When Nonna Venere visited, she arrived by train like in a movie, stepping down from the first-class compartment enveloped by smoke, wearing a cloche with a veil. She had four large suitcases and no gifts. Each time she came, I felt an excitement tinged with fear, as while she was staying with us, I was forbidden to do certain things I enjoyed, like blowing bubbles in my glass of milk through the hole of a dry bucatini spaghetti. Nonna Venere’s lips twitched with secret slights and opinions. I followed her around the house like a puppy in the hopes that she would tell me one of her war stories, which later kept me up at night.
At the beginning of World War II, the rise of fascism had compelled her husband, Nonno Peppino, to flee Italy. Like many men who had to leave because of their political views, he thought it unwise to take the family along, with so many uncertainties. Nonna Venere packed his small suitcase, hiding a love poem in the sleeve of a sweater. He reached Ellis Island by boat at night in a group of refugees. Nonna Venere was left behind in Naples with three daughters and a son. After the fall of fascism in Italy, the son was captured at the front by the Germans and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he barely survived. The women lived through air raids, streets controlled by armed thugs, negotiating for food on the black market, and the terror of German night searches. Nonna had a fistful of war stories she told according to her mood. She would grab my hand tight and lean in close, her big black eyes bloodshot. I held on to her as if for dear life. Together we survived a maelstrom of bleeding bodies, enveloped by a gray smoke from bombs.
When Nonno Peppino returned after the war, he was different, and so was she. The war had been too hard, too long. They fought all the time.
It was a scandal when she resolved to separate. Divorce did not exist in Italy at the time, being equally forbidden by church and state, but she packed up and left. She went to live with one daughter and then another. She cooked all day in their kitchens, the radio up loud so there could be no conversation.
In our small town of Este, near Venice, I biked everywhere, but when Nonna Venere came to stay with us, I had to stop. She thought that biking was inappropriate for girls: it allowed men to peek under their skirts. It seemed funny to me that they would do something so silly. A bit exciting, too.
“Watch out for this one: he’s the worst — the deceptive kind,” she pronounced about Tonino, the delivery boy who left the groceries at our doorstep after ringing the doorbell. He was shy and frail, but her mistrust made him seem dangerous and wild, like everything else she spoke of.
One time, on a Sunday, she got dressed up to go to Mass with us — fox-fur shawl, heels, and a long gray coat — but then decided she could not face the shame; she had chosen to live in sin against the mandates of the Church. She abruptly flung off her coat and stayed home. I cried. I would have been so proud to wear gloves like hers to church and hold hands with such a dramatic beauty. My mother reassured Nonna Venere that nobody would know or care about her situation, certainly not Don Alberto, the priest, who was known for favoring the sports pages over the Scriptures. But Nonna Venere knew, and God knew. End of conversation. She would have a private talk with Him once she reached the great beyond.
That night, after dinner, I secretly married the salt and pepper shakers. I was stern. I made sure the salt and pepper fully grasped that no divorce was allowed.
Nonna Venere did not like coming to our small town. Este was a long distance from Naples, with many train transfers along the route. It did not have the comforts and allure of the big city. No one in my mother’s family wanted to visit us. In our hallway sat a dark phone on a small table. We received only brief calls at Christmas from the family in Naples. Shrill voices came through the receiver, then hid there the rest of the year.
One winter my mother became ill, and then very ill. I watched her feel for the furniture when walking around the house. As the years passed, her body slowly deteriorated until she was unable to get out of bed in between doctors’ visits and hospital stays. Nonna Venere forbade anyone to mention to her that my mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She stopped coming to visit and making calls. I felt ashamed of my mother’s sickness.
In my backyard I built a small castle out of mud and chose which ants would live in it. I liked the way they tickled when caught between my thumb and index finger. I watched them scurry over the walls. I had a twig to save them if they fell in the moat. I was God, making decisions.
When my mother died, Nonna Venere refused to be told the news. She did not visit or call. Her silence was as final as death. I played music alone in my room, so loud I could not hear myself think.
Among my mother’s siblings there was whispered animosity toward my father, who, driven by blind ambition, had taken a delicate and sensitive woman far from her family to a small town with terrible winters and nothing to offer. They said he had sealed her fate. When I got wind of this, I became despondent. I wore sunglasses in the house, spoke in monosyllables, and secretly moved my father’s stuff around. I put my mother’s favorite music on when he returned from work. He did not notice; he was too overworked and exhausted.
