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Vacation, Interrupted

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Nonna & Nonna on their wedding day

Nonna & Nonna on their wedding day

I know I haven’t updated in a couple of weeks – truth is I’ve been writing this post since two weeks ago, but haven’t been able to quite say what I want to with it. Today I decided to just do it, as they say. It’s probably not perfect, and maybe it has no place here. But I wanted to tell the story anyway.

Let me introduce you to my Nonna Beatrice. That’s her on the right, with my grandfather, Nonno Giuseppe.

On a recent Thursday morning, Nonna woke up, had breakfast and got ready for an outing with her daughter (my mother). She had her clothes laid out and some spending money in the coin purse she always carried with her. The heatwave had finally broken, and the weather that day was pleasant. She’d talked to my mom the night before and was excited about going out.

Let me rewind a little bit –

Nonna Beatrice

Nonna Beatrice

Nonna is a tough lady. Old school: resourceful, practical, all about the family, but not without humor and whimsy. She turned 85 this past February, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she moves and talks. She gets things done. Fast. There is nothing slow about her, including her easy and sometimes sarcastic, but never malicious, wit. Many years ago, I decided I wanted her to teach me how to knit, and she did, but not without my having to ask her to slow down and show me over and over again what she was doing. Watching her move the string over and under the needles while barely looking at them was fascinating, not unlike watching Olympic gymnasts twist three or more times in the air within seconds. It looks so easy, so effortless, in the way only hours and years of repetition can create.

Back to Thursday. Nonna was ready to go out. She’d sat down for a moment on the living room sofa. She probably didn’t know that it was the last thing she’d ever do. She blacked out, and despite the fact that my cousin (who is only 19) was in the apartment with her and (bravely! incredibly!) gave her CPR until the EMT crew got there, there was no reviving her.  Like everything else Nonna tackled in life, her dying was simple, quick, and no fuss. Ever practical, even in her last moments.

About a year or so ago, my grandmother had blacked out for a few moments from a drop in blood pressure. When talking about it to my mother afterwards, she’d told her, “Listen, when I was out I didn’t feel any pain, nothing. When I die, this is the way I want to go.”  In the end, that was how she went.

It was simple, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t leave those of us still living with our mouths open in shock and disbelief.

Why am I talking about death and dying on a blog that’s supposed to be about living life on vacation?

You might be wondering this. I wondered it myself. Unfortunately life isn’t always unicorns and rainbows.

If anyone had reason to feel self-pity and shut down and stop living, it would be my grandmother. She had to grow up as a child – her father couldn’t really be a father to her or her siblings because he was an alcoholic and a gambler. Her mother, understandably, did shut down and went to live by herself in a mountain cabin. She worked from a young age, and took care of her younger siblings. She lived through WWII in a country that saw bombs dropped on them from airplanes. Later, she moved to a country where she didn’t speak the language and had to leave one of her daughters and her family in Italy. She lost her husband to cancer. She then lost her siblings. Still, she laughed and kept cooking for the family she still had and gave us presents at all the holidays and planned outings with her daughter and teased us and kissed us and fed us.

The Mustard Seed

There’s a story about a woman who goes to Buddha pleading with him to revive her dead child. Buddha tells her: “If you bring me a mustard seed from any household which has not known death your child will live again.”

Needless to say she never finds that mustard seed.

If the point of this project is to live our lives now, then nothing reinforces that point more than death. We’ll all die. We’ll all lose loved ones. All the more reason not to waste time on the unimportant things. All the more reason to savor the time we do have, with the people we love. All the more reason to let go of the little annoyances and ‘stuff’ that comes up. All the more reason to stop postponing whatever it is that you want to do and go out and just do it.

