Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Grey-black sky looms overhead. Nonna stoops down and grabs my cheeks as a dog would grip her puppy, soft yet stern. “This is the last time I’ll see you. I might not be here the next time you come!!” she exclaims. This is a continual part of her ritual, exaggerating her old age and deteriorating health, while saying goodbye. Even now, 18 years later, when I talk to her on the phone, she still utters those irritating words. “Don’t worry, Nonna. I’ll see you again soon.”  

I smile up at her as she moves out of the way. Over her shoulder I see Manuella coming towards me, she steps into the van. Rapid raindrops of tears roll down my face, emotions spill over. My body falls forward as my shoulders shake from the sobs that come from deep within. Words cannot pass through my lips. She glides her soft hands over my cheeks, rubbing them soothingly, her hands cool on my red-hot skin. While she cups my chin, her thumbs swish my tears away.  As she backs away into the aisle to leave, her words are comforting.  “Don’t worry, I’ll come visit you in Canada one day soon.”

“You should go now Manuella, before Lisa’s emotions get the best of her,” Mom gently intervenes, not wanting to interrupt this special moment between us. “Bye for now. I’ll miss you and I’ll see you soon, OK?”

I nod my head reluctantly, words do not escape.  Not wanting her to leave, I call after her, but there is nothing I can do at this point to make her stay. I look out the window at the darkened grey sky, heavy with cumulous clouds. The seatbelt cuts across my neck, choking me. Luggage crowds around me, making me claustrophobic, reflecting my inner emotions. I look out the window again. Manuella and Uncle John stand outside, gripping each other, sadly waving. He places his arm lovingly around her, a single tear slides down her cheek. As the van pulls away, a dark thought creeps into my mind. She is going to die and this is the last time I will ever see her.  
It was early evening when we first arrived at Nonna’s house, in the small town of Crotone, Italy. It was late May and the sun was slowly setting. My dress clung to my hot, sticky skin from the humidity in the air. This was the second time I had travelled to Italy and we were there to celebrate a very special occasion, a wedding. The wedding itself would also be my first Italian wedding. I would meet the bride for the first time this evening. I’d heard many great things about her and was looking forward to meeting her. My stomach fluttered with butterflies and I was overcome with excitement, eagerly anticipating meeting my new Auntie. However, there is a hurdle to overcome.  First, we need to get into Nonna’s fifth floor apartment. This is no small feat. The building is very old and the elevators are small and narrow. In order to fit into the elevator, my wheelchair will need to be disassembled. 

As we walk through the front entrance, I see the walls lined with rows of shiny, gold mail boxes, etched with ancient designs. Luggage in tow, we arrive at the elevator doors, and discover it will only fit three people. My brother and sisters decide to take the stairs. In order to fit the rest of us, we begin the lengthy process of removing a wheel from my wheelchair. We squish together, ensuring everyone is in. Dad tilts my chair, making it lean to the side still equipped with one wheel, to keep me upright. I feel as though I am suspended in midair. Although I am confident in Mom and Dad’s abilities to keep me from falling, it still feels as though I could slip from my chair at any moment.  My brother and sisters meet us at the top of the stairs and we reassemble my chair before heading down the hall to greet the family. As we arrive at Nonna’s door, we’re smothered by kisses and hugs. Once we are settled, Uncle John has the opportunity to formally introduce us to his future wife, Auntie Manuella. 

That evening in my Nonna’s living room, Auntie Manuella seems to spill out into the room, filling it with vibrancy and life. Her laugh is loud and her smile contagious. Her olive complexion glows and her eyes sparkle with enthusiasm, purple eye shadow accenting the glint in her eyes. She often rises from her chair, joy bubbling up from inside of her, her feet dancing excitedly. Surrounded by family, she’s just happy to sit with the ones she loves. 

