Saturday, November 1, 2014

Remembering Nonni (1922-2014)

When their first grandchild came along, my grandparents decided they liked the idea of using the Italian titles “Nonno” and “Nonna,” but my grandmother felt she was too young to be a “Nonna,” which led to the “Nonni” I have always called her.

Greatest Generation

Nonni was a member of the Greatest Generation. She exemplified the work ethic, integrity, thrift, and loyalty associated with those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. She remembered the defining national traumas of three generations of Americans: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the terror attacks of 9/11.

One September a few years ago I asked her how she and Nonno had heard the news of 9/11; my husband and I were living overseas at the time, and it had never before occurred to me to ask. She replied that their neighbor had come running across the street while Nonni was working in the back yard and Nonno was sitting in a chair watching her. The neighbor yelled, “We’re under attack! We’re under attack! Turn on your t.v.!”

Next I wondered how that compared to hearing about Pearl Harbor. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Pearl Harbor. Absolutely. That changed everything.”  She and Nonno were sitting together at his family home, planning their wedding and a honeymoon to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl game and parade. His sister Ellie came running in, yelling that America had been attacked, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. (Are we seeing a pattern here?) They put away their wedding plans and turned on the radio. Pearl Harbor changed everything for them because the rest of the world was already embroiled in war, and now they knew that America and my reservist grandfather would now enter it. No one knew whether the Allies could defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese. Their wedding was small and quiet, and they didn’t have that honeymoon. The news turned their personal world upside down in a way unequalled by 9/11.


Nonni was a sportswoman and avid sports fan. Her courtship with Nonno began when he saw her across the office and told his friend, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Then he invited her to a softball game in which he was playing and promised to hit her a home run if she did. She came, and he kept his promise.

Early in their marriage he decided to teach her golf so she could go out on the course with him. She learned so well, so quickly, that no one could believe it.  She won multiple tournaments and hole-in-one trophies and took those awards with her to her retirement apartment. She even cared for her lawn so meticulously that it looked like a golf course.

She adored college football. The sports highlight of her final decade was TCU winning the Rose Bowl combined with meeting TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the greeting card aisle at Target. He impressed her so much that she even shifted her professional football allegiance from the Cowboys to Dalton’s Cincinnati Bengals. (I'm sure the Cowboys' recent record had nothing whatsoever to do with the change.)

The sports calendar and family gatherings are permanently linked in my memory because major sporting events were so often playing in the background as we visited: golf at Mother’s Day, Wimbledon Tennis on the Fourth of July, and the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

Faithful Friend

Nonni was a faithful and attentive friend with a knack for making people feel special. The large lithograph which hung in her dining room for as long as I can remember was a gift from an older neighbor she befriended long before I was born. Her kindness made friends of the people who served her regularly at the deli counter and the library. She really listened and remembered, paying careful attention to individual likes and dislikes. When she made potato salad for family gatherings, she made separate batches with and without onions. At Christmas, she made chocolate chip cookies with and without nuts. She respected my grandfather’s and my dislike of creamy sauces.

She made an effort to learn something about and take an interest in the interests of her family. She often shared or sent us clippings of articles she thought would interest us: gardening tips for Allen, healthy recipes and Cliburn piano articles for me.

She was a trustworthy confidante, good at keeping secrets. Sometimes this proved a source of consternation to her family, but it was also a great help when needed. When I was in seminary, I developed a friendship with a certain tall, bearded fellow student, but he was interested in someone else and told me so. After that “defining the relationship” talk, I happened to spend a weekend at my grandparents’ house. When I confided it to Nonni, she smiled reassuringly and said she’d pray about it, and if it was meant to be, the good Lord would work it out.

A week or so later that bearded man asked if he could court me. I asked him what changed his mind, and he said he just woke up one morning and it was like a lightbulb went off over his head. We’ve been married 15 years as of this August. With a twinkle in her eye, Nonni reminded me of this incident several times as proof that she could keep any secret I shared with her.

