When I think of good relationships I have had in my life, one of the first people who always comes to mind is my Nonna, Antonetta.
Although she’s no longer in the same world, her life and love has made a clear mark over my own adult life now. Sometimes when I catch myself singing in the kitchen I’m reminded of my Nonno telling me how he had first fallen in love with my Nonna. He had been repairing the stairs at her home before the war in Zara, Croatia and had instantly fallen in love with the voice singing from the kitchen above. He just had to meet her. So when she had to come down to collect water he seized his chance. He told me that over the next few days whenever she walked up the stairs he would flick small pieces of concrete into the water, forcing her to come back down again for another chat. It was from these conversations that they eventually fell in love, starting a relationship that lasted over sixty years.
And it was this love that carried them over the ocean, from a secret wedding at the refugee camps in Italy to a new life they chose in a little-known country named New Zealand. Nonna told me once that she had been so sick from the movement of the ship she couldn’t do any of the chores they were required to do. Instead my Nonno took Nonna’s share of the work, leaving her to sleep and get through the trip in relative ease. They were only 19 and 22 at the time and had already lived through the horrors of war. And had known hardships I can only imagine.
She told me one day of her terror as her family were escaping the war on a yacht when a huge submarine came out of the water in the darkness. They were petrified. The officer in charge of the submarine shone spotlights directly onto the fearful family and asked them where they were travelling to. Luckily he took pity on them and let them pass. She was only a child at the time and I cannot imagine the fear they would have felt. I still have images of that submarine bursting out of the night sea.
On arrival to New Zealand they settled in the North Island. Nonno would often recall those days, laughing to himself about what the local Maori boys thought of their skinny refugee colleague on the end of a giant kauri saw. But he worked hard and was soon respected, making many good friends along the way. He slowly worked his way up the country, earning more money and gaining better housing over time. Nonna did her share by helping to run the households they were boarding at or by creating a home for them wherever they had their own place, even if that was just a small, leaking shed.
Nonno and Nonna went on to have four children, initially raising them to speak only Italian since my Nonna could not speak much English at the time. She eventually did learn to speak quiet well, although to her last days she kept her beautiful accent. A friend once described her voice as musical and I think she was right.
My Nonna was the epitome of love. Her most common saying – one we all still say today – was: “What I have I give.” This simple motto would just about sum her up in one. She loved children. When the Girl Guides came to her door selling treats she would always invite them in and never let them leave without taking homeat least some lollies. At Halloween she would keep her gate open, excitedly waiting for the children to come. And any of my friends who came to visit would have to call her Nonna as well. Her face shone with love and kindness and people were drawn to this – she made friends everywhere and asked for nothing. Her love was giving, and if you ever came over for a visit you were guaranteed to leave with food. To refuse wasn’t even an option – something my husband quickly learned.
My childhood memories are filled with her. Pancakes for breakfast and walking to the milk bar, where we’d buy lollies for me and a cheeky scratchy for her. She would take us to the beach and she taught me to swim, and also how to cook her signature dishes. She taught us her family prayer – one she’d learned from her own grandmother and that had been used by generations beforehand. This prayer was taught to us in her sing song tune and I’ve passed it on to my own children; their little voices repeating this prayer always brought such pride to her eyes. She would thoughtfully say, “At least I have taught you something.” Nonna, you taught me so much.
She showed me how to love. She showed me how to have fun and enjoy the simple things. Her life had been dedicated to her children and then to us, her grandchildren. She would spend countless hours cooking, playing and just spending time with us.
One tradition she carried for many years was catching the bus into Auckland’s CBD, having chips at McDonalds and spending hours in the stores downtown, particularly Rendell’s and the old Farmers building. She loved to shop and she loved handbags. When we cleaned out her hallway cupboard we couldn’t believe the number of handbags, glasses cases and purses she’d collected over the years. We have since passed many of her precious belongings around, all of us keeping her memories and special things in the family and in our homes.
One thing I am super grateful I did while she was still alive and healthy was write her a poem about what she had done for me so far – about the love I had for her. She read this with me and kept it framed in her lounge. I am so glad she knew what she meant to us and so grateful for each of those moments we spent together.
My own home now has things from her home. They keep me connected with her spirit and her love, and remind me to be a better person and to love others as she loved me. I have a shrine of birds tattooed down my right leg, each one representing her in different ways. She loved birds. Even in her last days we still had to feed the sparrows some of her lunch. She would never let a soul go hungry.
And now each morning when I look out my kitchen window I smile at the groups of birds waiting for me to feed them. It gives me hope that one day I’ll have my own grandchildren, and if I can even be half of the grandmother my Nonna was, I’ll know I’d have succeeded.