Last Friday afternoon I went to go visit my 97 year old Aunt Marion for the last time. It was a bittersweet afternoon, but also one that filled me with nostalgia and pride. Aunt Marion's son, Johnny, as well as my Dad were visiting with her at the same. We were exchanging stories of the past and of our current lives among us and with Aunt Marion, and Aunt Marion had a couple of caregivers from the nursing home visit while we were also there.
I did not go visit the nursing home on a regular basis like my Dad and Johnny, so my relationship to Aunt Marion was unclear and unknown to her caregivers and nurses who had stopped by. Naturally, one of the nurses inquired about who I was and how I was related to Aunt Marion. Johnny responded, telling her that I was Aunt Marion's niece of sorts, and that led to the next question being, so then "What is Lia to you [Johnny]?"
Johnny and I kind of looked at each other as if we hadn't really thought about the answer to that. Technically we were second cousins (and we knew that), as my Dad and he are first cousins via their mother's being sisters, but labeling us as second cousins didn't seem quite right. So Johnny starts describing the D'Ambrosio-Zanco relationship to the nurse because second cousins didn't quite have any meaning for the nurse who spoke English as a second language.
His story started off by reminiscing back to Edenfield Ave, describing how both he and my father grew up in the same house giving the two cousins the opportunity to grow up like brothers and in a sense also share parents. This closeness that my Nonni and Aunt Marion provided both of their families growing up is the reason for which it was sometimes almost hard to define my relationship with the Zancos. Out of habit I called Johnny, "Zanc", and if I had to think about who he really was to me, I'd really call him my Uncle because that's what I felt he was to me. Zanc explaining the relationship to the nurse reminded me of how unique my D'Ambrosio side of the family was and reminded me of the good times we shared which were very different than the good times spent with my Serafini side.
From my Dad's stories I knew that sharing a home with the Zancos was quite the experience. Nonni and Aunt Marion mothered differently but under the same roof and Zanc and my Dad acted like brothers. They grew up being so close to each other (literally) and although they might have been living under the same roof for financial reasons, the bond between the Cafarella sisters (Nonni and Aunt Marion) fused the two families together and only grew stronger as they aged in life. They didn't live together for ever, but always remained close. My dad and Zanc can elaborate more on their life as kids under Nonni and Aunt Marion's reign, but I can only recall their relationship from 1990 and on and when I think about it, it's truly amazing.
Over time the D'Ambrosio and Zanco families moved out from under the same roof. I am not sure of the exact details, but at some point before I was born they found homes within eyesight of each other in Watertown, MA. They no longer lived under the same roof, but many things were still enjoyed together. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at my Nonni's house on Highland Ave. My relationship with my Nonni and Grampy was far different than that of my Nonna and Nonnos. While Nonna and Nonno love me dearly, their main means of showing their love was through feeding me and having me help around the house. Conversation and cuddles just weren't high on the list - this may have been due to the language barrier, or due to the way my grandparents grew up (in Italy during WWII). I knew very well that family is the most important thing to them as well and that we all love each other immensely, it was just always expressed differently. Time spent at Nonni's was very different. They did enjoy feeding me as well, but differently. With Nonni and Grampy, we'd go out to the Old Country Buffet to have all you can eat soft serve on top of a brownie cake. These excursions were always with Aunt Marion and Uncle Tommy as well.
The bottom line is: Everything we did together included Aunt Marion and Uncle Tommy (IN A GREAT WAY!). From Nonni's kitchen window you could lift the blinds while she was in her favorite seat, peak out the back and check to see if Aunt Marion's bright teal car was in the driveway. Nonni would ask me to check if they were home, if the car was in the driveway then we'd make the phone call and tell Aunt Marion we were coming to visit. I'd walk Nonni down the hill, then we'd go spend time with her sister. How lovely. We'd all sit at the table to play a big game of cards, whether Nonni and I walked down to Aunt Marion's or Aunt Marion walked up. A pot of coffee would be made, some waffle crisp may have been eaten (no matter the time of day), and I can't remember who drank the diet coke (I think it was Grampy), but Nonni would always have be go get the diet coke from the fridge and open it for him. There was little to zero yelling/arguing when we gathered together. Only a couple of sly words and nuggies exchanged if someone had a clever play in the game of cards or at Rummikub. Those two families truly enjoyed being together and I loved being a part of the fun as well.
Something else noticeable different than my Nonno and Nonna's ways was that Aunt Marion and Nonni would ALWAYS express their love, verbally, written on cards or physically by means of slathering us with kisses, holding our hands and convincing us to constantly sit on their laps. I remember being 3 or 4 inches taller and Nonni still begging me to come sit on her lap at her round table. It was clear that they loved to love us and each other!
I think I feel so inclined to write this post because over the last couple of years I've spent a lot of time in Italy and spending time with my mom's side of the family, but Zanc's comments and being with Aunt Marion for the last time really drove me to remember all of the truly fabulous things about my Dad's side of the family. And it's truly amazing to see how time was spent differently with both families and different things were learned and experienced with both families -- both equally rewarding. But I love thinking about the hours spent playing cards with Nonni, how Aunt Marion was dedicated to teaching me how to knit and pearl, how my Nonni would make the best chicken cutlet or pastena, feed me Little Debbie cakes, have waffle crisp and soda ready if I wanted it (and yes, I did want it!), going back and forth between Aunt Marion's house, how Aunt Marion would drive us to the market or to the Old Country buffet because my Nonni would NEVER get behind the wheel of a car. Another thing I loved about Aunt Marion and Nonni and that I know all my relatives can attest to and will never forget was that they'd remind us that we better call when we got home so they wouldn't worry - this went for anyone leaving them and going home. They were truly sweet sweet sweet ladies who loved to share their love, and they were truly blessed to have had each other support their entire lives.
What's the most impactful about the D'Ambrosio and Zanco story is what they shared in life. The countless memories of living under the same roof and within a stone's throw from each other are priceless. It's not often that two sisters, their husbands and their kids are willing and looking forward to spending and sharing that much of their time and lives together. They were blessed to be near each other for support whenever it was needed.
Monday, July 31st, Aunt Marion passed away at the age of 97. She lived a long, wonderful and loving life. She lived without my Grampy 20 years, her husband 10 years and my Nonni nearly 2 years. It's incredibly sad to think about, and as I write this out for the first time the tears are starting to roll down my face, but now all four of them are back together living under the same roof, sadly no longer in our world with us. But where they eternally lay in St. Patrick's cemetery is a testament to their love for each other. It's rare that you see a headstone at the cemetery dedicated to two pairs of husbands and wives (D'Ambrosio & Zanco), and it comforts me to see them rest together under the inscription "Always Together". You'll never be forgotten and I'll cherish all of our time spent together. All my love.