APEX Insight: It’s one thing to receive a wet kiss on the cheek or pinch of the thighs from your grandmother, but when it’s somebody else’s, it’s a little different.
The nonna was curled into my airline seat, a shawl drawn over her bun. I opened with a smile and waved my ticket stub. “You’re in my spot. Would you please move over?”
Nodding enthusiastically, eyes bright, the grandmother clasped my hands and squeezed them. But she did not budge. Nonna remained as immobile as the vast, ancient marble monuments of nearby Rome.
I worked my charm. Despite my clear, conversational Italian, she was having none of it – nor would her family intervene. They had strung across an entire row, stranding their most senior member on the Boeing 747 equivalent of an ice floe. Each remained alert to the debate, and yet beyond it: 50-yard stares fixed on their SkyMall catalogs.
I glanced down at our entwined fingers, hers knobbed and gnarled like my maternal grandmother’s.
“She’s in my seat!” I protested. I’m not sure why. No foreigner wins that conversation in the Eternal City until he or she is fully gray-haired. It requires mature gravitas, blended with fire-forged resolve and a hint of “I will sit in your lap” volatility. I was a 27-year-old American expat flying home for Christmas. I never stood a chance.
The nonna’s family peaked and dropped their shoulders in classic Mediterranean shrugs, telegraphing, “I don’t care. No rational person would trifle with such a thing. Now stop disrupting this difficult decision between an automatic cereal dispenser and a solar-powered cooling hat.”
Even Egyptian demigods couldn’t withstand that most dismissive of Latin gestures. I’m pretty sure that’s how Julius Caesar ran Ptolemy XIII out of Alexandria, earning Cleopatra the throne. The history books may put up smoke screens about epic battles, but he probably just sailed over there and shrugged the pharaoh into submission.
I pivoted back to Nonna. “Fine, fine,” I crumbled. “Stay comfortable. But you’ll be served my vegetarian meal. Please make sure to pass it over.”
She took this as a sign I was hungry and began hand-feeding me foil-wrapped morsels. The pillowy focaccia layered with a sharp cheese was a revelation, but I had to wrestle the bresaola from my lips.
“I’m vegetarian! I don’t eat meat!” I reminded her, batting the air-dried, salted beef away.
“Mangia,” (eat) she crooned, smoothing my hair.
I escalated from “no thank you” to “My body doesn’t have the right digestive enzymes anymore. It would make me sick!”
“Eat… eat.” Her voice was dangerously hypnotic. “You’re too thin to make good babies.”
“That’s not a first-world thing now,” I protested. “Also, I don’t want kids yet.”
As a child of the Pacific Northwest, I have a certain physical reserve and a large bubble of personal space, both of which had to be gate-checked when I moved to the more demonstrative Mediterranean region. I learned the choreography of welcome kisses – mwah, mwah, MWAH! I’d grown accustomed to the riotous tangle of limbs on urban buses and the slickness of other passengers’ sweat during the steamy summer months. And I’d resigned myself to being petted and prodded by well-intentioned grannies who considered it a kindness to pinch my thighs and announce, “This skirt is too short. You look like a streetwalker!”
Why, thank you! That’s exactly the conversation I wanted to have with a stranger in public, especially as a pale, hulking outsider.
But Nonna was headed to the next level. Every time we hit turbulence, she woke me up and held my hand. Then she’d initiate her two conversations: “Do you love the Pope?” and “Why don’t you have babies?”
“He seems like a nice man,” I’d say. And then, “We’re not ready. We’re moving around Europe a lot for my husband’s job right now.”
“I can’t believe he lets you travel alone,” Nonna tsked. “But enough about that! Tell me, how much do you love the Pope?”
She was adrift, I realized. Time was skating past her, then looping around in great coils and squeezing her breathless. I glanced down at our entwined fingers, hers knobbed and gnarled like my maternal grandmother’s.
I could hang on a little longer.
When dinner arrived, Nonna spilled wine on my jacket, then blasted it with perfume before I could croak out “I’m allergic!” She went to the bathroom, 30-odd rows back, then returned with a proud smile. “Lovely scent,” she informed me. “I could smell your coat at the end of the plane.”
Yes. Yes, you can. Everyone on board can, from the pilots right back to – achoo! – me.
But she was already back on script, caught in the endless thorn hedge of Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. “Do you love the Pope? He wants you to be blessed with babies. Why don’t you have any?”
After 10 long hours, we finally landed in Chicago. Snow stranded us on the runway. Passengers got frustrated and made a break for it, popping an emergency door. I held Nonna’s hand so she wouldn’t wander into the chaos.
We finally hugged and cheek-pecked goodbye. “Goodbye! Merry Christmas!” And then I was free… until she swooped down in baggage claim, clutching me. Exhausted, I dropped my carry-on and started crying. Her extended family bustled over and detached Granny. Their faces showed guilt, but also a sneaking relief.
At 27, I couldn’t begin to understand the gift I’d unwittingly bestowed on these people. Fourteen years later – after caregiving for two dying relatives, who both slipped into delirium at times – it’s all so clear.
I’ve now lived that family’s 50-yard stare. I’ve sleepwalked through airports with the salt-sting of dried tears on my face. I’ve stood in a supermarket, as motionless as a Michelangelo statue, while an overstocked display of Yukon Gold potatoes rained around my body and a kind shopper raced over, saying, “Oh honey, I’ve had those days, too. Let me help!”
In the heart of the hardest times, I would have given anything for 10 whole hours, undisturbed and unworried, like Nonna’s family on that Rome flight.
I often think of Nonna and her family, worn thin by compassion fatigue, when I fly. Sometimes – despite my tepidness about the Pope – it even inspires me to be kinder, more patient.
“I can’t believe you let that scared teenager sleep on your shoulder from LA to Brisbane,” my colleagues say. Or, “Why didn’t you call the sky marshal when that French psycho punched your seat because you reclined?”
And I always know how to respond.
Like Caesar, I just shrug.
“Somebody’s Nonna” was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.