"If you knew how lonely my life has been
And how low I've felt for so long.
If you knew how I wanted someone to come along
And change my world the way you've done...
If you knew how much this moment means to me
And how long I've waited for your touch.
If you knew how happy you are making me.
Oh I never thought I'd love anyone so much.
Feels like home to me
Feels like home to me
Feels like I'm all the way back where I come from."
"Feels Like Home" - Randy Newman
A few Wednesdays ago, the last day of November, around 6:30 at night, and yeah, we call 6:30 in the p.m. night around these parts this time of year: the sun goes down quick and early, the darkness and the cold flood in. Drove across the railroad tracks, a little dazed, how could I have been surprised after all this time, I knew it was coming for awhile now, but surprised I was. Up Viall Avenue, and out in front of the Italian Fraternal Society the traffic slowed, cars parked on both sides of a narrow street, and I pulled off to the right and let the car coming the other direction pass. I looked out at that car and saw it was a hearse.
Damn, I thought. That must be my Nana in there.
It had to be, I thought. One of us had to be there when she passed by the Fraternal one last time. I was glad it was me.
I got a message from my father on my voice mail, saying simply, "Call me before you leave. It's important."
Nana was such a tough woman, she'd survived life as a thirty-six year old widow with five children, and she'd survived the loss of one of those children, bruised for sure but with her spirit and her humor and her sass and her faith and her nfinitely loving heart intact, and over the course of her last four years, spent in a nursing home, she had rallied back from the bring so many times that I began to think she'd live, if not forever, for something close to it, or for another decade or so at least.
And so, when I called my father back and heard him tell me my one hundred and one year old Nana had just passed away, with my mother and two other of her four surviving children by her side, I was shocked.
How could my stumbling voice, calling out unevenly in the middle of this night, even begin to do justice to this woman, to the life she lived? It can't, but that won't stop me from trying anyway, for one of the many things she taught me was to speak up for myself, to say my piece. Nana didn't shy away from telling you what was on her mind, and it would dishonor her for me to keep my mouth shut now. I might as well give it a shot and spit out the words that have been dancing, without rhyme or reason, around the corridors of my heart these past few days.
She came to America from a small town in southern Italy when she was seven years old. Like many Italian men from that area in that era, her father had come back and forth to America several times over a period of about twenty years, working here for awhile and then sending his money back home, and then going back home for awhile. In 1917, fearing one of his sons might soon be drafted into the Italian Army, he decided to leave what we still in our family refer to as "the old country" for good.
Nana could spin a yarn with the best of them, and I've often told people who have enjoyed my own storytelling that whatever meager gift of gab I might possess, I got it all from her, but anyway, one story she told often, and which haunted me always, involved the day she and her family left Italy for good. She said they took everything they could fit and crammed it into a horse-drawn covered wagon which would take them to Naples, where they would board the ship bound for America. She told us, many times, about how on that day, as the wagon began to pull away from her town, her grandfather, her mother's father, began running after the wagon, crying out for his daughter, for his family. I've never been to Italy, but after hearing this story so many times from Nana, I can picture it in my mind: a dirt road running across green hills, an old man in a black suit brokenly running after a wagon, and I can see him getting further and further away from the sight of those on the wagon.
"David," she used to say wistfully, "he knew he'd never see his daughter again, he knew he'd never see any of us. It was like we were going to the moon."
She and her family made it through the perilous journey across the Atlantic in the middle of World War I, she used to tell us about the submarine alarms going off and how the women in steerage would wail in panic until her mother could calm them down by getting them all to say the rosary together. They made it through Ellis Island and up to the place they would call home: a small mill town in upstate New York, the place where I live now with my own wife and children. It may not have felt like home to them, especially when the cold winds of winter blew, but they made the best of it.
Oh, she told us all about it: about going to school not knowing a word of English with some unsympathetic teachers, about how the only meat they ate for years came from the chickens they killed themselves in their backyard, about how the principal from her school came to her home one day when she was fourteen to tell her father that she was extremely bright and needed to go to college, and that he would help make it happen, and about how her father made her quit school to go to work in the textile mills the very next day. She told us about how they decorated their Christmas trees with apples and oranges, I remember how sad this seemed to me as a child as we put the ornaments she had accumulated over the decades on our own tree each year.
She got married at the ripe old age of seventeen to my grandfather, who would die, in the same house where I live today, five children and less than twenty years later. One of those children, the one they lost far too soon, was born early on a Christmas morning, and, where our tree stands this year, she placed that child in a bassinet under their tree, and his older brothers awoke that morning and found him there and at first said, oh ma, we didn't want a doll for Christmas!
My mother, who was three when her father died, used to tell us about the warm and happy Christmases her family would have, and I always admired Nana for giving my mother that; I knew that it must have been hard doing it on her own, and many years later, when I found own self widowed suddenly and young, with three young children of my own, I really wondered just how the hell she did it. Everything hurt for a long while after Lauren died, but Christmas used to hurt even more, and one of the few comforts in those first years came from the thought that well, if Nana did it, I should be able to do it, too.
