Friday, December 12, 2014

Shovelling Out: Snowy Reflections and a Tribute to the People whose Paths We Serendipitously Cross

 I started writing this yesterday (December 11, 2014) after a poignant encounter with a woman down the street after a massive snowfall. When I got home from this experience, I received news that my paternal grandfather was preparing himself to head North—waaay North (but way less cold, I imagine)—to a place that we like to call Heaven. The serendipitous nature of the events of yesterday morning really struck me, and I’ll explain why at the end of this reflection (scroll waaay down now if you don’t feel like reading all of this), so I wanted to write them down. I’m still really struck and amused by the characteristics that amount to the “Nonna Archetype,” even as my heart hurts and my brain tries to focus on other things. I hope you enjoy this post after more than a year’s absence. It’s been a hell of a year—mostly in a good way—and I'll reflect on that here soon enough.

With love, warmth, gratitude, and best wishes to you and yours this holiday season,



The first four items tipped me off, but, after our visit, it all added up: there is a Nonna Archetype. It is not necessarily a Grandmother Archetype—actually, how could I know? I’ve never really known any type of grandmother other than an Italian grandmother—, but specifically an Italian Grandmother one. Though no other nonna can ever be as friggin loving, generous, beautiful, and hardcore as ones own blood-related nonna, it is comforting to know that there is a local nonna just down the street. These are the traits that, I believe, combine to form the Nonna Archetype:

1. her name, Maria
2. saying “Tanks God I found you” while we were halfway through shovelling the snow in her backyard
3. insisting that I put on some ciabatte (flip flops) as we entered her basement from the cold—and then saying that I should take them home because she never wears them
4. a picture of Padre Pio on her wall
5. items of black clothing hung to dry everywhere (not to mention the black clothing she was currently wearing), worn most often by Southern Italian women even years after their loved one has died
6. going to the freezer to get cookies she’d made
7. becoming visibly upset upon finding out that I couldn’t eat said cookies because they weren’t vegan
8. insisting that I take twenty dollars to “buy something nice” (and even though I refused and left the money on the table when I got up to leave, she asked if I’d taken the money and rushed to get it after I said I hadn’t)
9. giving me a package of Lavazza coffee
10. sending me home with homemade red wine—in a mason jar
11. worrying about my health—“you get bronchite!”—as I put on my wet boots, scarf, tuque, gloves, and coat, even though my house is literally across the street
12. her saying, “I lahva you!” as I left


I woke up this morning to the proverbial—or, rather, clichéed—winter wonderland. I saw all of my Montreal friends’ photos on Facebook of the massive amount of snow that got dumped on that city yesterday, and I knew that we were expecting snow here—but not that much.

After Dane left for work, I read some comics for a bit (dude: read Girls with Slingshots. It’s the best… probably especially if you’re a girl/lady/chick/woman/female) and coordinated to reschedule a dinner that was definitely not going to happen tonight, due to the weather. I mean, the only two people who were still willing to go were a Montrealer (me) and a Calgarian—both fairly used to living with and thriving amongst stupid accumulations of snow. Then, I resolved to meditate, but first I’d do some shovelling.

We by no means have a deadbeat landlord, but if the unraked leaves on our back lawn are any indication, this snow wasn’t going to shovel itself. (Edit: The landlord came by in the evening to tidy up the rest of the ten or so centimetres of snow. Sweet.) So, I put on my winter coat, mittens, scarf, and tuque—and then realized that I was still in my pyjamas. I put on some “real pants” and my boots and then headed outside.

I shovelled our tiny walkway and our steps, in addition to our backyard and the three-feet­-wide alleyway between our house and the neighbour’s. And, since the neighbour to our left is super kind to us and raked our walkway a few weeks ago, I figured that I’d return the favour and shovel his tiny driveway and steps. At this point, an older woman in a dark winter coat with a faux-furry hood carefully walked towards me, the snow still slowly falling and delicately accumulating around her.


“Hi,” she replied. “Ross, he work?” (Ross is the neighbour whose driveway I’d shovelled.)

She said she lived just across the street, five numbers away from us. She had an accent that, somehow, I couldn’t place. We live in an area populated primarily by Portuguese and Italian families, but I’m not sure what Portuguese-accented English sounds like. She asked where I was from and I was amused when her reaction to my Montreal origins was, “Ah. Well, you’re still nice.” Hahaha. I told her my name and she told me hers, and she seemed content with my name being as biblically related as hers.

