Love Letter to my Nonna

Written a week before her passing…

Not many people have a best friend who’s sixty years older than they are.  I do – but devastatingly, her health has taken a turn for the worst and she’s about to leave us.

It’s certainly not to be taken for granted that she’s blessed to have lived almost ninety-three years, but to me, she’s my Noni Netta, and she will forever be ageless.  She’s the backbone of our family, and has been a constant in my life I honestly can’t imagine being without.

The thought of this happening during a rare moment when I’m not able to travel is disappointing and extremely upsetting.  I want to be there, holding her hand as she did mine whenever I was scared, or unwell.  The only solace I have is the certainty that I couldn’t have been any closer to her than I have been throughout my life.  I know she can feel me there with her.  Our relationship has been incredibly special and I believe it transcends any limitations of space and time.

At this point, Alzheimer’s has cheated her out of all the magnificent memories of an incredibly full lifetime.  She’s frail and has stopped eating.  She doesn’t remember being abnormally healthy her entire life.  She doesn’t remember the exceptional ability to cook and the amazing appetite she had until a short time ago.  She doesn’t remember never resting until every guest was stuffed and had been offered every possible form of food available in the house.

She has forgotten that I’m married, pregnant, and living in Rome.  But I’ll never forget some years ago, when my husband and I were courting each other from across the world and the distance was taking its toll on our relationship, she comforted me and offered to buy me an emergency ticket to Rome to come see him.  What was important to us was always important to her, and our happiness was her priority.

She doesn’t realize that she and her broken Italian accent taught me what true culture was all about; that there was an entire world outside of my small town to discover.  She held her native country close to her heart all these years, and in doing so contributed to an upbringing unique to that of so many around us.

She inadvertently infused in me a passion and respect for our heritage and tradition so great that it has changed the course of my own life.  By directly experiencing her country and way of life, I’ve felt closer to her than ever before.  Her culture has enriched me and continues to do so every day.  And now I have a husband with the same adorable accent, and I love hearing it.

She doesn’t know she was the quintessential definition of strength: one of the first women in a small Italian town to ever give birth via c-section; taking shelter in caves while bombs dropped down from above during WWII; having the courage to leave her war-torn home and embark on a new life in a foreign country, never to see her own parents again; feeling completely lost and out of place and stuck in what she referred to as “Siberia”; learning a new language with only the help of the newspaper and television; creating a respected reputation and a beautiful home in a community far from her own reality; then, much later, carrying on for the sake of her family after losing the love of her life.

She doesn’t remember all the wonderful years of memories we created together at 931 Myrtle Ave: all the times we laughed, sang, and danced around the living room to “Peppino the Italian Mouse” on repeat on the turn-style; the hidden jar of biscotti that was never hard to find; the incredible smells coming from the basement filled with fresh pasta, salami hanging from the ceiling, and barrels of Papa’s best dago red.  When I think of my happy place, to this day, it’s Christmas Eve at Noni and Papa’s house, or any other after-school visit, for that matter.

She’s forgotten how obsessed she was with cleanliness, following us around with a moppina attached to her hand,making any mess disappear in seconds while never getting in our way of having fun.  She would eat over the sink to catch runaway crumbs, sleep on a tiny pillow (which she made herself) so her hair wouldn’t get messed up, and would never leave the house without a layer of Oil of Olay and some makeup on.  She was an expert at taking care of herself and others.

She doesn’t recall reading every health-related book she could get her hands on, mastering symptoms and illnesses all in a second language, and with a 5th grade education.  She had a sharper mind and keener intuition than so many well-educated people I know.

She’s forgotten how she’d repeatedly make the sign of the cross every time a thunderstorm would roll in – or how she prayed incessantly for our well-being at all times, rosary after rosary, blessing after blessing.  Her faith has been an unwavering constant her entire life, despite so many obstacles and strife.

She’s no longer able to repeat all the hilarious sayings and quotes that have become scripted staples to us over the years, and will undoubtedly keep us laughing for many more to come.  All the stories we shared, plans we discussed, and great advice she always gave…  I could talk to her about anything, and she always had a wise, pertinent, and optimistic viewpoint.

She has no idea how popular she was with everyone she met.  All of our friends loved Noni Netta.  Everyone recognized her kind, gentile spirit, sweet disposition, and the light of goodness that surrounded her.  Her calming presence has meant so much to our family in the past, once struggling with serious illness and the simultaneous loss of its most beloved members.  Little does she know that – even as an adult – her smile, warm embrace, and the smell of her skin could always set my world right.

All of this, and so much more, she no longer remembers – but we can certainly never forget.  We will remember it all for her.  What she has built will last in eternity because she is the foundation of who we are, and who we want our children to become.

The only real peace I’ve found in these difficult days has been when I sit and listen to our son kicking around in my belly, and imagine how well he will know her through me.  As I prepare to raise him, she will be there in my words and my actions, as there could be no better mother to emulate.  She is my definition of honor, integrity, strength, and love.

Now, as she struggles with her last breaths, I continue to reflect on how a life, just one life, can have such an incredible effect on the development of each of us.  Any success we have is owed partially to her, for the bold choices she’s made for our well-being, and the unconditional support and abundant self-sacrificing love she’s always given us.  Her idea of a punishment was always, “I kissa you two time”; I never needed to learn how to love or be affectionate because people like her showed me what it meant from the beginning…

We’ve been blessed by her presence for so long, and we’ve needed her.  But her destiny will soon be calling – and as she would say: “se è destino non manca.”  It was her destiny to be our Nonna, and very soon, it will be our destiny to miss her terribly.

Ti voglio un bene immenso,



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