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Italian Nonnas Know What You Did But Love You Anyway

A loving tribute.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discusses Italian grandmothers.
The collective noun for Italian nonnas is grumble, as in, "Oh, look, there's a grumble of nonnas."

I have a handful of strange obsessions—the Bob’s Big Boy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pugs—but when it comes to Italian nonnas, I’m utterly besotted.

American grandmas don’t do it for me. They all look twenty years younger than their ages, for starters. They get Botox and do Yoga and swipe right on Silver Singles. That’s not the kind of nonna I’m talking about.

I like my nonnas like I like my pugs: wrinkly. Preferably in a patterned housecoat, lightweight summer cardigan, and sensible, square-heeled shoes. Optional support hose rolled to the knee. Rosary in a pocket or dangling from one hand.

My absolute favorite nonna is one that glares down at you from her flower-potted balcony. She knows what you’re up to. Italian neighborhoods don’t need security cameras because they have Surveillance Nonnas, and trust me, Surveillance Nonna’s got your number.

Your standard-issue Italian nonna is equally at home in church or the kitchen. She prays for you, and for all the right reasons: your incurably casual church attendance, your tattoos, your indecent language. She wants you to get married, but how is that going to happen when you won’t settle down? Come Sunday dinner, though, which is not to be missed for any reason short of death, she’s standing over your shoulder with a third ladleful of pasta, telling you to eat because you’re too skinny.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discussing nonnas.
A starter pack of nonnas.

Food is love to an Italian nonna. And when you sink your teeth into her creamy risotto, and your eyelashes flutter and a long sigh escapes you, it might just be love you’re tasting.

My grandmother and great-grandmother weren’t like that. At all. They’ve both gone to their heavenly reward, but my great-grandmother lived in China, had a penchant for younger men in uniform, and got thrown in jail one night for public intoxication. Her daughter, my grandmother, refused to post bail until she got on her knees in the middle of the cell and prayed for forgiveness. This is the same woman that at age seventy-two, called my mother asking where to buy condoms. So … not the same.

It’s probably why I’m so smitten with Italian nonnas. They’re a lot cuter than my bog-trotting, lace-curtain Irish family of drunks, poets, and misfits.

Nonnas congregate on benches in the late afternoon to gossip. They don’t sleep anymore anyway, so they get up at the crack of dawn to shop—by 9:00AM, the best mozzarellas are always gone. They like their stories on the television, probably voted for Silvio Berlusconi, and absolutely do not own smartphones. You can barely get them to answer a landline.

The further forward progress marches, the more regressive an Italian nonna becomes. For her, the future doesn’t exist. It’s always going to be today, there will always be an osso buco in the oven, and even though she likes to remind you that she’s old as dirt and won’t be around forever, secretly, she knows she will.

They come in several categories, nonnas do. You’ve got your fashion nonnas, sporty nonnas, kitchen nonnas, and church nonnas. Sometimes, these varieties of nonna intersect. For instance, a kitchen nonna, come five o’clock, can transform into a church nonna. A sporty nonna might show a deft hand at making polenta. But at the end of the day, they’re all nonnas, and they want you to know how much they worry about you as a not-to-subtle rebuke to how you’re conducting your life.

A nonna keeps absolutely everything, and everything that’s kept is spotlessly clean. She’d vacuum the cat if it let her. She’s a staunch believer in colpo d’aria, or “cut of the air,” a wholly unscientific theorem wherein cold or warm air blowing directly upon you, from an open window, say, or a fan, will cause all manner of illnesses, some of them dire.

Leaving the house with wet hair? You’re as good as dead.

Do I wish I had an Italian nonna? You bet I do. She’d clip wholly irrelevant articles out of the newspaper, articles I have no interest in, and press them upon me as I headed for the door. She’d feed me constantly, which is great, because I’m not very good at feeding myself. She’d gaze at me with kind, patient eyes as I blathered on about things she doesn’t understand and aren’t really important anyway, just because she loves me.

Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino discusses life in Italy.
Surveillance nonnas.

But here’s the deal.

Italian nonnas know the secret to life.

It’s not our achievements that make us happy. Those are laurels we can never comfortably rest on. It’s family, however we define that. It’s love. It’s Sunday dinner. Our acres of diamonds are always right beneath our feet, if we have the wisdom to see them gleaming there. Yet, all too often, we are looking the other way.

That’s why I have an imaginary Italian nonna in my head, showering me with love and lasagna. I let her guide me through life’s stickier moments. I let her remind me that failure is part of the Divine Comedy we call existence. And when she shakes her head at me, clucking in disapproval, I dial it way back.

Nonna knows.

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