The Beauty of a Story

A little girl skips up the front steps of her grandmother’s house, her sister following close behind. On the way, she notices the bright pink zinnias her grandmother has lovingly planted in the dirt. The girls ring the doorbell. Seconds later, a familiar face appears in the doorway. Their grandmother smiles back at them and ushers them into the house. As they step inside, they inhale deeply: cookies baking, warmth, their grandmother’s soap, and familiarity. They are greeted with a kiss, an imprint on their eyes. The three of them settle into the living room, their feet padding across the plush, cream-colored carpet.

Everything is the same: the snow globe of New York City glitters on the table. The staircase leads to her mother’s childhood bedroom. The gold picture frame rests on top of the television and holds a photo of two people: the woman in front of them, and a man they’d never meet. They take notice and are comforted by the room. The three of them sit on the couch and the girls bury their faces into the rough fabric, breathing in their grandmother’s scent. They pick out a book and she begins to read to them. Although she has read this particular story to them countless times, they still love the sound of her soft, raspy voice and the feeling of her arms around them.

What they remain unaware of, however, is Maria’s own story. They have no idea that before her last name was Costigan, her name was Maria Diana and she was born during a time in history they would later study in their classrooms. She contained a story as colorful and rich as the pages in their storybook.

.   .   .   .   .

Maria Diana’s story begins with a journey. Sitting on the floor of a massive ship headed across the Atlantic in the late 1920s, she watched a motion picture with her father and baby sister Jenny to pass the time, or perhaps to feel a sense of family after the recent death of her mother. She had died of an infection due to a complication in giving birth to Jenny, and the three of them were travelling to Italy so that Maria’s father could meet and eventually marry her mother’s sister (a custom quite common for the time). When they arrived, wedding plans were made and Maria’s aunt was set to return to America.

However, while abroad, Jenny had fallen incredibly ill. Doctors warned her father that if she were to travel home, she would most likely not survive. Maria’s father made the decision to leave Jenny in Italy, in the care of Maria’s other aunt, a nun living in a convent there. A year or so later, Jenny was well enough to return to America, but the world was at war and it was not a safe time to travel. She remained in Italy, was raised in the convent and learned to speak in Italian. Meanwhile, Maria grew up in the Bronx, New York without her sister, their only correspondence through letters that Jenny sent to their father.

Hearing this story now, Maria’s grandchildren realize how difficult it must have been for her to grow up in a country separate from her sister. They also realize how difficult it must have been for Maria to watch two sets of sisters grow up together in her house: themselves, and her two daughters, Nancy and Anne.  How reading a storybook to her granddaughters, one sister nestled on either side of her, may have affected her. She may have been thinking how lucky these children were to have only their grandmother separating them, when an entire ocean separated herself and Jenny.

Sadly, this was not the only time Maria would be separated from her family. When she was sixteen years old, she became terribly sick. After a brief stay in a hospital in New York City, doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis. She was sent to the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York in the year 1941, where her condition was carefully and closely monitored. After about a year of treatment, Maria had improved and was allowed to take a trolley into town. It was on one of these trips that she met William Costigan, a man who was also sent to the sanitarium after previously having served in the military. Soon after, the two of them fell in love and eventually got married in 1948.

It was around this time when Maria’s sister Jenny returned to America for the first time since she was born. It is difficult to imagine what this must have been like-to come face to face with your sister after twenty years of separation. These two siblings had completely different upbringings, lived in different countries, had different customs, and even spoke two different languages. But now that Jenny had returned, Maria’s father was eager for her to learn English and get accustomed to life in America. Jenny, however, had other plans. She had met a man in Italy and wanted to marry him.

This was the beginning of a very tense time for Maria’s family, as her father did not approve of Jenny’s decision to return to Italy. She had lived her entire life there, against his will. Now she could finally return home and they could be the family they were always meant to be. Tensions remained for the following few years, until Maria’s father finally allowed Jenny to fulfill her wishes. She returned to Italy, married a man named Frank, and still lives there with him to this day.

.   .   .   .   .

