I have been in a rotten mood for the several days now. I first blamed the lack of decent sleep, then I blamed hormones imbalance, before I settled on a severe case of the lockdown blues. It was only after I had a look at my calendar that I realised that today marks the anniversary of my grandma’s death. And the my current lockdown depression session sure doesn’t help.
I’m not much of a crier by nature. I bottle every minuscule molecule of grief, stress and worry and I add that to every single minute mistake I have made since the last time I cried until I can no longer take it. Every six months I go into a week long funk which culminates into a five minutes long sobbing session and then the balance is back. This cannot possibly be healthy but it’s what seems to work for me.
When I got the call from my mum that my grandma had passed, I didn’t cry. When I spent almost twice my rent to get on a flight to Italy the very next day, I didn’t cry. When I was in the air, I didn’t cry (and god knows, I wanted to. I bloody hate flying). When my cousin picked me up at the airport, I didn’t cry. Then I saw my sister, who at 38 years of age was fighting metastatic breast cancer and I didn’t cry. I did not shed a single tear during those 48 hours I was in Italy or after I got back to London. When I went to bed the night I flew back home, I tried. I tried to cry so I could release that awful weight I felt was crushing my whole body but the tears didn’t come.
The funeral was a sombre affair. A priest who we had never met gave a speech that completely missed the mark, while the priest who knew our family so very well and had just returned from one of his many travels through Africa, was only allowed a few words at the end of the service to describe what a spirited woman my grandma had been all her life. I sat between my father, a grieving son, and my sister, who looked frail in her heavy coat, headscarf and surgical mask. My cousin, our rock, who’s the driving source of our family, sat behind me and sobbed the whole way through the ceremony. My aunt, who I had never seen cry or show any emotion aside from happiness and excitement, joined her daughter as soon as the casket was brought into the church. I could hear them behind me and it broke my heart. Yet, I couldn’t cry. I could feel my eyes burning but all I could do was focus on my sister’s hand in mine and how my father sat quietly, his eyes glued to the casket a few feet away.
Once the ceremony was over, we walked to the cemetery which in proper Italian tradition laid claim to the field right next to the church. As we walked towards it, all I could think about was the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte wanted cemeteries to be built away from populated areas for hygiene purposes. I remember turning toward my dad (He has a degree in history and the classics. The only interest we have in common aside from our love for dogs) and saying that if Napoleon were alive today he would throw a fit. That’s how our brains work and that how we cope, I thought. This was the only thing we talked about as we walked the short distance towards where my gradma would join an adjacent slot to her parents and grandparents. Cemeteries in Italy were filled to the brim even before the global pandemic we currently find ourselves in. People would genuinely fight over a slot and I’m not talking about a green patch of land like we see in the movies. I’m talking about a small cubicle built into a cement structure that houses many people in a way that is as dignified as possible. We were lucky enough that they could fit her close to her family, just a row above her parents and grandparents, and a few meters away from her late husband.
The priest spoke a few more words and then the coffin was pushed into its cubicle and that’s when the crowd started to disperse, leaving only the family. We waited while the men sealed the entrance with a block of cement. The marble tombstone would be placed a week later. Here’s another thing about most Italian funerals. You don’t have time to grieve because funerals happen a day or two after the death occurs and grieving people are stuck in a position where they feel absolutely powerless because someone who they love dearly is now gone but they are left to make all the important and sometimes seemingly superfluous decisions such as what to engrave on a tombstone which will never be ready in time for the interment but that will be added days after the crowd has left the cemetery.