A couple of years later my mother’s younger sister, Zia Elda, invited me to Naples for Easter. I had kept up a vague correspondence with her daughter Anna about having crushes on boys I mostly made up. The invitation was surprising, but even more so was that my father said yes. He might have thought I needed a change, or perhaps he did.
Nonna Venere’s son and daughters had chipped in to get her an apartment in Naples, where she would live independently but still be close to them. As soon as I arrived, Zia Elda warned me not to try to see Nonna Venere while I was there. My mother and I were identical, like “due gocce d’acqua” — two drops of water — and if I appeared in front of Nonna Venere, God knows what she would do. She might even have a heart attack, as she threatened whenever anyone contradicted her.
I learned that Nonna Venere was seeing a doctor so often that he ended up prescribing placebos for her imaginary ills by phone. I was outraged by this deceit. I’d show them. I’d find a way to tell Nonna Venere the truth. She would eat them alive.
I slept in a small, immaculate room with my cousin: no books under the bed, no clothes on the floor. She had never heard Nonna Venere’s war stories and drifted off when I offered to tell her one. Sometimes we stayed up at night chatting while the sounds of Naples floated around us like an adult party happening out of sight. We peeked out the window in our pajamas. I tried to see the city through the eyes of my mother, who had loved it so much. The house would have been full of sleeping young women at this hour, huddled together against the cold. Nonna Venere told me that one night the German soldiers, hurrying to get out of town before the Allies arrived, piled up their blankets and set them on fire. Nonna Venere and the other women, and even the children, fought with the soldiers, reaching to take the blankets before they were torched. They were kicked back and beaten with the butts of guns. They fought harder, screamed louder.
I did not want to give up so easily on my plan to get in touch with Nonna Venere. Expect a miracle, my mother had once written on a scrap of paper. I thought she would be less dead somehow if Nonna Venere and I reconnected. War and grief never won in her stories. She did. I wanted that victory again.
One night a plan came to me. I asked my cousin if she ever talked on the phone with Nonna Venere. She did. Nonna Venere was getting confused, she said, but she was still a pain in the ass.
“Listen to my idea. It’ll be fun,” I said breezily: my cousin would call Nonna Venere as usual; then she’d hand me the phone, and I’d pretend to be her.
“What?” my cousin said.
I begged. It was my one chance to hear Nonna Venere’s voice. “Will you do this?” I asked Anna. “Yes or no?”
“Yes.” Her eyes were wide, as if she were marveling at herself.
In the morning we waited until my aunt had gone shopping, as usual, listening for her steps to fade on her way to the elevator. Then I gave a nod to my cousin, and she dialed the number. I was just starting to think it was a terrible idea when Anna put the receiver in my hand.
“So?” Nonna Venere asked. “Pronto? Pronto?” clearly distressed at hearing only breathing on the other end. She believed that sex maniacs called in the morning, when women were home alone.
I hastened to tell her I was my cousin, altering my voice to match Anna’s higher pitch. Nonna Venere said I sounded different. I smiled: no fool she. I told her I had a slight cold and had slept poorly. She demanded I see a doctor immediately for my throat. She sounded different, too. Her voice had a tremor like water trickling. I was stunned: Nonna Venere was an old lady. She complained at length about the strict sequence of medications she had to follow and described her symptoms in detail. She repeated herself. Sometimes her words took an unexpected tangent, as if blown from their path by a strong wind. There was no story to hold it all together. I did not think of telling her that she was taking placebos. There did not seem any rage left in her.
“Stammi bene” — be well — she said, ending the call abruptly. It’s what she had said at the train station each time she’d left. No kissing or hugging. Only fools linger, she used to warn me, knowing I had a taste for it. She hung up.
“So?” my cousin said. “What did she say?”
I stared at the cast-iron angel over the phone table. “Oh, this and that.”
The exchange had been stripped bare by my desire for something else. I had wanted the real Nonna Venere, whose stories seemed to say, I’m still here to tell it, you bastards; who smelled of fresh fruit when leaning in to tell me a story, her strong hands holding mine. Her voice would not let go of me.
That night I slept badly. A dog barked somewhere as if to keep me company. Nonna Venere had once told me a story of a nighttime civilian march out of the city during an attack. The worst was not the threat of bombs but the risk of falling behind and remaining alone. She said solitude made people do crazy things. This had made a strong impression on me.
