It Takes A Village
Well friends, it has been a long time; nearly six months to be exact. I have thought a about putting pen to paper, or pixel to screen, to be more exact, at least a hundred times. But I just couldn’t muster up the motivation I needed to do so. And writing isn’t like one of Kim Kardashian’s orgasms, it can’t be faked. But now I’m ready to give it a go again. Elly has started Montessori, summer is over and I’m ready to tell some stories. So here we go...
There’s an expression that I suspect you have heard before - "It takes a village to raise a child." While I was familiar with it before Elly, now that I’m a parent, the sentiment behind those words really resonates with me. And coupled with the loss of some special people in my life, I find myself thinking about it even more introspectively.
In my last column, I shared a story about a dear friend’s passing. For my foray back to writing, I’m going to touch on that theme one more time. I am mildly reluctant to strike the melancholy chord again. But as much as I love to share upbeat and chipper quips about my life, and how I so adore being deliciously vicious, there is a softer side to CattyDaddy as well. A side that is sensitive, sincere and sentimental. (Thank goodness that I’m not Cindy Brady during her lisp phase right now.) So bear with me one more time as I tell this story. And with one hand over my heart and the other snapping in a zee formation, I do promise you that the more jovial, sometimes bitchy columnist that you’ve come to know, will be back, with funny things (I hope) to say.
So, where were we? Oh yeah, the "village" story. As we progressed out of this last winter (you remember, the one that really was more of a mild fall) into the full awakening of springtime, I began to face the reality that my grandmother was not going to be with us much longer. It didn’t come as a total surprise but it was/is still a tough reality. Nonna was nearly ninety and she was my last living grandparent. During the winter, she had open-heart surgery that was intended to elongate her life. The surgery itself was successful. But, the complications of being elderly and the effects of having a major surgery played out her hand a bit differently than anyone had hoped. As the following few months progressed, she took a turn for the worst and passed away just fifty-two days shy of her ninetieth birthday.
As a first generation Italian-American, many of my compatriots will be able to appreciate my upbringing. I grew up in a duplex. My grandparents, aunts and uncles lived on the second and third floors of the house, and my parents and I (and later my sister) lived on the first floor. As the first-born grandson, I enjoyed the likeness of princehood for a number of years - four years to be exact, until my sister came along. Then even though I needed to share the spotlight, I was still the prince. And I suppose in this tale, princes sometimes grow up to be queens but once again, I digress.
My grandmother was like a second mom to me. As a kid, we spent tons of time together. As soon as I could do the stairs on my own, I’d wake up and scramble upstairs. There, when not tormenting my then teenage aunts and uncles, I’d cook with my grandmother or watch my grandfather sketch something that he’d later turn into an intricate wood carving. One of my favorite childhood memories was taking the train into Boston with my grandmother and going to an Italian pastry shop. I even took my first trip to Italy with my grandparents.
As an adult, Nonna supported my marriage to Greg and welcomed Elly no differently than any of her other seven great-grandchildren. Elly absolutely adored her. Nonna always had a plateful of biscotti on hand. They appeared almost magically at times. She also had copious supplies of Kit Kats and a bowl of pastina (baby pasta) was always no more than ten minutes away. She was the consummate grandmother.
On Nonna’s final day, I struggled with whether to let Elly say goodbye. Greg felt we should. I was unsure. But we ultimately decided that Elly was at an age where she still had the innocence of youth and the benefit of not truly understanding what was imminent. So we took her in to my grandmother’s hospital room to give the two a minute together. While it was one of the most difficult moments I have had to endure, it gave me solace to know that my grandmother had one last chance to see my little girl. And that my daughter could give the woman who helped shape the man that I am, one last kiss.
Explaining death to a three year old is no easy feat. One doesn’t want to frighten them, so it is necessary to choose the right words, judiciously and as precisely as one can. For example, telling a three year old that someone died because "they were sick" can come back to haunt you. We chose to tell Elly somewhat simply that "Nonna went to heaven." But in order for her to somehow grasp the finality and permanency of things, we also told her that from now on "we will only see Nonna in pictures."
