In December, my Italian grandmother (I had two living grandmothers at the time) fell prey to lymphoma for the third time. Due to her age of 93 years, the cancer could not be treated, and a tumor in her leg quickly snaked its way through the lower part of her body. My Nonna lived through a lot – she was born in Connecticut, but her father died when she was a baby and her mother couldn’t afford to raise her. She was sent on a ship back to Italy, where she was raised by her aunts in the house J and I visited this past fall, the house my father is now fixing up.

Nonna had a difficult childhood, but when she returned to America at age 19, she was devoted to her husband and then four children. Throughout my childhood, she lived in a nice house, enjoyed her jobs and her daily life, and was close with my aunts and uncles. Being a devout Catholic who attended mass almost every day, she disapproved of my parents refusing to baptise us and raising us agnostic. My aunts and uncles and cousins were still practicing or at least semi-practicing, and my adult cousins still today attend mass on their own. When I started bringing women I was dating in college home for family functions, it deepened a gap I felt between my Nonna and me. I understand that being raised in Italy and in a different generation, being open to homosexuality does not come easily. I also felt the rejection and judgement of her beliefs and therefore have always been closer to my maternal grandparents.

Nonna was still my grandmother, and such an important part of my upbringing. I spent every Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving with her for twenty-five years. She means a lot to my father. She’s also my link to my heritage that I hold so dear. I wish she could have seen that I was caring and intelligent, and that my devotion to our family’s Italian heritage was so strong. She did love me though, as she loved all of us grandchildren. From her I have learned hard work, family values, and loyalty.

After being diagnosed with the relapse of cancer in December, then finding out there was no treatment, Nonna clearly decided she did not want to live in such pain and emotional stress. She stayed in her home since then, surrounded by daily visitors of friends and family. Eventually hospice began staying with her as well, and in the final days she was in a hospital bed in her own bedroom, going in and out of consciousness, in severe pain despite the morphine. She even had a few moments – clairvoyance? intuition? hallucinations? – in which she saw some previously passed family members visiting her outside her window, standing in the snow. She died on Wednesday morning, February 11th, surrounded by my little sister, Giuliana, her fifteen-month-old, my father, my cousin, a hospice nurse and a social worker. She was surrounded by four generations of love and support. I hope that she found comfort in her passing, and that she died in peace and reflection more than in agony.

I returned from my other grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration in Florida the night before Nonna passed away. My father called me while I was on the LA freeway on my way to work. I called J immediately, who worked hard to get us tickets to fly back across the country to attend the funeral.

Last Friday J and I landed at JFK and took a limo service to southern Connecticut, where I changed into black maternity pants and a black cardigan in the backseat while J dozed. The limo took us directly to the calling hours at the same one that housed my Nonno’s funeral thirty years ago, one of my first memories. When we arrived my three sets of aunts and uncles, my six cousins and their spouses, my father, my sisters and many friends and family were already gathered. Nonna was sleeping in a beautiful casket flanked by arrangements of pink roses, and framed family pictures brought in by my family, of Nonna and Nonno in happy early marriage days, of my father and his siblings as children, and of the extended family portrait we took in my backyard in the early 90s, in which my sisters and I wore pink and blue flowered dresses. My little cousins, so young in the pictures, now tower over me as teenage and twenty-something young men. Giuliana and Caroline, my cousin’s toddler, ran around the funeral home’s lounge, surrounded by wooden toys and healthy snacks provided by their moms. Despite the incredibly sad situation, it brought my family together, nobody missing, and I felt surrounded by the sounds of the babies, my cousins catching up with each other, family expressing their love for Nonna; tears of grief but the warmth of family.

After four hours at the wake we made our way to an Italian restaurant in Old Greenwich, where everyone (except for me of course) quickly ordered cocktails and wine and devoured plates of antipasto, homemade pasta, osso bucco and fish. It was exhausting but cathartic. On Saturday morning we arrived back at the funeral home and were in a formal procession. My four male cousins helped carry the casket to the herse and we had a formal police escort to the Catholic church my grandmother attended for many many years. I was amused by the fact that we got to run through red lights and that the procession entered the freeway with the police cars speeding by us, protecting our string of cars us with their lights. The service included readings by my cousins and one by my sisters and me. A woman sang the Ave Maria. My father gave the eulogy, with his brother and sisters by his side, which I’ve included below with his permission. My male cousins carried the casket back out. My two girl cousins who were very close to Nonna cried so hard that my heart hurt for them. No one in my family has died since I was four, so all of this was new to me.

We had a luncheon at a snowy golf course after the funeral. Being surrounded by by cousins, J, my cousins’ husbands, and the two babies was a treat. We only all see each other every couple of years when everyone happens to come home for Christmas at the same time. J and I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house, as the house I grew up in, in which my father still lives, is in Northern Connecticut. This gave me extra time I haven’t had with my aunt and uncle in years. We hung out by their fire and chatted and in the morning they made us breakfast and we sat around the table.

