A Role Model of a Lifetime, My 102 Year-Old Grandmother
It has been an absolute honor and joy of a lifetime to love the warm, wise and wonderful, Theresa Corbi, my grandmom. At this time it’s not possible for me to properly process or express the degree of admiration, respect, pride and unconditional love I possessed for the greatest woman I have ever known. Throughout her 102 years of life she nourished countless hearts, minds and stomachs always leaving an indelible impression on those who sat, spoke or shared a meal with her. She was uncomplicated and pure in a way humanity should be. Current events didn’t phase her, she never had cable TV and coveted nothing but love and togetherness. On her 100th birthday someone asked her what the secret to her longevity was and she responded, “Don’t want for anything” or appreciate what you have. I can honestly say, I did just that every single time I called or visited her. OK, now it’s “processing” out of my eyes. I LOVED her more than my body and heart could hold. All I wanted to do in her presence was to simply be with her, look at her, listen to her, often taking her hand in mine and just smiling or saying “I love you” over and over. She made me calm, confident, peaceful which made me feel free to give every fiber of my being to the experience of being together. And I craved time with her often as my heart knew she enjoyed and needed company in her later years. We exchanged love and I reveled in the wonderment of not only being a granddaughter (at my age) but most importantly, her granddaughter.
My father Carmen was her first-born son. He’s been gone so long (almost 32 years) I barely remember the intricacies of how they interacted, but have seen evidence of the way he cherished her through stories and gifts. She certainly bestowed her Italian cooking know-how on him because he loved creating in the kitchen, like his mentor. It pains me to think about the despair she felt losing her 48 year-old son. His name slipped out of her mouth often, but she never dwelled too long on the sadness. It didn’t support her mantra of appreciating what you have. She didn’t push the sadness away, but that kind of mental energy was just not exercised by her for long.
When my dad died in 1988 my family life was very, shall I say, complicated. To be honest, back then my mother was complicated and acted hastily and over-emotionally due to trivial particulars pertaining to the death situation. So she used me, a 13 year-old, as a pawn in a game of keep-away. I was forbidden to see my grandmother and entire Corbi family. If I as much inquired or spoke about my “other” family, I was made to feel like I was betraying my mother, the person who gave me life, shelter and was responsible for parenting 3 teenagers as a widow. After my father’s death I lost 5 long years of experiences with one whole side of my family, the side that knew my beautiful father best and could’ve consoled and help me heal from my tragic loss. On my 18th birthday my (half) brother Timmy (who passed away in 2016), who was not related to my dad’s side, placed a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table in front of me and gave me the speech of a lifetime; “Ann, you are 18, you own this house. You can smoke in here now and go see your grandmother.” He gave me the encouragement and license to be an adult and make my own choices without the guilt or oversight of my/our mom. I chose to reunite despite the “consequences”.
My imperfect memory recalls attending my cousin Denise’s wedding as the first time I had seen any of my Corbi family in 5 years. I couldn’t wait to see grandmom. When our eyes met, she opened her arms as wide as she could and I scooped right in. I can only remember her saying, “I knew you’d be back”. We didn’t even talk about what, why or time lost.
I more than made up for that time with her in the past 26 years. That experience made me cherish every moment with her since. For 23 of those years Dan has been right there with me at her house, apartment, kitchen, table, sitting room, holiday and hug.
Dan arrived on the scene at a giant family gathering at her house where she cooked and an incredible Italian meal. That’s when he was introduced to grandmom, uncles, homemade raviolis, cousins and braciole. He gained a new family and 50 extra pounds from that moment on. True story. Grandmom absolutely loved filling Dan’s plate and watching him enjoy second helpings and the subsequent nap in the sitting room. She’d often say to me, “let him sleep” with a smile.
When she was about 88 I turned 30. Her vitality and health at that age inspired me to assess her history and lifestyle for clues that would lead me to her “secret”. She one of 5 children and her parents came to Philadelphia from Italy, Giulianova to be specific. When she was around 10 years old her mother died and along with her older brother Al Nobile and older sister Rose, she leaned into more of a care taking role for her younger siblings Jenny and Mike. It was during that very young age she learned the skills of cooking and other valuable life lessons. They were poor and had only the necessities. She used baking soda and her finger to brush her teeth and meat was a luxury. She shared the story about accidentally dropping a glass casserole dish and getting hit by her father because of it. It came to her mind when I broke a drinking glass at her apartment. I apologized profusely and she said with a shrug, “if we can drop dead so can they.” That story spoke volumes to me and helped shape the way I put importance on material objects. I also realized that for the majority of her life she cooked almost everything from scratch and ate very little processed food. Here she was at 88 thriving on home-cooked (and occasional restaurant) meals from real ingredients. I made a mental note and started to cook with and eat more whole foods, making sure a salad was part of my every day.
