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In memory of Nonna: the heroes we choose

Nonna has been gone for exactly two years today. And her memory feels stronger than ever. I suppose we choose to value who we value, we choose to love who we love. We choose our role models. Nonna was a constant presence who showed us how to be generous, how to love and how to feed.

It took me many years to begin to inhabit certain values that I now hold dear. I suppose you could call that ‘maturing’. Despite stumbling and finding my way through life, I had secure touchstones to remind me who I was and where I came from. Nonna was always a constant beacon of love. The warm open hug whenever I arrived on her doorstep, visits that were often months and months apart after I moved away to another state. As our car pulled into her driveway, she was always waiting at the front door, welcoming us with her favourite English phrase ‘Hello beautiful!’ It didn’t matter where you were in life, whether you were a drop out, a wash up, a bit of a mess - you were loved. I guess that’s family.

‘Eat eat’ was another favourite phrase of Nonna’s. We’d sit at her kitchen table and wait for the coffee. She’d head off to the pantry for whatever treats she had that week. Then rummage in the freezer for biscuits or cake. Taralli, biscotti, sometimes zeppole or struffoli. Occasionally, marble cake. She wasn’t satisfied until you ate most of what she had laid out. I’d often visit with Dad and he’d chat to Nonna in Italian. I wouldn’t understand most of what they were saying, but still, it was comforting. Without Nonna or I being fluent in each other’s mother tongue, food and eating became our universal language. What Nonna couldn’t give me in conversation, she gave me in taralli. She gave me food to take home, she gave me $2 to get a treat (with inflation, over the years, that became $20). She was a generous woman who lived it daily through action.

As I’ve grown older, these qualities have percolated inside me more and more. I value them so deeply. They remind me of what’s important. But in many ways, I’m nothing like Nonna. I don’t have children, nor will I ever have grandchildren to spoil. I am not surrounded by my family. I don’t have an open home, a revolving door of visitors. I don’t make huge batches of food and give it away to my family who I see everyday. I haven’t experienced her epic 97 years of life. I haven’t really put my roots down anywhere.

Despite our differences - there is common ground. The threads of value running through our very contrasting lives. Food and giving. Hospitality. Warmth. Humble cooking. A welcoming home. Creating connection. The joy of feeding. The delight when somebody asks for a second helping. More feeding.

Someone recently teased me, laughing, ‘why do all Italians look up to their Nonna's so much?’

It’s true. Nonnas tend to be one of the most revered family members. They are the matriarch and indeed leave a permanent chasm after they are gone. Not because they are perfect. Or because they are all sweetness and smiles (they can be very insistent and bossy!). But I think they mirror the qualities we grow to admire and respect. Even if we don’t quite have the ability to be this ourselves. I guess that is what a hero or role model is. Someone to look up to, to learn from.

As the years pass and my wrinkles deepen along with the wisdom, I hope I continue to inhabit the qualities I loved so much in Nonna. Her legacy is a reminder that our lives, large or small, do matter. So be the kind of person that brings light, warm hugs and big bowls of food into this world.

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