We all drove back to my grandmother’s house and chatted in her garden. My grandma’s carer, this incredibly resourceful Colombian woman who took care of my frail little nonna for four years, made us all coffee and provided us with an endless amount of biscuits. While we waited, relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years flocked towards me, asking me about my life, how I was doing, how living in London really was. I ended up talking about my job, my dogs, my love for the West End. I will never forget how two of my grandmother’s younger sisters (She was the first of ten!), in their seventies, hugged me excitedly and told me they’d follow me on Instagram that evening so they could keep an eye on me. And oh boy, they did. I get the sweetest messages from these aunties under every single selfie. I caught up with my cousins and their partners, with relatives whose actual relation to me still isn’t quite clear to me after 26 years of me being on this earth. They told me about their children who are now off to university and who years and years ago I used to chase around our makeshift football field with a somewhat deflated plastic ball because one of the dogs would have gotten to it somehow. There is a bittersweet feeling to funerals which I have never perceived over the years because I was either too absorbed in my grief or trying to make it easier on the people doing the grieving.
As we drank our coffee, we also talked about my grandma. She got arrested twice for smuggling homemade Grappa, an incredibly alcoholic drink made from fermented grapes, which burns like a motherfrakker and, when made in the comfort of your barn, it is most definitely not legal. She would ride her bike from her house to the centre of Bergamo (about 19 miles) to sell it and sometimes she would bring my dad, who as a child would ride in a basket at the front, and both of them would be hiding vast quantities of Grappa under their clothes. At some point the family moved to Sesto San Giovanni while my dad attended first high school and then two years of university in Milan. I don’t know how it came to be but they owned a cafe where lots of influential people and politicians liked to stop for a coffee and a chat. I remember both my grandma and my dad telling me stories about that time of their lives but for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them.I don’t know why they then moved back to the town I grew up in but I’m glad they did. I had a pretty standard, happy childhood. My father was always abroad for work and my mum was always busy working; my sister, a whole twelve years older than me, was more or less self sufficient by the time I started school and my grandma was put in charge of taking care of me. It has come to my attention just last week, as countries start talking about reopening offices but not their schools, how reliant on grandparents Italians really are. Schools start around 8.30 but that’s also when most offices open. Schools let out at 12 or 1pm, people who work in an office maybe get a one hour long lunch break, but most kids don’t go back to school after lunch. Grandparents have to step in.
My grandma raised me and I don’t hold it against my mother, I would never dream of it. My mother is a force to be reckoned with and she worked hard to make sure my sister and I had everything we needed. But while she worked every day, from 8am till 7pm, my grandma took care of me. I would sleep at her house very night. She always had a box of my favourite breakfast cereal and she would make sure I drank all my milk. She would watch me from her window as I waited for the school bus and she would always have a snack ready for me when I got back from school. She would help me with my maths homework and she would make sure I had everything ready for my karate training twice a week. The moment summer break started, someone would drive us to the small flat she owned in Lido di Spina, on the Adriatic Sea, where would spend three blissful months until school started again in September. There we would go on bike rides, we would eat ice cream every night. By the second week spent in the sun, she would have the most spectacular tan while I would probably be sitting in the shade, crying because I would be sunburnt to a crisp. During the Christmas holidays, she would always have a fire going and she would teach me how to saw buttons (she was one of those grandmas who had a shortbread tin filed to the brim with buttons and thread) or repair a hole in a piece of fabric. During Easter break, we would look after her vegetable garden. Out there we would find fresh herbs, lettuce, raspberries. Once the tomatoes were ripe, we would make tomato sauce, the right way. I will never forget the few times we made pasta together from scratch.
This blog post is making me realise so many different things about her which I never noticed, like how she was pretty clumsy, just like me. She once rode her bicycle into a fence and a rubbish bin. One time my aunt had to pick me up from school because my grandma had accidentally chopped her finger off while tending to her rose bushes. She would hit her head on the many cabinets she would leave open and, without a fail, she would curse herself for doing it again and again and again.
I miss her.
I miss her a great deal, even though by the time she died, she could barely talk and make sense. Every single time I visited my mum and sister, I would always save a few hours to spend with my grandma and, without fail, she would look at me with those piercing brown eyes and she would make fun of something: my bright red hair, my painted nails, the many, many earrings in my ears. I would walk into her house and shout, “Nuniiii!!!!” and I miss seeing the look on her face whenever I would walk into her line of sight.