Josie Marie Sicola Silvey was the first female business owner I ever knew. She owned a travel agency until she retired, when she sold it to her most loyal employee. And before that she and my grandfather ran a grocery store together — Sicilian-style. Back then, Sicilians didn’t work for other people. They ran grocery stores or butcher shops. She was a professional, independent, intelligent, driven woman. A woman born of the wrong time, I think.
As a kid when I spent the night at my grandparents’ house during the work week, I’d go with Mawmaw Josie to work. Sometimes I’d help her stuff envelopes and file papers, but mostly I painted things with liquid white out and pretended to answer an unplugged phone. “Travelwide Travel, how can I help you?” — I’d try to say it like she did: “Travelwad Travel, how c’n ah ha-elp yew?” Her business connections allowed her to take her 4 oldest grandchildren to Disney World and Disney Land, and to this day we joke about the minivan door getting stuck open and the woman at the Mexican restaurant throwing the cheese into the air because Mawmaw was watching her “cholestr’al.”
She was the most fiercely independent woman I ever met. No one told her what to do or how to do it. She was in charge, and she let you know it. She took care of everything during the holidays, and hardly ever sat down to eat. She was famous for her carduni (which she called gardunas) and her pecan pie. When she lost her mother and her husband in the same year, she kept on truckin’, but would sometimes confide in me that she would pull out Pawpaw’s old country records when she was “feelin’ blue.” (I’ve watched both of my grandmothers lose their husbands and mothers in the same year, and I’ve already warned my husband that he is not allowed to do that to me. I honestly don’t know how they both managed.)
She might have been the strongest, most stubborn woman alive, but she was the most easy-going grandmother a picky-eating, control-freak, creative-type granddaughter could have ever asked for. She rinsed my pasta for me at the St. Joseph’s alter, because I couldn’t stand to see the specks of red sauce on it, and doused it in butter instead. She let me do her hair and her make-up, even if she was going to work or out in public in general. She let me sew tight rings around the throw pillows on her couch to turn them into bows like my mom had at her house. She took me shopping at the mall, and fed me whatever I wanted to eat.
She and Pawpaw Tony had a full bar in their house, and my cousins and I would pretend to be bartenders and patrons, going as far as creating fake names and IDs, and pouring tiny amounts of rum or bourbon into full glasses of water. She knew we were doing it, but she never yelled at us.
Mawmaw went for walks around the park by her house until she hit her mid-70’s, when she felt safer making circles around her own block. We went on our last one together shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer. She charges through the house in my memory, never sitting still, always with a purpose, always walking, always doing.
I do have to recount one major vulnerability. She was extremely claustrophobic. My sister, my cousins and I, being the evil children that we were, would sometimes shut the closet door behind her when she was picking out her clothes, and she’d bang on the door screaming. We thought it was hilarious, and when we finally let her out, she’d laugh it off every time (I’m pretty sure I’d murder someone who did that to me.) One time I tried to give her a facial, but the warm towel came too close to her eyes and she almost had a heart-attack.
When Loren and I got married last year, she and her husband Bill danced the night away and stayed until the party was over. She wore high heels, and she never took them off. (I took mine off after the formal pictures were over.)
The next day, when we were unloading wedding decorations from the van into our second floor apartment, Mawmaw was hauling things up the stairs, avoiding the confined space of the elevator. Loren saw her on his way down and said, “Josie, you don’t have to do that. Let me help you.” Her response is forever etched in my mind, where it will reside as the ultimate iconic representation of my grandmother: “I gotta do while I still can.”
That one simple statement sums up her life completely. She never wanted help. She never wanted to be treated differently than anyone else. She never bragged about what she had or thought differently of anyone who had less. She pushed her way through her life on her own two feet and on her own terms, and she was so very proud of that.
And I am so very proud that she has been such a huge part of my life, an inspiration really. And I am going to miss her tremendously.