It’s funny how sometimes we regress, we push and push to become educated, informed, seasoned and experienced. Then at some point we can just; just forget it all. Forget friends, family and many of those hard won experiences.
The woman I mentioned is Eleanor, my grandmother, and I spent a significant amount of my life with her. Time enough to learn her stories, learn her identity and learn about myself.
Looking at Eleanor, she just looks like the run-of-the-mill old lady, glasses, wrinkled, pale complexion. But sometimes we have to go further than that, more than skin deep. She didn’t just wake up at age 92; she has lived a length of time, outlived her husband and even buried one of her sons.
Nonny, as she is known to family, is suffering from alzheimer’s disease and basically has the mentality of a toddler — saddening, but kind of a blessing actually, as my father and I have gained strength from the difficult situation.
I have seen my father in a new light as he cares for her, still living independently in her own home for the last 70 years. It’s funny she remembers, say, what a toaster is, but has trouble remembering if she ate the toast a couple hours ago. Dad takes care of meals, since I live out of town, I know it’s challenging for him.
Mike, as most call him, dad to me, has given his life a backseat to care for my elderly grandmother. The two of us have grown closer through this troubling situation, and I can tell he’s a more driven man with an even bigger heart than I knew.
But the situation stresses him I can tell, a man of few words, he’s told me how difficult it is to see Nonny suffering from alzheimer’s. Especially difficult in seeing her forgetting people in photographs having to jog her memory, like winding a jack-in-the-box waiting for the puppet to pop out.
Born and raised in Italy, my grandmother came to America after WWII. She met my grandfather, John, an Italian interpreter for the US Army while he was in stationed in Italy during wartime. She was a servant at the manor house on a huge olive farm in the small village of San Savero in south-eastern Italy.
When visiting Nonny in her white stucco house — she pleaded to my grandfather to build her to remind her of Italy — I was always told of how the two of them met.
John’s contingent of soldiers and officers was to commandeer the olive farm where Eleanor worked, sending money back to her family, the army unit was in charge of turning the farm into an airstrip to accommodate military planes for the allied war effort.
As much as the estate owners were upset by the transformation of the bucolic farm, they understood it was necessary, plus they were compensated by the US Government for their losses. In his role as interpreter the manor owners became friendly with John, and on one hot afternoon he saw Eleanor beating rugs clean, the dust gently floating through the sunshine. He stared for a minute, then immediately inquired about her to the estate owners.
Explaining to John she was a house servant, rather quickly, he became infatuated with Eleanor, soon arriving at the servants quarters asking if he could see her. Highly informal for the period, but John didn’t care, he was smitten. At their impromptu meeting, John knew there was a Red Cross dance for soldiers the following day. Asking Eleanor to accompany him, she accepted to the delight of not just herself, but the other servants who were also drawn to the handsome American soldier.
As I am told, the two danced the entire evening, the following day John told the head of the servants he intended to marry Eleanor after the war and bring her back to America. A wildly popular idea with the servant staff upon hearing the news, Eleanor readily accepted when John came asking for her hand in marriage.
Fast-forwarding 50 years later, unfortunately grandpa passed on in 1994. And for more than 20 years Nonny has mourned the death of her beloved husband. She has described to me her dreams, where grandpa comes visiting in a glimmering, dapper white suit and angel wings, looking as handsome as the day the met.
But now when I ask her if she still has those dreams, she looks to me puzzled and perplexed, not able to recall the visions she was able to describe so vividly on many occasions. Even when explaining the dream meant wiping away years of built up tears and loneliness, she can’t do it. The memory is lost, locked away in a tiny recess with other treasured thoughts.
At any moment Nonny may just break into Italian, forgetting not everyone in her company speaks her native language. She might be confused when I call wishing her a happy birthday, or to say happy New Year. But I always do it; I remember that my actual first memory took place in the front yard of my grandparents house.
Not yet able to walk, I recall my father holding me up by my tiny arms, which were stretched upward above my head. Dad tiptoed me through Nonny’s little garden of purple irises and crimson roses. She was on the porch of the white stucco house smiling down, singing a nursery rhyme to me in Italian.
I also remember her lovely lilac bush. The fragrant purple flowers such a treat each spring. I even took a few transplants from the bush, planting them in my front yard so her legacy will continue to bloom also.
I remember these times so brilliantly, fresh in my mind as if a moment ago. I will continue to remember, because when Eleanor, my Nonny, can no longer recall these fleeting moments; I will remember for the both of us.