She described the line of people snaking through hills swallowed by the dark: Nonna Venere listened for the creaking steps of the people ahead of her and kept up. When she turned to look back, she saw smoke from burning buildings. She did not fall behind. She had heard of a young man who’d hanged himself after losing track of his group. She had heard of a woman who’d sat down to take a short break and never gotten up. Nonna Venere kept up. She did not want to be shot like an animal and be given a hasty wartime burial. When she died, many years in the future, her daughters would summon all her friends to cry her name at her funeral, as it had been for her mother and father before her. They’d bring chrysanthemums to her grave to comfort her spirit. She would not have this nonsense of dying at the side of a road. Nonna Venere made it up the hills with the others.
At the end of the story, she covered my palm with her hand. Breathless, I closed my fingers, holding her tight.
Despondent, I ate little of the Easter feast. I was supposed to leave the next day. When I went for a last stroll with my cousin, an idea came to me. She was wearing a long, hooded cape that covered her up to her nose — the height of fashion at the time. This mantle was like a disguise. Friends she greeted were perplexed for a moment, not recognizing her. My cousin had a lot of fun with this. “Hey, Gianni!” she called out to a tall boy with glasses. “It wouldn’t kill you to smile at me!” When he turned his head in astonishment, she lowered the hood with a grin.
I resolved then and there to put on my cousin’s cape and go to Nonna Venere’s house and wait till she peeked out the window. That would be it, I promised Anna. Cross my heart. I just wanted to see her again for a moment.
“Oh, Jesus,” Anna said, but I could see she was excited.
We swiftly exchanged cape and coat, and I followed her to Nonna Venere’s. Anna was in a bubbly, chatty mood. We arrived at a pale-yellow apartment building with balconies so small they seemed an afterthought. One had a planter with struggling geraniums. It wasn’t the home I had pictured for Nonna Venere.
We stood across the street. My cousin wanted to call out, but I said no. I preferred to wait. I told her I was too agitated, which was the truth. I could not decide myself what I wanted, much less explain it. When my mother had been near death, she had felt my hair and face, whispering for her mother.
“Eccola” — here she is — my cousin said at last. I dug my nails into my palms.
An old lady shuffled onto the balcony with the flowerpots, holding a watering can. She was dressed in a casual sweater. Nothing fancy. Her hair was gathered in a low bun, just as I remembered, but it was white, and her features were thin, as if sketched fast in pencil. It was her, Nonna Venere. And it wasn’t.
She noticed us, two young girls standing side by side like guards at the Vatican. She thrust her chin up and squinted. Was she aware it was me standing there?
“Nonna! It’s Anna!” my cousin said. “Need anything? I just came by to check.”
Recognize me, I thought. Rage, tear your hair out, have a heart attack. Here I am. You are so stubborn, an ox, she used to rail at me. It will be your ruin. No, yours, I thought now.
“I need nothing,” Nonna Venere said. “Who is with you?”
Her eyes were on me. There was a trembling around her mouth that made me hold my breath. For a fraction of a second I thought she would recognize me.
She would whisper my nickname, Piccirilla, as she used to at the end of a story. Nonnare’, I would say back. It was her and me, through it all.
“It’s a friend,” said Anna. “If you don’t need anything, we’re going.” I was relieved when she said that. I was starting to feel guilty for fooling Nonna Venere like this.
“I need nothing,” Nonna Venere said, grim solitude in her expression. She watered the geraniums, just a trembling sprinkle, then glanced at the clouds gathering in the sky. “Stammi bene,” she said before she went back inside.
When it was time for me to board the train home, I stopped for a moment on the first step of my train car. A light rain started to fall, but still I hesitated. I lingered.
For years my bedsheets smelled to me of Nonna Venere’s beloved Marseille soap. Now and then I wore the reading glasses she had once left behind on a visit. I let them sit low on my nose and peered over them, as she did, sparrow-like.
Many years later, in Milan, a friend and I made a narrow escape from a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. The police had dispersed the crowd violently. We sat on a park bench at Porta Venezia to calm down and smoke a cigarette. When the sound of police sirens tore at the sky, we looked up in unison, clutching each other’s hands. Suddenly Nonna Venere’s story of the nighttime march and the fear of being alone came out of me, clear and raw, as if no time had passed. I could hear the scratch of her voice in mine.