Living here in Terracina – where my parents came every summer in their adolescence – I run into a lot of people who knew them way back when. I have to take their word for it, but they insist it’s true: We knew your parents back in the 70s before they went to America. Well, I guess we knew them just by sight; they were a few years older than us. But we remember them! And you – you’re a miniature Isa! Except you have the coloring of your father. But the expressions, the face, it’s all your mother. Except you’re really little and she was more robust. But, yes, you’re all your mother.
I go home and fire up the Skype: Hi, mom. I ran into Mimmo today on the boardwalk. He says hello.
My mother says: Who the hell is that?
Well, all right. It’s been forty years since my parents last saw these people; heck, I’ve already forgotten a good number of folks in my graduating class. But still, these brown-baked middle-aged Italians come to me: You; you’re Isa’s daughter. I remember your grandparents. And my ears perk up: You knew my grandparents? Yes, yes, Suter and Nella Moscatelli. And then we also knew the grandmother of your father. Lucia, the Roman. Then they pause. They smile. Oh, that woman.
This reaction to the memory of my tremendous, bawdy, and opinionated Roman great-grandmother thrills me. Every story I’ve heard about her from my father or other family members ends the same way – with a shake of the head and a sigh. Mamma mia. What a woman. To find strangers who also stifle laughter only supports the myth – the legend – that was Lucia.
I met Lucia once, or maybe twice, when I was a child. The time I remember, we were visiting my mother’s family in Rome. Lucia smelled of bleach and had whiskers. She hurled a bucket of water onto a group of boys playing soccer in the cortile outside her apartment, then laugh merrily to herself as they screamed in outrage. She died when I was eleven, ending any chance I had of experiencing her true magic. But the stories live on, my friends. The stories live on.
My hands-down favorite Nonna Lucia story:
Nonna Lucia and the Oil
When Roberto, my father, was attending university in Rome, he lived with his Nonna Lucia. It was hardly the ideal arrangement for a young man poised to explore a gorgeous new city and culture. He had met the woman once before many years ago at his baptism – itself a fiasco, and a story for another time. Now he was sharing an apartment with this foreign grandmother and her boyfriend, Nino.
Roberto had believed that Nino was his blood grandfather until Lucia brusquely dispelled the notion: Him? No. I left your real grandfather forty years ago. Ha! She was similarly dismissive of Roberto’s father, Fernando: That son of a bitch. He took my little girl away to some savage country where people eat off the floor. At times like these, Roberto would say: Maybe I’ll find an apartment in the city with my classmates. And Nonna Lucia would cry: Ah, dio. No, no, no. Your mother. What will I do? So Roberto would stay. At least he was fed marvelously well.
Roberto had a friend from Ecuador named Martina. Martina was on scholarship and as such, had a monthly allowance. Each month, she spent it almost immediately and starved, urchin-like, for the last couple of weeks. She would call her friends, begging for mercy. Once, she called my father: Roberto, Roberto, I’m so hungry. Won’t you invite me over to your grandmother’s apartment for dinner? Please? I’m so hungry. I see spots.
Nonna Lucia didn’t care for any of my father’s female friends. Each time they called him on the phone, she complained: It’s another whore calling for you. And if it were a whore from Latin America, so much the worse.
Nonna Lucia wasn’t impressed by whores, but she was impressed by money. Roberto knew this, so he said: Listen, Nonna. Martina is from one of the richest families in Ecuador.
Ah, si? Very interesting. What does her family have?
Oil, said Roberto. Her family has oil.
Well, well, said Nonna Lucia. Maybe she can come over then. Sure. All right. Invite her. Yes, invite the whore.
Nonna Lucia prepared a great feast for the Ecuadorian heiress. Eggs in a well of flour – kneaded roughly, then rolled flat and sliced to make ribbons of delicate fettuccine. A sumptuous ragù bubbling on the stove. A salad of crisp mixed greens. Roasted potatoes – crispy at the edges, mealy on the inside. And, finally, a succulent joint of lamb. The apartment was a steam bath of rosemary, garlic, and roasting meat. Nothing was too good for an heiress.
Martina arrived, her cheeks hollow and her eyes wild with hunger. Her sock winked through a tragic hole at the tip of her shoe. Nonna Lucia’s eyebrow lifted, but she welcomed the girl to her table.
We’re glad to have you over for dinner, she said.
Mmmmf, said Martina, her mouth full of salad. This is delicious.
Roberto tells me your family does great business in Ecuador, said Nonna Lucia.
Pass the potatoes, please, said Martina. And may I have some more lamb?
Nonna Lucia refilled Martina’s plate, only to find it empty scant minutes later. More fettuccine, please. A little bit more, please. Could I also have some more ragù? She watched the girl inhale mouthful after mouthful. She watched Roberto’s guilty face.
Finally, she spoke.
Aou, Roberto, she said. You’ve been f*cking with me. The only oil this girl has is between her legs.
Oh, Nonna Lucia. Mamma mia, che donna.