Jan 2007

Time Passes

nonna Italia

La Nonna Italia died on Sunday evening. She was 94 years old by the books and 100 in her head, which was always a very fertile place. She was lying in bed chatting away with the people no one has been able to see for years, when she just stopped breathing. Her daughter-in-law Anna Maria, who was in the next room sewing a new black dress for her, was caught off guard.

The dress, one that Anna Maria had designed, was to have Velcro at the shoulders and sides so it could be pulled off easily. “Swooosh!” Anna Maria said, “Like a stripper.” I am sure la Nonna would have really enjoyed such a garment had her conscious presence not already left us about a week ago. Now, she might not have recognized the humor, or the practicality for that matter.

Instead, Anna Maria and sister-in-law Graziella dressed la Nonna’s inert body quickly in her best black dress and black beaded sweater, both choking back sobs and chastising each other. I stood watching the panicky struggle, paralyzed by helplessness and bewildered by their shock, as if it had not occurred to anyone that she might die. Anna Maria climbed up on the bed to have better leverage.

“Pull harder there”

“It doesn’t go. Oh!”

“Oh! Don’t
you start crying!”

As it was a Sunday, la Nonna spent one more night in her bed, elegantly dressed with the door closed, waiting for the funeral home to pick her up the next morning. Anna Maria didn’t sleep, but lay awake looking at the ceiling all night. In the morning my husband Luciano and his father were dispatched to pick out a casket. I am not sure why it happened this way and can only imagine the scene: Two stricken men standing in a showroom filled with coffins, asked to select wood, trim and lining. Giancarlo finally chose for his mother a simple, but elegant casket and the peach colored lining, saying “She is wearing black and it will look good.”

They came and took la Nonna away early. I was not here for that, but I was told that the coffin, though simple, would not fit though the front door and it remained outside in the garden, like a waiting limo with the engine running. The workers carefully, tenderly carried her down the stairs and out the garden gates.

Any planning sessions for the funeral arrangements for which I was present were conducted in dialect and therefore I understood little. Normally super aware of speaking in Italian when I am around, in their shock the family lapsed. Under the circumstances, I did not want to insist. So I remained largely in the dark as I sat at the kitchen table listening to the muted voices. I eventually learned that the funeral was to be on Tuesday afternoon in Soffratta in the church where Luciano and I were married. She was to be buried in Mareno, and following custom, there would be no reception afterwards. Everyone just goes home. Though I thought that strange, I asked questions only when I felt that I could. I wanted to be a part. I just didn’t know how.

After a log dry spell, the rain we had all been waiting for arrived Tuesday morning, in thin icy drops slicing sideways to the street. I distracted myself the best way I know how, by baking an enormous chocolate cake. I set out the coffee service, glasses, and a bottle of wine. I made little sandwiches of sliced
porchetta in preparation for imaginary visitors. I just could not imagine that there would not be people stopping by and I wanted to be ready.

The old church seemed smaller, darker and colder. Posted by the door was the death announcement with a photo of la Nonna. It looked like a mug shot, grim and unsmiling, and was probably going to be used on her tomb as well. As I walked up the aisle I wondered how I had not noticed the unevenness of the ancient marble floor before. Perhaps I really had floated down the aisle on my wedding day, eight months before. Now I walked past the rows of filled pews to the front and sat alone, waiting for the rest of the immediate family to arrive. It seemed as if the entire population of the village of Soffratta and nearby Mareno had shown up. I am sure many wondered who I was, sitting there in the reserved pews. But I also saw friends of ours who had skipped out of work to come to our Nonna’s funeral. Soon, I was surrounded by tearful cousins and great-grandchildren, the lights came up and the organ swelled to life. The crowd stood and la Nonna’s casket arrived, carried by her tall, strong, sorrowful grandsons.

I had never been to a funeral. I have never seen a dead person. I have never been witness to public grief. And I have never been in a room so filled with simple, pure compassion.

