“When I came to America, I had nothing. I had no education because where I grew up, girls only went to elementary school. I had no factory experience, I grew up and worked on my parents’ farm, and I only learned to cook, clean and work in the fields. When I came to this country, everything was different; there were so many people, always busy, always moving around. Everything was expensive and the only job I could get was working in a clothing factory. But I was a quick learner. I was determined and worked hard to learn how to use that sewing machine because we were paid by piecework. I worked harder than anyone else in that factory, and the boss would let me do extra during my lunch period so I could earn more money. I had to, I had to help my husband pay the bills and feed my children. You have to remember to work hard too, to always keep a’go, because if you don’t, you die.”
That was the story my great-grandmother, who I call Nonna, used to tell me whenever I saw her. I didn’t hear this story just one time, or even ten times – I heard it over and over because she couldn’t remember that she had told me before. But that was fine with me. I listened to her story every time like it was the first time, because I didn’t know when it was going to be the last. She suffered from Alzheimer’s, the brain cell degenerating, devastating disease.
She was our family matriarch. She brought everyone together for grandiose homemade Italian meals full of tradition and love. In the summertime, you could always find her in the backyard in her giant garden with my Nonno, picking tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, or zucchini. When the string beans were ready, she would sit on her porch, talking to neighbors as she nipped the tips of the beans. She never had a recipe or measuring cup – everything was by eye and touch – and when she cooked pasta, a jar of pasta water would stand tall on the counter because “it fixes everything.” She loved cooking and baking, but even more than that, she loved seeing the smiles on all our faces when we ate.
In late August, we all gathered in the annual tomato jarring festivities. This was a week-long process that gathered the entire family and neighborhood. We picked up bushels upon bushels of tomatoes, enough to feed 10 families for the year. Younger kids were in charge of cleaning the tomatoes, the basil, and the jars. My Nonno was always in charge of the stewing of the tomatoes. The women of the family would sit together in a circle, cutting tomatoes and telling stories of the old days. The whole process was long, messy, and tiring – and I loved it.
She was a woman filled with life, but Alzheimer’s ripped her apart piece-by-piece, crumbling those traditions and devastating the family.
The story of how she came to America stuck in her mind even after she started to forget. It was important for her to tell us to work hard and keep going – just like how she wasn’t letting life’s obstacles stop her, we shouldn’t refrain from pushing forward and achieving our dreams, no matter what life throws at us. But things began to get worse and worse. She forgot my name and the names of her daughters. She forgot how to boil water, to play cards, her recipes, and, the worst, her mobility. One day, while following my Nonno out the front door, my Nonna forgot how to walk downstairs and fell headfirst to the ground. She was rushed to the hospital, where she would spend the remainder of her life. The impact made the Alzheimer’s worse – she couldn’t move or eat, and she could no longer remember how to speak English, if she could even speak at all. Still, when I would go to visit her, with the little bit of strength she had left, she would reach out for my hand and whisper in the slightest voice, “Keep a’go.”
Did she know it was me she was talking to? I’ll never know. But I do know that she wants her family to keep going, be fighters and not let this or any obstacle slow us down. I will always remember my Nonna as the strongest fighter and the most compassionate soul that I have ever known.