Everyone is lost in conversation. As I watch her throughout the night I feel like we are connected, an indescribable kinship that no one can understand, words are not necessary. I ask her if I can hold her hand for the first time. She places her hand in mine, her skin smooth, the smell of her lotion sweet and pleasant amongst the strong stench of body odor suspended in the air. Our hands get clammy as the night progresses, making it hard to hold on.  At times throughout the night we both lose our grip, but make sure we are clutching tightly again. With hardly any space between her chair and mine, her arm gently brushes against me. In the midst of all the chaos around us, it gives me a sense of peace, filling me up inside. There is a special connection that she and I share, a woman I had only just met. I look at her face, blemish-free, her eyes sparkle with mischief, her full lips glistening with a light pink tinge. A warm smile spread across her face. Her eyes dark and welcoming. In the midst of the family busily shuffling around me, smacking their lips as they eat and talk, I can’t help but focus only on Auntie Manuella. I gaze into her eyes, her glasses gently frame her face. All I concentrate on is her and her animated expressions as she joins in the various conversations.

I sit to the left of Auntie Manuella. She smiles warmly, her laugh exuberant and full of life. I feel safe. Family members, some I have just met, talk loudly, waving their arms in the air. Nonna jumps eagerly into the conversations, her arms naturally moving in time with her expressions. I stare at the hard, black, smooth marble floor and hear the conversations around me. Mom, Dad and Uncle John sit across the room from me on a warm, brown leather couch. The small television, equipped with dials, quietly flickers in the background. The air is thick with the scent of body odor and sweat. Because of the close proximity, bodies cluster, forced to rub against each other. I am glad to be sitting right where I am. “Dad, what is everyone talking about? What are they saying?” I ask, but he is unable to hear me over the loud boisterous conversations. 

This evening’s meal at Nonna’s house—plates of hot capicollo, mortadella, roasted red peppers, provolone, mozzarella and asiago cheeses; sweet, buttery, finely-sliced pickles that jiggle like jello, with ridges resembling lines drawn on a sandy beach; cheeses with strong aromas; stoned-wheat crackers. I savor the many tastes, textures and vibrant colors.  “Lisa, come on! Eat, eat!!” Nonna says.
“Grazie!” I say as Mom gently places a slice of cheese into my open mouth. It is sharp and creamy on my tongue. Dad places an antipasto laden, stone-wheat cracker into my mouth, piled high with cherry-red tomato, tuna, and olives in half-moon shapes. I bite down. The cracker splits. The many tastes and textures explode in my mouth. Smelling the stinky cheese residue left on Dad’s fingers, I turn up my nose.

One of my favorite dishes is Nonna’s meatballs—large and tender, a mixture of spiced beef, fine bread crumbs and diced onions, lovingly prepared in the early morning hours by Nonna and Auntie slaving together in the kitchen. “Mangia! Mangia! You’re TOO SKINNY!” Nonna insists. When I protest, Nonna traipses over, leans into me and affectionately pinches my cheeks between her long, wrinkled fingers. She squeezes so hard my head nods vigorously up and down.
Nonna, a short woman with dark, tightly-set curls, always wears black linen dresses. She’s been wearing them for as long as I can remember, as my Nonno passed away when I was 10 and she’s been in a permanent state of dramatic mourning ever since.  Nonna hastily but unapologetically wipes rouge-red sauce stains from her lips with the corner of an embroidered cotton-white table cloth.
I hear the faint sound of the doorbell ring as I am about to exit the bathroom. Nonna quickly dashes down the hall and abruptly steers my chair back in.  I catch a glimpse of the afternoon sun pouring in through the living room window. The sun vanishes from sight. Mom and I are suddenly back in the bathroom. I am stunned by how quickly this occurs. I see the silhouette of Mom’s face as she paces back and forth in the darkness. Anger, shame and confusion boil from within like hot lava.

“Somebody here, STAY!” Nonna demands in broken English.

“Who’s there, what the HELL is going on?” Mom barks “Why does she want us to stay in here?”

