Near to My Heart

Note: This short story was written for International Day for Sharing Life Stories (  last May and is about my grandmother, who, you might guess, is as tough as nails. If you do read it, enjoy!

“Valeri!” the teacher barked, “Valeri! Pay attention!”

Alessandra Maria Valeri turned her attention back towards the front of the classroom, where her teacher was conjugating French verbs for the small group of eight year olds. She had been staring out the schoolhouse window, daydreaming, as doodling in the margins was not allowed here.

Alessandra had been born to a poor single mother on Via Clelia, just outside Rome in the Italian countryside, on November 12, 1921. Her life thus far hadn’t been easy and there was no indication that things would ever change. She was being raised by an aunt and uncle and her mother had simply not been a part of her life. She had no reason to believe she’d amount to much; if she was lucky she’d someday marry and perhaps have children of her own.

After high school, Alessandra found herself working for a faction of the Italian government. On hot weekends she’d sunbathe with her girlfriends. She was beautiful, with movie star looks and always with a swipe of red lipstick on and – not surprisingly – popular with men.

When Alessandra was in her 20s she found herself with three suitors: two Italian men and an American GI named Ralph Miller, who himself knew what it was like to have an invisible ceiling over one’s head, having grown up poor in rural Oklahoma. Alessandra made her choice and she and Ralph were wed in April 1946, first in a civil ceremony, then again eight days later in a formal church service.

Ralph moved his new wife back to the United States where, as she entered the country, she ceased to be known as Alessandra and evolved into Sandra Miller. The story goes that Ralph, who spoke almost no Italian, couldn’t spell his wife’s first name and Sandra, who knew no English, couldn’t spell it for him.

During the course of their marriage, the Millers cris-crossed the globe. Their first child, Howard, was born on the East Coast. A daughter, Carolyn, in Denver. Ralph Jr. came along while the family was living in Casablanca (he renounced his Moroccan citizenship as an adult) and Cindy, the youngest, was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they eventually settled for several decades.

While Ralph remained in the Air Force, Sandra learned to be extremely self-sufficient. During her time raising the kids while her husband was away, she learned English, passed her American citizenship exam and obtained her drivers license. Sandra, also a self-taught artist, painted in oils, did cross stitch and embroidery, made dolls, crocheted and sewed. Ralph helped her learn how to cook as well.

Although Sandra had, at times, a fiery temper and could be quite a serious person, she had a funny side as well. When her neighbors on Okinawa annoyed her, she blasted an LP of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haa!” at top volume out the living room window. Ralph possessed a deadpan Oklahoman sense of humor that would later serve him well as a grandfather.

He eventually retired and the family settled into life in a section of New Mexico known as “Dog Canyon”, near White Sands National Monument. One by one, three of their children married and moved away, soon bringing a gaggle of grandchildren into their lives. Howard and Barbara had Matt and Chris. Carolyn and Mike had Nora and Andy. From Ralph Jr. and Fran came Clint, Stacy and Crystal.

Sandra and Ralph loved their grandchildren and doted on them. I (Nora) have particularly fond memories of sitting at her knee as she taught me how to draw. When two of us grandkids asked Ralph to autograph a cardboard hatbox we were using as a bass drum, he signed it “Joe Blow”. When we had him try on a hat with cat ears, he popped it on backwards and asked, straight-faced, “Well, how do I look?”

Ralph passed away in 1991, the result of cancer. By then, the family had moved to Tucson, in an area once unfortunately featured in an episode of COPS. After Ralph had been gone for a few years, ATF agents came by Sandra’s street looking for a neighbor of hers, parking their van in front of the driveway. Sandra, fearing she wouldn’t be able to leave her house, stormed outside – all 5’2” of her – and confronted one of the officers, shouting “You get your goddamn van out of my driveway!” (he evidently complied).

Sandra enrolled, at the age of 77, at Pima Community College, where she took formal art studio courses from a fellow Italian expatriate, who challenged her sense of color, design and composition. She stopped attending when she and her daughter moved to Phoenix but not before having achieved nearly straight As (and one A-, which she was very unhappy about).

For her 85th birthday, all Sandra’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (at that time, Sammantha, Cody and Cole) flew or drove to Peoria, the suburb of Phoenix in which she lives, for a surprise bash, masterminded by her oldest son, Howard. He had had a local print shop make up a vinyl banner proclaiming a welcome reception for “All Peoria Artists” at a local park. Sandra’s eyes welled up as she examined the scrapbook made for the occasion, before wanting to know who “stole” her photos (which caused everyone to roar with laughter).

Today, Sandra is 87 years old and still lives with her younger daughter, Cindy, their little dog Millie and Charlie the cat. She recently finished radiation therapy for a third recurrence of malignant melanoma and, last I heard, was pissed off that my cousin Clint left a mess in her house on Mother’s Day. Here’s to you, Grandma! I love you.


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