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  • How Nonna Helps You Stand Tall?
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Like many nice Italian girls, I was named after my nonna - and so were a whole bunch of my cousins. When one of my relatives shouts Francesca or Francè, about five of us respond. To differentiate between us all, we doled out nicknames. There is Little Fran, Big Fran, Fran from Connecticut and Zio Michele's Fran. But I was the youngest and for some reason I always remained Francesca - simply Francesca, just like nonna.

    On October 4, we celebrated our name day by exchanging little gifts and letting people pull our ears for luck. Nonna Francesca passed away more than 15 years ago, but on October 4, she's always right by our side. For most Italians, nonna sets the standard for all other women and the tone of an entire family. Our nonna certainly did - and still does from Heaven (or at least that is what I would like to believe).

    Nonna Francesca - buon' anima - was fierce and spunky. She was our leader, even though she let her husband, Nonno Giovanni Battista, think he was in charge. Now that I am older, I can truly appreciate the presence she had when she walked into a room self-assured and all-knowing. But of all the Francescas, I least resemble my nonna, who had broad shoulders, lighter, curlier locks and rounder cheeks compared to my straight, chestnut brown hair, oval face and narrow frame. The only physical trait I got from her are skinny ankles supporting unusually muscular, rock-like calves - not particularly attractive but strong. I am recovering from a bad case of mono right now, and my legs were the first thing to go; I fell down the stairs twice as a result and I'm still a little shaky when I walk. From my bed, I have been giving a lot of thought to Nonna Francesca's legs - my legs, a gift I will never again take for granted.

    But I'm no fool. My legs have nothin' on Nonna Francesca's pair. Her legs supported her as she served as a midwife for her friends in Buonopane, Ischia, delivered and raised nine children of her own and moved from Italia to the United States in 1960 when she was already 50. Those legs carried the weight of a large Italian family through World War II. Life on the island of Ischia was bleak. Many people were starving, walking around without shoes because they couldn't afford them and chasing after money thrown in the water by cruel foreign soldiers. My nonni worked hard, so my papà - who was the youngest of the nine and born right as the war ended - never noticed he was poor. It was the greatest time in his life, in fact. His soccer ball and his beloved mamma were all he needed. Beloved, she was - but not just because she was the type of woman to feed her neighbors when she herself had little to give or because she always knew just what advice to dole out. Her beauty instead lay in her perseverance.

    She delivered all nine of her children by herself on the same bed in which they were presumably conceived. Often, it was a hard life. My uncle Aniello was born with the placenta in tact, and Nonna Francesca thought she had given birth to a turkey, but somehow popped the sack so he lived. My papà was born with the umbilical cord around his neck and she saved his tiny life - without a doctor or shiny instruments or even a minimal textbook education. After papà was born, she was worn and when she became pregnant for a tenth time, she gave herself an abortion with some injection that she got from a neighbor. Only God knows what she had taken, but she did lose the baby and was unable to carry a pregnancy to term after that.

    Zio Aniello, who was a young adult at the time, touched her face to let her know that he had returned home from a night out with his friends. He noticed that her skin was as cold as ice and she was lying in a pool of her own blood - or so the story has been told over the years. He raced to get the town doctor in Ischia, who would save her. But Nonna Francesca had already been touched by death, long before her firsthand encounter. She watched two of her baby daughters die in infancy without explanation, and she would also live to see her oldest Carmelina, who moved to Argentina when she got married, die of cancer. A mother's worst nightmare is to see her kids pass, she would tell us. She also warned all the women in the family never to have an abortion because she had her own regrets.

    As if all that wasn't enough, her legs also endured diabetes, which included a steady diet of daily insulin injections and required her to change her eating habits from the time she was in her fifties. You try and tell an Italian woman to give up carbohydrates and sweets in the name of her health, and she will tell you that you're crazy. From the day she was diagnosed until the day she died, she wore dresses with pockets, so she could hide pieces of bread. Her purse was her cookie jar filled with biscotti. She shared, so I never turned her in.

    But my sister Rosaria may have been her favorite - or at least she won a special place in nonna's heart. When Rosaria was born, Nonna Francesca turned to my mamma and said, "Finally, you stopped looking in the mirror and looked my son in the face." Rosaria has the broad back, cherubic cheeks, curly locks and alabaster skin of a real Di Meglio - unlike my brother and me. On her knee, Nonna Francesca would rock Rosaria and sing, "Do do ninetta, Sant' Elisabetta…"

    Nonna Francesca would not live to see my legs grow into her's. But her legs are carrying me through this wild ride - the broken hearts, the goals I have yet to accomplish, the family dramas, the nights spent worrying about the future, the pull and tug between my American life and my inexplicable love of Italy. Sometimes, like recently with the mono, those legs fail me. But one day I'll learn how to walk into a room and command attention without saying a word - just as she did - and I'll never fall again.

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