I shook, but I was steady. I knew how to do this. My body knew from the moment I got on the plane in Boston—it knew how to be with my grandma who was dying and how to hold her lineage and her spirit and her life as it was transitioning.
Eulogy : May 30, 2015
I always imagined growing up that my grandma passing away would be something I couldn’t bear. We were very close. I saw her nearly every day in my childhood until I moved away at 21. She called me the apple of her eye, her first love. A life without her in it seemed too hard to imagine. Who would be watching over us all, cooking for us, worrying about us, if not her?
But as it turns out, I got lucky. We all did with Pina. We got to have her for a long, long time. 95 years. A long life; a full life. And by the end, she was ready, I think. In fact I feel her more around me now that she’s passed than I have in some years. My mom and brother have said the same. I think she’s very much here with us right now. No doubt dressed fabulously and in style, judging our own wardrobe choices. I don’t remember a time when my grandma wasn’t in my life. Probably she was there the day I was born. As with my brother, Joey, and my cousin, Lauren. We never lived far from her, and for most of my childhood, she was our neighbor. She could see our house from her living room window. Wonderful if you’re feeling unsafe or want something to eat; not so cool if you’re trying to sneak in, or out, of the house.
As I was sitting down to write this, I made a list of the things that come to mind when I think of her. The list was long and full of color and love and warm memories and humor and fascinating contradictions. She was nothing if not full of contradictions. Warm and full of love, but man, she could bite. Motherly and selfless and self-sacrificing for her family, but she also carried a deep longing for her own identity and personal story. A mother’s heart and an artist’s soul. A life divided into two parts: the first in Italy, where she grew up with her family and siblings. The second in America as Pino’s wife, Tony and Mary Ann’s mom, and the grandmother of Laura, Joey and Lauren and eventually, the great-granddaughter of my daughter, Alma. She loved her second life - the life she lived here, the life she built – but she always longed for her homeland, too.
There are a few things that rise to the top of that long list.
The First: Food
How can anyone think about Pina without thinking about food? She and my grandpa were both fabulous cooks. And they were always cooking. I have joked that even if I showed up at her front door with a broken leg and a gaping head wound her first question would still be, “Are you hungry?”
Her recipes are the only ones I really know. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken cacciatore, veal marsala, manicotti and tiramisu. My mom, uncle Tony and my brother all picked up her love for cooking, and all of us – her extended family and friends – her love for really good food.
Her cooking heavily influenced what people ate at Pino’s, our family restaurant, and my friends still comment that they miss going to her house after school to feast. From her I learned about food as love, food as home, food as family.
No doubt she is wondering what we’re going to eat when we leave here, and if she could have done it better.
The Second: Art
Pina was a true artist. Her primary medium was oil painting, but her art came through in so many other ways, too: her knitting, her food, her jewelry and shoes, her sense of style. She valued artistry and encouraged me to paint, write, draw, read, cook, sing, play music, create.
I loved watching her paint. Loved the smell of the oil paints, the way her face softened when she was working, the continuous whistle that animated her movements.
Most of her paintings are scenes of Italy, the ocean, flowers or women. They are little portals into the lens in which she saw the world: beautiful, melancholic, nostalgic, stylish, rich in color and texture. Most of her paintings now decorate the walls of her family’s homes. Her favorite painting is on the back of the memorial service card.
The Third: Humor
She was just so damn funny. Quick with the one liners. A great sense of humor. I remember when my ex-husband first met my grandma, he had come here to Colorado to visit and meet her and the rest of my family over the holidays one year. After we had dinner at her house, we got into the car and he said, “I had no idea she was going to be so funny.”
It’s one of the things that comes to mind first: laughing with her. Even in her very last days, she was cracking jokes, making her signature hand gestures and shrugging her shoulders in a way that said, Hey, what did you expect?
The Fourth: Family
There’s nothing my grandma valued more than her family, both the one in Italy and the one she built. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have her be a part of my everyday life. She cooked meals, took me and my brother to and from school, took us shopping for clothes (or really whatever we wanted), sewed and fixed things, watched TV and read with us, was really just there all the time. When she and Pino owned the liquor store, we would hang out with them there, learning how to use the cash register, take inventory, sip 7-up and suck on lollipops. Her role in my life really bleeds into everything; she wasn’t just someone we saw on the weekends, or for summer vacations, or holidays. She was woven into the fabric of my life from the beginning and I always had a sense of how special that was. I was and am grateful for her the way I am grateful for the ocean or good writing: boundless; I can never really express it fully with words.
And I know the rest of the family would say the same. She was quirky, and stubborn, and she could spin up the most incredible versions of a story in her mind, but you always knew she was going to be there. You always knew she was going to take you in. She was always waiting to cook, to sit, to take care, to love you. I miss the days of being able to walk into her house unannounced, pouring a bowl of Grape Nuts with whole milk and a pile of sugar, watching Cheers or talking about what she was reading or gossiping.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is a poem by Mary Oliver that reminds me of her. She always encouraged me to reach far, to do extraordinary things, to travel the world, to get an education (she always said, an education is the most important thing), to learn a new language (like she did), to find BIG love (she said, you’ll know when you find the ‘real McCoy”), to children (which she said was the BEST thing), to make art and music and write and cook and to create something out of our “one wild and precious life,” as Mary says. I know that my grandma had so much in her heart that she couldn’t make manifest of this trip around. I like to think of her being able to do that now; now that she’s no longer bound by earthly things like geography and time and language; now that her heart isn’t split and she can finish writing the chapters of her life she left behind in Italy; now that she can meet up with the souls who left before her and speak in Italian and English at once. I like to think she is everywhere and made whole, and at peace, knowing she can see and love everyone at the same time.
She left us with more than a lifetime of precious love and fun and joy and creativity and laughter. And the beauty is we get to keep it all, to share it generously, to live it every day we choose, and pass it on and on and on by living our own wild and precious lives.
Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?