Ciao, Nonna

Because many of you who read this are my friends, I assume (perhaps presumptuously) that you already know enough about me to understand the background in what I write about here. And I had a post all ready for you, talking about my recent travels, my travels to come, and the project I’ll be a part of in the next year. I had a lot to tell you.

All that was usurped by my father’s announcement, which wasn’t altogether unexpected: my 90-something-year-old grandmother has passed away. And I want to be fair, here, she was in her 90s. She’s had a long life, full of love and that unique stubborn spirit that seems inherent to Italians. Up to now, she was in control: there was no way she was ending up in a nursing home! And then her body started deciding for her. And then the x-rays came, with lumps and abnormalities and more bad news. And then the only thing doctors could do to provide a peaceful passing was to keep feeding her morphine.

Well, there it is. The circle of life.

Meanwhile, I’m in England feeling a little helpless. There isn’t much that can be done about it. I’m here and I can’t be over there. Then again, I’ve never needed ceremony to go through the rite. In this case, I can grieve without a funeral (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself). Besides, there’s a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that my current travels are fulfilling Nonna’s dreams in their own way.

A bit of history…In the very few trips I made to Sault Saint Marie to visit her, it wasn’t unusual for me to inundate Nonna with questions about my heritage (which was something of a mystery to me until I was 16 years old). Inevitably, I’d learn a lot about her life. She once showed me the oldest photo album she owned, with some pictures dating back to before she was born. Among the pictures of herself and her panoply of sisters was one photo of a young Nonna with her little arms wrapped around a tall, fair-skinned man who wasn’t my grandfather…or Italian!

She told me his name was Donald. He was Irish. He had been her beau before she ever met my grandfather. Donald had promised to marry her. I dare say she looked happier in this photo with Donald than in any of the pictures of her with my grandfather. Maybe it’s because she was. Donald had a job opportunity in Toronto, so he went to see what it was all about. He was supposed to come back, collect Nonna, and start a new life with her in Toronto. But he never returned.

That was Nonna’s short version of the story. I’m sure there was correspondence, an explanation, tears and so forth. I’m sure she and Donald had a rich story as a couple, with nights at the movies, breakfast at Muio’s and inside jokes. But 70 years after the fact, it’s down to a paragraph.

Like many women in their late teens or early 20s at the time, she didn’t want to risk waiting too long to get married. On top of being the norm, it had its economic advantages and it also got you out of your parents’ house. Which isn’t to say Nonna didn’t love my grandfather. There just wasn’t anything silly or youthful about their relationship.

Soon after, when she had children, they became her priority, as it goes for many women. She had hoped, at some point, to leave Sault Saint Marie and expand her world, but with a family to raise, and my grandfather having stakes in the local family business, she would remain in the Sault until she didn’t feel much like travelling anymore. I know she visited Toronto at some point in her life, and maybe more than once. I know she’d been to the United States, since Michigan was a short ride away. I’m just not sure how far she got, or how often.

Just the same, when my then-20-something father announced his plans to tour Europe on a motorcycle some time in the 1970s, she admired him for having the nerve to do it. She didn’t send him off without making her worries good and known, but she understood this was something he needed to do, and something she wished she had done sooner in her life. Maybe not on a motorcycle, but the itinerary was pretty much the same.

Later, when I told her I would be moving to Montreal from New Brunswick, she was excited that I was going to experience living in a big city. I tried to convince her to visit me, but she felt she was too old for such a long trip. In the 12 years I spent in Montreal, she encouraged all my whims. And to the idea of me not getting married at a young age, she would say, “It’s different for you kids now. You can date more. You can wait. I think that’s smart!”

By the time I had to make the decision to leave Montreal, albeit temporarily, to go to Europe for approximately a year, I could only tell Nonna in a letter. She could barely hear me on the phone anymore, so it was the best way to give her the news. Before she could write back, she was hospitalized, and the rest is covered at the beginning of this post. But when I spoke to my father a couple of nights ago, he assured me that she was ecstatic about where my journey had taken me.

I don’t want any of this to come across as me saying that my grandmother didn’t live fully. Many people don’t get to experience every little thing they desire in life. In fact, most people don’t. Travelling was one of those things for Nonna, but it doesn’t mean she wasn’t fulfilled in every other way.

I know this because she so generously shared the details of the missing half of my life. She told me everything, even if it wasn’t always rose-coloured and lovely, because she was at peace with the truth and wanted me to learn it from that place. She understood her children and grandchildren intimately, even if she was often quiet about it. And I know she was a happy woman because she was so easy to please. Indulging her in a simple game of cards was all it took to make her night (“there are no friends in cards,” she once warned me before a game; and she meant it).

I’m sad she’s gone and I regret not being able to say goodbye in a more ideal way. But I’m also relieved she never made it to that nursing home. The only home she ever wanted to be in was her own. I’m glad her life worked out that way.


  1. I’m so sorry you have lost your Nonna Olivia. I’m glad you got to know her and spend time with her. I have many questions I wished I had to guts to ask before I lost my Nana. Take care!
    Love Mi

  2. Hey Mi,

    Thanks for the kind words. I consider myself truly fortunate that Nonna let me into her world as much as she did. She really revealed lots of stuff to me that not everyone knew. I’m glad that we had the time together that we had, which is why my post is not at all written out of anguish. Though I’m sad, I can’t help but want to celebrate the woman, ya know?

  3. she is a brave woman .. god takes her back, she has a better life then ..perhaps Donald is there , trying to realise his promise to her..

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