We discussed our neighbour’s whereabouts and speculated about why we hadn’t seen him in a while. It turns out that this lady would get Ross’s help to shovel or rake, since she is a widow of two years and has a big house to herself, and her kids visit only on weekends. I was coated in sweat under my snow-drenched coat and my nose was running in all directions (awwww, yeeeaaah. That’s a steamy image, eh?), but I said that I’d be happy to help her if she needed. She’d shovelled her driveway already, so it was only her backyard that needed care. Hey: I’m done school for the semester; what else did I need to do other than writing and sending Christmas cards and reading comics?

I walked behind her to her house and into her backyard. I did some more sweating but finished shovelling in under twenty minutes. *flexes* My arms were shaking from the strain, and she exclaimed, “Tanks God I found you” and proceeded to invite me in for an “Italian espresso.” Hmm. I was touched at this show of hospitality, trust, and gratitude, but all I really wanted to do was get out of my soaked-ass clothes and into a hot-ass shower.

But, she wouldn’t relent, and I know my manners well enough to know not to refuse an invitation to coffee for “five meenuts” from an elder. I followed her inside through the garage.

Fast-forward: we’re in her basement and she passes me a pair of old-lady flip-flops (with a wedged heel, and we all know how well I walk in heels…) to wear in order to keep my feet from getting cold. 

As I walk in, I spot a picture frame with a photo of Padre Pio in it. Hmm. She prepares the coffee in the stovetop Moka espresso-maker. We sit at her table and she grabs some cookies from her freezer, something my paternal Nonna does all the time. I ask her where she’s from, since she knows I’m from Montreal, and she says she’s Italian.

Cue singing angels and bust out the mad Italian skillz, yo.

We became instant friends and I ended up staying there for at least 40 “meenuts.”

She talked about her deceased husband, showed me a photo of him, empathized when I told her that December 12, 2014, is the seven-year anniversary of my dad’s passing, gave me coffee, asked about my family, showed me photos of her daughters and her grandchildren, excused herself for having her black mourning clothes hanging to dry everywhere, gave me a package of Lavazza coffee, poured some of her homemade wine into a mason jar, and shoved two ten-dollar bills into my hands so that I could “buy something nice.” It was a surreal but also a profoundly normal experience, if that’s possible to say.

I gave her my phone number, in case she needed a hand for anything between her daughters’ visits, and she pinned it to a basket on the wall, saying she’d call her daughter later to tell her about the new friend she’d made. I got up to leave. When I wished her a merry Christmas in case we didn’t see each other before then (Christmas really is only 13 days away), she scoffed and expressed her certainty at our seeing each other; I made a mental note to bake her some Christmas cookies. She conveyed her dismay at my soaked winter clothing in her garage as I awkwardly put on the articles and considered for a moment just putting on my boots and holding the rest of the articles in my hand—but this nonna would have had none of that. She urged me to get home fast, lest I get bronchite from the cold wetness (or wet coldness. Whatever). As I walked up her driveway, which had a fresh centimetre or two of snow on it already, she said, “I lahva you.”


All this from a stranger.

I’ve been living in this house with Dane, just down the street from this lovely, lonely Italian woman, for over six months, and I met her for the first time yesterday because of the Canadian climate. Think about it: something as mundane and unremarkable as the weather caused us to meet. If it hadn’t snowed, when would our paths have crossed? Regardless, she was a stranger—a stranger with a big heart, a common culture, a maternal drive, and a heavy heart. She opened up to me in a way that was unexpected but felt familiar. I am blessed to have both of my nonnas still very much a part of my life, but to happen upon this woman was a blessing at a time when I ached to have both of my nonnas closer than ever, though they live in Montreal and Ottawa, respectively.

Montreal Nonna <3 td="">
Ottawa Nonna <3 td="">
December 12 is the seven-year anniversary of my dear father’s passing; also, this December 12, my paternal grandfather is bidding his farewells to this plane, and his body is preparing to carry its energy to the plane inhabited by our “departed” loved ones, to be reunited with his beloved middle son. My meeting this woman down the street felt like a distinct blessing and distraction, though she clearly had her own burdens and baggage due to the loss of her husband only two years prior, but she opened her heart to me, a stranger. She was so thankful for the ear that she couldn’t help but utter an expression whose weight, perhaps, she doesn’t fully grasp in English, but her intention in saying those words was clear: thank you.

