I was one fortunate girl. After my mother and father divorced, I was raised in a household where my single mother worked but devoted herself to my sister and I when she was home and my Nona (Italian grandmother) held the space of home with love and warmth all day, every day. Essentially, we got the love of two mothers, but with grandmothers there is often an emotional/generational separation that allows us a unique relationship. “Though she be but little, she is fierce,” is the quote that comes to mind when I think of my Nona, her endless energy and no nonsense approach to life making her a force to be reckoned with, even though my boys tower above her at this point. Born in 1926 in Yugoslavia, her family migrated to Northern Italy where she lived through World War II before moving to the United States with her handsome (and Italian) U.S. soldier husband. She has always been an example for me of what is valuable and good and worth holding onto, and what is worth letting go of.
These are some of the lessons she has taught me over the past four decades:
1. Everyone dies at some point or another. Make the most of the time you have.
During the war, my Nona’s town was occupied by German soldiers and witnessed unspeakable horrors. Rape, people being set on fire, children shot at in the street for sport. War is hell and it has a tendency to make one lose faith in humanity. But the times of greatest adversity also brings out the best in humanity, and she also witnessed neighbors helping each other, hiding each other, sharing food, and risking their lives to save others. She says they all got through it by recognizing that everyone dies. If it was their time to go, then so be it, but they would make the most of each moment they were allowed on this earth. I think of this every time I am bothered by something insignificant. Comparatively, my life is incredible and I intend to live it as fully and wholly as I can, in part because life is too short not to, and in part to honor those who don’t get to grow old. Every birthday is a blessing, as my Nona would say.
2. Not everyone deserves our forgiveness, but they don’t deserve power over us either.
My Nona’s experience in the war shaped who she is, and she admits that she will never be able to forgive what she saw. At the same time, she accepts that part of herself and does not let it have power over who she is or what she was able to accomplish. She married, had children, moved to a new country, put herself through nursing school, lost her husband, helped to raise her grandchildren, and empowered us kids to be able to hold our own feelings without guilt or regret. I learned from her that there is a difference between forgiving and letting go. This idea is a bit controversial, I think, in a world that is keen to heal. But I get her point, forgiveness isn’t always a necessary step to moving on. There is a quote that goes something like, “if somebody doesn’t want a story told that illustrates their wrong-doings, then they should have behaved better.” I have always liked this quote, because it reminds me that I can’t control others nor am I responsible for their story, only myself and how I move through the world. I can let go of something without forcing myself to feel anything I don’t.
3. Sometimes “progress” isn’t progress.
When I decided to have my first child at home, while my mother was freaking out (she eventually came around), my Nona very calmly looked at me and said, “Well, why shouldn’t you? That’s the way we did it in Italy. I have worked in hospitals for decades. You don’t want to have your baby there unless you have to.” Not only was I thrilled to have her on my side, but I was honored to have her at all three of my births. She sat by me each time holding my hand, rubbing my back, blessing all three of my babies as they came into the world. Those moments were the most profound of my life. It may not be the choice everyone makes, but my point is that what has been lost in the “progress” of birth is that human connection, that nurturing care of a midwife and family around you. I have never felt so loved and safe and full of joy. Every woman should feel this, whether she is at home or in a hospital.
Later on, when we decided to home school, she was again our biggest champion. Her concern for her great grandchildren having the freedom to learn and experience the world outside a regimented, test-reliant system was a relief. Again, she pointed to an old world system that used to allow people to focus and apprentice in the skills they were most interested in. It was incredible to have her support from the beginning and my children have benefited from having a flexible life that includes time to develop a relationship with her. Recently, they spent hours with her, teaching her how to use the iPad and Face Time.
It’s not that either of us are adverse to progress, but my Nona has taught me that there is plenty of value in history and traditions as well, much of which is worth keeping. In moving forward, we need to make sure we are also bringing with us that from the past which works. That we don’t lose the intimacy of being connected and the empowerment of doing for ourselves what we can.
4. Family is everything.
My Nona came from a large family. Some of them died before she left Italy, the rest she had to leave behind when she married my grandfather. Moving away was one of the most painful things she has ever done. She had no idea at the time that most of them she would never see again. Her twin sister ended up also marrying a U.S. soldier and moving close by, but she would not return to Italy for almost 50 years. By then, she had one sister left, as well as many nieces and nephews, and the reunion was incredible. They were certainly devoted, speaking every week on the phone, but seeing each other again was a powerful testament to their love and their past. Here in California, our family is everything to my Nona. I have seen her sacrifice and compromise and give more than she had to give for her family. I have also seen her hold us accountable for the same commitment, and we give it with our whole hearts. Some family situations are complicated, but the lesson I have learned is that whether your family is blood or chosen, they are the reason life is good. They are the meaning. In our busy, over-scheduled lives, they should be the priority, the people we schedule around instead of schedule in.
5. The kitchen is the best place to heal.
Italians, particularly Nonas, like to feed their family and their guests. Even if you are not hungry. “Mangia! Mangia!” as she would say. My Nona makes the most incredible fettuccine in the world. Fact. When any of us were having a problem or upset, she would immediately fire up the stove and get to work. But the truth behind the kitchen curtain is that while the food is comforting and delicious, it was the compassion and conversation she gave while stirring a pot of sauce or rolling dough that allowed us to heal. She is always full of advice, and we always felt heard. Somehow, the creation of our favorite foods would always parallel the creation of a solution. I very rarely left that kitchen without a sense of direction and relief. Today, with my own children, we have the same ritual. If the little ones are having a hard time holding it together or the older is working out a problem, we tackle a project. Cookies, gardening, art, cleaning, whatever we are inspired by that gets our hands, hearts and head all working together. Works every time.
6. Talk. Specifically, talking with your hands helps to communicate your point.
Italians talk with their hands, it’s true. I can tell how my Nona is feeling just by the gestures she is making with her hands. The lesson here, though, is that they talk. About everything. Feelings, ideas, what she thinks of my new shirt, I hear it all. Some might find this overwhelming but I am so grateful for the open communication. Now, I talk with my hands just like my Nona, and my family and friends are always very clear on what I need or how I am feeling. That openness has, in turn, allowed my other relationships to benefit from clarity and transparency. It allows me to move through my life with authenticity and I am grateful that my Nona taught me to never leave anything unsaid. Even if I have to back up so I don’t accidentally whack someone in my enthusiasm.
7. The best way to get someone’s attention is with a broom.
I think this one is old school and pretty self-explanatory. But worth mentioning. It certainly did get our attention. She never needed to actually use it. Just a little wave and we knew we had crossed a boundary. The funny part is, we knew she would never use it. But we played along because the lesson here was, we all need a signal when we have reached the end of our rope. In our family, we tend to go for the more dramatic or theatrical methods, but it doesn’t need to be. A word, a sign, can convey that attention is needed. In our family, this kind of signal is taken seriously. We make an effort to read each other. We take care of each other. Capisce?