Lingering Gratitude: Nonna’s Young Lover and Your Memoir

Begin a memoir by writing just one memory at a time.

Posted Apr 07, 2016

Our great uncle was convinced that if he located the padre’s mistress, a nonna would have a church burial in the old country. It seems that a nonna, at 104, died in the arms of her young love; he was 85.  It was not until a photograph surfaced of our great uncle that Serendipity challenged me to begin compiling and writing Italian family memories.  

For some people it is a song, a painting, a gentle breeze, the sound of laughter, or a bit of gossip that, in some inexplicable way, compels them to begin writing. For me, it was the Esposito family album compiled for my parents when their own minds were being hijacked by the memory thief.

So often people ask me, “How do you write a memoir?”  My answer is always the same -- one memory at a time. The minute you say to yourself, “I want to remember this,” at that moment you should put pen to paper, so to speak, and begin.

For too long people knew they had stories to tell, but not having specific dates and times inhibited them.  It was in 1991 that Lee Gutkind founded “Creative Nonfiction.”  Since then this narrative art form, this genre, has blossomed and given permission to many people to write their stories.

Here is my story of sweet love and a philandering great uncle who brought peace to the family.  Is there anything here that triggers a family memory for you?  An eccentric relative? A secret, perhaps? 

Great Grandma Had a Young Lover

In my great nonna’s day, when the 90-year-old widow was seen on the arm of a younger man, the padre warned that she could be denied a church burial. Our older relatives were outraged since priests in Italy were long rumored to have their own young companions. By age 104, the health of Zia Dolce, my great nonna, began to fail. When Uncle Casanova learned of the situation, he vowed to travel to the old country “to make things right.”

Hiding at the top of the winding staircase, afforded a full view of family meetings. I can still hear Aunt Georgia ranting at Uncle:  “This is another excuse for you to go charm those village girls with your smiles and your roses. The woman who is dying is not even your blood relative." 

He countered: “Georgia, out of respect for the fathers in this family, I need to see that Zia Dolce is buried next to her husband.”

Leaning over the staircase now, I could see Grandma raising her eyes to heaven and tilting her head to one side, before saying, “It will make Papa happy to know his parents are together.”

That said, Uncle traveled to a hillside village in Campania. After heading to the church, he wrote home saying, “The priest defended the Commandments too vigorously. He has a comare, I am convinced of this. My mission begins.”

With his smile and roses he chatted with the villagers who knew Zia Dolce. Eventually, he attracted a saucy young woman who said “no” to the roses, but happily accepted his invitation for wine and dancing. What took place next is a story overheard by, once again, hiding at the crook of the winding staircase as he re-enacted his adventures for his brothers.

It seems that many drinks and passionate kisses later, Uncle dramatically rose to his feet. Then he crossed himself and cried out to the heavens: “Mamma mia. I will surely be punished for coveting the padre’s comare.”

Apparently the young woman both giggled and sighed with relief: “No. No. I’m not the one. It’s the girl from San Gregorio Magno. We call her Anna Maria de Tarantella because she leads the dance to music from the zampogna” (Italian bagpipes).

Uncle returned to the padre again asking that he visit Zia, forgive her, and honor her husband — father of their 12 children — by burying her next to Zio Pasquale in the church cemetery. The padre protested, “She has been with Antonio walking about the village for over 10 years.  And she does not believe that she and Antonio are living in sin.”

Handing him the padre a generous funeral donation, Uncle said, “If your conscience and the church forbid this,  I understand.  But perhaps then Zia can be buried in a holy place next to Anna Maria de Tarantella.”

Within the month, my great nonna’s life came to an end. The padre celebrated her funeral and led the procession to her final resting place, next to her husband, in the church cemetery. Antonio, her 80ish grief-stricken companion, was generously consoled by the village widows.

As for Uncle, he was so pleased that he brought respect to a good husband and father, that he treated himself to an extra week in the arms of the woman who helped him “to make things right.”

The Value of a Memoir

Some 14 years ago Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson at the University of Minnesota pointed out the emergence of the memoir as a distinct field of study. Researchers have pointed to the value of memoir writing as therapy for individuals. Couples who create memories to treasure oftentimes generate new bonds between themselves. For the elderly, memoir writing can be life affirming.  Memoir writing bridges past and present.

Requirements for writing a memoir are quite simple: One needs desire and a bit of time. Start with a memory for which you are grateful. Even in sadness, it is often possible to find a moment that brought healing or a smile.  Ignore the feeling that you must write the entire story at once.  Just capture an image, express gratitude, and let the memory linger. Then as you begin writing, you will see how your story simply unfolds.  

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson

  • Adjunct Professor in Writing, Department of English, Suffolk University, Boston, MA
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