Picking The Pasta

My nonni had a way of making people feel important. In many ways, a special gift she possessed. As a young boy, I remember thinking she was the sole person who actually listened to me. When your young that means a bunch, especially if your looking for a lending ear. When you grow and begin maturing, it means substantially more. She taught me that listening is vastly more important than talking. While our famous Sunday evening memories are engulfed with very talkative conversation, the most fluid and influential are unsurprisingly calm and quiet vignettes that stand the test of time.

7PM was the appointed meeting time at Nonni’s home. Every Sunday, all year. Two other very special people came, and we formed in many ways a bond that will never be broken. A past memory we were fortunate enough to be around for. If we were ignorant in the beginning to just how special this time would be, it became more apparent as Sundays went. The event gave me something to look forward to you. It gave me hope that in a rough week, Nonni’s was around the corner. Once in a while I would “accidentally” arrive early. Not too early,  but a mere 20 or so minutes prior.  Those 20 minutes were simply me talking and Nonni listening. She taught and told me without uttering a single syllable; listening is what matters.

It never failed, once the clock hit 7 and the three of us were assembled around the table, she would inevitably give the command. In a seemingly random order, one of us would be summoned to pick the pasta. Surely, a mundane action to anyone especially us, considering it happened every single Sunday. But to her, an important reminder for us that we were important. The command signified a pause in life. As soon as the order was given, it was ok to settle in. In many ways,  it was her saying sit down and relax. It was a subtle phrase that suddenly meant the world to me. Much like Nonni’s, the emotion changed from mundane to admiration.

Conversations were picked and plucked from many different worlds at Nonni’s table. Her participation varied and nearing the end of her life, she was reserved to just listening for the most part. I wouldn’t be so ignorant to think this wasn’t purposeful though. She was as much of the conversation quiet as she was vocal. She loved to just sit there and let us talk, mostly about subjects she had admittedly, absolute zero interest in. But even in the moment I assumed something deeper was happening.

It occurred to me after the fact that Nonni in many ways was an enabler. An enabler of this event for starts. It was in fact her who first invited us over, only to let us talk and converse about things she didn’t care about, yet endured the conversations. You see she didn’t care about the subjects of topic, or type of pasta we picked or anything for that matter. All she truly cared about was that we were there. And she did everything in her humble ways to make us feel welcome and significant. From varying bowl sizes according to appropriately sized eaters, to simply just listening about things she didn’t necessarily care about but knew we did. She was all about us, all of the time.

I think Nonni’s impact was so influential on me simply because she never flaunted her motives. She never needed credit for doing anything and she certainly wasn’t looking for it.  She was more invested in spending time with us, then projecting life lessons.

But the beautiful revelation of Sundays at Nonni’s, came to me after the fact. Like a great painting, being too close to something blurs the intended meaning. Nonni’s was always about life lessons and they were so effective because they were genuinely distributed.

You see Nonni always wanted to make one of us feel special, she always gave us all the time we needed. To talk amongst each other or simply listen to us individually, unconditionally. Not impending judgement, just lending an ear with input if we so desired.  She taught me, there’s a place for that in life. There’s a place called meekness that lives only when you realize a direct way to someones life is through their heart, not their head. Something Nonni did so well; just listen and invest in those you love. A great life lesson she distributed to me. Something I am forever grateful for and an area I continually try to improve in.

Towards the end of nonni’s life I came to find out something very interesting. It turned out, Nonni always knew who’s turn it was to pick the pasta. As weeks went by, she kept a record of it. It wasn’t a guess on her part. It was important to her; remembering the little details about loved ones in her life. But I cant help but wonder that she knew, one day we would understand and comprehend. Understand her quietness around the table.  Comprehend that listening is the best gift you can give someone. I cant help but think she knew as we grew older, that the purpose for coming to Nonni’s wasn’t at all to keep her company as we all thought. But for us to learn.

Learn how to one day let someone else pick the pasta.

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A Walk in the Park

My early teen years were very difficult for me. My parents divorced and many things were changing. I don’t take well to alterations in my life for some reason and back then all I knew was constant change. I was consistently was on edge. I wanted to tell this story first and foremost because it paints a very clear picture of my Nonni and her kindness. Secondly and less important, someone once told me the way to really find out who you are is to be open and transparent and above all honest in aspects of life you are not proud of. The moment these acts played out, they were meant to be told, I just haven’t told anyone until now.

High School is a tough time for anyone I think. Maybe not by Junior/Senior year, but Freshman year for certain . I was going into high school with a large focus on sports. I didn’t know many people going to my school but I knew some members of my future basketball team because we were already practicing the summer prior to freshman year.

This story begins on one of the first Fridays of the school year. Everyone I knew at that point in school were talking about meeting up with girls and hanging out at an undisclosed location. I remember feeling uncomfortable and pressured so when it came time to say if I was in, I nervously backed out. It wasn’t that I didn’t like girls, but my self confidence level at this point in my life wasn’t very high. The last thing I wanted was to be put in a situation that people could make fun of me. I played it safe and backed out.

As I look back at that point in my life, I let a lot of people use me as a punching bag. They knew I wouldn’t hurt anyone, so they always took jabs at me, verbal jabs that is. I let it pass, quite honestly because I thought it made people feel good. And coming from a broken house, I would do just about anything to make someone feel good, unfortunately even at my own expense.

I wouldn’t be going to the “gathering.” Instead a perfectly good night was going to be spent working on a short film and re-watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I remember being in a Vertigo funk. I had a theory that James Stewert’s character actually died in the first sequence and I needed to do some re-watching to fill some holes in that theory. Sounds riveting, doesn’t it? But that was me in early high school days, a film nerd who could tell you unhealthy amounts of film facts from decades before my birth. It wasn’t that I was unsociable, I just had my own little world that I felt comfortable in and when that space became hindered I always fell apart.

