Wanna be truly baffled by something? Despite all my weird anxious tendencies, I genuinely like public speaking and apparently, I’m pretty good at it. So, when my parents asked me if I’d want to speak at my grandma’s wake, I immediately accepted. So, these are my words for my Nonni. It’s what I read at her wake, the best way I know how to remember her and celebrate her life:
For the past few weeks, a lot of people, mostly older people who haven’t seen me in a while, have said things to me to the effect of “So, you’re the oldest huh?”. And while, obviously, I’d been aware of that ever since my brother came around, giving me someone to be older than, it’s only recently that I’ve realized the immense privilege and important responsibility the mere coincidence of my birthday has imparted on me. I am Jim and Marie’s first grandchild. I existed and shone in the spotlight alone for five whole years, completely uninterrupted. But, while the 5-15 extra years I got with my grandparents compared to my brother and cousins are the absolute greatest blessing of my life, what I’ve come to realize is truly most important to me is ensuring that the seven little people who follow me remember and feel equally as blessed to have been loved as deeply and unconditionally as I will forever know I was and am.
Knowing Jake and Bobbi’s most prominent memories of Nonni could end up to be her in the hospital was devastating to me and often brought me to tears. For a while, it was sad and unfair to me that they would never know the same Nonni that I knew. But, as the first grandchild, I will be sure they recall the strong, vivid woman who literally never stopped moving – the same woman I knew as a preschooler. I didn’t have a regular grandma, I remember often thinking. She wasn’t old. She ran errands and scrubbed her whole house every Saturday. It always smelled like clean air and lemons and the cushions would always be lifted off the couch so there’d be nowhere for me to sit. Music would blare until at least noon every weekend. “What time does she wake up?” I wondered. She was impressive and if we’re being honest, a little scary. She drove a car and cooked dinner for a billion people once a week and although, to my knowledge, she never baked, there was always desert. My parents didn’t need to take her to the doctor’s office like my friends’ parents had to do for their grandmas. It was a mystery to me that my grandma wasn’t old, but it was only the beginning of me knowing I had something other kids didn’t. Jake and Bobbi will know that their Nonni was special; unlike all the other grandmas.
I never want Julie or Jack or James to allow the smell of a hospital to evoke a memory of Nonni. Instead, I want them to remember the smell of her house on a Saturday morning or on Christmas day; each having it’s own unmistakable and wonderful aroma. It took me quite some time to pin down that Christmas smell. It hits you like a ton of bricks as soon as you manage to push open that enormous hall door with your little, little hands – throwing all of your tiny little body weight behind your push, unable to get there fast enough. But, the mixture of the food and the tree – always real – and the warmth is my favorite smell in the universe. Christmas was and will always be my favorite family tradition. I hope those tiny little brains remember Christmas with Nonni – the fiasco that was distributing gifts, the excruciating wait to make sure everyone had their gifts before you could open yours. Grandpa yelling to just let the kids open their presents – unable to bare seeing any one of us the least bit unhappy for even a brief second – and Nonni insisting that everything be executed with total equality. She loved all of us exactly the same – to the moon and back at least 10 or 11 times. The magic that was her house on Christmas and even at Sunday dinners, my second favorite childhood memory, reaffirmed for the grade school version of me that my grandma was way better than everyone else’s.
I hope Daniella and PJ take with them always the strength and good sense I’ve only recently come to truly know our Nonni embodied. Over the past year or so, I’ve watched her endure more than I’ve ever witnessed a human go through. But, our superhero grandma did so with grace and a sense of humor and kept her family in her heart until the very end. She constantly sought to remind me what was truly important in life. When my friends’ grandmothers often pestered them throughout high school and college about who they were dating, mine reinforced my lofty career goals always reminding me how important it was to work hard – I’d have plenty of time for relationships later. The very same woman, with the beautiful women she raised, coached me through my very first broken heart. They picked me up and glued me back together and gave me the strength and courage to cross an ocean and find my independence again. She did all of this from a hospital bed, mind you. When I visited her the day I left for Ireland, I was quickly kicked out of the room. There was no reason to get myself upset, she told me. I was going there knowing it may be the last time I see her, but instead she kissed me goodbye, told me to be careful and enjoy myself. She’d be there when I got back. “No Irishmen” she added, with a laugh. And then, she kicked me out. No exaggeration. She told me to leave. And she was still there. She was nothing if not reliable. Up until her last days, she asked about my plans post-grad; progress with internships and upcoming interviews. “Take everything you want from life” she told me. And so, as Dani enters Middle school and PJ leaves high school, I want them to chase and work for their dreams. To have good sense and to always remember what’s important – your ambition, your happiness and your family. Always, always, always family.
Nonni didn’t want us to mourn, so I’ll try my best to keep it to a minimum. I will celebrate and keep alive her memory as the strongest most beautiful, inspiring role model I could’ve asked for as a woman and a person. I will keep our traditions. I will do better at cleaning my room and helping my mom with the housework, no matter how little free time I think I have. I will never buy trashy clothes or dye my hair a color that doesn’t naturally occur in nature. No piercings will ever grace anywhere but my ears and I will make an effort to wear jewelry more often. I will consider wearing more sensible heels, but on that subject I can make no promises. I will try not to wear pink. I will be careful and patient, always. I will chase my dreams with my whole heart and always keep my family close. I will work hard and fight like hell for the life I want – the best one possible, the one Nonni wanted for me. I will be sure my cousins, my brother and myself never once settle. Our Nonni fought. She never gave up and because we had her, we’ve grown accustomed to having the best. She taught by example that quitting isn’t something we do. It’s certainly not in the Abramonte blood and all of us have some of her. Bobbi will have her love of shopping and pretty things, Jack and Jake will never have untidy homes – everything has a place. PJ and Julie love deeply and their compassion comes from her, almost directly. James will always, always laugh and he’ll protect his sisters with the ferocity with which Nonni would have protected any one of us. In Daniella and myself I see the drive to not only do well, but good. For the two of us, good is good, but we can always do better; we will never grow complacent or overly content. And, as the oldest grandchild, I promise to be sure all 8 of us take everything we want from life every day and always for her.