I was given the wrong name of a woman who had one right way of doing everything.
In Italy, grandchildren are named after grandparents as a sign of respect, to represent the continuation of life, and to pass on admired qualities. Grandparents tend to favor the grandchild that carries their name more or less openly in different families. I don’t know if my grandmother─Nonna favored me. She never said she loved me. I suspect she never said it to anyone. The life that wore through her wedding bands had hardened her heart as deeply as the calluses on her farmer’s feet.
Nonna’s name is Senorita, Miss in Spanish.
I almost carry her name as my middle name. My mother registered mine as Sinorita, thinking my grandmother’s name was registered wrong. I got stuck with the wrong name instead. As a child born in the Bronx, my mother would tell me the story of my name.
“Your great-grandfather fought the war in Spain. He loved how women were called Senoritas and decided to name grandmom that way too. In Italy, grandchildren are named after their grandparents, so we named you after Nonna.”
I was proud of this story, my great-grandfather must have been a man of valor to be in the war. I told this story many times until a professor in college said:
“Exactly which war did your great-grandfather fight in Spain? Your grandmother was born after the Spanish war against Franco.”
“WWI?” I replied, attached to the valorous family story.
“Impossible” the teacher answered.
When I asked my mother exactly what my great-grandfather was doing in Spain with the Senoritas, Mom blushed, smiled, and yelled: “Che ne sacc’ io?” What do I know?
When my parents decided to move back to Italy in 1985, I was ten. I hated many things about Italy but I was happy to finally be near Nonna. In the Bronx, unlike other kids, I never had grandparents.
In Italy, I discovered that Nonna Senorita, had one way of doing everything. So naturally, there was only one way to do it. You learned it her way.
When you lit the gas stove in her kitchen, you did so with a wooden match. You blew out the wooden match and threw away the wooden stick into the ceramic ashtray next to the stove, so she could re-use it. Clothes on the line were tidy, hung in order, color-coded in decreasing length: left to right, white sheets, and towels, grandpa’s cream long johns then white shirts, light brown pants, and finally cream boxers and dark socks. You never hung the women’s underwear outside, it’s not ladylike. They dried by the fireplace.
Salad was salted first and then oiled, then you added vinegar. You tossed it with your hands, “L’insalata se cunza ch’e’ mane…” If you don’t toss it with your hands the dressing isn’t even.
Most conversations with Nonna revolved around what I did wrong.
How could I have learned the right way living on the other side of the Atlantic? Her daughter could not have taught me the right way, despite Nonna’s multiple efforts of beating it into her as a child. Nonna even thought Mom swept “cu u culo stuort’” with a crooked butt. She moves sideways as she sweeps, instead of rigidly left the right. She is unsuccessful at hiding her womanly physique.
“You think she’s hard on you?” My mother laughed. “She’s gold compared to when I was growing up. Back then she was really mean. She’s a softie now.”
Nonna took it upon herself to teach me, poor ignorant child brought up in a foreign land, how to become a woman. For women have to cagna’ casa “change home” and get married she’d say. “E Ndo do vai vai,” wherever you go, she’d say, “there will be cooking, cleaning, and ironing.” My grandmother’s grand outlook for me and my womanhood. After all, this was what life did to her. Cooking and cleaning were actually the light stuff for her, compared to the harsh and demanding tobacco and corn fields, tomato, pepper, eggplant, onion and garlic crops. Nonna was on her third thick, gold wedding band. Hard work had worn through and cracked the first two.
Nonna taught me how to wash dishes. No technique is self-evident. You filled the plastic basin with soap and hot water in the far right sink to not waste soap. You rinsed in the middle sink without wasting water and let dishes run dry on the far left. You washed plates and cutlery first. When you were done you poured the soapy water in the pots and pans, so you didn’t waste any. You got clean water to wash the glasses, one by one, carefully. You dumped the water outside by the tree.
