The music box in Nonna’s flat had pearls and fine gold chains in it, and I would sneak into her bedroom and push the little ballerina on her spring to the side as the theme from Swan Lake played off-key. There were three places I’d tend to play when we went there: a dusty yard at the back of her block of flats, flagged with concrete and overhung by hawthorne; the bank of grass at the front where I’d arrange my figures against the wall, and Nonna’s bedroom.
I remember sometimes being so desperate to leave, as my Mum chatted with Nonna or they watched Quincy on TV. I would pester my Mum until Nonna told me to leave her alone. Gosh, sometimes I’d be so bored.
And I remember sometimes wanting to stay. It was warm in the way that old people’s flats often are, and I’d feel comfortable and settled and wish I could stay instead of going home. And I remember the smell of her sugo – the best sugo – cooking on the hob, and scrupulously clean net curtains, and cigarette smoke. I remember pulling the old rotary dial on the telephone around with my finger, and Nonna telling me off. I remember a glass ornament, swirled like the flower of a lilly, and run through with red and orange. I remember white bowls of spaghetti burro, and the way the bumps on the side of the bowl felt as I ran my fork along them.
She didn’t go gently, our little Nonna. Old age was unkind and as she pulled through bouts of illness, severe at times, with incredibly tenacity and courage she also became confused. She got an edge I never remembered her having, and with no malice would sometimes say an ill-tempered word too far and upset my Mum. I wish I had tried earlier in my life; I wish that she could’ve known what I’ve achieved. I wish she knew that I’d gone beyond someone who ‘could‘.
Towards the end, she was in a nursing home and sometimes she didn’t seem to know where she was and what was happening. She was grumpier than ever and there was a lot about her I didn’t recognise any more. But our darling Nonna was still there somewhere, because when my brother and I would go to visit her she would smile. And I don’t know if she always knew why she was pleased. Memories fade and illness cloud, but love is an instinct and time didn’t erode it even as it took other things from her.
It’s strange the times when I remember her. I dream about her and she’s joking, or she’s scolding me, or she’s just sat in her little chair watching TV in her apron and her little trousers. It’s been years now, and you get used to not seeing someone; a lack of presence becomes routine just as presence becomes routine. But I come home to the smell of my sugo on the hob and I’m 8 again and she’ll be in the kitchen waiting to give me a kiss.
As time has taken the rest of our family’s Italian sisters, I sometimes feel like I’m drifting apart from the memories I have from her. Things have changed. She’d be 94 today. I’m 27 (going on 8), and I live on my own now. But the people we love and lose are lost only to our present. She’s still here, and if I cry sometimes she still comforts me.
And when I think of her then, incongruous and unbidden, I want to tell her “Nonna, guess what I did!” and for her to know that her grandson is doing well. I want her to be happy.
But then I remember she was happy. And loving. And even though she never saw that I did, she always knew, without qualification or condition, that I could.