Nonna
by LAURA VALERI
Nonna’s real name is Lily, a fragrant flower, a sweet intoxication of yellows, but the children know her only as the Nonna who every winter rides the train from Pisa to Livorno, from Livorno to Milan, clutching a hard-skinned suitcase the color of grief that bumps against her weak knee while the yellows of her paisley dress twine about her large girth. Nonna of the light step, of the vigor in the laughter, Nonna at the door, wrapped in a rush of hugs, a chiming of joyful cries. Nonna’s arms are strong as they receive the tumble of children, who crawl under her legs, who want to hold on to her calves and ask her to bake crunchy chiacchere all powdered up like brides.  They cry, Nonna, we’re so glad you’ve come, and they stumble over her large suitcase to see what gifts she’s brought, dolls stitched in fabric and wool, stickers with butterflies and flowers, swirling lollipops stuffed inside socks so they won’t break with the hardship of travel. Nonna of the flour smells; Nonna of the romps and pillow fights. 

Nonna is in the bathroom of the Milan condo, smoking a cigarette, laughing through the gap in her front teeth as she hunkers against the humid cold.  The children pull on the door handle, tinker with the skeleton key. Where are you? Nonna cara, carissima nonna, nonnanonnina.  Nonna sits on the toilet, blowing smoke rings out the crack of an opened window; she watches a yellow flowered curtain flutter in the toxic Milan wind.  Tuscan sausages and wild boar are tucked in her suitcase in thin paper, a taste of home for her daughter.  When the children laugh through the keyhole, she cups her hand to her ear, like a seashell, to funnel the low murmur of the ocean in her breath.

Nonna feels out of context in Milan. She locks the double bolted doors when the children go to kindergarten. She waits in the kitchen where her fingers play with egg and flour, where her flat thumbnails push cheese inside pillows of dough, Nonna of the spicy rabbit sauce and the baked chestnut bread.  Her visits are flavored with black pepper and rosemary.  Her daughter sits on a high stool in the kitchen, cutting squares from rolled dough, hinting to plans for another move. Where to? Asks Nonna. She pretends not to see when her daughter looks out the yellow flower curtains to the smog-grimy street. Every winter her son in law’s job pushes them a little farther, migrations that translate to compartments in the bruised violet suitcase now gaping open at the foot of the trundle bed in the studio. The suitcase sighs an odor like family, salami, lollipop, sausage and dried porcini mushroom, socks that smell like caciotta cheese, blouses worn once, carrying the scent of salt, low-heeled shoes smeared with the moss of the beach and rocks below her house, the crushed pack of cigarettes she inhales like unanswered prayers.

***

Nonna talks to the neighbors from the window of her third floor apartment, chats through the cry of gulls and the roar of mopeds, looking out for that car with the Milan tag, packed and full of children.  Nonna’s feet are always sandy and mucked with beach petroleum, Nonna who knows to bring peach nectar and prosciutto sandwiches to coax the kids out of the water when their fingers wilt with salt and sea. Summers last one week, a weekend, a day or two on the way to the new beach house in Sardegna. When the kids pack up after summer is over, Nonna offers them five hundred lire each. The youngest child cries.  Are you sad because you won’t see your Nonna until next year?  He holds up his five hundred lire with two fingers and rubs his wet nose, says, This, I don’t know.