This summary of events that occurred yesterday is simply a reflection on the meaning and meaningfulness of those people that pass through our lives, who touch us for an instant, for moments, for days, or even for years. None of it is arbitrary—or, even if it is, we can be wise enough to find the symbolism, the “point” to it. Yesterday, this woman and I came into each other’s lives for a reason: to open our hearts to the other when we both really needed it, when we felt distant from those we loved but needed their love more than ever; We both needed each other yesterday and found kindred spirits in strangers.

I didn’t get to know my dad for long, since he passed away when I’d just turned 21, but he was there for those vital, formational years of my life, when my mind was still malleable, when my heart was naïve, when my soul needed her dad more than she knew or could articulate. Anyone who knew my father knew that he was a formidable force, a man wise beyond his years, a spry and energetic soul whose smile and whose laugh could rouse even the sourest spirit. I wish that I could have an adult relationship with him, but, even now, if I ask myself, “What would Daddy think of [X]?”, I know the answer because I knew him well—and sometimes I’ll do something now even if I know my dad would disapprove (I’m sorry about the nosering, Dad), because, well, that’s what kids do. Haha.

Now, as my nonno makes his way to my dad, I think of how I never really got to know my nonno well, because a language barrier separated us for most of my childhood. Nonetheless, I knew his love when I was growing up, and that’s really all that children need to know, I suppose. I learned Italian and continue to study it and have lived in Italy and met my nonno’s family there and keep in touch with them. My nonno and I made up for lost time whenever we all visited him in Ottawa or he poked his voice into my telephone conversations with my nonna.

It was really quite tender: my nonna would be on the phone in one room and my nonno, without ever saying a word, would pick up the receiver to listen in on our conversations from another room, and he wouldn’t ever say anything until my nonna and I started saying goodbye to each other. It would always make me laugh, especially when my nonna would jokingly scold him and call him furbo (“sly”). I guess that, if I know any one thing from firsthand experience about my nonno, I know this: he’s much more of a listener than a talker. Sure, he’d be vocal about us being too loud and was not shy about expressing his dismay about, well, anything or anyone, but you can’t say he wasn’t honest! 

I’m happy to know that, at the very least, he got to see that I worked hard—sempre forte is something he’d always say to me (“always strong”), usually when we were saying goodbye to each other, in person or on the other end of the telephone line—, which was eternally important to him. He seemed proudest of us as long as he knew we were working our asses off and getting paid. I’m content that he knows we’re all following our passions, that we’re living the lives that he left his family behind in Italy to help create—that his personal sacrifice was worth it. I’m grateful that he has lived a long life that allowed him to see the birth of his great-grandchild, to see her grow and blossom, to hold her. We all noticed his face brighten when his great-granddaughter shared the room with him. She added vitality and brightness to this often-grumpy but truly wonderful, strong, and benevolent old man’s gaze.

And we’ve come full-circle: though my nonno didn’t know his great-granddaughter for long, she sweetened his final year on Earth; and though my cousin’s daughter knew her bisnonno only for a short time and may not remember him or the tender moments they shared as she grows older, the miracle of photography and of video will allow her to witness the extraordinary bond that they shared and the special place in their respective hearts that each of them occupied.

We all cross paths for a reason; our hearts are touched in ways we cannot fathom or comprehend until, perhaps, we have a bit of hindsight. Thank you, Maria Down the Street, for comforting my heart with examples of hospitality “from the Old Country” when I didn’t know I needed it and for bringing to my mind and to my heart the values that have been instilled in me from both sides of my Italian family; merci, Papa, for forming the woman that I am today and for continuing to inspire us all with your relentless joy and your ever-glowing smile—and, of course, for giving Nonno the biggest and warmest of hugs when he reaches you; and, Nonno, ti ringrazio di tutto—di avere scelto il Canada come Casa tua, come il luogo ideale per creare una famiglia e un futuro con Nonna, e di averci insegnato i valori cari a te. Thank you for everything, Nonno—by coming here, to Canada, you really did provide, well, everything that we know and love and cherish in our lives, now and always.

Grazie, and until we meet again. 


Danielle P. said...

Dear Kris,
I read this with tears in my eyes... So much sadness and beauty and vulnerability and trust and love... It was totally worth waiting a year for a post that speaks so deeply of the human spirit and our connectedned. :-)
Many hugs to you, my dear, and may you long continue to bring joy to many beautiful people!

Dominic Mariani said...