No, Not. . .
My Nonna Angela Irene Giana at age 15
My Nonna, Angela Giani DeBernardi, was my saving grace. In one of my favorite family pictures of her, she’s perched on a rock - her paint brushes under her hand, one hobnail boot is crossed over the other, and ... she’s smoking a cigar. She was born into a wealthy family whose mansion rested at the base of Monte Rosa, north of Milan - the mountain that dominates Northern Italy. When I was little, she’d sometimes click her tongue and whistle a “yahoo - vuole andare - wanna go have an adventure?” I’d drop everything and run into her open arms. Fiercely independent, highly educated with art degrees from the finest schools in Florence - something that escaped most women then - she’d married my Nonno Enrico, a gardener and stable boy who worked on the estate, because his wife, her sister - my real grandmother died having their third child. It’s what sisters did then - married the widower. I’ve often thought over the many years since she’s been gone - just what was it was that my Nonno - a guy with a 4th grade education had. that roped in these two young, smart, rich women.
Of course the Giani family turned their backs on this dual “low class” union, spurring her to find a new life of freedom in America. First, she wrote the names of the countries she’d chosen in a glass bowl, and, eyes closed, she picked one: America. She’d heard about these places with a willing ear turned to gossip. Then she put these names of American states in the bowl, and picked: Connecticut. The rest came from her research at the Milano library regarding the cities in this little state. It was close to New York, and that helped her feel safer. She could escape, if necessary.
From her came my hungry desire to always find an unknown adventure which was married to great reads, a boot to the trail, and a vista that took you to it, held you close, and fixed whatever hurt.
The DeBernardi family arrived in New York, in 1914, and Nonna rented a cramped apartment on Mulberry Avenue, a busy street in what is known as “Little Italy.” She had cash hidden away inside her bra. My Great Grandfather Bernardo Giani, had tucked the wad into her hand when she was ready to board the ship for the USA. My Mother and Uncle hung onto her long dress, when the goodbye steamship horn tooted. In NY, Nonno went to work at the docks unloading shipments, and Nonna, who spoke excellent English, set up her easel in the parks near her new home and began to paint. Inquisitive people gathered; some bought her works others signed up for the art classes and Italian language classes she’d decided to teach for some extra money. Often, she’d throw her paint equipment on her back and just explore the area. A year later, the family moved to Branford because other people from Italy had told them their relatives had done same. It had a big factory in which there would be work. Time passed. Nonno became a gardener for large estates in Pine Orchard, Connecticut, and bought three acre lots on Indian Neck Avenue. He built the first of three houses: theirs - up the hill, with an attic apartment, next came ours, down the hill, and Zio Vittorio, Nonno’s brother, whom Nonno had helped emigrate, built his over the hill. He married and had five kids. My Mamma and Uncle De grew. Mamma was a self-taught accountant who was a whizz at math. She could add whole pages of figures in her head.
“You just-a like your real mamma,” said Nonna Angela. “She SO smart widda da - da - numeri.”
Life moved along. The family clump was planted and began to bloom. They made friends with other Italians who lived near. Many of the women were hikers, and often Nonna joined the clump sharing their adventures. They’d all bemoan the loss of their Italian mountain kingdoms.
Move forward now to the early 40's.
Nonna now taught art classes at Yale and brought me with her. The fancy college felt it needed something other than academia and so they picked her to teach. I sat in the back of the classroom with my own pad and pencil, and tried drawing the faces of the students or my surroundings, but it was the words, not art, which I chose that came from the sky, down my fingers onto the empty page. Words and wildness became my artist’s palette. On Branford’s good days, with a bit of sun, Nonna would motion, cock her head sideways, wink and call “andiamo,” Let’s go. Her hand held a carved walking pole that became our compass. I ran to her side and one day and she handed me another small one she’d made just for me. It was carved with twining ivy leaves from top to bottom. Nonno came to join us.
“Your Nonno Enrico - he make this just for you.” She said with a warm smile.
Nonno had drilled a hole close to the top, into which he’d attached a piece of leather to hang over my wrist and added a tiny silver bell.
“You never gonna dropa-a-da - da pole - e Puch,” he’d said smiling, ruffling my hair.
“Puch” was his name just for me which meant someone who was sucking something - at least that’s what I was told. The family would always laugh when they said this.
Off Nonna and I would go for another adventure through forests, or along the strands and hollows of the coastline that surrounded our three homes Nonno had built just for us. I happily beat my hiking pole to the good march song we both whistled. When we entered a forest, or a wilderness, it took me to it and held me close. It’s where I swelled with love for it, for my Nonna, who’d take her sketch book out of the top of her dress. She’d stop and draw a scene that might or might not end up as a picture. Later, the chosen ones would come down her arms into her hands, and the memories went onto canvas or paper, some of which ended up as large watered-down oils - two of which hang over my fireplace today. Others ended up in people’s homes all over the US.
In my mind, she and I became entwined with all things that belonged there and in my heart. I carried my own little book too, and in it I put my words that melded together into sentences and paragraphs, describing our walk. Nonna would help by supplying synonyms - parole più ricche - richer words. The outdoors, the writing down of feelings that threaded their way into stories, the love of a wilderness, and my Nonna, came to live with me and would stay forever.
Along with that love, I developed a snotty attitude towards my power to find the way through and out of anything because of my gentle wanders with her or by myself. I became unafraid of wildernesses because even today, she is always with me. I got lost plenty of times, took chances, but always managed to find my way home, because I could hear her whistling tunes and humming opera, giving a quick wink, tipping her head, showing me the right way, while jingling her hiking stick bell. Singing to myself, became my memory marching tunes. There were times I got stuck in trees, fell off rocks, slid down through crevasses. I had to be calm and “quite”, hum a bit of Puccini, a bit of Wagner - because the family always mimicked the German accent making fun of him because they didn’t like his compositions. Laughing, I’d figure a way out.
