I Dream of Jeanie
One day after school, not long after immigrating to America, my sister declared to my parents that her new name would be Jeanie. She liked the sound of it. Her full name Giovanna was too hard for her new American friends to pronounce. And her Sicilian nicknames Gianna and Gianina didn’t sound anything like how they were written. With a name like Jeanie, she’d be sure to fit in.
Jeanie was my middle sister. She was six years older than me. She was the star. I dreamed of being like her: tall, slim, elegant, artistic, funny, popular, fashionable, admired by my parents, especially by my mother. My mother had the patience to sit with Jeanie and teach her how to sew, knit, cook, and bake. Jeanie was a quick study. In no time at all, she was sewing hip outfits for my sisters and me. She designed her own patterns and made coats, jackets, skirts, pantsuits, and gowns for bridesmaids. The Gallo girls strolled into the 70s looking as chic as the Mod-Squad.
Jeanie branched out and started sewing for neighbors. She did alterations for them. And she started cutting their hair. She was still in high school at this time. The neighborhood ladies lined up in our basement where she had set up a makeshift after-school hair salon. She did up-does and gave perms. She frosted their hair and covered up their gray. She teased and puffed their hair and then shellacked it with layers of spray. The Indiana ladies left our house inches taller, feeling mighty beautiful in a Hoosier kind of way.
Jeanie started painting nature scenes and then, using a hooking technique, started making throw rugs and carpets. She dabbled in weaving. She did quilting and crafts. She made Big Bird and Cookie Monster cakes. She was a success. She was also, like so many girls her age, boy-crazy. I was just a kid and often intrigued by what she had to say about boys, but just when I would tune in, she would send me out of the room. She had a gentle, but commanding way about her.
When my family went to Sicily for the first time in 11 years after their immigration, everyone in the village of Grotte was stunned by Jeanie’s beauty and elegance. A young admirer organized a formal serenade for her. Yes, it was an old-fashioned serenade late at night, guitars and singing under the upstairs balcony at Nonna’s house. During the late night serenade, Nonna rushed into our bedroom to make sure Jeanie did not appear at the balcony because, according to Nonna, that would be the most impossibly improper thing to do! Another young man declared his love to her, but she wasn’t interested. She already had a boyfriend back home! Years later, when I went to Sicily as an adult, men, now middle-aged, sitting right next to their wives and grown children, would tell me how they had been in love with her. They would say her name dreamily, “Ah, Gianna.”
Jeanie gave my dad a full-time occupation in Rome! Young men would attempt to follow us back to the hotel. After chasing the young men away from the hotel entrance, my dad would beg Jeanie to please not make eye contact with any passing male creature, and to please not smile! She did these things because she thought it was funny. She was just a 16 year-old young girl having a good time! The gawky ten year-old little invisible me, with crooked bangs, an overbite and a huge gap between my teeth, found her fascinating.
And she was selfless. She lived for others, especially my mom and dad and her two boys.
When she was diagnosed with MS, we were all devastated. We knew so little about it, but what we heard didn’t sound good at all. The cruel disease gradually took away almost every motor skill she had. She became intimate with hospitals and nursing homes. Depending on which medication she was on, she’d puff up and her body would expand or she’d become bone thin. She’d volunteer to take various medications as long as they held a possible promised future for herself and others living with MS. Once she volunteered to take an exploratory non-approved medication that could potentially damage her heart, in the hope of finding a cure. My parents suffered as they watched her deteriorate from their vibrant, fiercely independent, creative, altruistic daughter to a bed-ridden, paraplegic, seizure-and bed-sore-prone disabled young woman. It broke their hearts. And yet, her spirit could not be snuffed!
She definitely had a curious, naughty side to her. When she was just 5, newly arrived in America, she went snooping around in my Aunt Lily and Uncle Sam’s bedroom nightstands. On Uncle Sam’s side, she found a hand gun. It was loaded, safety feature unlocked. All the adults and my sisters were sitting in the living room when little Jeanie came out of the bedroom with a loaded gun in her hand. “Mom, Dad! Look what I found!” The adults blanched. Silence. I’ll bet my dad wanted to kill his sister’s husband for having a loaded gun in the house. The gun, in his child’s hand, was being pointed at everyone in the room. Aunt Lily saved the day by exchanging the gun in Jeanie’s hand with candy. I guess I came close to not being born.
What I will never forget is visiting Jeanie in various assisted living and nursing homes. Silly me, I’d be caught up in some idiotic life drama and then I’d see my sister lying in bed, with photos all around her of her fabulous boys, smiling at my arrival. Instantly, I’d realize that all my so-called problems were nothing. Her smile was pure radiance! Whether she was lying there hooked up to oxygen, IVs, or tubing leading to some infusion or another, bruised from a recent surgery, or puffed from a recent medication or infection, she’d smile and say, “Frannie, I’m so happy to see you! How are you, honey?”
The disease took away a lot, but it did not manage to take away her love! As her illness progressed, her love became concentrated. It was enormous and powerful.
I don’t know how else to write about her. She could see the glass half full, even when the glass had nothing but a small drop left in it. I don’t know where such courage comes from. We were so lucky to have had her. She has been gone for five years now, but it seems like yesterday when I last held her hand. I write this on the fifth anniversary of her death. Jeanie’s beautiful lively spirit lives on in her sons and her grandchildren.