Caffe With Nonna

Isabel Bearman Bucher 

 Photo courtesy of the author.

© Copyright 2013 by Isabel Bearman Bucher 

Old photo of Nona.

My heart is twined to your heart

I cannot loosen it now

My song, yours

Through all my light and shadows

my roots go deep and find you there

Where my blossoms wait to be born

5 A.M. Sunday, July, 1942

I make my way quietly past Mamma and Dad’s bedroom, moving soundlessly into our upstairs bathroom window, where I crouch before the radiator waiting for the show, ready to do the organized fidgeting pantomime act. Bits of toilet paper Mamma always nicks with her red nails do a skittering dance in the cool pre-dawn breeze. Every morning, it’s the same. Up the hill, the kitchen screen door squeaks. Nonna’s head comes snaking around the jam, followed by two thick, waist-length gray braids. She exits the door and assumes the skinny stance which consists of rolling, then hunching shoulders over a caved-in stomach, while her long neck cranes forward. Comes the shoulder throw-back, the breathing in and out, three times. Moving into her inspection mode, she chirps to a bird or two, surveys the pewter outline in the dark sky, takes another big gulp of air, standing tall, doing the final shoulder square-off. A hand plunges deep into her white chenille robe and extracts a rumpled paisley hankey drenched with Violette Parfum which she then uses to cover her beak of a nose. Two good honks blast into the darkness. The priest over at St. Mary’s explained that when church Sherlocks dig up the dearly departed being considered for sainthood, the unmistakable scent of violet had to waft from the grave. So everybody knew Nonna was taking no chances - with the perfume, that is. Who knew if saints honked their noses. Probably.

Sunrise agenda complete, she disappears into the aroma of caffé robusto, drifting out of her kitchen. That boiled blackness ranks sacred along with the church holy water, vino rosso and Violette Parfum.

That’s my clue to creep down the stairs, missing the squeaker boards, unlock, grasp and turn the brass knob of the inner kitchen door, lift the outer snow-room door latch with no sound, and then I’m out! I mouse up the ten curving stone steps to Nonna’s kitchen screen.

Buon giorno Nonna,” I whisper into the darkness, lips pressed against the mesh.

Good-a morning, Ezabel,” she returns softly, her voice registering no surprise. Your
pronunciation eza very good.” Without turning, she keeps on speaking. “You an early bird, eh,  cara?

I want to tell her I am always an early bird ... doing the organized fidgeting pantomime act, but think better of it, a bit shamefaced, and answer only “si, Nonna mia.”

“Da caffé is ready now.” she states, pronouncing her “c’s” with a cutting “k” sound, after softly honking her nose. “You want a cuppa widda me? We watch-a da sun come up. I tell you stories. Eh?”

“Mmmmm,” I answer, carefully opening the screen. I picture the steaming, strong coffee, with lots of cream off the top of the morning milk bottle, three, maybe four spoons of sugar. Dream becomes reality with the final pour of the black ribbon from the steaming yellow speckled metal pot into the waiting strainer. I love watching her graceful, artist hands, so like an orchestra conductor - white in the dark, doing the morning routine I anticipate with trilling heart. It is our secret, this sunrise caffé - because if Mamma and Dad knew she was giving me such black coffee with all that sugar, the lectures about stunting growth would begin, and I’d be cut away from this morning with Nonna.

Everything stunted growth in this family - coffee, tea, wine, cigarettes, pipes, which were all used by “adults only;” rude gestures or sounds, low class behaviors, being bad, climbing trees, getting dirty, which David, my brother, and I always did ... name it, it stunted. God forbid Italians should do anything that would rob us of even one billionth of an inch of height.

“Eza not stunt my growth! ” Nonna huffed once when the caffé issue surfaced. “Look at me! ...I’mma five-foota-three, an I been drinking caffé robusto all my life. I read no articles that say caffé makes you short ... eza da genes, inna da cell of da body. Da father down Italia you go, the shorter they get. Northern Italians are tall.”

So much for stunting. La Regina de Ape, The Queen Bee had spoken, so whispered la famiglia.

Nonna was once a very wealthy girl, born in a Northern Italian family that educated all of its children, boy or girl, sending them away early to learn languages, which would help run their various businesses, two of which were moving people over the Alps, and buying wine. Then, it was off to college - boys and girls, no difference. My great uncles all had two cheek cuts which told the world they went to Heidelberg University. I thought this pretty repelling actually.

Independent, single, college educated in the finest art schools in Florence, at 23, she was hiking the Italian and Swiss Alps with painting whatsis on her back, smoking cigars, pipes and cigarettes, perching atop rocks, holding wide pants away from hobnail boots. The backdrop below was breathtaking. I knew this because I found pictures stuck way in the back of her private drawer. Her black hair was short and curling around her face. I never forgot those views below which, years later, I would embrace for real on a home exchange in southern Switzerland with my husband and youngest daughter, hoping to find roots, which I did. We then walked the same paths, while I held up those pictures, returning Nonna to her mountains ...

5:15 A.M. July, 1942

I’m wrapped in the warmth of the dim kitchen, surrounded by chenille and violet scent, and snuggling close, holding my mug exactly like Nonna, drawing it close to my nose. The yellow stove spreads warmth, like when you sat in people’s laps and they put their arms around you. Its softly glowing orange eye coaxes steam from the big coffee pot.

“Ahhh, da caffé’s good today!” she purrs, taking a huge sniff.

“Ya,” I answer, copying her sniff routine. “Buona. Tuti.”

She smiles down at me, giving me a wink and a hug for my pronunciation. But, Da coffee is always good.

Her first few sips are noisy, because she’s got cracked, chapped lips.

