Memories of Madeline

Me as a baby. My grandmother's hands are holding me on either side.

Me as a baby. My grandmother’s hands are holding me on either side.

From the time I was six years old, February 15 has been a melancholy date on the calendar because it marks the anniversary of losing the only grandparent I’d ever known: my maternal grandmother, Madeline Cauterucci. Readers familiar with the back story of Water Signs already know that my main character’s name, Madeline Rose, is derived from my grandmother and my mother (although in the story, “Rose” is also the family surname). The circumstances surrounding her death and my mother’s decision to leave me at home with a babysitter rather than attend her viewing and funeral led to a very interesting resolution to my panic and anxiety disorder much later in life. I blogged about incorporating this real-life experience into the book a few years back:

Which brings me to perhaps the most controversial element of the book, which is also an event straight out of real life. While still battling panic and anxiety disorder — in spite of embracing just about every known remedy from prayer and meditation to Yoga and exercise — I bumped into a very interesting woman at a monthly business/networking meeting. Trained in what is known in military circles as “remote viewing”, she was in reality what most civilians call a psychic — and many Christians a “handmaiden of the Devil”, although upon first sight, she looked like just another no-nonsense businesswoman.

When Maddy meets Ann Claire in the novel, it’s an accurate retelling of my own experience. Thus, when Ann accurately calls out Maddy’s guilt for “leaving behind a middle brother who is handicapped” (my brother Ralph who is in-between oldest son, Mark, and youngest son, Paul), and notes that she is still “in mourning” for a grandmother who’d passed away over 20 years prior, it’s an example of fact that has only been fictionalized marginally. I might have changed the names and altered the descriptions a bit, but the basic events are 100% true, including the fact that Maddy awakes one morning — six months after a private reading with Ann — to discover that for the first time in years, her head is clear, her stomach is calm and that the black cloud that seemed to relentlessly hang over her head has completely dissipated:

I believe I’ve had such a close connected to the woman I called “Nanny” even after she left her earthly body in 1974 and crossed over the the other side because of the circumstances of my own conception and birth. I was not a “planned” pregnancy (although I am grateful everyday for Catholic, pro-life parents). In fact, news of my existence could not have come at a worse time for my mother and father, who were struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over the heads of their four children. Having been blessed with at least one girl, my mother was happy. My father was a new resident and even given the fact that he would go on to a successful surgical career, nothing was guaranteed at the time.

Me at around 18 months.

Me at around 18 months.

Then a month after receiving this unexpected, earth-shattering news, my mother’s father — husband of Madeline — had a sudden heart attack and died. Having been very close to him, my mom of course was devastated, adding even more stress to the pregnancy. My grandmother subsequently spent all of her time in mourning. Until several months later when I was born on March 14 and gave her a reason to smile again. Ok, maybe that sounds a little self-serving but from all accounts, I was like her little “doll.” She was constantly bathing me, dressing me up, fussing over me and just loving me the way a devoted grandmother would.

Although I was a young child I’ll always remember her warm smile, happy-go-lucky personality, affinity for Lawrence Welk and adherence to all things feminine in the form of skirts and blouses, regular hair appointments, dresses, and matching pearl and/or gemstone necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever once saw Nanny in a pair of slacks. Like my mother, she was a consummate lady in terms of fashion and sensibility.

After my grandfather passed away, Nanny lived with my wonderful Aunt Emma and Uncle Al but frequently made visitations to our house where she’d stay with us for weeks at a time. One the night of February 14, she and I curled up on the couch to watch a movie called Ryan’s Daughter — something she’d talked excitedly about for days. My parents had gone out to visit a friend who’d been in the hospital so it was just Nanny and my four siblings in the house.

The movie had barely begun when she suddenly succumbed to heart failure, although as young kids we had no idea what was going on — just that it was incredibly frightening. Nanny began shaking violently as her body temperature dropped, prompting us all to run around gathering blankets, make her hot tea

Nanny (middle) with her friend Angie (left) and my Great Aunt Emma enjoying a vacation together.

Nanny (middle) with her friend Angie (left) and my Great Aunt Emma enjoying a vacation together.

and comfort her as best we could while my oldest brother called our parents. Having been diagnosed with diabetes several years earlier, I’d later learn that this was not an unexpected event. I remember Nanny being in and out of the hospital for treatment of various diabetes-related complications and watching her administer scary-looking insulin needles into her arm every day — always with a smile on her face. The woman never complained about anything, at least not in front of me. But even at a tender age, I’d vowed to myself that I would never get that awful disease and suffer the same fate of daily insulin injections. And thanks be to God (and dieting + exercise discipline) I’ve thus far managed to keep that promise.

It’s hard to describe the sheer terror and helplessness I experienced as little girl that night. Watching my beloved grandmother struggle for breath and for warmth while we all did our best to remedy a futile situation is a memory that will be with me forever. I vaguely recall an ambulance coming to take her away and subsequently receiving the devastating news the next morning (delivered gently by Dad with Mom by his side) that Nanny had “gone to heaven.” In response, I ran out of the room crying. Some time later, my mother gifted me with Nanny’s engagement ring, left to me in her will. Since becoming an adult and having it sized down to fit my finger, I’ve never once taken it off, except to clean it. When I made my Confirmation at the age of 12, I took the name Madeline in her honor, although I remember making that decision in anticipation of being confirmed someday in the future soon after her death.

As a child and adolescent, I had no idea that decades later at the age of 30 I’d be engaged in a battle to overcome panic and anxiety disorder partially caused by a lack of closure with my grandmother’s death. Or that it would be a psychic I’d bump into a monthly women’s social meeting who would make that diagnosis and suggest holding my own private ceremony to honor her memory and to ask her spirit to let go of me just a little. This woman strongly sensed that Nanny’s

Me (left), Mom and  Carolyn on Easter Sunday, 1970.

Me (left), Mom and
Carolyn on Easter Sunday, 1970.

presence around me was a bit too suffocating and that I needed to gently find a way to assure her it was ok to release me.

I followed this woman’s advice, lit some candles, said some prayers and thanked my grandmother for loving me so unconditionally. Then I told her how much I loved her and asked her to continue to hang around me in spirit — just not as intensely because it was affecting my ability to fulfill my own God-given purpose.

Not a day has passed since February 15, 1974 that I haven’t thought of Nanny, if only briefly. Her loving presence, her warmth, her smile, her sense of humor and her appreciation for the simple things in life will never be forgotten. Nanny lived a good and happy life if not an extravagant one. She raised four kids, suffered through the loss of a son during World War II and dealt with a myriad of diabetes-related health issues. But she did it all with grace and always with an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life: playing cards with her friends, spending time with family, going to the movies, cooking, shopping and being the strongest influence on my life for my first six years on earth.

Thanks for the memories, Nanny. You are loved and missed always but I know I’ll see you again someday.

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