When I got home from school that Friday, my mom informed me that I wouldn’t be staying home that night. She told me my Nonni needed help moving some big furniture and asked if I could aid. As much as I loved and would do anything for my Nonni, I didn’t want my night of movie watching to be disturbed. It was one of those “I know this is wrong to not help and I just don’t care” moments. But my mom didn’t care and off I went being driven to Nonni’s house on a Friday night.

When I arrived Nonni always greeted me with a smile. To my shame this particular time, I didn’t give one back. Nonni didn’t care. Little stuff like that didn’t faze her in the least. She was just happy I was there.

I helped her move the furniture which was a small end table . I still remember thinking that she could have done all this on her own. I was upset because I felt like my time there wasn’t really needed and all the while I could have been home working on my short film and ultimately smoothing out some bumps from my Vertigo theory. I was selfish.

After the furniture got moved Nonni asked me if I wanted to go to the park for fresh air. A routine we did consistently since I was young. Reluctantly, I went. In an even worse mood that I had when I arrived.

She never took the direct route to the park. She was big on talking so Nonni didn’t mind taking a longer way to the park. When I was younger I really enjoyed this. But at this time it just added to my frustration.

The sun was just setting and the weather was exceptionally good for a walk. Nonni had a habit of picking up a flower and touching it during our walks. She did this while talking almost professionally. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about and I don’t remember much but unfortunately what came next is one of the more stark memories I can recall.

We were walking back to her car. The night was finally over. All I had to do was wait for my mom to pick me up at Nonni’s house. As we were about half way to her car a bunch of loud Honda civics and racing type cars pulled up to the park parking lot. I looked and sure enough these cars looked familiar. They were people from my High School. In some weird coincidence they picked the exact park to have make out sessions in that my Nonni and I were walking at.

It didn’t take long. They recognized me instantly and began belittling me. Making fun of the fact I was walking with my Nonni at sunset in a park. One of my most treasured memories as a kid was now being ripped apart by my new day to day life of school. I began getting nervous and anxious. The insults kept coming in and I just dropped my head and closed my eyes. It felt like I was being hunted and had a gun pointed at me. I was helpless and frozen.

Nonni sensed all this and she softly held my hand to try and comfort me. Almost immediately the laughter and insults grew. I quickly snatched my hand from her, angrily.

I don’t exactly remember how it all finished but, we ended up in her car. It was quiet and I was a combination of humiliated and ashamed. Nonni gathered and very gently asked:

“Whats wrong Danny? Are you ok?” And I said “No, I’m not ok!” almost shouting. And she’s like “whats wrong?” And I said “Don’t you understand Nonni? Im not who you think I am.” And Nonni innocently says “Well, what do you mean Danny?” I say “Nonni I’m a loser.” She says ” oh no your not, why do you think that?” I snap. And I say “I’m here with you on a Friday night, look at me, I’m a loser.” She just stared at me with a confusing look on her face.

We drive away in silence, I had never rose my voice before to anyone in my lifetime and that moment sort of cemented I would try my best to never again. Honestly speaking, I learned I’m the type of person who gets hurt more than the receiving end of me yelling at someone. This situation was all different for me and I remember crystal clear shaking as we drove home in silence.

We get back to her house and she quietly puts sauce on the stove and slowly but surely I start to smell it. Im just sitting there watching her do this. She’s not saying anything to me and this thick blanket of shame pours over me because I feel immensely bad for lashing out at her. I remember feeling I disappointed her. More devastating, I remember the familiar feeling of doing something to someone you love who didn’t deserve it. It hearkened to my parents divorce days, and this time I was the one on the ugly end.

A little time passes and things are still very silent. By the time the pasta has finished and Nonni makes me my bowl and places it in front of me. Her usual ritual would be to sit across and make small talk while she watched her “shows” out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t do that though. She just stayed behind me, standing. It seems odd and all I remembered thinking about at that point was she was going to yell at me at any second. The silence was so much. I had to break it. So I broke the air with “the pasta really is good, Nonni.” Nonni nodded her head and gently puts her hand through my hair and she says effortlessly “you got such a nice haircut, you look so handsome.” She paused and said: “I hope you know your the best boy Danny, I hope you know.”

The next Monday at school was bad to say the least. I heard it from everyone, asking if I was taking Nonni to the prom or if she was picking me up to walk home and hold hands. All stuff I expected I guess. But I was surprised it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I just let it go. It went away after a while and basketball season started. And in an odd turn of events, I became uncomfortably popular throughout my High School career.

Nonni has been gone for years now and when I used to live in Connecticut I would make it a habit to revisit that route. I would drive to Nonni’s, wait there a bit. Then take her specialized directions to the park and walk around for a while in the same way we did. Drive back to her house and just sit in the parking lot and think of her. Think of how calm she handled that situation. A shameful young boy as insecure as the anyone who lashed out at a person who loved him with all her heart, yet she was loving. It was still important for her to make me feel good. To be supportive. She had an unwavering positive image of me that I don’t quite understand or know how to place.

In the time that Nonni has passed, I try to do everything I can to be the person Nonni saw me as. The truth is i’m not that person. I’m mostly selfish and always considering myself before others. I don’t have an inch of Nonni’s genuineness in me. I may try and trick myself from time to time, but its fails compared to Nonni’s meekness. She has set the bar so high for me that sometimes I stand amazed by her and she provides a good reminder for myself to always try and improve, if not for me, for others around me.

If she were here today I would do anything to take her to that park for a walk on a Friday evening. I wouldn’t care who saw me. Because she didn’t. All she cared about was being there with me. As look back, I wish I could have said the same.