“Don’t-a you make Nonna’s noise,” she whispers. “Ez-a low class to make noise when you eat, or drink. But, da caffé - eza so hot, anna my lip hurts so bad today. See. I gotta crack.”

She points with her little finger to an angry split on her lower right lip. It is open, red and painful looking. I feel pain, touching it with my own finger, wishing it was gone. We continue sipping together, until I tip the mug and let the bottom sugar trickle into my mouth.

“My Piccolina used to give me caffé robusto, too,” she whispers into my hair, telling me the story about the baby who had been left by Gypsies on the Giani Famiglia doorstep. “She was da family cook, da ‘capo di stato’ head of state in our home, she do everything. She live to be a hundred! She bring my Nonna Giudita, and me caffé every morning. Oh, I love my Piccolina. You love-a you Nonna! Eh! ”

“Big as the moon,” I sing softly, saying the words I’d made up because they were the biggest things I knew. “and the all the stars, and over the rainbow too.”

Mamma often wanted me to declare this to her, especially in front of people, and I did, because she needed me to do that. But with Nonna it felt right.

We grew quiet together, looking out the window at the slivering sky.

“Da sun ez-a coming, and you bella mia, my dearest child, you must be going, or else our secret - eza a secret no more. Eh?”

I tip the mug one last time, then rise reluctantly, hugging her middle, inhaling violets and chenille, wanting sunrise coffee never to end.

Arrivederci Mia Nonna,” I whisper, with a broad conspiratorial grin, giving a backwards clasp of the hand and fingers. “Ciao,” I whisper to the the white shadow framed in the doorway.

Moving into the dawn, now painted of the palest blue, beribboned with luminous orange, a perfect spider web strung with diamonds begins to catch the summoning day. I suck in the sweetness of the morning, still tasting caffé robusto. Not a creature is stirring - except Nonna and me - the only two invited to this special hello sunrise party. I tingle with the magic of it; the pantomime, the sneaking - the secret. My body feels like a plucked piano chord. With one last gulp of air, I hunch my shoulders, suck in three breaths of air, whistle to the birds, which only hisses, due to my missing front teeth. Smiling hotdog big I let myself into the sleeping house. Angela Irene Giani DeBernardi, was; born in Cassano Manago, Norte Italia, on March 12, 1886. Eighty-one years later, my first born, Erica, would be born on the same day. Nonna’s entry into this world was chaotic, because her six-months pregnant mother, my Pro Nonna, Giuseppina Maria Poretti Giani, caught her foot in one of her slips while descending the stone steps leading down to the massive kitchen, set to give orders to Piccolina for the evening meal. In the midst of the following chaos, the washer woman wrapped the unconscious woman in sheets, while Piccolina cradled her until the stable boy, followed by the doctor and town midwife, lifted and carried her upstairs to the apartment she shared with her husband, Bernardo, and children, Carlo Luigi, six, and Giuseppina, eleven. This home, a immense monastery purchased by my Pro-pro Nonno Luigi, housed the Giani’s 14 sons and their families. As the doctor and midwife made ready to begin the curetting procedure, the washer woman ran shrieking into the room.

“DIO! STOP!” Come with me ... I ... Oh, Dio Cristo!”

She then turned and raced back down to the kitchen and into the wash room, where there, she unfolded the bloody sheet revealing a small, dark fetus no bigger than a man’s hand. Bernardi Giani, my Pro Nonno, ran breathless into the room, as the doctor reached out an arm and steadied him.

“It is a little still born girl,” he whispered gravely to Bernardo. “Now, we go to Maria Giuseppa.”

“STOP!” called out Bernardo. “BRING ME A MIRROR, because where there is life, there is hope!”

When the mirror was brought, there was the barest of mist on the glass.

The stunned doctor gave orders that the little girl should be swaddled, placed in a cigar box, and put into the stable with the healing heat of the cows. Two nursing women would need to be found who could squeeze drops of milk into the tiny mouth every half hour. That evening, in her familiar kitchen, until the orders could be carried out, Piccolina began to wash the tiny creature in warm water, singing a soft lullaby of childhood.  A tight knot of Giani women, Bernardo and Pappa Giani, lent support while the servants stayed clotted behind, taking up an ancient song. Its sweetness wound back into time, healing, caressing, pouring love over this newest being. The specially carved birth cradle brought from Paris by the family in 1800, blessed by generations of priests and Giani babies, was placed beside the fire. Piccolina sat in her ancient rocker, took this newest Giani unto her, this miracle, and placed a long foot on the cradle only to mark rhythmic time. Oh, so many children had been in her arms. La Famiglia Luigi Giani numbered now 114.

Both mother and daughter survived. Nonna’s story is a part of Italian medical historical records.

Mia Nonna lived to be almost 98. Everyday I celebrate her life that will always live within my heart and soul. So you are to me ...

beloved grandmother



caller of wonder



champion of hurt animals and children

solitude seeker

political anarchist


women’s libber

tear dryer

healer of broken hearts

sing-along with the Saturday radio opera from the Met always off-key

problem fixer




5:00 A.M, 2013

Every day, I wrap up in the sunrise, take three big breaths, hunch over and then, roll my shoulders, remembering everything she taught me, holding up everything she gave me to the light - the beauties of nature, the wisdom of life, now so understood; the exhilaration of celebrating logic and science, the music of her voice, the joy of seeing a golden swallowtail lite on my flowers.

And someday ...

Buon giornio Nonna,” I will whisper, waving the paisley hankey taken out of my robe pocket. “See Nonna! I still have it.”

Love will swell again inside me, flow out into the silver daybreak. I will grasp the hand she’ll be holding out to me, hug her middle, nestle into her chenille warmth, and breathe in the sweet aroma of Violette Parfum.

We will disappear into the scent of caffé robusto drifting on daybreak.

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