"Why did she got to heaven?" Elly would ask.
"Because it was her turn. And everyone has a turn to go to heaven some time."
"Is she baking cookies there?" she’d ask.
"You know, Elly. I bet she is," I replied, being thankful for the innocence at which a child looks at the world.
My entire family gathered on what would have been Nonna’s ninetieth birthday. That night, after we arrived home and got Elly ready for bed, she and I were "huggling" in her bed. (Huggling is Elly’s word for the combination of hugging and snuggling.) As we talked about the day’s events she asked "If today was Nonna’s birthday, why didn’t we sing "Happy Birthday" to her?" I sighed and smiled as I stroked her curly locks. I asked her if she wanted to sing "Happy Birthday" to Nonna. She nodded her little head. And so we did. We sang it. With tears streaming down my cheeks, my little angel took a moment and made it precious without even knowing that she did.
While losing Nonna was a recent occurrence, there are two other folks that are in the forefront of my mind right now. They died a day apart from each other but with twenty-three years between them. Just this past week, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the passing of my Aunt Babs. She died suddenly at the very young age of forty-nine from a few unexpected heart attacks. At the time of her death, I was only nineteen. Now, I know, gentle reader, those of you who have a command of math are thinking, how can this be? If I’m adding things up correctly, that must make our CattyDaddy, forty-four?! But he looks so youthful! Yes, yes, I suppose, technically, it does make me forty-four. But, thanks to the good people at Kiehl’s and my Mediterranean skin, I don’t look a day over forty-three. And I certainly don’t act a day over eighteen.
But on a more serious note, now that I am closer to the age in which my aunt passed, I have better perspective on how young she really was when she passed. While I understood then, that forty-nine was indeed a young age to die, reflecting on her passing while I myself am in my forties, is quite different. She was truly taken in the prime of her life.
I was very close with my aunt growing up. We saw each other a few times a week. I loved to spend time with her and have sleepovers at her house. She was an incredible baker. I can still taste her German Chocolate cake today. And her cream cheese squares are probably responsible for at least two or three pounds of my total body weight. Auntie Babs was a warm woman, who loved her family and had a great laugh. I can only imagine the shenanigans that she and Elly would get into together if she were alive today. The two have a similar sense of humor. I could picture them teasing each other endlessly. And Elly scarfing down that cake!
And while Auntie Babs passed away more than half of my life ago, just one year ago, we lost my Uncle Enzo. He was also taken from us too soon at fifty-eight. When my Aunt Jenny started dating Enzo, I was Elly’s age. (Because I can remember their early dating years, I hold some hope that Elly may remember Nonna. That she’ll remember Uncle Enzo is less likely since she was only 2 1/2 when he passed.) As a kid, I remember taking trips to Wright’s Pond or the Mystic Lakes. In the winter, they would take me ice-skating at Laconte Rink.
Enzo loved classical music and rock and roll. He also had quite a green thumb, loathed squirrels (see green thumb) and he was a great cook. He was also the life of the party. As I grew up, the age difference between us diminished. We would go to concerts together - Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones. I’ll never forget the fun that we had tailgating at the Stones concert in Foxboro! We certainly had the best food in the parking lot. Not everyone has aunts and uncles who are close enough in age to be a contemporary. For those of us who do, it’s a wonderful gift. It’s a cross between having an older sibling but one who you respect like a parent.
I miss them all. And they’re not alone. They are with the ranks of other loved ones who I didn’t mention today. Each of them is a person who made a difference in my life. Though these anniversaries are specific days that remind us of how we miss someone, the feeling of their loss isn’t limited to these individual dates on a calendar. Just as I wish that I could have had more time with each of them, I wish Elly could have, too.
Elly will one day reflect on her "village." When she does, I hope that she feels that Greg and I filled it with people who will help us shape her into the woman that she will become some day. And I will also do my best to keep the legacy of my villagers alive. For Auntie Babs, some day we’ll bake her German Chocolate cake together. For Uncle Enzo, we’ll listen to classical music or the Stones and plant in our garden. And for Nonna, we’ll cook and cook and cook...