There was a jumble of sensations: the shiny newness of the warm wood casket with the jaunty bounce of the peach lilies on top, the wretched sadness of her three strong sons and sturdy, supportive wives, my freezing feet, the detached altar boys with tennis shoes under their robes who scampered about setting up priestly paraphernalia. Don Gabriele who, three months after he performed our wedding, rolled his car in a nearby ditch yet cheated death himself, rasped out an affectionate eulogy with his trachea-tube damaged throat.

“Let us miss our sister Italia together and in this way, our collective heartache will be lighter. She lived a good long life”

I smiled to myself. Not only did I understand everything, this was such good, simple advice. I hoped it was heeded.

Outside, the rain suddenly stopped. As we filed out of the church, we stood by the hearse, a stretch PT Cruiser, beneath turbulent, but momentarily dry skies. The rain held as we arrived at the cemetery a short distance away, where the elegantly professional funeral home workers conducted the procession. We followed la Nonna on a little wheelie cart to the prepared space, a slot in a wall of tombs. Don Gabriele, in his four cornered mitered hat, spoke again, shook holy water upon the casket and stepped back. The dark-suited funeral home manager stepped forward and removed the large bouquet from the casket after deftly selecting three flowers. With an elegant swoosh of his hand, he produced a strip of tape from nowhere and tenderly attached the roses to the top. He fastidiously brushed a speck off the coffin with the back of his hand and nodded to the cemetery workers who jumped into action. With surprisingly seamless movements, her coffin was placed on a lift, cranked up to opening and slid into place, forever. It began to rain again.

I looked around for Giancarlo. He had disappeared along with Anna Maria. The clusters of people slowly moved to the cars. Another funeral was starting at the church right next door. In fact, his being the only funeral home in town, our director and his team moved right into position to carry out their performance again, I am sure with the same practiced compassion. Since la Nonna had died first, we had had first choice of funeral times so as not to compete for services, or attention from God, in the cemetery.

As we moved to the cars and umbrellas came out, we saw Uncle Romano, la Nonna’s brother. Now 92, he is still irritated with his family for hiding his bicycle from him two years ago. He shook Luciano’s hand and asked, “Where is your new wife?”

“Here she is, Zio”

I stepped forward and kissed his stubbled, gaunt cheeks.

Condoglianze, Zio.” I said.

He smiled at me, his tear-washed face wide and saturated with emotion.

“What do you want? Time passes.”

Giancarlo, overwhelmed, had started walking home. A relative found them on the road and gave them a ride the rest of the way. By the time we arrived, all three sons and their wives were there, sitting around the kitchen table. Anna Maria, keeping her hands busy, was opening the notes of condolences and telegrams. There was some chatting about the weather and the service. But mostly there was silence, heavy dark silence. These six adults were adrift in grief and their solitary sorrow was pulling the air from the room. I wanted to put my chocolate cake in front of these people, maybe with a bottle of wine and pull them back. The simple action of cutting, passing, and eating a cake might be a way to come back to normalcy. Isn’t that why the brothers came here? Luciano shook his head to my question. “They won’t eat now,” he whispered.

I felt myself crumpling in the warm kitchen. I was suffocating with sadness. Sadness for them, for la Nonna’s wretched last days, for my loss, for this needless stoicism. I couldn’t breath. I stood up and left, going to our house next door. I needed to think about la Nonna doing laps around the house, hitting Luciano when she wanted his attention, sneaking food when the parents were not watching, holding my hand while she told a story to a crowd, taking little walks to look at the flowers or to eat the grapes growing in the sun.

My cake sat uneaten, rich and black with chocolate, as I sat at the window and cried at the rain. Then I felt better.


Luciano called me from the bottom of the stairs. When he uses that tone, I am either in trouble or he has something serious to say.

“Yes.” I used the same serious tone.

