When I walked into her home for the first time, having never met me, she threw her hands up exclaiming, "Ah, Amahnda, Amahnda! Benvenuto a mia casa!" She clasped my face in her hands and kissed me on both cheeks saying, "Che bella, che bella!" Regarding Sharon and I as we stood beside each other in all our Scandinavian statuesque-ness, she proclaimed, "Si guarda come sorelle!" ("You look like sisters!")
She was 88 years old then, in 2007, but she ventured out by foot in Rome's bustling downtown to gather up the accoutrements for each of our incredible meals. I have yet to taste a melanzana parmigiana as incredible as the one she made us, crushing the tomatoes with her aged, tired hands in a rotary-like machine the likes of which I've never seen again. I still order eggplant parmesan whenever I see it on a menu, hoping for it to be as good as hers. (No luck yet. Boo.) She was THRILLED that I was happy to eat all the things and stay to finish the vino; I remember my face being squeezed in pleasure each time I'd accept a second helping: "Mangia, mangia!" (Yes, the Italians - at least my Italians - really do say that.)
I remember your amused smile that first time we stood in the kitchen; you had asked me about the basilico in the finestra and I kept looking out the window at the many church domes saying, "Si, si, capisco. I see them." At least I thought I understood, until you walked over, took my hand, placed it on the basil plant in the window and said, "Basilic-o." As it began to dawn on me, you pointed out the window to the church and said, "Basilic-a." I felt so foolish and said in embarrassment, "Mi dispiace, Nadia, non parlo bene l'italiano, solo spagnolo," and you shrugged, saying, "Va bene, Amahnda. Si prova!" (It's ok, Amanda. You are trying!")
Then there was the night we sent Roberto and Sharon out for a night to themselves, and you, myself, and Jillian played a game of trying to learn body parts in the different languages (we really needed a break from Jillian's Little Mermaid movie). I threw in the Spanish words for fun and screwed everybody up. Three generations of giggling girls, trying to pronounce strange new words, eating popcorn. Such a great memory.
You washed my laundry whenever we'd leave. Surely my own mother has folded my undergarments once or twice in my lifetime, but for sure no one ever ironed them until you. I remember trying to find the Italian words to tell you, "My goodness, you don't have to do that!", finally asking Roberto to please tell you for me. He did so, but explained to me that this was how guests were treated in your mind and that you were unlikely to be dissuaded. (He was correct.)
I didn't have to be fluent in Italian to understand your stories or instructions: how your legs hurt sometimes, which dish or ingredient to hand you in the kitchen, how happy you were to finally have your family there in Italy with you. How you had been a professional seamstress and run your own fashion boutique, where your Enzo came in to buy neckties one day and you fell in love immediately. Such stories traverse language, and I remember Sharon and I wiping our eyes at the dinner table as you spoke of how much you missed him, somehow understanding each and every word.
Oh, my Nadia. On my first trip outside the borders of my own country, I could not have wished for a more gracious and generous hostess. Both then and in the several times since when I saw you in America, I always admired you. You were always dressed to the nines: hair, makeup, and jewelry, ever the fashionista. My goodness, you flew by yourself, repeatedly and in your nineties, to a country where you didn't speak the language. (Although there was that one time you answered me in English when I couldn't understand - busted!) How worried you were for Sharon while she fought, and how badly you felt that you couldn't be here to help. You met the great love of your life and "gave to the light" your only child on the cusp of your forties. In recent years, your story gave me much needed hope.
On the day I was to fly home, you were gone all morning, arriving home just in time to see me off. You handed me two packages of your favorite Italian caffè saying, "Un regalo, da me, per ti." You hugged me hard and I embraced you tightly in return, and you didn't let go as you drew away, looked me in the eyes and said, "Ti ricorda di me," and then, in hard fought English, using your pointer finger to drive your words home, "You. Remember. Me."
Sempre mi ricorderò di te, Nadia. Il mio cuore è così triste che ci hai lasciato, ed era la mia grande fortuna di conoscerti.
|At Il Gallo Matto for Festa della Nonna|
|An evening walk, and gelato con panna|