You will never meet the little girl who carries your name. You will never meet your youngest daughter’s daughter, or her son for that matter. Your husband will never meet his grandchildren either. Your grandchildren have had to learn what it is like growing up without a set of grandparents.
Your daughter’s daughter will never know who her grandmother is, who you are. Her Nonna. You never had the chance to hold her in your arms and shower her with warm kisses. You will never have the chance to tell her stories of living in Italy and what being Italian really means. She will know little about you because her mother does not speak much of you.
The heavy sadness of your young passing comes with any mention of your name. You were only in your 50s when cancer took over your body and forced your children to begin to learn what it was like living without a mother. And then, years later, cancer took over your husband’s body, and your children were left as orphans, filled with grief.
The only time your granddaughter will hear about you is when someone else is telling her how proud you would be of her. You will never be able to tell her these things yourself.
A few weeks before your granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, your middle daughter, her aunt, suddenly broke down in tears and told her how strongly she wished you could be in attendance. Your middle daughter told your granddaughter that even though you wouldn’t physically be there listening to her chant her Torah, you would be there spiritually.
You wish she could hear those words of praise in your voice.
The first time your granddaughter asks about you is when she is assigned a family history project in high school. She knew immediately she wanted to talk about you and your journey to America. She knew almost nothing of her maternal family’s history at this point.
You grew up in a poor farming town in Italy. When your granddaughter asked her mother what the town is called, your daughter replied, “Nonna and Nonno are from the town of Carapelle in the region of Abbruzzo. That means you are Abbruzzese, or more definitively Carapellese.” You will never be able to explain the hardships you faced growing up.
Your granddaughter had to learn the correct pronunciation of the town you once called home. Before presenting her project, she sat at her desk, quietly mouthing the foreign word. Her mother told her about the suitcases you lost, filled with photographs and memories from the place you once called home. The lost suitcases were a harsh reality of leaving Italy behind and starting new in Chicago.
When it was her turn to present her project to the class, it took everything in her not to cry at the mention of your name. Saying your story out loud made your absence all the more real. Saying you were not here anymore made it hurt more in that moment than it had ever hurt before.
You will never be in attendance at family gatherings. The smell of homemade bread, sauce and cheese seep out from the kitchen. Your sisters are always busy in the kitchen, making sure platters of food cover every inch of every table. Your sisters’ cooking is the closest your granddaughter will ever get to imagine how your chicken Parmesan would have been prepared or how plump your gnocchi were.
Your voice will never be heard amongst the accents of other relatives that fill the air at these gatherings. The beautiful Italian language will never be heard coming from your mouth. Instead, your granddaughter hears you through the imitations her mother and aunts do of you. Whether it is a pronunciation of an English word with a thick, Italian accent or an exasperated gesture, your granddaughter sees the woman you were through your daughters.
Your granddaughter wishes it were you pulling her in for a kiss and calling her bella.
You are mad that your sisters barely mention your name to your granddaughter. In fact, they almost never speak to her about you. Whether it is because of grief, even though it has been decades, the three sisters go about their lives, as if there were never a fourth. It is as if ignoring the fact that you aren’t around is a way of coping.
There is a caricature of you that hangs in the granddaughter’s childhood home. It hangs in the kitchen, right above the bench seat she often imagines you sitting on if you were to visit for dinner. The picture is made up of less than six colors; gray, green, red and black. Your tiny body and large, cartoon-like head pop out of a gray metal pot, and you have a spoon in hand. The words just above your gray hair read “at’sa spicy meat sauce.” Instead of you in the picture, your granddaughter’s friends believe it is your daughter, her mother.
You passed away before your daughter married. Your granddaughter grew up with just one set of grandparents. She grew up eating her grandmother’s kugel, schnitzel and matza ball soup. She was even raised in their faith. Not yours.
You will never be able to have your granddaughter over for dinner to eat gnocchi, pizzelle and minestrone soup. You’ll never be able to teach her the ways of your faith, Catholicism.
Your granddaughter is hungry for more information, now that she is older. Your absence in her life paints you like a mystical creature. One who watches from above.
She calls her mother, whose voice echoes on the phone. “I blame myself for not telling you more,” she says. “You need to know where you come from and who your grandparents were.”
Your name is Giovaninna and your granddaughter was named Giovanna. Sometimes this is the only connection your granddaughter feels to you.
“Giovanna,” her mother tells her. “You have to pronounce it correctly. JO-VAN-NA.”