Letters: Nanna

Dear D:

            It wouldn’t be fair to write about Nonno but not Nanna.  I’ve been told that I resemble her not so much in features, but in the way I hold my head or sit, chin in hand.  I’m glad there’s something of her in me.  By the time I realized your great-grandmother was one of my favorite persons, it was too late.  Her health was failing and within a few years she would succumb to cancer.  But in those last five or six years, she gave a little glimpse into the contemplative and sometimes passionate (another contradiction) woman who had been described to me as a youngster so painfully shy, she didn’t speak.  Maybe most important, the first person in our family who seemed least likely to strike out on her own did so at the age of 68, breaking away from “la famiglia” and my grandfather to claim her independence.

             I had myself just left home to attend college, and I took note.

            Nanna was fair-skinned and auburn-haired, and movie-star beautiful (in 1940s Hollywood, not today’s).  In photographs she has abundant long hair, big dark eyes, and symmetrical feminine features.  In her wedding portrait, my beloved Nonno looked nothing like the typical Italian old man—thick spectacles, white hair—that I knew.  His thick black hair is slicked back from a narrow, almost equine face, and his expression is stern to the point of unpleasant.  They were fox and rabbit, intensity and innocence, paired.  The long and unhappy marriage would last almost fifty years before she decided she had had enough.

            I didn’t know until many years later about the circumstances of the pairing.  Nanna’s family was from the same Sicily-town as Nonno’s, but her family was landed gentry, while he was paesani.  But immigration to the United States was the great equalizer.  Nonno’s father prospered as a tailor, where Nanna’s father, who hadn’t practiced a trade, struggled to keep a grocery store open.  My grandparents’ union was a trade of sorts: she gained financial stability and he “married up.”  The scrappy youth who had loved to box in back-alleys wed the girl who quit school when she got blood-poisoning from nuns who pricked her with a hat-pin for writing left-handed.  In short, he married a delicate southpaw.

            In boxing, a southpaw has an advantage over a right-handed opponent, who is always wide open to the blows.  I would like to say that Nanna had an advantage, but she was more apt to run than fight Nonno’s torrential anger.

            Most of what I knew about my grandparents was transmitted to me at Sunday dinners, a drawn-out affair that involved story-telling and arguments about politics over meals so delectable that sitting for three or even four hours wasn’t a hardship.  First, a salad of chicory and plum tomatoes flavored with olive oil and a pinch of salt.  Next, pasta al’ oglio or à marinara, or with ricotta, then the veal or sausage or bracciola, a roll of beef and eggs cooked in tomato sauce.  The vegetables were never plain; the mushrooms had to be stuffed or the cauliflower served in fritters.  When you thought you could eat no more, the plates went away and out came the pizzelli, cannoli, and pizza rustica, and the Torrone nougat in little blue boxes.  But even that wasn’t the end; there were roasted chestnuts and chestnuts in the shell.  On special occasions, the table held a rare treasure: one pomegranate that Nanna would peel, giving each of six grandchildren a cluster of garnet-colored jewels.  The whole thing, from soup to nuts, as they say, filled an afternoon.

            This is how those long holiday dinners came to be—the ones at Nanna’s house when you were little (you probably don’t remember) and later, at my sister’s house.  You’ve experienced a bit of your Sicilian heritage.

            Sometimes—afterwards—we watched television, which was quite limited in the 1960s and 70s.  More often, Nanna, who was a talented seamstress, would dig old costumes–-a pink silk kimono, a Shirley-Temple pinafore, and a brown velvet serape and feathered hat—out of her closet so the kids could put on a show.  The coveted costume was a floor-length skirt and a black shawl embroidered with pink and red roses.  I’d wear it, pinned in back to fit my kid-sized body, and sing from West Side Story, a song appropriate for my immigrant-descended audience.

            I like to be in America

            Okay by me in America

            Everything free in America

            For a small fee in America

            In the winter of my junior year at college, Nanna got sick with something I can’t remember, though I think she was tired of being verbally abused.  She had lost a lot of weight and was crumbling emotionally under Nonno’s continued rageful onslaught, which we now know was probably the beginning of his dementia.  When she got out of the hospital, she did something totally out of character: she sought shelter in a convent.  There she announced to the family that she was leaving my grandfather and moving to Florida.  I had gone a thousand miles west to escape the family, so I understood something of a “geographic cure.”

            But my mother was livid.

            “She’s too old for this nonsense!  You’re in college–-maybe she’ll listen to you. Try to exert a positive influence.”

            I dearly loved my grandfather, but part of me was cheering for Nanna.  All through my adolescence, when I had talked to my grandmother about my unhappiness at the violence and verbal abuse at home, she had been at a loss for a solution.  We would talk for hours and land on…nothing.  The best she had been able to do was offer to pray.  But now she was leading by example: What she couldn’t change, she would abandon.  Translated, own my mother’s urging that I “exert a positive influence” meant I should somehow coerce my grandmother to come back; cry, maybe, or say I was depressed.  But I refused.  Instead, I told my grandmother that she was the glue holding the family together—important to me—and that I would miss her—all of which was true.

            A week later I received a flowered card with a folded letter inside.

             Everyone is so upset at me–-they do not understand that this thing is not entirely of my doing but rather, due to a complete breakdown.  I think of you in college and remember that life does not stand still–-in fact, it seems to nudge us forward whether we like it or not.  And I am trying to be brave.  Have you ever heard the lovely poem, ‘The Chambered Nautilus’?  ‘Build thee more stately mansions, Oh my soul.’  It is very apropos.

