How does one begin to describe the impact a great-grandmother has had on you when the fact of the matter is she was long gone by the time you rolled around? Do you start by recounting, one by one, the stories you've heard told from childhood on, about this remarkably resilient, loving, dynamic, peanut of an Italian woman? "Peanut indeed," I hear her whisper in my ear as I set pen to paper. "Put those frayed and faded black and white photos away. Why, during the summer harvest, I was climbing peach trees at the ripe old age of eighty-five, and don't you ever forget that." Hardly, Nonna. Hardly. Though she may have been short in stature, I'm told that what she lacked in size, she made up for in strength and spirit. I don't doubt that. There are many of her loved ones still around to attest to that, including her now ninety year old grandson, my father. And that's not to mention, perhaps her biggest fan, my own mother, story-teller extraordinarie, herself now in her early eighties and keeper of the flame of all things Nonna Nina.
Do I continue on then to explain that this is my adoptive great-grandmother I write of? I'm not really flesh of her flesh nor blood of her blood, though I am of her breast milk. Wild, no? This particular story goes that Nonna Nina already had a biological child by the time she gave birth to her second, a full term stillborn. Though surely crestfallen and disheartened, that didn't send Nonna to bed; sheets pulled up over her head weeping in sorrow and despair. No way. She awoke the very next morning to the crowing of the roosters and casting her tragedy aside, headed straight to the local orphanage. There, the nuns handed her my grandmother, Marietta. She was just a few days old and outfitted in the cutest little white dress with a red ribbon attached to it by her birth mother. At this point the story became mythic for me as a child. Nonna Nina's breasts were over flowing with milk. She may have lost a biological baby, but there was milk to be given. Marietta nuzzled Nonna Nina's breasts and then drank heartily. Cool, huh? Gradually, as I went on to have my own babies, I came to the realization that there can be no denying Nonna Nina's breast milk and influence extends not only to me, but to all my children, both biological and adoptive. Literally and figuratively.
Family lore has it that Marietta went on to become Nonna Nina's favorite. Marietta could do no wrong. Men far and wide were smitten with her. Marriage proposals abounded. Not only was she strikingly beautiful, she was practical, adventurous, hard working, obedient and devout. She was a daughter any mother would be proud to call her own. Biological or adoptive, it made no difference. There, I've now said it too. I've even put it down in writing. Let me attest to it on my own. Biological or adoptive, there is no difference. Love given, love received. Let's face it. It's what sets the world on its axis and surely transcends death. Unconditional love. Though she would likely have had no inkling more than a full century ago, Nonna Nina in part helped steer my life on its course. So much so, that when the time came for my husband and I to start our own family, I chose to have home births with my children, just like Nonna Nina, and then later went on to adopt a delightful little girl from half way around the world. To be sure, our adoptive daughter is everything we prayed for and then some. For those who know our Soleil, our sunshine, she is testimony to the fact that this world of ours can be more than magical if only we believe.
Getting back to Nonna Nina, interestingly enough, my parents' first face to face meeting with her at the family farm in Pievaquinta came shortly after World War II. It was on a trip to Italy celebrating their recent marriage and designed not only for them to meet my Dad's extended family but to fulfill at long last, a promise Marietta had made to her mother decades earlier. Upon her departure for the states, spirits high with her new husband by her side, Marietta made a promise to Nonna Nina. Her pledge? If she herself never made it back home, she'd be sure to see to it that one day her children did. My grandparents arrived in the U.S. on Ellis Island, May 30th, 1913, having left Genoa by ship on the "Konig Albert" and went on to settle happily in Litchfield County, Connecticut. They quickly went on to have two boys. Sadly, not all that long after, my grandfather died suddenly at age thirty-nine in the Influenza epidemic of 1918, thus leaving my grandmother the sole responsibility of raising her young sons. As fate would have it, despite eventually remarrying happily, Marietta never did make it back to Nonna Nina. The lengthy separation from loved ones, in part a result of the depression, along with the onset of World War II was not easy on anyone.
My dad and his younger brother, proud Americans both, enlisted and found themselves in France and Germany during the height of the fighting. Times were frightful for everyone, not least of all our relatives in Italy. Nonna Nina and her family found their farmhouse confiscated by German soldiers who liked it so much they took up residence there for an entire year. As a result, she and the rest of her family were forced not only to sleep and bathe alongside the cattle in the barn, but were made to both cook and clean for the Germans as well. The soldiers lasting legacy was gunning down close to one hundred innocent Italian farmers and townspeople as an early warning to the disobedient. All the while unknown to the Germans, many of my own relatives were die hard partisans who clearly at great personal risk worked secretly against them. Once Nonna Nina herself protected a wounded partisan by hiding him in the barn's hayloft. When the SS came snooping around, she quickly undressed, pretended she was bathing, and proceeded to let the soldiers know in no uncertain terms that they had not a shred of decency nor shame embarrassing a little old lady in the midst of her bath. They took the bait and left. In the end, several of my cousins were part of the group which claimed responsibility for the lynching of Il Duce himself. Mussolini was no stranger to them. He was a local boy, born and raised a mile or so up the road. Many had known him their whole lives, grown up and gone to school with him. Understandably, they were anything but impressed with the boy from Predappio. Relief came, of sorts, when the British showed up, kicked the Germans out, and then took their place on the farm for several months. The difference this go round was that my relatives befriended the British soldiers and went on to keep in touch with several of them for many years. So you see, this first meeting between my dad and Nonna Nina, decades in the making, was momentous to say the least.
My mom, in particular, fell hard for Nonna Nina, admiring not only her unwavering strength, faith and dignity, but her boundless and welcoming love. What neither Nonna Nina nor Marietta would live to know was that not only were Marietta's children to make it back time and again over the years, but countless grandchildren and great-grand children would as well. Many would not only make yearly visits, several of us were to establish second homes there as well. Nonna Nina's descendants, Italians and Americans alike, were determined to keep the family connections tight for decades to come. No more lengthy separations. Indeed, one of my earliest childhood memories is of waking up on the family farm in Italy in Nonna Nina's old bed and listening to the sound of crowing roosters. To this day, hands down, there's no more delightful way for me to greet the dawning of the day. Pievaquinta, that tiny town, is heaven on earth for me. There's no place like home, Nonna Nina, there's no place like home.
A photo from that first visit back in August of 1951. Nonna Nina was 95 at the time. It was, sadly, a year after Marietta's death.
From left: Marietta's older sister Tuda, my mom, and Nonna Nina