I often only concede that I am part French and part Italian, which is actually all parts fallacy since I am one-third Portuguese, an ancestry that I rarely connected with. Being a French girl at heart, though, the only way you'd know I am Italian is that I call my paternal grandmother, "Nonna", the Italian word for "Grandmother". My father, with his seasoned New England accent, pronounces it "Norna", adding an "R" where there should not be one. These days, my grandmother - Nonna herself - signs her cards "Nona", having misplaced one of the "N"s sometime over the last ten years. She also goes by Maddy and Madeline, but even family members who she is not Grandmother to call her Nonna.
Aside from the four people who take credit for raising me (I often refer to them as "all of my parents"), my grandmothers were, and continue to be, very involved in my life. I would spend weekends with my Dad as a child, which meant spending much of that time with Nonna - and boy did she spoil me.
One such anecdote goes something like this:
I loved McDonald's happy meals as a six year old: The cheerful box it came in with its clever, clasping cardboard handle; the pickle laden hamburger wrapped in bright yellow paper; the too-hot, crispy French fries that made the condiment packets warm; and the free, unisex toy, which provided either joy or curiosity, depending on which side of the gender fence it was leaning. There wasn't anything about the happy meal I didn't like. The great misfortune in this was that my mother strictly forbade me to eat fast food and anyone who took care of me knew this rule - especially Nonna. But being the lovingly stubborn and forthright Italian Grandmother (she was sneaky, too), Nonna would pick me up in her beige Ford Maverick and drive us directly to the nearest McDonald's, defying my mother's rule, and enthusiastically order me a happy meal. There I would be, sitting shot gun in the Maverick and smiling widely in anticipation of all the savory splendor I was otherwise not allowed to have. At that moment, no one in the world loved me as much as she did. Nonna knew there was no harm in this clandestine arrangement since I would never reveal our secret and, of course, withholding the truth from my mother wasn't necessarily lying, right? I am not sure how long it took for my mother to discover these covert, fast food operations. But when she did, Nonna begrudgingly brought our drive-thru affair to a halt and devised other ways to spoil me - most likely with some other form of equally noxious food.
When we were together, Nonna and I played simple games, the type that didn't require a lot of props or money to play them. She would let me dress up in a hodgepodge of her clothing and mine, don a handkerchief on my head and pretend to be a maid that "cleaned" her house. Admittedly, it was the closest I ever came to actually learning to clean. Other times, allowing me to rearrange her furniture, Nonna would watch as I carefully constructed fort-like tents with draped sheets and other found blankets. I would take up most of her living room for days at a time and hide myself away with only a flashlight and drawing books. I believe there may even be photographic evidence of these strange events stored somewhere in Massachusetts.
In those days, Nonna was young enough to go out dancing on Saturday nights. She was a spry and spunky lady, widowed at a far too young age and she would dance on these particular nights with a large group of her coupled friends. She never shared with me the details of those younger, single days which a child's mind could not understand. But in a recent year, I spent an afternoon listening to her tell a short collection of colorful stories. Her gray eyes, now filled with cataracts, sparkled as she gleefully recollected those fond and carefree memories of her wily, young self.
Being a hot-blooded Italian, Nonna has occasionally gotten angry. I recall a very memorable photograph published many years ago in The Boston Globe that captured her - the gray-haired, 70-something-year-old President of the Massachusetts Senior Action Commmittee, in a very heated debate over state Medicare reform. While standing on the steps of the Massachusetts State House with an incendiary expression on her face, eyes large and aggressive, her lips in the shape of something serious being said, and she was very clearly wielding her forefinger in an unsuspecting political opponent's face. It was glorious. I bet the poor guy never anticipated being embroiled with five-foot-two Nonna.
On other occasions, Nonna's angry face would surface as a result of her being fed up with my father or me teasing her, which sometimes she would take in good spirits - sometimes not. There was a hidden threshold between when Nonna was having fun and when she had had enough. During these episodes, with pursed lips and a melodramatic air, she would, in rapid succession, blink both of her eyes causing her entire face to twitch in an ostentatious manner, the vibrations of which would ripple well past her wiry hairline. She would repeat this behavior, presumably until she fatigued all the muscles in her face, in the meantime bringing our fun to an abrupt end. Words were not necessary. Several years ago, without her knowledge, I coined her signature move: Nonna's Hard Blink.
Nonna would sometimes display her disapproving hard blink just to let me know too much time had passed since my last phone call to her, or that I perhaps had something to do with the bad weather that day. She would look at me, with those Crushing Eyelids of Displeasure, say in her throaty voice, "Hiya, Monkey" (the origin of this pet name is still unknown to me), and hard blink her way into eliciting a hug and kiss on her soft, wrinkled cheek. I guess she doesn't realize I give those willingly.
She turned 91 in January. Life is slow for her now. She likes her white toast and cigarettes and plays cards for pennies with the community of same-aged people that she lives among. I saw her on Christmas morning, first exhaustively unfolding her creaking body out of the passenger's seat of my father's car and then shuffling her steps doggedly to the front door of my mother's house.
Nonna's spirit is still strong, but it is evident that her age and the difficulties that come along with it frustrate her. She has a sharp mind, but has given up the freedoms that a young person's body allows. She moves slowly, much of the time with assistance. And she stopped driving seven years ago due to being completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other.
In a continuing gift-giving trend, I gave paintings to my immediate family members this past Christmas. It has become an annual tradition and a reason to paint but also an excuse to avoid the commercial trappings of the holiday "spirit". The funny thing about family is that they seem to adore whatever piece of art I give to them whether it be out of pride or affection - or perhaps, with any luck, they actually like the piece I created with them in mind. Over the years, my parents' and grandparents' homes have become veritable galleries of my work. My mother, for example, believes that since the dawn of my life began in her womb, all of my original paintings naturally and automatically belong to her. This is a belief that I have unquestioningly affirmed since she does indeed have many of my original pieces.
Painting for Nonna this year proved the most challenging because her eyesight has severely degenerated. It seemed perverse to give her a gift that she would have to struggle to gain enjoyment of. I quickly realized the error in my thinking since, even though she may not fully see the image on canvas, in the end, she would deem having my artwork on her wall gift enough.
On Christmas morning, I carefully watched her reaction as she opened her abstract flower painting, a departure from my normally detailed subjects. Her eyes strained slightly as she took one close look at it through her bifocals and said proudly, "It's so, so beautiful, Aly."
That's family for you.