During the February of my freshman year of college, my other grandmother passed away. Not long thereafter, parents’ and grandparents’ weekend arrived at my university, and Nonni and Nonno came to visit. It was a wonderful weekend in many respects, but one memory stands out for me. For my birthday that year, they gave me a new Bible I’d requested in a word-for-word translation better suited to the more intensive Bible study I was learning to do. When they came to visit me, they brought a card to affix to the presentation page so I would always remember it was from them.
That Sunday afternoon, after my parents had returned home to my sisters, Nonni and Nonno sat with me around a portable table in the otherwise unoccupied vestibule of the Student Center. They listened as I shared how salvation and being right with God did not come from doing good things and going to church but about having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. They listened because it was important to me and therefore important to them.

I showed them from the Bible they gave me that all people have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; how the only wage our sin can earn is death, which means separation from God forever; how all our best attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags in God’s sight.

Then I shared that even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us as our perfect substitute, taking the full brunt of the punishment we deserved so that we could enjoy His righteousness and fellowship with God, which we did not deserve. As Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works so that no one can boast.”

In 2010 when chronic illness confined me to my bed and sofa and I was upset that I couldn’t attend church, Nonni said several times on the phone, “Remember that time when you talked with Nonno and me? Remember how you said that going to church isn’t the most important thing but loving and worshipping God in your heart is what matters? I know you do that, and God knows too.”

It was humbling to have my own words given back to me in that way, but it encouraged me even more than that to hear them from her lips and to know that one brief conversation made such an impression on her. As I said earlier, she truly listened and remembered.


With Nonni, tradition was an art form. She loved sending greeting cards and was well known at her local Hallmark store. My wedding anniversary this year occurred during her first hospitalization. When I opened the mailbox on that day and didn’t see an envelope addressed in her handwriting and sealed with a sticker on the back, I choked up, even though I knew why it was missing. A couple of weeks later, when I opened the mailbox again and saw that envelope, I cried.

The masterpiece of Nonni’s traditions, however, was Christmas Eve. She always made ravioli from scratch, all the way down to grinding the meat for the filling and making the pasta. There would be spaghetti, too, and broccoli with homemade hollandaise sauce and Mrs. Bairds’ brown-and-serve rolls. She always provided her trademark biscotti and two kinds of chocolate chip cookies for dessert. The table would be set when we arrived, with placecards holding 2 Andes mints per person.

She made each grandchild a special tree ornament. These were stored at her house and hung with great ceremony and flashing of cameras by each child each year, unless someone was absent, in which case a proxy hung that ornament and photos were nonetheless taken to document the event. When I married, she gave us a keepsake ornament so that my new husband would not be excluded from the ritual hanging of the ornaments.

Sometime that day my grandfather would measure each child against a closet door to record his or her growth. Even though I stopped growing (taller) in 7th grade, he persisted in measuring me until age 21, when I think Nonni intervened on my behalf.

The Rudolph on the right had apparently been in a fight. Also, we subbed red Jelly Bellies for the cherry last year. Don't tell. :) I don't yet have Nonni's skill at making these.

Christmas Eve would not be complete (and still isn’t at my house) without Nonni’s reindeer sandwiches. No actual reindeer were harmed in the making of the sandwiches. Rather, these were triangular quarter-sandwiches, crusts removed, made to look like a reindeer face. Broken pretzel twists formed the antlers, raisins adhered with peanut butter the eyes, and of course a Maraschino cherry made a Rudolph nose.

Exemplary Wife

Finally, Nonni was truly an exemplary and devoted wife. There was never any doubt how much she and Nonno loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Nonno could occasionally be a bit on the cantankerous side, but she always respected and honored him in front of us. If she had a concern about something he said or something that had happened at a family gathering, she would speak with him later in private. I only know this because he would sometimes say later, “Nonni won’t let me ____ when everybody’s here because people get upset.”

Ever since he passed away on the eve of their sixty-fourth wedding anniversary, she has been looking forward with hope to the day she would see him again.

Nonni was truly the matriarch and queen of the family. She liked to be in the background, serving in the kitchen, but she was the hub of our wheel. To say she is greatly missed would be an understatement. I love you, Nonni!

Your Tina Bird

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