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The Italian Nonna

“In many ways, she perfectly suited the archetype of the Italian nonnaShe was short and chubby, always wearing the same pinafore with a flower pattern that time had worn out on her generous bosom.”

Towards the end of her life, my grandma started to get confused. Occasionally, people from her past, some who had long left us, would come back to haunt her, looking for her company. Weakened by the heavy medication she was constantly taking, her mind would peacefully yield to a storm of names, faces, memories, and emotions. I could clearly notice when this happened; she would stop talking, interrupting a sentence in the same manner that a child drops a toy that no longer interests them. Her discolored pupils would start to move erratically, as if her thoughts were too fast for her and she was trying to chase them.

She’d pause, she’d dry her mouth with the paper napkin she always kept tight in her hand, and she’d start speaking to me about friends and acquaintances from her childhood, asking me if I knew what had happened to this one or that one, ignoring the over sixty years between us. I would sit in silence in front of her, moved to tears by her fragility and fascinated by the little wonder of the present and past intermingling and unraveling right before my eyes. 

The last time I went to see her I was worried she couldn’t tell me from one of those souls she was getting ready to join soon. She had barely recovered from the umpteenth fall, and was forced to use a wheelchair the entire time she wasn’t in bed. To my surprise, she immediately recognized me. When she saw me, her face brightened and her wrinkles flattened for a moment, making her look younger. 

By then, we couldn’t have been more different. I was a young man in my late 20s, with a masters, living abroad; she was in her 80s, her education had ceased promptly at the third year of primary school and, from what I knew, with the sole exception of her honeymoon in Florence, she had never moved from her little village in the north of Piedmont. Sitting with her in the living room, I noticed that somehow she had managed to get a map of the UK and had pinned it in the most important spot of the house, directly next to the television. She had circled London, where I was living back then, so many times that everything between zone 3 and 6 had been mercilessly censored by a black marker. 

In many ways, she perfectly suited the archetype of the Italian nonnaShe was short and chubby, always wearing the same pinafore with a flower pattern that time had worn out on her generous bosom. She had callous hands from working in the vegetable gardens and doing household chores. She lived most of her life in the same big house in the countryside, where I spent every summer and every Sunday of my childhood. We would always be together: I would help her in the garden, in Summer we would go for long passeggiate after dinner, in Autumn we would go mushroom hunting and chestnut picking. She taught me the names of trees and plants, and how to catch crickets.

And she spoiled me rotten.She was always smiling, especially after the daily quarrels – rigorously in Piedmontese dialect – with my grandpa. And she was incredibly patient, a quality she passed down to me through my dad, together with her thick hair. I would often find her in the kitchen, busy making something. Her cooking style was a combination of traditional recipes, the advent of industrial food, and a sort of subconscious retribution for the deprivation she had suffered during World War II. 

Food was old-fashioned, hearty and pretty heavy: potato gnocchi, sautée liver, rice and milk soup, bagna càuda (a sauce of garlic and anchovies), and zucchine in carpione, deep-fried courgettes marinated in chopped onion, sage and hectolitres of vinegar, which took her entire mornings to make and would make me happy for what felt like days. It was mandatory for her to put a fistful of butter even in the salad if she could, and she’d sprinkle handfuls of salt on pretty much anything, like a salt spreader on a mountain pass in December. 

She wasn’t a great baker. The best dessert she could make was budino from instant pudding mix, most of which we would share raw, straight from the paper sachet, before it could reach the pot.  I loved being at nonna’s. 

I can still smell the fresh and crispy white linen today. The sturdy bed I would sleep in had been my father’s. The headboard had been skillfully carved by my grandpa, who was a woodworker. Because the mattress hadn’t been changed in decades, it had a deep indentation in the middle. Grandma would leave my grandpa alone and sleep in the room with me, on a camping bed that looked so modest in comparison to mine. Thinking about this now, I’m quite sure I never asked her to do that. 

After tucking me in, she would switch the light off and tell me stories, always the same ones, every night. She would start with Little Red Riding Hood and end with telling me how my dad as a kid almost got struck by a thunder, before singing me the greatest hits of Nilla Pizzi: Vola Colomba, Papaveri e Papere, and Grazie dei Fior

“Whatever happened to Adelina? Do you know?” my grandma asked brusquely, bringing me back from my memories, straight to the living room with the television and the map of the UK staring at us. “I’m afraid I’ve never met her.” I replied, politely. Then, with the directness that only old people are entitled to, indifferent to the presence of my uncle, my dad, and my two siblings around us, she leaned towards me, and declared: “You’ll always be my favourite”.