“Nonna” is the Italian word for grandmother (“nonno” for grandfather). It is used whenever Italians speak of a grandmother figure, the woman sporting a bun, apron, perhaps rolling pin or wooden spoon and always in the kitchen cooking. I am Italian on both sides with grandparents from Italy. However, these words “nonna” and “nonno” are foreign to me.
My grandmother was from a town just outside Naples. My grandfather was from a town about 30 minutes away in the mountains. We called grandma “anonn” and grandpa “unonn” pronounced like “ah-nun” and “oo-nun” in Neapolitan dialect. I imagine the words are similar or the same throughout the South of Italy.
Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect. So the word “nonna” is from standard Italian. (I’ve written an article on Italian dialect here.)
It is strange that even though the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants were from Southern Italy, the words from the Northern Italian dialects are accepted without question.
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You will see “nonna” in the media, and indeed, I have reluctantly used it in articles because that is the term used in contemporary media for grandparents. But in my heart and in my home, grandma and grandpa will always be anonn and unonn.
I wish my grandparents and great-grandparents were here, but I know they are smiling down on me. I know they are proud that, of all the books I could have written, in my 20+ career with a master’s in creative writing from NYU and a law degree, I chose to write their story, I chose to do the right thing, not the popular thing, not the marketable thing. And so it was, when I was deciding if I wanted to write a cookbook a number of years ago, that I started researching Italian food in more depth. Given my own personal experiences and those of my family along with the research I have done both here and in Italy, I could no longer remain silent to the maligning, so commonplace today that it has become inadvertent in many instances, of millions of people of their generation and their descendants. Since my book was published in March 2018, I see a zeitgeist of exploration of Italian-American history and culture in the popular media.
And I can still see my anonn, even though she’s been dead over ten years, with her old wooden rolling pin, rolling out dough for struffoli and bows, or sitting at the kitchen table shaking some Brioschi onto a napkin for me to eat while she drank hers in a glass of fizzing water. I see her picking mint in the backyard near the white fence. I see her stirring a pot of tomato gravy on Sunday morning that in my memory’s eye seemed taller than her.
I hear her voice, in her optimistic way, saying “you never know.” Meaning, you never know, something good might happen. I miss these Yogi Berra-like idiomatic sayings of hers. From her, I learned to never show up empty-handed to someone’s house, or in her words, “with my hand’s hanging.” She made me laugh when she told nasty people to “go shit in a hat.” Another she always shared with me is “Check your dates.” She meant that, at the grocery store, I should always check the date on the food I buy to make sure it’s the freshest.
So as Mother’s Day is around the corner, I impart some of my anonn’s wisdom to you—never go anywhere with your hand’s hanging, you never know what may happen, the creeps can go shit in a hat, and always check your dates.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
Image by Markéta Machová from Pixabay