every morning at five o’clock, she votes in every election, and she reads with an assiduity that leaves piles of books on her bedside table. Grandma Peg is quick-witted, big-hearted, sharp-tongued, and in possession of an insatiable appetite for good books, good companionship and, as mentioned above, good dessert.
Perhaps my love of history (and maybe sweets, too) was hatched from the countless hours I spent as a girl listening to the stories of this remarkable woman’s past and life. Grandma Peg’s father was an Italian immigrant, her mother an Irish immigrant. He worked as a butler, she worked as a maid. When they married, she was the envy of all of the other maids for snagging the charming, dark-haired man who loved to dance and joke.
Together, the Laganas raised a family of six and built a life that took them from the tenements of Manhattan to a family-run boatyard in northern Westchester. The stories of Grandma Peg’s life are rich and colorful. Like so many from her generation, Grandma Peg’s stories tell of sacrifice, setbacks, and success. She tells of being a left-handed writer before the nuns smacked that habit out of her. She remembers the flu epidemic that swept through her tenement when she was a little girl. She recalls the time that Cornell offered her, a female, a scholarship to attend college; a scholarship which she then turned down in order to accept an overnight waitressing job to help support her family through the worst years of the Great Depression.
At the age of 99, Peg remembers these moments, some of them more than ninety years in the past, with the crystalline clarity of events that occurred yesterday. Grandma Peg is a living treasure – her tales offering a peek into the past century of both the country’s and my family’s history.
Ninety nine candles signifying 99 years of life. And a big smile on her face as she prepares to blow those candles out surrounded by loved ones. People who would not be here, if not for the life she’s lived.
Can you imagine sitting down to your ninety-ninth birthday cake? It’s a staggering thought. Her secret? She’d tell you it was nothing more than butter an inch thick on her toast and cod liver oil. Whatever it is, keep on doing it, Grandma. It’s a humbling thing to love and admire you.