Just Who is “Nonna,” Anyway?

As the pace of this blog ebbs and flows, and more posts are added and shared via social, it’s heartening to note that new readers are coming aboard: in fact, there’s more than just a few of you here, enjoying these essays new and old.

With that, it’s justified that I reintroduce the central character in this decade long online story, especially for those of you that might not be intimately familiar.

That character is my grandmother, who my two kids grew up calling “Nonna.”

Rosina Tagliarini, who would eventually become Rosina DeGiorgio by marriage, emigrated to this country in the late 1920’s with her mother and her sisters from a small town in Sicily: Acquaviva Platani, in the province of Caltanisetta.

Escape From Oppression

Unlike many immigrants who came to America to escape poverty, my grandmother’s family had to leave to evade constant threats of organized crime. Her father was specifically targeted, not buckling to kickback and payoff requests: individuals that wanted their share of government warehouse reserves that he protected to ensure local residents were fed and nourished through the war years.

Me, with my Nonna, late 1960s

She came here with her mother, and sisters. Her mother Maria, my great grandmother, was who I called Nonna when I was really young. She held a special place in the home my grandparents had built here in the late ’60s, a modest brick ranch, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees spread out over almost an acre of land.

The family matriarch, she was an ordinary citizen here, but not so in Sicily. She ran an apothecary, known in her small town as a healer. In her later years, I would bring macaroni with butter and cheese to her, with my little six year old hands, as that was all she cared to eat.

My grandmother’s sisters also came here, two of them with notable influence on me, as well: Nicolina, who I dubbed the “Last Sicilian,” and Carmela, who watched after us youngsters with a caring but steady hand during lunch hours (we walked home from elementary school for lunch) and after school.

She also had two brothers, named Lillo and Franco. Fond memories of mine include “Uncle Frank,” who would visit from Italy occasionally, and was my first exposure to a man who I thought was a jet setting world traveler (People could come here from Italy so easily? Amazing!).

His sister showed how thrilled she was by his visits, rolling out her version of a red carpet. A prolific cook already, my grandmother went full throttle when company was coming. A visit from Franco assured a large number of arancini (riceballs, see photo), a Sicilian street food and family favorite. I’m salivating now, just writing this.

Married With Children

A few years after arriving, she married my grandfather Sebastian DeGiorgio. Their marriage was an ongoing success story, lasting 64 years until his passing in 2000. They had two sons, my father Joe (yup, I’m a junior) and his younger brother Anthony, who died tragically as a teenager months after I was born.

Parents never get over such a life changing event, but Rosina’s strength and resolve to carry on through her grief to provide support to her family was undeniable. It’s one of her traits that I remain in awe of, to this day.

After stints of factory work, what she called “piece work,” she took over sister Carmela’s restaurant in the late 1950s. Known as Jack’s, that was a successful venture for my family for 10 years, until acquiring another restaurant, this time with my dad: the Trojan Tap Room, where I spent 25 years of my working career myself.

Aside from her prowess in a professional kitchen, she was an accomplished home cook as well. For family, friends, acquaintances that dropped by – there would always be an offer of something off the stove, if you were to sit at her table. If nothing else, a cup of coffee and sweet treat was required to have.

Bound to a strong family unit, she had a tight knit group of friends – Mary Marino, Flora DeCurtis, and Maria Commis come to mind immediately. She shared faith centric friendships with these ladies, as practicing her Roman Catholic faith was of utmost importance, in line with the dedication to her family and her life’s work.

She lived a full 96 years, most them robust and energetic. Constant movement was her calling card, at first as survival mechanism (as an immigrant, you’d better have hauled ass), then subsequently as a path to success: expending every shred of energy in support of family.

A recent statement by Pope Francis (who I’m sure she would have loved) summarized it beautifully, and inspired me here:

“It is striking that the Lord spent most of his time on Earth living an ordinary life, without standing out. It is a beautiful message that reveals the greatness of daily life, the importance in God’s eyes of every gesture and every moment of life, even the most simple.

That was her, in a nutshell. Simple life, with every day well spent. Diminutive in stature (under five feet), but with an outsized personality. Her influence is still felt, every day.

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The Last Sicilian, and the Gift of Tradition

She worked in a kitchen that was small by modern standards. To see it, you would think it was the size of a walk-in closet in some homes.

She worked her magic on a tiny stove that had very little room to waste. How she managed to squeeze coffee pots, saute’ pans, and giant sauce pots on it without a major catastrophe still remains a mystery.

Old school boxing trainer Angelo Dundee once said that heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali could train his body for a bout in a space the size of a phone booth. My great aunt, Nicolina Carucci, did the comparable with her masterwork in her kitchen.

My “Aunt Nicky,” as most of my family members called her, was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she was my godmother as well. She helped welcome me here by bathing my little infant head in holy water, and it was the start of a beautiful relationship.

She passed away a few years ago, like her sister living well into her 90’s. It’s still strange without either one of them here to boss me around.

I grew up in a world where consistency was the name of the game. The sound of the Italian language, the smells of food always cooking, the ritual of the coffee, and all the holiday and family traditions. Steady as they come. Always present.

That world is nearly gone. For our kids to be reminded of tradition and experience how I grew up, we have to take that ball and run with it. So traditions don’t disappear from view.

If my wife or myself don’t make those wonderful meatballs with onions and bacon that was Nicky’s recipe, or set a pot of simmering sauce on the stove on Sundays, disappear they will.

Aunt Nicky spent her last few months of life in a nursing home, and my father and I would visit on Sundays. We’d wheel her out to the cafeteria, and talk about the swill she was about to eat. I would joke with her, telling her it was time to get out of the chair and go to work on the homemade manicotti so we could all have a good meal.

I hope someday, somewhere, I can find something remotely close to that manicotti again.

I’d also joke with her about how she was “the last in line” or “the last Sicilian.” She was not the last Sicilian of course, but she was the last of a long line of very influential people on my grandmother’s side of the family. Influential to me. The men and women who are now part of my history book, traditions needing to be chronicled before atrophy of the mind takes over.

My wife and I loved going to Aunt Nicky’s house just about every Friday for lunch. At times she would do just a cheese omelet with toast,  or a small pot roast on top of the stove. Or a stuffed meatloaf that she called Italian Style. A very simple meal, but one with great taste. The meal would always be accompanied by a glass of red wine in a tumbler glass. Or two.

She always fascinated my wife and I with stories of her younger days: living in the seaside town of Terracina in Italy, making it sound like the perfect vacation spot.  Of surviving bombing raids that were a little too close for comfort during World War II; and ducking German soldiers looking to loot through the properties that they had just destroyed.

Life wasn’t easy here in America, either. She did a lifetime of very physical work while she lived here, and she had more than her share of troubles and heartache. But like the rest of her family, she was a fighter that always moved forward and did what she could to live her best life possible.

My wife had thanked me on more than a couple of occasions for giving her the gift of a relationship with my godmother. I understand how she feels. She was a gift to me too.

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