             I am very sad that you feel the distance will make our relationship past tense.  No, lovely girl of mine; we will always be close.  A phone call, a trip at a later date, or better yet, letters like yours and mine today.

            A complete breakdown was something I completely understood. I had already been hospitalized for depression once, the summer after I graduated from high school.  The letter settled it.  Nanna knew what she needed better than anyone else, and I wasn’t going to interfere.

            After she left, Nonno went downhill.  He stopped regularly washing himself and grew thin as a mosquito.  He sat drinking rum and Coke and smoking with the curtains drawn.  He smoked so much that his lower lip turned yellow, and the house that had hosted all those lovely dinners became a smelly dark cave.

            My grandmother went in the opposite direction.  I visited her in Florida over summer break.  She and the women in her retirement complex would gather around the pool to play cards.  She had posted a sign in the clubhouse that said, Turn Yesterday’s Tatters into Tomorrow’s Trends.  Be a “smartie”–-learn to recycle.  It’s fun, it’s economical, it’s sure to turn heads!  There was a steady stream of elderly women who showed up to have their clothes repaired or let out.  They’d stand on a footstool while she took pins from between her lips to tuck here, shorten there.   Neighbors dropped in to chat over coffee and biscotti.  “Anna” or “Anne,” they called her, instead of Antonietta.  Nanna had a new name and a new life.

            But after the neighbors left, sitting with me over cold coffee, she cried.

            “Your Nonno doesn’t understand that I did what I did to save myself.  He is very bitter.”

            It is interesting to me that two people so entirely unhappy for so many years also had something like love between them—not the kind of love I would want for myself, but a cultural bond and the shared experience of raising children. I say this now, with benefit of hindsight that in no way dismisses the violence or rage.  I know for a fact that my grandfather was so explosive with his fists that he once knocked my mother out.  He hit her for wearing lipstick, and by her account, she fell against a clawfoot tub and lost consciousness.  When she came to, one side of her face was purple.  Yet my mother’s talk about her father is laced with deep longing.  I get it because that’s how I felt about my own father.  This is the mystery of human attachment, loving those that have hurt us.  But more about that later.

            Nanna returned to Boston when doctors in Florida found a problem with her heart.  Tests after her surgery revealed a second problem: cancer.  Still recuperating in the hospital, my delicate grandmother began chemotherapy.  The outcome seemed clear from the beginning.  She was unlikely to get well.

            As confused and despondent as he was, my grandfather must have known it too.  He surprised everyone by visiting Nanna twice a day.  He combed his sparse hair, put on clean clothes, and removed his fedora outside her door.  He kept a bedside vigil while she slept.  After she gained a little strength, he would help her to walk and take sips of water.  He would lean over her bed, his hand on hers, and speak to her as gently as if she were a child.

            This, I now see, was the repair work of a broken and remorseful man, the only way he could atone for years of unloving behavior.  I remember his eyes: For the first time, when he looked at my grandmother, they were soft with love.  She looked back at him with the same softness.

            Eventually she returned to their home because there was no place else for her to go; anyone who had space also had a daytime job.  So it was my grandfather, then in his seventies, who tended to my dying grandmother.

            The last time I saw them together, they were sitting on the couch where I had so often watched the Red Sox over shelled peanuts and cigarette butts.  They were talking about their courtship as if it were a story about someone else.  My grandmother had always confessed that she didn’t like kissing, and I had always assumed that that was because my grandfather smelled like an ashtray.  She was relating how scared she had been about childbirth; when she asked her older sister how the baby would get out, she got a cryptic and probably terrifying response: “The same way it got in.”  Nonno grinned sheepishly and added, “You can’t blame us for what we didn’t know.”

            He was talking about sex, but the words seemed applicable in a larger way.  They were the children of immigrants in a new country.  The Great Depression was underway; jobs were scarce.  Soon Italians would be labeled enemy aliens and a world war would take hold.  The world that shaped my grandparents was unimaginable.  What’s more, there was no therapy, no frank way to talk about poor choices or unhappiness, or a young woman grown from a child who might have been on the autism spectrum.  Or learning disabled.  Or something we have words for now, but without a way to talk about it then, was described as delicate and shy but too beautiful to go unmarried.  That’s what young women—very young women—did.  That’s what everyone did, it seemed:  If you had a problem, you solved it by doing something.  My grandmother was twenty-one when she got married, old by the standard set by her older sister, so beautiful that her worried parents married her off when she was sixteen.

            The world at that time, and the old-world tribalism of the immigrant experience, were as much responsible for my grandmother’s unhappiness as was my grandfather.  I’d come to see that the world at any time is partly responsible; it forestalls with time-specific obstacles the same opportunities it holds out.  At the age of sixteen, for example, I was thinking about college, but it wasn’t an obvious path for most girls, and in particular, not an easy path for a girl whose father drove a pickup truck.  My point, I guess, is this: Life is complicated and so are people, and their mistakes are never simply the result of liking bad or wanting bad or being bad.  There is so much more to it.

            If you were to ask me if I believe that about your dad and me, I would say, unequivocally, yes.  And I would also say, with a conviction hardened in my bones, that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

            This is my wisdom for today.



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