A young woman walks up the steps to her grandmother’s house, her sister trailing behind. They are there to say good-bye to the house that their grandmother had owned for over fifty years, and had recently sold. On the way, she notices the patches in the soil where her flowers used to grow. She turns the key in the lock and pushes open the door. There is nothing familiar about this place. The smiling faces in picture frames that used to greet her have vanished. Her favorite pink rocking chair is gone. There is no familiar smell of oatmeal cookies baking in the oven, no trace of her grandmother’s scent in the air. Upstairs, the bedrooms are barren. Her mother’s childhood dolls have been removed from the shelves and stored in boxes. The curtains are gone. The bedding is gone. She walks through each room in the house, reliving faint memories with each step.

She squeezes her sister’s hand for comfort, tears stinging her eyes. “It’s like nothing ever happened here,” she whispered. The two walked down the stairs, took one more look at the house, and started out the door.

.   .   .   .   .

Maria and William continued to live in Saranac Lake for the first two years of their marriage. William then got a job at the VA hospital in Albany and the pair moved to Latham, New York, where they began their family. They raised three children: Billy, Nancy, and Anne. But before she became a parent herself, Maria remembered the important life lessons she learned from her own parents. They taught her such as hard work, dedication, and self-sufficiency.

Throughout Maria’s childhood, her father struggled to get his business off the ground. He opened a shop called “Beauty Flower”, selling flowers for women to decorate their hats and dresses with. Maria remembers her father straggling into the house late into the night after a hard days’ work. Her father had very little education, but through relentless dedication to his aspirations, was able to create a successful business. Maria admired him for that. The business continued to thrive even throughout The Great Depression, a time when the demand for goods (especially non-essential items like flowers) was practically nonexistent. Despite the fact that Maria saw people begging on the streets of New York and rationing food, she and her family were able to maintain their lifestyle.

Maria’s mother was also a significant role model to her, staying home to care for her throughout her childhood. As an immigrant living in a foreign country, her mother was faced with a challenge that set her apart. At this time in history, she was lucky enough to be allowed to move the United States. Just a few years before, in 1924, the U.S. passed the National Origins Act. Only those of Caucasian descent were permitted to enter the country, in an attempt to “Americanize” the nation (ideals which now seem dated but still rear their ugly head). Maria’s mother did not know any English when she first came to America, so she enrolled in English classes taught at the elementary school and eventually learned the language; a long and difficult process.

Being raised by two such hard-working people was a great influence on Maria’s life. She herself got her first job in a cardboard factory when she was just thirteen years old. Maria continued to work throughout her entire life, not retiring until she reached age seventy. Even after she retired, she continued to work hard at maintaining her home. Maria did all of her own gardening, cooked herself meals on a daily basis, and kept the house spotless. She hosted Christmas and Easter celebrations, bringing the entire family together and preparing beautiful meals. Maria’s tireless dedication to her home and her family reflected the type of environment she grew up in. Her parents showed her the importance of work ethic and taking care of oneself, which she then passed on to her own children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, Maria had no choice but to begin taking care of herself in 1990 when, after a long battle with kidney disease, William passed away. It’s difficult to imagine the hurt and suffering Maria felt at that time. She was looking forward to an entire lifetime together, only to have it cut short. Their children were just beginning to create families of their own; their grandchildren were very young, some of hadn’t been born yet. Maria went on to live by herself in the house she and William purchased together almost thirty years previously. She adapted to her new lifestyle the only way she knew how, by maintaining her home and filling it with family, friends, and new memories.

.   .   .   .   .

A woman’s footsteps softly crunch against the December snow that coats the ground. She knows the grave is by the big tree, a little to the right. She brushes away the snow to reveal two plaques right next to each other: William J. Costigan, and Maria Diana Costigan. She fixes the wreath that’s slumped over a bit from the winter winds. She thinks about how she once spoke to her grandmother about life after her husband passed; about why she never remarried. She distinctly remembered the look on her face as she answered‑a look of unwavering certainty. Maria was steadfast in her words, yet they were as calm as an exhale: “He was the love of my life. That was it for me.” The woman misses her grandmother, very much. There’s a lot she wishes she could tell her, share with her. But she takes comfort in the fact that now, wherever they are, her grandparents are finally together. Maria is at peace.

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