My uncle and I each delivered a eulogy at her funeral. They were two perspectives that complemented each other well. Here is the eulogy I wrote and delivered:
To parishioners and neighbors, she was Mrs. Mottola.
To her brothers and sisters and friends, she was Mary.
To her nieces and nephews, she was Aunt Mary.
To her sons and daughter, and their spouses, she was Mom.
To her grandchildren, myself included, she was Nonni.
To her great-grandchildren, she was Great-Nonni.
To my brother Michael, she was Grand High Exalted Mystic Nonni. And that was an understatement.
To all of us, she was love incarnate.
I’d like to share some reflections and observations. Some are personal and some are universal. The evening my siblings and cousins received the news of Nonni’s death, we gathered on Facebook and expressed our testimonials and tributes with words and photos. It became clear that the celebration of her life outshone the sadness of her death. With each testimonial, I couldn’t help but see some common characteristics.
One: her laugh.
Nonni’s laugh was loud and vibrant. Like music filling a room. I think she laughed loudest when she was recounting her own stories. Her laugh was the embodiment of the joy she was to be around. She lit up every room she was in. She greeted each person as if she were happiest to see him or her.
Two: her food.
Nonni knew that the main ingredient in every recipe was love—she told me so, and she used it in excess. We only needed one bite to taste that main ingredient. She was the best cook I ever knew. I think we all have a favorite dish that she made:
· Her fried dough pizzas—I still remember the smell of her kitchen whenever she made them, although they were always ready and waiting for us when we arrived, as if she waved a magic wooden spoon and they appeared.
· Her yellow cake with the chocolate frosting—she let me lick the spoon and finish off the bowl when I was a kid, and continued to let me do it throughout my thirties.
· Her eggplant parmesan.
· Her peach cake.
· Her struffoli at Christmastime.
· And let us not forget her coffeecake.
(I’d better stop now; the cravings are kicking in.)
Many of us have her recipes and have tried to imitate them but to no avail. Nonni’s food was about abundance and hospitality and generosity and nurturing. It was a celebration of family and communion. It was about that main ingredient.
Three: her style.
Growing up, I never saw Nonni wear anything other than smart, chic, classy dresses and hats. She closely followed the styles and patterns of the times, and applied them to her own tastes. She made clothes for herself, her family, even for my Barbie doll. (How I wish I’d saved those Barbie outfits. They were the best.) She always dressed impeccably for any occasion. She dressed impeccably when she tended to the tomato plants in her garden. She dressed impeccably when she traveled. She dressed impeccably for weddings, baptisms, graduations, you name it. And she attended so many. She was eighty-eight when she traveled with my mother to Massachusetts to attend my college graduation—one of the best days of my life, made all the better because she was there. She was a part of so many of our special days. And she looked fabulous for each one.
Nonni was the quintessential matriarch. She took care of everyone around her—my grandfather, great-aunts and uncles, and her grandkids when we/they were young. She took in her children and grandchildren when we/they needed a place to stay. She was strong in her convictions, held traditional and modern beliefs, and was a devout Roman Catholic. She was especially devoted to Mary, the Blessed Mother. My mother has said this about her parents: “My mother taught me prayer. My father taught me justice.”
Finally, I’d like to share one more personal story (one of many; some of the happiest moments of my childhood include her). When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I took up drawing. I especially loved to copy the portraits of pop stars and idols from my teen magazines, and I was showing some aptitude for it. One day I was at Nonni’s, and I had brought my sketchpad with me. I was eager to show her the drawings in the way we all want to please and make someone proud of us. She didn’t say much as she looked through the pages; I thought maybe she was being polite and didn’t think they were very good. She then left the room, returned with something in hand, and placed it in front of me. It was a sketchpad of drawings—drawings of the movie stars and celebrities of her time—that she’d copied long ago from magazines. And they were so expertly drawn. I marveled at each delicate, yellowed page. And I was delighted to know that I’d inherited this aptitude from her.
As you listened to my anecdote, no doubt you were thinking of your own: a time when you learned something about Nonni—something she showed you rather than told you about—and you were left in awe. And you left admiring her a little bit more, respecting her a little bit more, and loving her a whole lot more.
Look around at the legacy she has left and all we have inherited from her. My mother has inherited her stamina and vitality. My twin brother has inherited her joy of cooking. We have all inherited her kindness, her strength, her style, her nurturing, her sharp wit. And most of all, we’ve inherited her loud laugh.
We rejoice that our Nonni and Grandpa are reunited after all these years. No doubt he, along with my great-aunts and great-uncles, said, “Welcome, Mary. We’ve been waiting for you.” (My mom said she always kept my grandfather waiting.) I’m also pretty sure they had a great feast in her honor. Which she cooked.
Nonni, we miss you already. What I shall miss even more than that chocolate frosting is the way you said my name in your Italian accent--Eleezsa—and the warmth that accompanied it. And although we already miss your earthly presence, we know you will be with us always. Grazie, Nonni.