The Long Passeggiata


The city of Campagna, Italy

My aunt in Italy recently underwent brain surgery and said that while she was out, Nonno had come to her in a dream and taken her for a passeggiata – a typically Italian leisurely stroll – through green, green mountains filled with sunshine. She’d seen angels and beautiful plants and views along the way. My grandfather had told her she needed to get well, to save herself. I keep wondering if my grandmother saw something similar in her last few moments of life – if her husband came back to bring her with him. If so, I’d imagine that would be hard to pull away from.

I hope she’s enjoying her permanent vacation in the mountains with my grandfather.

Dry Clean Only: The Experts are Lying to You

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There’s a Seinfeld skit about Dry Cleaning that I want to share with you all today.

For those of you who don’t want to watch the video, it goes something like this:

‘Dry clean only’ is definitely the only warning label that human beings actually respect. They look at cigarettes: “This will give you cancer, kill you and the kids.” “It’s good, I’ll do whatever the hell I want.” “Don’t drink this medicine and operate heavy machinery.” “Who cares. That’s for people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I’m a pro.” But if you have something that’s dry clean only and somebody goes to put it in the washing machine:  “Don’t put it in the washing machine! It’s dry clean only! Are you crazy, are you out of your mind?!”

Aren’t we funny creatures? It’s amazing what we’ll choose to follow religiously as long as it’s coming from an ‘expert.’ But who are these experts? Is something automatically gospel because it’s been said x number of times by x number of ‘experts.’?

All Your Clothing Labels Are Wrong

Okay, so maybe not all of them. But chances are, somewhere in your closet is a wool or cashmere sweater that says ‘dry clean only’ on the label. Here’s the kicker: it’s actually a lot better to hand wash that sweater with shampoo (yes, the kind you use on your hair – remember wool is just another word for sheep’s hair) or gentle detergent, and then roll it up in a towel to squeeze out the water and lay it flat to dry. It’s possible, depending on the sweater, that you can even machine wash it on a gentle, cold cycle and then lay it flat to dry.

Won’t my sweaters shrink? Not unless you wash them in a lot of agitation and/or very hot water and/or put them in the dryer.

If you’re still not convinced, think about this: knitting has been around for centuries. Dry cleaning, according to Wikipedia, was discovered in the mid-19th century when someone spilled kerosene on a tablecloth (seriously). Now I know our ancestors weren’t quite as obsessive about laundry as we are, but I’m sure they occasionally washed their sweaters. How did they do it before dry cleaning?

If you don’t believe me, try handwashing or gentle cycle an old sweater you no longer care about.

Why doesn’t the label tell you that? Who knows. Maybe they don’t think anyone will buy a sweater they’ll have to handwash. Or maybe it’s some kind of conspiracy with the dry cleaning cartel. (disclaimer: I just made that up. There’s no dry cleaning cartel. That I know of.)

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How I Learned to Ignore Expert Advice

Before I started knitting I’d never have given a second thought to obeying the clothing label. But any knitters/crocheters out there know that you will rarely, if ever, see a ball of wool, alpaca or cashmere that says “dry clean only.” I’ve never seen one. In fact, most knitters will advise you NOT to dry clean, because honestly, there’s nothing “dry” or gentle about dry cleaning. It’s actually a wet chemical bath. Isn’t that yummy?

So what’s the point of this whole meander?

I’m not bringing this up just because I wanted to save your sweaters. I was just thinking about how easily we fall prey to thinking we “should” do this or “shouldn’t” do that just because it’s considered common wisdom, without looking at our own specific situation or even where the “wisdom” originated. Then we feel bad because we don’t follow that “should” or “shouldn’t” – or worse – maybe we do follow it and things don’t work out, so then we feel like there might be something wrong with us, because the experts said it would work.

If something doesn’t feel right to you and isn’t working for you then don’t do it!

I’m not saying to ignore every instruction and warning label everywhere. But don’t blindly follow them without question, either.

It’s okay to trust yourself. No one is more of an expert on you than you are.

I’m curious: Did you ever ignore common wisdom and have things work out just fine? Or follow what you were ‘supposed’ to do and have it end up in disaster?