My nonno, my Italian grandfather, passed away this morning. That means I have no more grandparents. Want a grandparent? Don’t ask me! I’m tapped.
Ah, gallow’s humor. Or is it gallows humor? Who is Gallow if it’s his/her/their humor?
My nonno…I won’t lie, he wasn’t this outstanding citizen of the world. He was cranky and miserable; he didn’t treat his children well as they grew up. He always said, “Everyone’s out to get you,” and “Don’t trust nobody!” or “I just want to die,” in this morbid, slightly paranoid way. But I loved him. When my nonna was alive, they lived only 5 minutes from my parents’ house for the majority of my childhood. They were my brother and mine’s regular babysitters, always taking us to their home or coming over to visit. My nonno would teach me how to draw and paint; he was a self-taught oil painter who used to make his own brushes out of cloth strips. His oil paintings covered the walls of our house, mostly landscapes and single portraits. My nonno said he never painted smiling people, because the world wasn’t like that. We would have dinner with them at least a few times a week. My nonna was a phenomenal cook and would bring over baked ziti, foccaccia, profiteroles, meatloaf…believe me, you’ve never had Italian food like hers, not even at the Olive Garden. And my nonno would call her “Dolly” – “Dahhlly,” he would say — that’s what she has on her gravestone now under her name.
One of nonno’s many oil paintings.
Nonno was a captivating storyteller and a jokester. As my nonna was ailing, I started recording both of them telling stories of growing up in Italy, fighting in World War II, raising their kids in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn. Nonno didn’t like Jewish people because he had worked at a garment factory for a Jewish guy who was cheap and mean. But when I brought home Dan, who’s Jewish, nonno immediately liked him because, “He’s a good guy. He got a job.” When really, it was the fact that Dan sat and listened to his stories, asked him questions and spent time with him when the rest of the family wanted a break. Nonno would tell me, “that man — he really loves you!” I didn’t want to acknowledge what he saw for a long time, but he was right. He knew a soulmate when he saw one.
After my nonna died, my nonno was revealed in a way. Without her, he said he had nothing to live for, and so was nothing to the world. I know there are statistics regarding long-term relationships about the surviving partner dying usually within a year from their partner’s passing; that’s what was happening to nonno. Even though nonna and nonno fought like crazy, drove each other nuts, they Loved in a big, capitalized way, even into their 80s. It wasn’t the healthiest love, but it gave their lives meaning. Nonna and nonno met in Italy when they were in their early teens; nonna said she knew she was going to marry nonno from that very moment. Nonna was constantly jealous of the older woman who lived across the street from them in their retirement complex. Nonna thought this woman was trying to steal nonno from her, especially when the woman put up a sign in her garden that had an innocuous quote about love on it. My nonna called other women “chickens,” implying that nonno was indeed a rooster, but her rooster only.
I realize that in a way, I loved nonno because of nonna. As an elderly man, it was hard to love nonno because his outlook on life was so bleak. But with nonna, either alive or in memory, I loved him because she made him a better person. As a child and into adulthood, I could see that they complimented each other in how much they loved their family. We were the center of their universe, and that space overflowed with affection everyday of their lives.
I am sad because my nonno will not be at our wedding. I was really hoping he would make it because I wanted a grandparent there – it just felt important to me as a representation of my life cycle. But also because I wanted something of my nonna there with me; that through his eyes, she’d be able to see her earring that I made into my engagement ring or her wedding picture I’d put up at our ceremony…I miss being able to talk about my wedding planning with her because I know it would have brought her so much joy. I don’t speak about my wedding in serious or detailed terms with many people, but I would have told her everything, over and over, as much as she wanted to hear it. Ultimately though, what I want is my nonna and nonno together, when they are their happiest. And that’s how they’ll be at our wedding this summer.
There was a nurse, no doubt of the chicken variety, who was with my nonno when he passed this morning. She said he had a little smile on his face as he stopped breathing. I’m positive it was because he was finally going home to his Dolly.