mary margaret was born in 1916, one of seven children of an italian couple who immigrated from the bottom of the boot—calabria, italy—to the hills of clarksburg, west virginia.
in the 1940s mary met and married a fellow named dante from the nearby town of brownton. brownton, west virginia, is a place that has never gobbled up the trappings of
progress—development and technology and such—thus has remained lean, if
not become gaunt in its unwillingness to partake. the only post office
there closed in 2004. dante was a coal miner, a soldier, a wine- and moonshine-maker, and an owner of vending machine and cement paving businesses at various points on the timeline of their life together. mary was water; dante, fire. they separated when their two children were grown, and remained in that gray area until black lung made their parting permanent in 1985.
mary went on to live with her sister philomena in the heavily italian-populated neighborhood of glen elk, adjacent to downtown clarksburg—a town more evolved than brownton but, remarkably, not much better off, smothering in a double choke hold of drug addiction and joblessness. when the sisters' house burned from the attic down in the 80s, mary and philomena went to live with their sister judy and her husband tony, whose pharmacy in glen elk would decades later become a popular italian restaurant, the owner of which would showcase images of the building's former occupants: pharmacist tony and his young son, anthony, and another little boy named guy.
guy is mary's only son. in the past month, she's stopped recognizing him when he visits her at the nursing home.
guy is my father. his mother, my grandmother, is dying.
i call her nanni (pronounced nah-nee). italian for "grandmother." in early january nanni became ill quickly and was taken from the nursing home to the hospital. they put her on the sixth floor. my father doesn't take elevators and the hospital provides no access to stairways for visitors (they have a euphemistic way of describing this setup, naturally), thus he had no means to get to her. this became the predicament of a man who has been his mother's caretaker for all of my life and then some: taking her to doctor's appointments, the bank, and the grocery store; fixing whatever was broken in her home; visiting her nearly daily when she went to live in assisted care and then the nursing home; practically carrying her up the stairs to our house when she could no longer walk on her own so she could spend holidays with us. for decades, he did all of that. then six stories became a weapon against him. so dad did his best, driving to the hospital daily with my mom, waiting in the car while she tended to nanni six stories up.
on the second day, i went to the hospital. dad waited outside with my son asleep in his car seat. i had last seen nanni at thanksgiving and was startled by the change in her appearance: her face was so stripped of fat and collagen that her nose stuck out like a triangle attached to her sunken cheeks. nanni had always gotten her hair done, as long as i can remember, and continued to do so even after moving to the nursing home. this day, her hair was ever-thin and flat against her head from forehead to crown, where the rest of it stuck up as if it hadn't been brushed for days.
more than startled, i was overtaken by the sight. i sat next to nanni on her bed, but looked out the window until i could face her with a dry face. mom told me to talk to her, so i did. "nanni, do you know who i am?" she nodded. mom and i talked to her for a while, occasionally getting her to open her eyes for seconds at a time. then mom asked if she would sing one of the old italian songs. with her eyes closed, her lungs and vocal cords and articulators mustered the energy, and nanni sang in crackled whispers: c'e 'na luna mezz'u mare mamma mia m'a maritare. it was a song i, and most people in clarksburg, knew well, because it was played downtown over loudspeakers every year during the city's italian heritage festival in late summer. in english, the lyrics read "lazy mary, you better get up."
and she did.
nanni surprised us all and was released back to the nursing home. i visited her there a few days later with my son, her only great-grandchild. even more surprising, i found nanni sitting in her wheelchair at a table in the dining hall, sipping cranberry juice from a cup with a spout, not unlike the ones my son uses. we sat with her for a while, me talking loudly and my son wiggling to get out of my lap. she acknowledged me, barely, with occasional nods and grunts, but never looked me in the eye. unlike in months past, she didn't look at my son and exclaim, "he's such a pretty boy!" when the nurse brought nanni's pureed dinner, i kissed her cold cheeks and her pointy nose, gathered my son, and left, defeated.
nanni and i were always close. when i was in junior high, dad would take me to the house she shared with her sisters judy and philomena, my great aunts, after school while he went to swim laps at the gym. i watched the oliver north trial on the small tv in their kitchen. in later years, i would scrub the floors of that kitchen with vinegar and then hot water while nanni or aunt phyl supervised. when i was able to drive i would take nanni on regular outings to the mall, and then we'd have lunch at the italian oven, where i always ordered the roasted vegetable salad and we would talk about things i no longer recall. nanni was always talkative. always giving, too. i could never leave her house without some type of keepsake or trinket she'd pull from a drawer in her dresser or a pocket in her purse. any time i drove her anywhere, when i pulled up to drop her off she would slip a ten-dollar bill into my hand and say, "get yourself some gas," and i'd tell her no, you don't have to do that, but she would insist.
during my first year of college, nanni started sending me letters. letters! can you imagine? an antiquated form of communication even in 1994—and she continued to do it through my second round in college, from 1999 to 2002. i remember one particular year of letters in which she'd frequently ask about my two pit bulls, kaiser and phaedra: "how are your doggies? i hope they don't get AIDS!" i never could figure out if she was trying to be funny about that. i should've asked. should've learned more italian from her. should've visited more. should've recorded all the stories she had to tell.
when nanni drifts away forever, i won't talk about what the world has lost. i have no idea what the world thinks of my grandmother. i might not talk about it much at all, out loud, that is. in my mind, i'll be thinking of her, of the better years before hospitals and nursing homes. i'll think about my dad and what he'll do without her to care for. and i'll be thankful that my son got to know her and that she got to know him.
this one's for you, mary margaret. tu si bella.