***

Nonna receives the news that her daughter will be moving to New York, America, from a long-distance phone call.  Nonna has a picture of her husband on the chest of drawer in the bedroom, the only picture that survived the bombs while she hid in the hills on her grandfather’s farm.  Now in the afternoon shadow of this two-room apartment, her husband smiles with the perpetual expectation of a future that never comes. One by one, the children get on the phone: Nonnina, how are you?  Nonna’s knee joints are bad, but she keeps this to herself. She wants to tell the kids about the war, about the years of love the Fascists stole from her. Her daughter gets on the phone, says Mamma, this is too much.  Hang up, already. Do you want to bankrupt yourself?  Wait until Easter.  You’ll have time to tell them these things.  Nonna is always waiting for something, to be of age for the dance, to be old enough to stop sneaking kisses under the bales of hay, to be pretty enough for marriage. She waits for Fascism to end, for the midnight incursions to stop, mattresses gutted, drawers smashed, her husband hiding in a ditch in the woods, the war, the Russian steppes in winter, and the letters that come always too late, a change of alliance from Germany to US taking death tolls higher than the bombs, and then finally when it seems all is over, waiting again for the neighbors to tell her the truth about the so-called accident, and for her daughter to grow up without a father, and for herself, to understand what all the crying was for, and for God to remember she’s still here.  A pot of lumachini snails boils on the stove.  Nonna cleans tripe in the sink, sets up the couch with crisp sheets that smell like laundry soap. She is always happy to see them, no matter how many years pass between each visit. What year are you in school? What are you studying in history class? Her sentences tumble over each other like a game of leapfrog. At night before bedtime, she retells all the fairytales with comical endings, adorns the punch lines with pretend farts and blames the mopeds, brays her laughter louder than the kids.  She is Nonna of the blue hair.  She is Nonna of the wide-gapped teeth.  She is Nonna of the flat shoes and wide girth. 

***

Nonna’s breath grows thick as she climbs up to the third floor, Nonna who gives the children five thousand of the old lire not knowing the currency has changed while the money waited in a jar. Her doctor found a murmur in her heart.  She likes the sound of this illness: a murmur, a whisper, a burbling of friendly ghosts calling to her, the Lily, the intoxications of youth, her husband in a soldier’s uniform calling at the door.  Nonna checks New York crime statistics in the newspaper. On the phone, she says, Keep the children safe. This is Nonna trying to have a conversation through the long distance beeping of satellites, the echoing of voices like murmurs from the beyond, her daughter floating as distantly as the orbit of a satellite. 

***

It has been years now since anyone has called her Lily. She is no longer Lily, but Nonna of the packing suitcases, Nonna of the cardboard boxes empty and gaping open, scattered on the living room floor, Nonna with the American daughter full with ambition enough to try to dig up a wilted Lily and plant her in New York.  Nonna of the now small girth and heavy step, trembles as she climbs the third floor steps, a thin plastic shopping bag bumping against her bad knee straining from too much weight, stretching and thinning from her grip, that window overlooking the beach waiting behind a closed door, atop three more steps, the view of brambles and rocks, the relentless beating of the waves below crowding in her chest. She’s allergic to aspirin, to penicillin, to ibuprofen; her breath labors through the gap in her front teeth. The murmur in her heart says America is just another dream; she will forever be Nonna of the Tuscan hills, of the chestnut bread and pillows of dough. 

***

She reclines against the hospital bed, unable to remember how she got here from Pisa to Livorno, from Livorno to this hospital, covered in these gowns the color of virgins, and the neighbor who now holds her hand, calls her by her name, tells her that her daughter is on her way from New York.  Lily.  Lily.  The name doesn’t sound right.  Nonna waits. She is Nonna of the flight to America, Nonna of the two-hour train ride to Milan, Nonna of the mistral wind blowing over the sea, Nonna of the light breath, of the powdered sugars, of the breathings of greetings, Nonna of the Milan Christmases, of the Tuscan summers, of the olives, the chestnuts, the cypress trees, Nonna, a rhyme from a fairy tale, a scent like flour and cigarettes, an intoxication of youth, a jingle of coins in a jar, a sudden fragrance of lilies, an exhalation of the sea, a murmur in the heart...



LAURA VALERI'S debut collection of short stories The Kind of Things Saints Do won the John Simmons Iowa Ficiton award and the John Gardner Binghamton University award for fiction.  Her work appears in various magazines, ezines and papers, including Big Bridge, Glimmer Train, Gulf Stream, SN Review, Clapboard House, Fiction Writers' Review, and an anthology of essays produced and sponsored by Creative Nonfiction and Other Press titled Our Roots Are Deep With Passion: Creative Nonfiction essays by Italian American Writers.  She is a winner of the Family Matters Glimmer Train award and of the Literary Potpourri award.  She was a Walter E. Dakins fellow in Fiction at the Sewanne Writers' Conference in 2008.  She lives in Savannah Georgia where she is working on two novels, and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern Univeristy.