Everything happens so quickly, I don’t have time to absorb it all, but deep down I know the answer to Mom’s question. Nonna does not want me to be seen by her neighbor down the hall. Nonna is ashamed of me, she does not want anyone to see me and cast their judgments upon her. I hear the faint whispers of their voices at the front door and then it shuts. The visitor has left, Nonna returns to the hall.

“Why did you do that? That’s not acceptable!!” Dad shouts, “We met her a couple days ago. She’s already met Lisa and was happy to meet her. Don’t ever do that again!”

This is the first time I hear my Dad stand up to his Mother. Although his actions shield me from the pain, I still feel I am the cause of their argument.  Nonna is left standing in deafening silence. 
We decide to go for a walk to clear the air. While we stroll down the cobblestone streets, we pass a local pizzeria. The aroma of fresh pizza is in the air. It’s bubbling in the oven, light-brown and crisp with tomato sauce dripping over the sides. The smell is comforting and reminds me of my arrival at Nonna’s house, when we were all gathered around the food. I felt accepted and loved by all, especially Auntie Manuella, who accepted me for who I was.
It’s a nice night for our casual stroll, a breeze causes my skirt to fill with air like a balloon. It rises and falls gently back upon my knees. The warmth of the sun beats down on my face. The open air a gentle touch comforting my soul, just as Auntie Manuella does. I eagerly anticipate the wedding.
I see her in the distance, her beautiful white lace wedding dress embellished with beads, her black hair piled softly upon her head, soft as silk, and her curls dangling down from under her veil. They weave around the many tables covering the banquet hall. Uncle John has his arm gently wrapped around her waist.

Together. They are suited for each other. Nothing will separate them.  Happiness and joy emanates from them both. They glow.  I watch them as they circle around the tables, serving candies to every individual guest with a silver ladle spoon. Their hands are intertwined upon the ladle handle as they place a bundle in front of each guest, so we can take them home as souvenirs. Almonds covered with hard, white, candy shells, rest on a silver tray, wrapped in small netted bags tied neatly with silk ribbons, resembling ringlets. They finally arrive at my table. I have been anxiously awaiting the chance to talk to them. “Hi, Auntie Manuella. You look so beautiful!” I tell her. “Grazie, Lisa! You look beautiful too!” Even though it was her wedding day and she was the one in the spotlight, she made me feel as though I was right beside her.   
We all tell her how beautiful she is and give our congratulations. As they dish out the candy in front of us, Auntie leans down to embrace me. Her soft arm hugs my neck. Her veil tickles my cheek.  As she turns to depart from our table, Auntie Manuella and Uncle John stare into each other’s eyes for a long moment. Her long train flows and ripples like water behind them.  As they turn their attention to another table, she calls over her shoulder to us, “I hope you’re having fun!” I smile to myself. My body vibrates with excitement for what lies ahead for them.
Several years later I suddenly receive news that Auntie Manuella has cancer. The news is a cold, sinking iceberg, weighing heavily upon me, drowning me in the fears that had haunted me over the years. Like a pressure cooker I keep the steam inside, not letting it escape. If words escaped, I feared my vision of her death would come true. “Please don’t let this happen” I pray.
I often think of Auntie Manuella and the precious time we spent together. I long for more of those times with her, but I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to meet her. It was a gift. Auntie Manuella embraced me. It was a surprise to me that someone I had only met once could have such a deep impact on my life. I was amazed how close we became so quickly. I am often reminded of her and that special time in my life and wish she could be here to share special occasions with me and the memories I have of her. I will always carry the memory of her in my heart.
When she finally did pass away, confusion overwhelmed me. My thoughts became anxious mice scurrying around in my mind. Sadness overtook me because I could not be there by her side. My cousin, who was only eight years old at the time, would now be without a mother. I realized how lonely he and Uncle John would be and felt empty inside, knowing they too were lost. I felt helpless being miles away. I wanted to be with her one more time, loving her pain away and talking with her. My cousin was so small and would never have his mother to rub his back to help him fall asleep, or read to him. It took me a while to realize she was truly gone. I felt frozen and could not move. My premonition had become a reality. I would never see her again.

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