April 28, 2008

A Lesson at the End of Life

I planned this blog to post reviews and recipes. I knew that I would also share my experiences dealing with celiac disease and how that, and being gluten free, affects my life. The time has come to share more of my personal life. As I write this I am sitting in a nursing home, at the bedside of my great aunt, the sister of my grandmother. Our Italian family’s matriarch. My last connection with the Old Country.

She was my grandmother’s younger sister, but my Nonna was an artist, a free spirit, never still for very long. Lily and her late husband were the established heads of the family. No matter where we gathered, she was always the hostess. Her word was the last word

Growing up I felt like the ugly duckling. I knew I was loved and included, but I was not the golden child that her own grandchildren were. I never felt like my piece of the puzzle fit quite right, that one piece that comes in the box, but you can never figure out exactly where it goes. Marrying into the family I think my dad feels this way too sometimes.

During hard time we’ve always been family. She came to see my Nonna when she had Alzheimer’s, though her own husband was dying at the same time. Of all the family that I invited to my high school graduation, she was the only one who came, saying that if my grandmother couldn’t be there, at least one grandmother would. When she moved to New York to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren she had all of her extra furniture and fixtures shipped to me to furnish my first apartment.

When I moved to New York I had to leave most of that furniture in Ohio, but that was fine with her. Here’s the thing: In the four years that I have lived in New York, a 40 minute train ride from her and my cousins I have visited exactly five times. Christmas and her 90th birthday bash.

Am I bad family? I was always to busy, or felt like was imposing, or I simply felt like I didn’t belong. Whatever my reasons they seem pretty stupid. I’m here now, I’ve been out to see her as much as I can, now that she doesn’t recognize us or acknowledge out presence beyond a week hand squeeze.

I’m asking myself if this counts for anything, if it makes up for anything. Following on the heels of this self-doubt comes the guilt of not visiting. So many missed opportunities to hear stories about my own grandmother as a girl. Stories about their parents, the woman I am named for, the first Vittoria. I am about to lose the last person who knew or contacted our family in Italy. I don’t even know where all her papers and pictures are.

Her two daughters will inherit all these, but this is my legacy too. We all share a common root, Enrico and Vittoria Silano. Never again will I hear vaguely remembered stories of my great grandmother and her two sisters. Nor will I hear how uppity Lily and my Nonna were as American teenagers standing up to their Italian father in the 192030s.

I always intended to ask her to come with me to the Story Corps project when it was at Grand Central. Obviously I never did, because I just didn’t feel comfortable making a request like that of her. Why do we always seem to be let these opportunities pass?

They say that hindsight is 20/20 and that’s the truth. All the harsh thoughts, false starts and missed connections. I know I can’t torture myself with this, or blame myself. At the very least, our whole family is coming together now. My mother will be here tomorrow, and for one last time Lily, her daughters and niece will all be together. The only woman of our family who will be missing is Lily’s granddaughter Amy, who’s away at college finishing her semester.

This truly is one of life’s great lessons, made gluten free because I am gluten free. Don’t miss opportunities when you have them. Don’t ignore a sunny day. And don’t forget to live and love your life. My one hope is that I will have such wonderful family surrounding me when I am 93. Most importantly, never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.