The Nonna I Never Had


After I walked the boys to school today, I headed toward a different neighborhood for my morning walk. I wanted to take a path along the water’s edge. I took a detour to avoid a muddy construction zone. That’s when I ventured into an alley where an old woman was having a smoke.

She could have easily passed me and said nothing. I’ve noticed a lot of Europeans don’t greet strangers in passing the way Americans do. Sometimes I say, “Bok!” and wave just to see if people return my hellos. So far, almost every “Bok!” has gotten a friendly reply. I think I just smiled at the woman in the alley, but something made her catch up to me and start talking.

We quickly established that she didn’t know English, and it wasn’t Croatian she was speaking. She was Italian, and she looked incredulous to hear I didn’t know any Italiano. Maybe she could sense I have some Italian in my blood. I could make out enough to know she was asking my name. Then she began to sing it: “Tan-yah, oh, Tan-ee-ah!” Bella something-or-other, she sang and smoked. By this time, she had looped her arm in mine and was leading me down the street.

A white-haired man on a bicycle stopped to talk to her. I could tell he was asking who I was and probably why the heck she was serenading me. “Americano.” No Italiano. Something or other. He had no time for that. “No English,” he said as he rode off.


The old woman was not deterred. She asked me more questions. She belted out more songs. She pointed toward her side door and asked me to come and sit down at her kitchen table with the rose tablecloth that matched her vase of roses.

italian woman house 2

Part of me wondered what the heck I was doing sitting down in a stranger’s house when I couldn’t even understand her. But I was so entertained, I couldn’t say no. She seemed harmless and lonely. She was the Italian nonna I never had. She made me laugh.

She said her name and it was something close to Maria, maybe Mariska, I couldn’t really be sure. Her house looked like what I would imagine my distant Italian relatives’ homes would look like, with Catholic figurines within arm’s reach.

When her phone rang, she gestured for me to stay while she went in the other room to answer it. I snapped some pictures of the room while she was gone.

Italian womans house

When she returned, she sat down and sang some more until I sang with her.

I think she was going to get up and start making food then. She probably would have let me stay all day. But my Americano impulses didn’t have all day to stay. I felt a little guilty, like a party guest leaving too soon, as I inched out of my seat toward the door. We hugged like old friends before we parted. I felt like I should have kissed her on both cheeks, but I didn’t.

“Grazie,” I said as I began to walk away, “Thank you!”

“Very much!” she called from the door, in the most coherent English she had said yet. “Ciao!”

Then she followed me again, looped her arm in mine and walked me to the crossroads, where we said goodbye once more.