All right, c’mon, now, hurry up, kids! We need to get cracking – beds made, wastebaskets emptied, fresh towels on the racks. And would someone please find a clean washcloth and set it on the edge of the tub? Your grandmother doesn’t ask for much, but that’s the one thing she insists upon when it’s time for her to take a shower.
Put her on the daybed downstairs in the home office and she never complains. Ask her to sew on a coat button or repair torn fabric and she’ll take care of it in a jiff. Mark her estimated time of arrival on your calendar in bold if you like, but you can always count on her to show up two hours earlier than you expected, with Maxine, her West Highland terrier, riding shotgun in the passenger seat.
She is a force of nature, a crackerjack cook, and we are secretly thrilled she is just now pulling into the driveway. This is Nanny, after all, and like Benito Mussolini, the infamous dictator whose Italian heritage she shares, for one blessed stretch of days, she will take charge of our discombobulated existence, impose order upon chaos, and make the trains run on time.
Unlike Il Duce, though, whose iron fist turned dark and punishing, Nanny comes to us as a benevolent dictator, ready to apply an array of
time-tested leadership and motivational skills to our bumbling, daily family routine. And she always leaves us better than she found us.
Her magic touch remains a mystery. When Nanny comes to town, bedroom floors are suddenly cleared of dirty clothes. Children are regularly showered. Dishes are promptly placed in the dishwasher. Even Sunday Mass is attended without complaint. To what can we attribute this burst of industriousness and worker-bee attitude suddenly alive in our kids?
“Nanny made us.”
Best of all, Nanny also feeds us. In the mode and manner of every great Italian-American mother who ever lived and breathed, Nanny shines as the blazing culinary sun at the center of her ever-extending family. (Immediate blood relatives are the close-in planets circling tightly around; a multitude of aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins fill the rest of her crowded solar system; grubby, random in-laws like me populate the chilly, outermost orbits.)
And food holds the entire thing together. Nanny never met a meat thermometer she didn’t like. She finds and uses kitchen appliances and serving platters I didn’t even know we owned. She always remembers to bring not one, but two loaves of that fresh-baked banana bread she knows I love so much.
As the latest in a long line of Irish dreamers, I’ve vexed Nanny to no end over the years. She can’t understand why I insist on reheating coffee I’ve lightened and sweetened to perfection. (Nanny’s morning java? Black. No sugar.) She thinks I’m making fun of her every time I toss off naughty Italian phrases I picked up ages ago from my college roommate. It’s taken me years to understand that just because the entire clan starts yelling at each other halfway through a weeklong summer beach vacation, it doesn’t mean they still don’t love each other without condition and for all time. We hapless husbands, bound now by matrimony to this Sicilian loony bin, look sadly at one another and think only of that brooding, fatalistic line from The Godfather:
“This is the life we have chosen.”
But choose we did, and married in, and mixed our blood, and tied our fates to a family that nourishes us now with more than a hundred years of great American warmth and work and luck. For if young Luigi Rizzo, venturing west on a lark at the turn of the twentieth century, had zigged instead of zagged that day in 1906, he might not have escaped the great San Francisco earthquake without a scratch. He would not have then returned East and married his Marianina, and their daughter Fay would not have fallen for the dashing and dapper Frank Palumbo, who drove the convertible with the booming flugelhorn that always turned heads on the streets of Queens, New York.
And Fay would not have had the girl who grew up to be Nanny, and clashes with union bosses would not have driven Frank, who helped plaster the Empire State Building, to move the family to Washington, DC, where he picked right up helping to build the Pentagon. Nanny would not have then met and married John Moreci at such a young and delicate age, and there would have been no budding family of their own, and no middle-school girl with the thick cat’s-eye glasses posing for a picture at the Smithsonian, arranged by her dad, with Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.
And that girl would not grow up to become the witty, practical, raven-haired beauty who would one day, having locked herself out of her apartment on a cold, rainy night, knock by chance on the door of an Irish dreamer and ask to use the phone to call a locksmith. We would not have then gone on to bring a daughter and son into the world for Nanny to entice with her famous family spaghetti sauce that always begins with the irresistible smell of fried garlic filling the house. Without it – all of it – there would no them, no here and now, no this. There would be no me.
Her hip is hurting her these days, and she and Maxine now both have trouble climbing the stairs. But Nanny doesn’t want your prayers or pity, and when it comes time to leave – as abruptly as she arrived – she insists on carrying her own bags to the car.
For us, it’s enough to be blessed with a refrigerator filled with real, home-cooked food for a change and the knowledge that before we know it, the time will come again for us to prick up our ears, rush to wash and fold the laundry, and get new sheets on the daybed when those rails start to rumble.
Because that’s the sound of a train coming. And even if it gets here two hours early, believe me, it’s always right on time.