I am walking to the bus stop on a frigid November morning. The houses I pass blur behind me, my legs feel like Jell-O and my stomach churns while I consider ideas for my first pitch meeting as an intern at House & Home magazine.
“Ten colour palettes that go beyond Christmas’ traditional red and green.”
“Winter white rooms that remind us of snow.”
The ring of my cellphone — the classic Nutcracker theme, interrupts my thoughts. Then her familiar “Allo?”
My nerves are quieted. She asks about my weekend, tells me of her trip to Yorkdale Mall and then the 5 p.m. Saturday mass. I start to tell her about my big pitch this morning and she cuts through.
“Sei pronta,” she says in her Italian dialect. You’re ready. A call to action, a command. She believes in me.
These morning phone calls are a daily tradition with my nonna. She’s always been the one who calmed me on mornings before a big test, soothed me over a stomach ache, talked me through mean girl problems in elementary school and, later, boy problems, too.
Most would call that a best friend, and some might suggest that a grandparent as a best friend is strange — but not for me.
The smell of fresh minestrone fills the air as I arrive at her door later that day. Warm light spills into the dark backyard from an upper window, and I hear, “Coming. Coming.” accompanied by the shuffling of slippers — worn at the heels from circling the basement floor with a broom.
The light grows as the door opens, bathing me in warmth.
“My star,” she exclaims as her signature salt and pepper pixie haircut peeks out from behind the door. Her small arms wrap around my hunched shoulders and the wrinkles on the back of her neck bunch up as she cranes her neck to kiss my cheek.
I tell her the pitches went well. The editors loved them.
“I told you,” she says, squeezing me harder. “Come, I made fetine.”
As I step inside the place I’ve known all my life, my mind wanders to winter nights growing up at nonna and nonno’s house. My brother and I, waiting for mom and dad to arrive from work, sitting around the walnut dining table — me next to nonna, my brother at its head and nonno to his right. Dinners always started with the same prayer: “Thank you God for the food we have on this table and everything in the whole world. And our family. Amen.” When we got adventurous, the regular prayer was sometimes replaced with a longer one we learned in Italian class.
A fresh plate of pasta followed — occasionally we’d be surprised with gnocchi — and then fetine (chicken cutlet) and vegetables. The conversation would rarely vary at these long-ago dinners. Nonno would ask how our day went and we would repeat our answers a few times, slow and loud, so he could hear. My brother would ask for ketchup on everything and Nonno would insist Italians don’t eat ketchup.
Nonna would say, “And you, Bianca?”
Sometimes I wonder if my connection with my grandmother is strong because I’m the only granddaughter of four grandkids. Maybe it’s because we spent every day of my first 14 years together — every 6:30 a.m. before elementary school when I would tread up her front steps in my pyjamas, my eyes sleepy and mind still foggy from being awakened so early. Every afternoon I’d bound down the steps of the school bus, eager to tell her something my friends had said about me or about a test that had turned my stomach.
We sit across from each other at half the table now, just the two of us. A fistful of roasted red peppers sits in a bowl with olive oil from Abruzzo, while two chicken cutlets cool in a dish.
“I never sit at the table anymore for dinner,” she says. “I usually just sit on the couch.”
“Why?” I respond over the hum of the TV — permanently set on CP24 — then curse myself for asking. My glass of red wine tastes sour in my mouth and lingers on my tongue.
“Nonno isn’t here anymore,” she says in broken English; her voice is strong, but her eyes are on her plate. “Who am I going to sit with?”
I glance over at my nonno’s picture on a side table; a candle below it is permanently lit. I feel the enormity of her loneliness and dab a tear from the corner of my eye before a second one trickles out.
We wash the dishes together and I make coffee. I watch her as she sits in nonno’s La-Z-Boy chair, holding the phone in her hand in case it rings.
I imagine her here in the morning when she calls me. How she rests the phone on her shoulder to focus on me, how I sound, how I am doing. How, after we hang up and I step into my busy day, she wraps herself in a blanket, twirls the rosary beads between her fingers and prays.
And I start to cry. Because being a best friend goes both ways. Because being a best friend is not always me, me, me.
I bring our coffee into the room, sit next to nonna and hug her. She starts to tear up.
“Sei pronta,” I tell her, and we both explode into laughter at how bad my Italian still is.