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I had to spend some time at a warehouse club this evening getting a tire fixed, so I did a little window-shopping while I waited. With my upcoming book club meeting in mind, I did a little browsing through the book section and wound up buying one. And suddenly, I was thinking about my Nonna.


“Nonna” is Italian for “grandmother,” but my Nonna was actually my great-grandmother, my father’s maternal grandmother. I was the baby of the family and spoiled rotten. I was also a voracious reader and remain so to this day—I read well above my grade level, and read constantly. I went through the usual toy fads of my time, Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears and the like, but my love for books was constant. And so Nonna started giving me her change.


Whenever she went to the store, she would pay with bills and save all of her coins. Each time I visited her at my Grams’ house, she would take me into her little back-room apartment and give me all the nickels, dimes and quarters she had collected. In her thick old-country accent, she would tell me, “You take this, you buy the books.” And so I bought the books.


When I was about fifteen, we started losing Nonna. She’d had at least one stroke, and she was descending into what I would later realize was most likely Alzheimer’s. She reverted to speaking almost entirely in Italian, and when we would tell her that we didn’t understand and she needed to speak English, she would say, “But I AM speaking English!” She would forget where she was, who we were, who she was. Once she asked anxiously, “Where’s Delidah?” and after we all looked stricken, she realized, “Oh! I’M Delidah!” She laughed, but there were tears in her eyes, and in ours.


She had vivid memories, it seemed, of her childhood in Italy, and of her life as a young woman, a young bride, and a young mother in her new country. Yet her memories didn’t seem to extend to more recent years. Except for one. Every female who visited her—my mother, my stepmother, my sister and I, family friends—became me in her mind. She would ask, “Are you the little girl I give the money?” And without fail, whoever she asked would smile and say yes, and thank her. It made me uncomfortable at the time, though now I can’t remember why.


Times have changed. My Nonna has been gone for twenty years, and I haven’t lived back home in nearly that long. I still love to read, but don’t buy books nearly as often, in part because we have nearly a thousand in the house already, in part because there are so many I can borrow from friends or at the library, and in part because I just don’t have the disposable income to buy every book I want to read. I don’t know why I made the exception tonight, but I’m so glad I did. I miss my Nonna, and one little under-ten-dollar purchase brought her back to me for a few minutes.

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