For years she required a short notice that we’d be visiting and we’d be greeted with the aroma of a huge and fantastic meal before we even reached the door. I can still smell her “gravy” that would blanket her homemade macaroni with an abundance of meatballs and a hearty dash of crushed red pepper flakes. As kids we snacked on fennel and mixed nuts that had to be opened with a nutcracker. Dan and I paid her a winter visit once and she had a “yam in the oven” telling us she put the oven on for a little extra warmth and for efficiency’s sake, cooked something, too. We ate the yam together. Seriously, how cute is that? She taught me so much in the way of cooking, by watching her, watching cooking shows with her in the sitting room and talking about recipes over the phone. It made me feel close to my dad because here I was doing what he loved with his mom. I felt like I was keeping a tradition and memory alive.
Her creativity and resourcefulness in cooking was unmatched. Freezers, refrigerators and pantries were stocked with a variety of foods that could be transformed into a memorable feast for 2 or 20 at a moment’s notice. And you, a friend of yours, a stranger to her, were welcomed to her table at any time and was always encouraged. “Any time, I’m sure” she’d say. I’ve invited my friends, neighbors and entire families because I wanted to give her a new experience and share her with my dearest because I thought the world of her. On what we didn’t know would be her last Christmas Eve, my mom joined me and Dan at grandmom’s apartment for dinner. Grandmom’s arms and home were open to me and my mother despite her actions 19 years prior. We had an unforgettable night. I was proud of both my mother and grandmother. I was full of love.
In her later years when she was getting more forgetful we would show up with friends and walk in to other parties already seated at the table. This was the best kind of discovery that turned into a fun mingling of groups. When this would happen I’d say to her, “you didn’t tell me so and so was coming” and she’d say to me with a smile, “I know.” Did she not tell me because she thought it would discourage the situation or did she forget? I’ll never know.
Because I knew what food meant to her, I was terrified to tell her Dan and I decided to forgo all animal foods in favor of eating plant-based as almost all of our meals together previously incorporated cheese, meat or eggs. The change had nothing to do with how we delighted in eating her food, but how we favored a journey to protective health. Over the phone I told her about our upcoming visit and new diet and she simply said, “tell me what you do eat and I’ll make something.” That’s where her roasted cauliflower with chickpeas and chickpea sauce over pasta dish was born…right out of her brain. We’d arrive and she would serve that for years until she started to slow in her late 90s. That’s when I took over in the kitchen upon my arrival. I really enjoyed that role.
I began showing up with a bag of ingredients and homemade dishes. My greatest achievement was when I was given license to take over her kitchen and serve her my food, very much influenced by a lifetime of watching her. I nearly cried the first time she said, “very good” after taking a bite of my meal. She happily tried anything and everything I made. I made her a vegan grandmom for the afternoon or evening on many occasions. She’d say, “you don’t need meat.” Although, her favorite snack in her old age was straight up Popeye’s chicken.
By this time, Dan dropped a lot of that initial grandmom-meeting weight and used his energy to clean her kitchen after meals. She loved watching him clean. And even though she let us do whatever we wanted, she watched us like a hawk. It was cute and slightly unnerving as the last thing on Earth I ever wanted to do is disappoint her. I was careful to never overcook a batch of spaghetti. I needed to keep that “very good” streak going.
Prior to my stories of her last couple decades her life was rich with experiences with my grandfather (passed away in 1985), uncles, her nieces, nephews, scores of friends, siblings, grandchildren, big parties, care taking, big baking and choir practice. My special times are a snapshot from my perspective of her most senior years as a wise old woman, or “too old” as she’d say, in her very, very long life of 102 years.
As of December 2019 she lived on her own. One afternoon she fell in her apartment and broke her leg. In the hospital she successfully underwent surgery and made out of ICU. Her appetite never restored and it was a struggle to get her to eat or drink over the holidays. She spent her last weeks in a nursing home facility where we held her hand and showered her with love. While I was holding her hand on Sunday she opened her eyes wide and pushed out, “I love you” in a tiny, squeaky voice. Of course I responded with an I love you, too.
Theresa Julia Corbi was born on October 8, 1917 and died on January 28, 2020. She will be buried on February 1, 2020 on what would be her son Carmen’s 80th birthday.
To have received her love and attention has been the joy and honor of my lifetime.