Nonna inspected my dishwashing every ten minutes. At 11, I was humiliated by the bit of pasta stuck on a dish or a greasy fingerprint on a glass. By my thirties, I used the same tactic with her and my own mother. I cleaned the kitchen three-fourths of the way. I avoided saying it was done. That way, they couldn’t prove me wrong each time.
I admired Nonna. At eighty-six she still ploughed and nurtured two acres of land alone after two hip replacements. Nonna belonged to a hardy generation. Italy rests heavy on their shoulders, even as they’ve aged. They have seen and survived the war. Nothing can defeat them.
Many in my parents’ generation still count on the property they will leave behind. Their connection to the earth is a mixture of ownership and profound responsibility. You cannot own land and not plant and harvest. As for everything else for the war generation, land too, must not be wasted.
But being close to Nonna was always more of a fantasy than reality.
I could have been in a southern Italian village, 20 miles from Nonna’s farm, taking a folk dance workshop and I’d long to run home to her to show her the dances I learned. I imagined her dancing as a young girl and meeting my handsome grandfather on a dance floor when they fell in love. They were my favorite couple. My mother told me not to show her the dances. She never danced. Her parents wouldn’t let her. I also learned later that Nonna had loved another man when her father arranged her marriage to Nonno, against her will.
I could have been in Rome 200 miles away, watching a photography exhibition about the years of fascism, the totalitarian dictatorship that ruled in Italy when Nonna grew up. I expected tales of political resistance against the regime that brought Italy into World War II.
When we talked she was brief and uninspiring: “I was a fascist,” she said, “Everyone was back then. We didn’t question it. Your Nonno was fascist too.”
Other times, 5000 miles away, I would be planting onion bulbs in the backyard of my Philly home and I would resolve to spend a week with her on the farm the next time I’d visit. I could learn to plant and grow things, plow and pick! Then I would catch myself in my own fantasy. Rita, are you sure? The reality would set in. I’d quickly change my resolution to one-day. I still can’t wait to see her again. It’ll be different this time.
The summer I was 34 I spent two August days with my cousin in Ischia, a gorgeous Island off the coast of Naples. She and I talked about Nonna as we laid on the small beach gazing at the sun upon the immense mirror-reflection of the deep-blue sea:
“I always long to spend some real, quality time with Nonna,” I tell Chiara. “I want to be closer to Nonna, but every time I try, I can’t.”
“Nonna”, my younger cousin tells me with the wisdom of a much older woman, “is her routine, her home, her land. Follow her routine, become part of it. Help her around the house, in the field, and in the yard. Watch her plant, sow, harvest, fix, and clean. If you do that, you’ll know her.”
Rich from the new wisdom, I was thrilled to have lunch with my parents at Nonna’s the following day. I’ll spend the whole day with her, maybe even stay the night.
After lunch at Nonna’s, I began the usual dishwashing ritual. I’d gotten back from the beach just the day before, my mind floated in my own I love nature world, drastically different from Nonna’s. To me, relaxing means going to the beach to feel the sun on my pale skin co due pezze “with two strips of clothing” Nonna would say, while to her, relaxing is sitting in the shade to relieve her darkened skin from the piercing ten-hour sunlight of the tobacco field.
I see myself blending with nature; I cross my legs and sit in front of the ocean, lotus pose, I practice yoga. My grandmom could never cross her legs, 80 years of fieldwork destroyed her back, hips, and flexibility.
Nature is what sustained my grandmother’s finances, broke her back, and maybe, hardened her soul.
As I washed dishes, my mother, Nonna, and I chit chatted. Facimm’ due cunte, sum up the stories, we say. Nonna pushed her cat out of the kitchen, with her usual garb and gentle ways:
“Passila’ Sta puttanella!” Get out of here! You whore!
