A Writing on the Net TM
Click here for home page

 Nani's Eulogy

By Bill Costanzo
Copyright 2000 Bill Costanzo

 A eulogy about Bill's grandmother.

There’s something special about the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Maybe it’s the lack of day-to-day responsibilities that leave you free to feel the flesh and blood connection that binds you to each other. Grandparents are not the ones who have to change your diapers or scold you when you’re caught with your hand in the Brioschi jar. I guess I’ve always felt that special bond with Leonarda Maraventano, better known as Nani. But I felt it differently as a child than I have as an adult.

My earliest memories are of her room at Homercrest Avenue in Brooklyn where I spent my preschool years. She would be sitting in that rocking chair near the window that opened onto Uncle Tony’s garden of grape vines, knitting her famous pot holders, and would welcome me with outstretched arms. She called me Billy Boy, a name that has stuck for a lifetime. Her needles set aside, she would create wonderful toys from old newspapers and bits of string. We spent hours making paper boats or playing cat’s cradle, the twisted string passing from her wise old fingers to my little ones and back again, to my endless fascination. She loved to sing, often in Italian, and I loved the music in her voice. My favorite song was "O bambino, mio divino," which she liked to sing at Christmas time. One day, I thought, I would learn that language so I could sing along with her. Sometimes she would just sing nonsense words, like the little ditty she made up from the name I used to call her, "Nani di luce nice." It became my private lullaby.

A few years ago, driving back from a canoeing trip in Smithtown with Marlene, we passed a sign for Amityville on the LIE. "That’s where Nani is," I pointed out. "Some day I’d like to visit her." Marlene was driving, and she pulled off the road. Why some day? Why not today? A few hours later, we arrived with Uncle Julius at the nursing home. She was sleeping when we entered the room. Gently, Julius roused her, called her name, and adjusted the hearing aid. She looked up from some unfathomable depth while I took her frail fingers in my hand and leaned close to her blue eyes. There was a puzzled look, a long searching silence, and suddenly she spoke out loud, "Billy Boy, My Billy Boy." Her eyes were sparkling, and she began to talk excitedly. "God sent you to me," she said. "Sono molto felice." I found myself telling her what I’ve always felt: how important she was in my life, how much those early moments together meant to me growing up. I recalled the paper boats, the games with string, the words she taught me in Italian: pane, latte, scarpe. I told her how I studied Italian in college so I could speak to her, as we were speaking now, in language of Dante and Da Vinci. She laughed and continued the lesson, pointing to my eyes, my nose, my chin, making me to repeat the words in Italian. Occhi, nase. When I asked her if she remembered the songs she used to sing, she stopped abruptly and sank into thought. It was such a long pause that I thought she had returned to sleep. But she was thinking, remembering, and soon she was back with the melody and the words to "O sole mio." She sang every word, taking deep breaths, delighting in my delight. She smiled and then began to sing "O bambino" in that wonderful little voice of hers. Then, together, we sang "Nani di luce nice." I looked again into her eyes, and it seemed that I could see so deep, so immeasurably deep. I was seeing something I had never seen before. In that look, in the space created between us, she had reduced everything that mattered into something very simple and tangible. I felt my mother in that room, my dad, my Aunt Rose and Aunt Lucy, my Uncle Auglie and Uncle Wiggley, my sisters and brother, my children, and my gandchildren, all united in that look of love.

That’s the lesson, her great contribution. Maybe Nani knew it all along. Maybe she learned it, or remembered it, during those long nights in the nursing home. In that moment, though, it was clear to me she had sifted through more than a hundred years of life experience, distilled out the most essential element, and given it to me. I will always treasure that precious gift.