I am sorry that my grandmother had to pass so quickly. She was so healthy and vibrant, I thought she would be around for years to come. I know she’s in a better place, hopefully reunited with her beloved husband whom she had to live without for the past thirty years. She still wore her wedding ring.

Nonna and me at my cousin's wedding in 2011

Nonna and me at my cousin’s wedding in 2011

Sylvia – Eulogy

January 19, 1922 – February 11, 2015

Our mother’s life was built around love, devotion, family, and the work of caring for others. She was devoted to her grandmother Emilia and her aunt Irene who raised her, to our father Joseph Forzani, to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all of whom she adored and for whom she would have done anything. She was devoted to her friends here and in Italy, to God and to her church. She never asked for anything back, other than to know you were OK.

Our Mom was no stranger to loss and suffering. When she was 9 months old, her father died, and when she was 5 she was sent to Italy to live with relatives. She grew up as a young girl missing her mother and brothers, and learning the lesson of love and discipline from a new family. Educated in Torino, she then taught elementary school riding a bicycle between her home in the town of Masserano and her teaching assignments in surrounding towns scattered in the foothills of the Italian Alps. She did this at a time when the Italian and German Armies were fighting village to village against each other, the Allies were pushing north into Lombardy and Piedmont, the partisans were everywhere, reprisals were brutal, and civil war blanketed Northern Italy. Food was scarce, and Mom was lucky to eat hot water, bread, and a pat of butter from a local cow for dinner. The stories from this time are riveting, and they were formative for our Mom.

She came back to America in 1946 to marry our father. Money in our family was scarce, but love and passion were everywhere. They used savings from our Dad to build a home in the woods of Stamford, had us four children, and proceeded to teach us all they knew, with every ounce of energy and commitment they had. They were passionate about us, our family, and about daily life. The sounds of conversation, of dinner cooking, talk of homework, of this and that issue, and more conversation, were everywhere. There were countless stories of our grandparents in Piemonte, of life in their village, of our extended family in Stamford, of friends, school, politics, and whatever was the topic of the day. We were wealthy with stories and wealthy with the devotion of our parents.

Through it all, our mom was a steady presence, radiating love and caring. She was a force of nature. Raised with loss, the need to prevail, and the deep joy of devoted relatives, our mom had the boundless sensitivity, and the boundless vulnerability to pain, to know the meaning and value of love. She also had the quiet strength to do what it takes on a daily basis, no matter what, to make her children’s lives better and easier. She was kind and never wanted to hurt or offend anyone, and was always smiling. She always picked herself up and fought her way out of a situation so she could go on with the work of caring for others. She defined the meaning of gravitas. At the same time, she could be, and often was through the years, the life of the party, the daily party that life could be. She built this on the foundation of delight in her children and grandchildren, delight in friends and the church, that never stopped. The work of caring, of making sure each person had what he and she needed, that each person was attended to, was constant.

There were Sunday dinners after mass and countless holiday and birthday dinners for children and grandchildren. There was the dinner party at her house that our Mom organized for her teaching colleagues that went on for years and years and became an institution, then became a breakfast in later years.

And then there was the daily work of earning a living, of being self-sufficient, and the work of frugality so resources were respected, materiality was never elevated, and resources were there when needed. After her children became independent, she substitute taught in the Stamford school system and started working at Lord & Taylor as a receptionist in the restaurant. She was devoted to both and became an institution in both places. She was the first they called in the morning when they needed a substitute. She cared about every detail of her job at Lord & Taylor, where she worked into her 92nd year. Her 92nd year! She was working there up until this past November. She also worked as a volunteer at the Stamford Hospital until this past November, at the St. Leo’s church fair, and attended mass almost every day. She cared for her home and yard, raking leaves and chestnuts from the tree our Dad planted up to this past fall. And almost every afternoon she made vegetable soup from scratch from the little patch of Swiss Chard and parsley underneath the kitchen window. And when you came over, she would always ask how you were, always be sure you had a coat on in the cold – even though you were in your sixties yourself! – always asked if you and your family were OK, always gave you soup, and always admonished you to drive home safely. Right up to last week.

The love, the devotion, the conversation, are vivid and immutable, because they were all real all given freely, with abandon, and all constant until last weekend. And in these last weeks, she taught us one more lesson: that of bravery and dignity. Knowing her illness, knowing there was no treatment, she talked to us children and grandchildren, talked to her friends, talked to God, accepted her fate without complaint, and died on her own terms. She taught us how to live. She was, is, and will be, an inspiration to all of us.

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