Growing up, Nana lived in the next building over from us, and then, after my parents finally bought a house, a couple of blocks away. She really was like a second mother to me and my brother and my two sisters. She bought us winter coats when my parents were busted out. She bought us clothes, she made us clothes, for she had a sewing machine and was an expert seamstress. I remember one year she knitted us hats and mittens and I wore those mittens for years, mine were made of green (she knew it was my favorite color) and gold wool. Maybe the third winter in one of the mittens got a hole in it, and one afternoon on the bus that took us to our weekly after-school bowling lessons, a girl made fun on my mittens and the hole in them. I stuck my middle finger out of the hole at that girl, as if to say, screw you, screw you for mocking something my Nana made, you'll never have an ounce of the class she does.
She ate dinner with us every nigh and often cooked, or helped my mother cook, those dinners. My father and her had a garden for several summers in a piece of land across the street from the pj's they'd talked the owner into renting them. They'd argue about gardening techniques - and as good as my father was to her, as much as he put up with shit I never would put up with from a mother-in-law, she always harbored suspicions about him because he was, after all, Irish - and we'd eat what they grew in there for months. Years later, Nana would teach Lauren and I how to can tomatoes, they way she did with my mother did way back when, they used to do a hundred and and seventy five quarts a year for awhile, and as she taught us, at one point, when she could see that we had finally GOTTEN it, she stood back from the stove and smiled a smile that I will never forget; it was a smile full of pride and satisfaction, and the fact that I helped put it there I regard as one of the enduring achievements of my own flimsy lifetime.
In later years, when my parent bought their house, she'd still come over every night to eat; I'd go pick her up in my car. After dinner she'd hurry me into putting the coffee on, and believe you me (as she used to say, that was one of her favorites, that "believe you me"), I loved the fact that she thought my coffee was, to use yet another of her favorites, "the cat's ass." And we'd eat Pecan Sandies and watch "Jeopardy" and then when that ended she would roust her creaking bones from my mother's couch, stand up, look at me, and yell, with a smile on her face, "TAKE ME HOME!" And I'd take her home, opening the car door for her and walking her to her door. She'd fumble through her pockets for her key, and, finding it, get it into the door lock. Once she opened it she turn on the light and turn toward me and give me a kiss goodnight, and I'd tell her I loved her and that I'd see her tomorrow.
It seemed like things would go on like this forever, but they didn't. I met Lauren and we got married and moved about forty minutes away, and we got busy, had children of our own, and I didn't see Nana so much anymore. We moved back to my hometown for what was supposed to be a brief stay, while we looked for a house, in 2006, but even then, I didn't see her often. We were living in her old house, in her old flat, with my brother and his family upstairs and my folks a block away and Nana two blocks further on. I'd cook things for her, I remember making a split pea and ham soup from the remnants of the Easter 2007 ham, and I delighted upon hearing from my mother that Nana loved the soup. I made pizza for her that September and she loved that, too, how could she not, I made it just like she'd taught me to, thin crust and all.
She went into the nursing home the same day Lauren had the operation that would ultimately take her life, Friday, October 26th, 2007. The last real conversation I had with Nana took place about three weeks after Lauren died. I went up to the home and they had me wait in a meeting room decked out with Christmas decorations. Nana came around the corner and into the room and saw me and we both started to cry. She took my head into her arms and repeated the words, oh David, oh David, oh David. She knew; she knew what I was in for, she had been there herself, and it was plain to see that she was utterly heartbroken that one of her beloved grandchildren was in for the same trip. In the long and lonely days that followed, days when I just wanted to quit, when I just wanted to run away from it all, I remembered her voice, weak and broken by age and the initial onset of dementia, telling me, you have to be strong for those children, David, they need you, you have to be strong for those children.
History can be both empowering and daunting. Myself, I carry my family's history, from Nana on down to my own times, close to my heart, and it informs me, sustains me; I know that this moment is just my own brief appearance on the stage of the present. In just another instant, I will join the great-great grandfather who chased my Nana's wagon down a dusty road somewhere outside of Naples in the faded pages of family history, a distant hero who comes up in family conversations for a generation or two, and then, not at all.
Sheila and I got engaged last Christmas Eve, an occasion which I reminisced about on this Christmas Eve, a bit past midnight as I stared out at the tree, aglow with white lights and graced with ornaments strewn haphazardly across the pine needles by the children we now raise together, with presents for those children laying under the tree where my Nana's newborn son, his fate already sealed, once lay.
The history seems too much to bear for her at times; sometimes, she asks how I could love her as much as I loved Lauren, given how much more water flowed beneath the bridge we built in our time.
The question frustrates me, though I try to react to it with patience.
We all carry histories with us. I carry mine, and she carries hers.
But of all the things my Nana taught me, and they are too many to list here, there is this: to an open heart, love, in all its forms, knows no limits; a heart that knows how to love, that accepts love, that truly believes in love, carries more than histories. It carries a universe, for it knows no beginning and no end.
So of course I love her as much as I have loved anyone. Maybe it's a pat answer, but it's true. Maybe it's a gift of geography, easier to realize sitting here in a room where my Nana lived and loved for decades, decades ago.
Whatever it is, it's home. It's where I belong, and I hope to be here for awhile.
7:44 PM PT: I just got back to this...funny how busy life can get with four children to tend to..anyway, if I don't get to respond to comments, I just wanted to say that I am thankful for the rescue, thankful that there's people in this community who read my stories and seem to get something from them, and very touched and thankful for the lifetime sub that was donated. Thank you all very much.