Phenomenal Woman – Noreen

Drumroll please…it’s time for the first installment of the “Phenomenal Women” series. And, I’m happy to report that my first selection is absolutely perfect to kick off this project. 

It’s my grandma, Noreen Balsamo.

There are a few things you should know about my grandma right off the bat. First of all, she pretty much hates every picture of herself. She always complains that she looks too fat, too old, or too tired but in my opinion, she always, and I mean always, looks amazing. You would never guess her age and I’ll refrain from listing it here because she may very well kill me if I do. Let’s just say, if I look half as good as her when I’m older, I will be a happy lady.

Secondly, I was her first grandchild and she made it very clear that she did not like being called “Granny.” Grammy was alright and Gram worked as well but under no uncertain circumstances would she respond to “Granny.” In her opinion, it just sounded old. And old she is not. My gram can school you in rock and roll trivia. She knows music videos and hard rock bands better than anyone I know. She has a keen fashion sense and rocks peddle pushers all spring long and she has the most perfect cursive handwriting I’ve ever seen.

Growing up, I’m proud to report that I didn’t have a “working mom,” but a “career mom” (more on my opinion of how totally awe-inspiring that was in a future post) which meant I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Gram took care of me exactly the way a grandma should until I was older and she started working at my parents’ company. She worked there until they closed the company and I can honestly say, she was a reluctant retiree. She always claimed working kept her mind fresh and her heart young and I think she enjoyed being around all the young girls in the office and keeping up with their gossip. That’s my gram…she’s always been ready to dish.

She met my grandpa when she was just 15 at a public pool in Brooklyn. She’s shared plenty of stories of the early years but unfortunately, not all of them are very romantic. Still, from what I can gather, he was a charmer and a handsome older guy who swept her off her feet in the very beginning of their relationship. He called her “Bunny” which just might be the cutest nickname in the whole entire world.

My gram’s life was tough and my grandpa didn’t do too much to ease the burden. Instead, I think he contributed to most of it. My Uncle Vito had Down’s syndrome and also lost his vision at an early age. There are a ton of stories about how she chased around my dad and Uncle Vito and from what it sounds like, they were precocious young men. My Aunt Jackie came later and was a sweet little girl and eventually, my grandma’s lifelong companion and best friend.

It’s been about 13 years since my grandpa passed away and I hate to say it but since then, my grandma loves her life. She lives with my Aunt Jackie and Uncle Mike and has helped raise their two boys, Tony and Nick. She swears she’ll never remarry and in the beginning I think we all questioned her convictions. As the years have passed though, it’s pretty clear that she is perfectly content with being a single lady for the rest of her life. I think she likes the peace and quiet.

Gram and I have always been very close. As a kid, she was a perfect stand-in while my mom was at work, tickling my arm in that oh so perfect way. As I’ve grown older, our relationship has changed and I think of her more as a friend now. Our conversations frequently stray to hilarious topics such as whether or not women accidentally go #2 in the middle of childbirth (yes, I’ve heard that actually happens and the thought mortifies me) and why the computer and all technology for that matter, scares the bejeezus out of her. 

Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a grandma in every sense of the word. She worries incessantly about how far I commute to work on those crazy freeways. She even used to pray that I would find a husband while she was still alive but he had to be a really good one who didn’t make me crazy like my grandfather made her. And, with one homerun under her belt, she’s shifted her attention to praying that God will bring her a great grandchild in this lifetime (no pressure, honey). If it was anyone else, it would bother the hell at me but the way I see it, that’s exactly what grandmas are supposed to pray for while they twist their rosaries.

There are a million reasons why my gram is a phenomenal woman but the reason that stands out to me is because she had the courage to walk away from a man who was no good for her, at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for women to do that. Sure, she took him back and stayed with him until the end but that just proves that love is complicated even for the most phenomenal of us out there. And besides, if she hadn’t I wouldn’t have had the most incredible relationship of my young life – with my grandpa – but we’ll save that story for another post.

So, cheers to you, Gram! Enjoy your peace and quiet. Lord knows, you earned it!

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