February 23, 2020


Here’s what I learned from my Nonna:

You can’t teach someone how to make pasta sauce. You can tell them the ingredients, and give them the steps. Then the poor soul can go forth and attempt to follow the instructions as outlined by Nonna. Two problems with that: Nonna constantly improvised (2 parts beef + 1 part pork = meatballs UNLESS the pork is too watery and then, who on earth would put pork in meatballs?!) Second problem: Nonna lied. All. Of. The.Time. Never put the rendered salt pork bits back into the sauce, nobody likes them….ten minutes later when no one is paying attention- into the pot go a handful of salt pork bits with a smile to me “well I  like them”. 

No, you can’t teach someone that one pot of sauce requires a minimum of five trips to DIFFERENT food markets plus one border crossing to Canada for the right tomatoes. Or that the ratio of tomatoes to paste is relative to the amount of pork chops and meatballs added. Nonna knew it was impossible to teach us all of this. And quite frankly, I think she realized that no one would listen. So instead, she showed us. Nonna’s legacy is not in what she taught us. Her true legacy, her lasting gift to each of us is in what she showed us. And she showed us so much.

She showed us that even in your darkest hour, if you look for it you will find moments of joy. And if you don’t find them, you make them. Those moments will carry you through the rest. Nonna knew a lot about heartbreak. But she also knew just about anything could be made better with chocolate chip cookies, a shot of anisette and a lifetime movie marathon.

Strong in her faith, Nonna implicitly understood that it could not be taught. You cannot instruct it, you cannot preach it, you cannot put on a show of it. You live it. Long after lapsing/ fleeing from my catholic upbringing I would walk with her into churches, lighting candles in silent prayer. It was a ritual we practiced every time we traveled seeking out the oldest and smallest of churches. She showed me, when we lit those candles the path to the next life is lit by our memories of those lost.

When Nonna got sick I knew I had to be by her side. I also knew that this was an important moment for my daughter. I couldn’t just tell her “this is what you do for someone you love”. I had to show her, I needed her to see. And yes she saw me cry too many tears to count and spent too much time in hospital wait rooms. But she also saw how we took small moments of joy and clung to them- arts and crafts soirees, midnight dance parties with our cousins, reconnecting and leaning on family members we hadn’t seen for years. She saw us come together for Nonna. And in the depths of my sorrow it was my daughter who hugged me and insisted “Nonna’s not gone, Nonna’s hugging us right now. Just like when we light the candles.” As Nonna intuitively understood, the smallest among us are the ones who understand best the truths we show them. 

So here we are. Left to navigate this world without our best friend. Without the one person who loved us not despite, but because of our flaws- our whole self. Who’s simple acceptance of each of us was all we ever really needed. She’s gone. But she showed us how to like ourselves. She showed us how to be kind to each other. She showed us how to look for the joy and to have faith that we will one day meet again. And yes, she showed us how to make the sauce.

I love you, my Nonna.