Nonna looked to me and continued,“She keeps on going with EVERY masculo in the neighborhood! She got pregnant again! And this time she had six kittens, six! Who does she think I am? Some cat lady? So I showed her! I took all six of them and threw them away, Dint’ a munnezza! In the trash can.”
She looked at me again. Her face was impermeable. My hippie life-loving brain refuses to register.
“We should not take lives we can’t give back,” I tell her, twice, for emphasis.
My disappointment meant nothing to her. She turned around and wiped the counter, her next task of the day.
A week ago my brother called to tell me that Nonna had a brain stroke. Her left side was paralyzed, and she laid on the floor for 12 hours before they found her because she wasn’t carrying her emergency help button. I looked for the sincere pain I felt when the health of my other grandparents failed. I reach deep. All I found is past hurt from her criticisms and awkwardness remembering a little virginity speech she gave me over ten years ago.
I was 21 back then, we sat by the fireplace in her kitchen, alone.
She patted my leg and said to me nostalgically, ‘I tiempe ennu cagnato’ “Times are changing Rita, you will be one of the few that will get to the altar clean, the way women are supposed to.”
I said nothing. I had had the same boyfriend for seven years, we started having sex two years before. Now, awkwardness and pain block any genuine feelings about Nonna almost dying.
Suddenly other memories flood my thoughts.
Nonna’s fresh-picked greens. Nonna knew my favorite greens like no one else, Ruoccoli e’ cavole─cabbage greens in the spring, Tall’ e cocozza─zucchini greens in the summer, Tall’ e’ cicoria─chicory greens in the fall. She would always have some for me whether fresh or frozen. If they were fresh, she had already cleaned and washed them and they were ready to cook. If they were frozen, she had cooked them and they just needed to defrost. I could only get these greens from Nonna, they don’t sell them in stores, for they are the tips of other, more common crops. You must know how to pick them. Nonna knows. Nonna knew.
Thinking about the greens I never learned to pick, let alone plant, the nights I never slept over, and the week I never spent with her on the farm, tears well in my eyes.
This is what makes me sad: the opportunities I have lost to get close to Nonna, the chance to really know her, I, her namesake who should be close to her.
A week later, Nonna was out of the hospital and on her way to a clinic. I spoke to her over the phone:
“Nonna I’m so sorry about what happened! How are you?”
“Nun vogli’ campa,” I don’t want to live anymore, she says.
Her voice is trembling, weak, powerless. I can barely hear the words, she is slurring.
“Che camp’ a fa se nun pozzo fa niente?” What is the purpose of living if I can’t do anything? I can’t move, I’m better off dead.
I’d heard her complain before about not wanting to get old and preferring death. The words were not new to me; I usually dismissed them as an exaggeration. This time though, a new helplessness pervaded her voice, a mere thread of sound. That thread is all that her determination and endurance can produce. Silently, very silently, for to show pity would be to manca’ di rispetto, dishonor her, tears run from my eyes.
“Nonna, I answer, it was an accident, and you can come back from this, you can get better, we are happy to still have you with us.”
I tried to sound hopeful. She would never go back to living on the farm. She would never be able to plough her crops again. To her, this was death.
“You can do this Nonna! Tu si Spacca Montagna! You are a Mountain breaker!”
This is the nickname Nonna’s family has in the village. Apparently her father was at the bar one day and he moved around clumsily. Someone hollered out to him: Si accussi delicat’ spacchi e’ montagne! “You are so delicate you can break through a mountain.” Over the years it became an indicator of the determination of the whole family line.
“Song’ stanc’.” I’m tired, Nonna answered.
“Mantiente’ Forte!” Stay strong Nonna! Please, stay strong. We are with you! I silently mourned her lost independence and the things I’d yearned to do with her.
“Te voglio bbene.” I love you, she said in her trembling voice.
“Pur’io nonna, pur’io te voglio bene.” Me too.
Pace A Nonna Buon’anima. Rest in Peace.
Nonna passed two years later, at age 90, in February 2012.