“Come here. Let’s go next door with the cake. The uncles have left, but my parents would like some. I explained to them that it is important for you to eat cake and my father agreed, saying that it is not right to ignore your efforts.”

This wasn’t exactly right and a little over simplified. But Giancarlo, as usual, had gotten the heart of it and I gratefully accepted the gesture to include me.

“And we have decided to use the photo you took for her tomb. The one with her smiling by the window. It was always her favorite.”

I sighed deeply and sat down on the step. How wonderful. I have seen the photos in the Italian cemeteries where the dour faces of the deceased adorn the tombs like a police line-up. Certainly old passport photos pressed into service at the last minute, they only make the place even gloomier. Now la Nonna Italia will be in her sunny chair, smiling softly into the camera, always the model. And a photo of mine. Finally, I had contributed something.

“Thank you,” I said. “Let’s eat cake.”



Spot is a tragicomic character. He dashes across the yard to the opaque fence and hovers breathlessly behind it, listening for my voice. “Ciao, bello.” I say, unable to resist and with that, Spot hurls himself against the fence, sobbing out deep, tragic barks. His tail and tongue flail as he pushes himself against the wire mesh fence, his eyes rolling in his wretchedness, “Play with me!”

Spot is a gangly English Setter, a puppy rescued from the pound and a replacement for Minnie, a miniscule dog with a megaphone voice and a deep, ugly hatred of all who passed by her yard. Owned by our next door neighbor (who is also our doctor) Minnie ran the length of the fence barking furiously at Luciano for her entire life. Minnie barked in the middle of the night to pass the time. From her enormous yard she barked at the hulking German Shepard across the lane as he sat in his jail cell of an enclosure. Just to be mean, I imagine. I would walk really slowly passed the fence and she barked along with me with unfaltering wrath even as her voice became hoarse. Everyone who walked past our house down the tiny lane was announced with her ferocious barking.

This summer Minnie died, one week after the death of her garden mate, a colossal, silent Bernese. Everyone said she died of a broken heart. Who could have imagined such depth of love from someone so hateful?

Far away in California, I danced a jig of joy when I heard the news.

When we returned home to Italy, I wanted to encourage a good relationship with the new dog. I started calling to him over the fence and he watched me from afar. He is a watcher, sitting for long periods, behind a sparse bush or a sapling tree, pretending to be invisible. He then explodes with passion and throws himself into the ivy, trying to reach my hand.

I started playing with Spot, gathering sticks along the way when I run. I need many since he does not yet understand how to return them, and so gaily lopes around the yard with one in his mouth. He chews it to bits and then looks up at me confused at its disappearance. I speak to him only in English, just to mess with his head. Not a difficult thing to do, it seems.

In order to play with Spot, I need to walk to the far side of the yard where the fence has no mesh and I can actually reach through to scratch his back. From this position, the little dog across the street can see everything. His fury can only be a jealous reaction. He barks with teeth bared, his voice catching with emotion in his throat. The little dog further down the street who pronounces her “f’s”, barks because it is her job, but she doesn’t really get what all the fuss is about.

“Rufff! Rufff! Rufffff!” If you look closely, you can see her upper teeth form the letter.

Spot heaves himself at the fence, weeping whines of loneliness and abandonment as I pass. Every single time. I know that the doctor and his family care for the dog and his anguish is absurdly exaggerated, but his cries stab at my heart. The fact that I can only put a few fingers through the fence to pet him only adds to the absurd heartrending comedy. Walking past him has become difficult, even embarrassing, with this emotional public displays of affection.

Today, I found myself tiptoeing past the house, bent over to stay out of sight. I saw Spot’s head come up, watching the motion, but unsure who it was. At the last moment, he leapt to his feet and roared at the fence, but too late. I was already at my door. As I put the key in the lock, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me. I turned and there, between the bushes, Spot sat silently, his eyes filled with the grief of betrayal. I know he will forgive me. Spot has a forgiving soul and a very short memory.

But sometimes I miss Minnie.