When I first met nonna she sat poised on an antique chair surrounded by her beautiful and very carefully curated antique furniture. Big and little paintings hung on the wall, each from a different century, each with a different story. The light was dim but just right on the deep green walls. “Sage,” she told me.
I still didn’t speak Italian fluidly and I was nervous to meet this matriarch, but Marco brought me without qualms, convinced in the importance of seeing his grandmother and convinced we’d love each other. He sat and took her hand as she recited off long stretches of memorized poetry.
Little did I know the rapport I’d end up forming with her. From that first brief, nervous visit I graduated to weekly lunches, where we chatted about the weather, the news and her childhood. Also feminism, activism and Catholicism. Marco was always surprised about the somewhat radical things that I confidently discussed with his 93-year-old nonna, but she started it!
Her famous memory went beyond poetry. Birthdays of all six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren were confidently and constantly rattled off in chronological order. She took a vested interest in the lives of her family members, taking time to learn the names of even minor characters in their lives. She knew what was going on and never lost her curiosity.
She was a proud woman and quick to brag about her successes. No doubt she felt she earned the right to brag after the difficulties she overcame in life. On more than one occasion we’ve all been beguiled with the tale of her reprimanding a motorist who parked his bike on the sidewalk, scaring him with her claims of knowing the police chief. She politely but sharply corrected impolite behavior, and did so until the day she passed. We had a hoot comparing similar stories. I felt that we were similar, and in many ways I related to her more than any of my other new family members. She was tough and sharp, sure of herself to a fault but filled with love.
When we visited her she was bedridden, yet she mustered the strength to tell us. “When you know you’re right, you’ve got to stand your ground. Be polite, but don’t back down.” Though she could barely talk, she said grazie each time we brought water or a cold cloth, polite even when it exhausted her.
We had lunch every week for the two years that I’ve been a part of this family. Over lunch nonna transformed from Marco’s grandmother to my Italian nonna. She cared and so did I. Each conversation was a revelation, a pleasure. Nonna lived through WWII Italy. She passed German guards who acquisitioned the villa near her house. She calmly exited the commuter train she took daily to work in Milan when there were bomb threats and ignored it all to bike to Lecco every Saturday. She nursed her husband after he walked from Sicily back to Milan toward the end of the war, and visited him in the mountain hospital where he recovered from tuberculosis. The big German Shepard owned by the German guard stood over her, one paw on either side of her body while the guard was away.
She saw the advent of automobiles, airplanes, TVs, mobile phones, and computers. She passed from the times of Downton Abbey to the speed of our present day world, and she did so with modernity. One time she told me that at her age it was easy to be behind with the opinions of the times, so she tried to listen carefully before reinforcing long-held beliefs, for fear of seeming old-fashioned. She wanted to learn, adapt and grow, and confidently texted her daughters into her 90s.
She went on to raise a family, work and not be a very good cook in a country filled with very, very good cooks, all of them women naturally. She might not have realized it, but feminism ran through her bones. She was convinced her mother was harder on her simply because she was a girl. “Maybe she wanted to prepare me,” she said.
And prepared she was.
Nonna never showed up unbuttoned or undone. She never showed up unpresentable. Guests would be forced to wait rather than catch her without her dentures or ever-present pearl earrings. She taught me that self care is important, that self esteem is important and that standing up for yourself is important.
The day after her husband died at age 62 she didn’t let her grown daughters stay the night. “I’m alone now and I need to learn to be alone,” she said. “I’ll sleep by myself.” She continued to manage her accounts, go to church and take the bus twice a week out to Sovico to play with her grandchildren and later her great grandchildren.
As a lax Catholic, I participated only politely in her conversations of faith, but when she said “faith doesn’t come naturally for all people, but those who do have faith are the luckiest of all”, I couldn’t help but find the truth in her words. Her faith did make her lucky, she genuinely believed and as such was never alone. In her final days she prayed to God to bring her back to her parents and loved ones above. In the same breath she admonished the priest for not bringing her the Eucharist along with the blessing. Some habits never die!
Nonna was ready when her time came, though we were not. Always prepared in life, so she was prepared in death. She passed just as she lived: with garb, with dignity, but most importantly, with love. Surrounded by her family, she was sure of her love and sure of theirs as well. Through good times and bad, her strength and faith helped her to always, always move forward with love, and she cultivated it every chance she could.
Out of all of the incredible life lessons she passed on to us, I’d say that is the greatest lesson of all.