“Nonna. Quarda, I hooted one day. “QUI—ET. QUI- ET. ET-ET-ET.”
“Datsa-wadda I say - ‘quite.”
“Quite” was Nonna’s pronunciation of “qui-et.”
I just gave it up.
Life moved along and my Dad got a job in Houston, the horrible, and since Mamma was a self-taught accountant, she went to work too. I was pretty much all alone in that hot, noisy place. None of the kids in my school knew the slightest bit about opera, and they made fun of me because “I was too dark.” I missed my Nonna terribly. On Saturday mornings, I was allowed to make one long distance call to her, and mostly I cried so hard I couldn’t talk. Mamma set a timer because long distance cost a fortune. After a while, I breathed in and quit the boo-hoo, shoving everything under. I healed my broken heart and found some comfort by wandering the swampy kingdoms of the Texas bayous alone. Once I slid down a narrow slot and spent an afternoon trying to pull myself up and out, over the slick rock. I ripped the knees and butt out of my pants, but, up on top, was no worse for the wear. Except I cried, after I quit singing Pagliacci - and realized crying does not help; it just plugs up your nose and has to be wiped constantly on a sleeve. From that, I learned how to stay calm and get out of tough situations, whatever they were. Wandering became my doctor, my Nonna, my comfort. Choosing fun, scary teeters and totters down the slippery mud slides added to my pleasure. Cottonmouth Moccasins and Copperheads, bayou residents, appeared suddenly, and I developed a new set of eyes, stopped getting scared, stepping gently, trying to play the game their way by not looking at them, and being calm-a. I healed myself by wandering the few solitary and vacant spaces I could find - even rode my bike and found more, miles away from home. But Houston was never a place I ever loved ... no - not.
I graduated high school early in Houston. In those days a girl could be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher. I took a business typing class and made more errors than there were letters on the Underwood Typewriter - end of the secretary option. As a nurse’s aid, I cried with the kids and the old people who hurt and were lonely at the hospital.
“You better be a teacher,” Mamma said one day. “Crying doesn’t help sick people.”
Move ahead a lifetime to the late 50's to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My Dad had gotten a wonderful job at Sandia Corporation, an Atomic Energy company, and began designing things he couldn’t talk about. I entered UNM and began my first degree in education. I began hiking the surrounds often repeating answers to questions on the exams I thought would be asked. Often the sun would be setting behind the mountain chain, and I knew I had to do a fast and careful down pace, no tripping, to get home before dark.
I married in the early 60's and lost my first husband by 1972. Bad heart. Now a young widow, with two small little girls, my next door neighbor came over to fix my hiccupping washing machine.
“If you and the girls would like to use my cabin,” he began, follow me up there - it takes about three hours - and I’ll get you settled in. The first time I took a rock-strewn path that ended in front of a little wooden house built by the Lake Fork Stream, it was over. I got out of the car, turned a slow 360, holding my hands up to the sky, and whispered “home at last.”
Anima Cabin in Taos Ski Valley With Maisie the Guard Dog
Eventually, when I remarried, my husband bought the property. For twenty years, every summer I patched, painted, stuccoed, wallpapered and every inch of the place, inside and out, now named “Anima,” for soul. And I hiked every inch of the surrounds. I lost the same ten pounds every year.
Move ahead. Two years ago, I was hiking to Williams Lake which is about three miles up from Anima, and sits sparkling pure at the base of the highest mountains in New Mexico. I looked across the lake at the set of jagged, organ pipe red rocks and Nonna’s hand beaconed.
“Andiamo,” Let’s go.”
I crawled up a swath of flower-studded green until, almost at the top, I realized the way left was blocked by a large bolders. So, it was either scotch all the way back down, or stand and go across the Red cathedral of sharp rocks. With my first step, now committed, I began the scariest, most life threatening go of my life. Four inches of each toe stood horizontal butted up against the solid rock.
I whispered “no crying, no hiccuping - breathe - one step at a time.”
And so it went ...
“ Breathe... one step ...
Breathe ...one left hand ...
Breathe ...one right hand...
one left foot ...
one right foot ...
over and over one foot at a time ...
one left hand on green ...
one right hand on green ...
one left foot on green ...
one right foot on green ...
inch up and put all fours on green ...”
I finally stood and turned a 360, tears mixing with mountain dirt and rolling down my face.
“Free at last. Lord God Almighty - free at last,” Martin Luther came out in jagged whispers.
I breathed in the beauty of the landscape, looked down upon my route and with a jiggering stomach, I scootched down the more gentle go until I was standing on the well-worn trail back to the cabin. I turned and whispered, “Thank you my Nonna. Thank you my Mountain. Thank you for giving me more life.”
That undergoing changed me. I no longer think I’m exempt from death if I make poor choices in a wilderness. And because of that, I’m more in love with of life and the “same old.” I have gratefully adopted my mother’s mathematics persona. It has taught me to look, think, analyze and move forward with a couple of plans and ... leave a desired adventure behind IF the consequences outweigh the trip. I know that I will always live life wholly and try to do my best. No crying, no looking down. One foot, one hand ... One day at a time.
“See that rock over there,” I often whisper to myself while in the midst of a thoughtful wilderness decision or a difficult life one. “See Death? It’s sitting there on that rock - smiling and extending it’s hand. ‘Come-on sucker, ” it whispers.
“No. Not ... I answer ...
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