Contributed by: Heather Lane Chauny
Get to know Heather: who is an connector, cheer leader and coach
Story from: Michigan, USA
In Africa, people continuously pay homage and respect to those that came before them. Worship of the ancestors, is more than a ceremony, it is a way of life. This spirit of Ubuntu "I am because you are" reverberates throughout daily life. Even the formal greeting in isi-zulu, "Sanibonani",which literally translates to "we see you," is meant as "my ancestors and I acknowledge you and your ancestors."
I was fortunate enough to live and grow up with three generations of ancestors. Through the first 25 years of my life, my Great-Nonna played a formative role, which is very unique to most families. This gave me and my cousins a very strong sense of who we are and from where we came.
It was with great courage and hope that our Great-Nonna, at the age of 19 boarded a ship in Italy for the United States of America to join her new husband in the land of opportunity. This young woman, who had never seen Rome, never touched the sea, said good-bye to her village of Supino and everything she knew to make a better life for herself and her family. I like to imagine the look on her face as the ship approached New York Harbor. Seeing the people gathered, more people than she had probably collectively seen in her life until then, overshadowed by immense sky scrapers rising from the horizon along with the clangs and whistles of the bustling city.
The excitement and relief as she disembarked from the ship, where she spent three weeks in third class quarters, green with sea-sickness since day one of the journey. The elation as she ran into my Great-Nonno's arms with their one-year old son, who he had not yet met, joyfully crying:
I loved it when she told me the story of great disappointment, when after spending a day in New York City with her cousin Rita, who took her to the many shops to buy a new dress (it had red polka-dots), she boarded a carriage for Burgettstown, PA, where my Great-Nonno was a coal miner. She said that when the carriage pulled into town on the dirt road, covered in horse manure, she yelled at my Great-Nonno,
Her musical Italian accent, made the story even more humorous. I pictured the sight of this poor young lady, who had just spent three weeks vomiting over the side of a ship, leaving her family and friends in Supino for "the land of opportunity," only to end up right back where she started: a small farming town in the middle of nowhere.
But it was in that small farming town, where my family was born. It was at that moment that one of the two main lines of my existence took form. My cousins and I are very aware of the fact that every opportunity in our lives stems from those moments. My sense of adventure and desire to know the world came from that desire in my ancestors to take a chance at a life in a completely foreign land, so that they could do more with their lives
My thirst for knowledge was born in my Great-Nonna's desire to go beyond a third grade education that she completed at top of her class. She would re-tell the story with great pride of “the big-a shot-a from Fresinone" who came to Supino to pin her with a gold star for academic excellence. It was the last time she would step foot in a classroom as a student, because her mother didn't believe in educating girls and she had work to do on the farm.
Because of that, with every advancement in our schooling levels, she would send a card with a $5 check to go and buy a pizza. Now her great-great grandson (whom she knew and watched grow until he was five is graduating from high school as the valedictorian of his class. I bet if she were still alive she'd think of that gold star she received as a young girl and know that this moment for Justin had much to do with her intellectual curiosity and encouragement.
She had the fortune of watching her family flourish throughout her life. Knowing that the sacrifices she made and the risks she took led to more than her wildest dreams could have imagined for her family and the opportunities we have all enjoyed.
It was a rainy day in the autumn of 2002 when I got the call from my Nonna. The assertive and self-confident (and often self-righteous) voice that never waivered, was filled with tears and cracking as she said,
"Heather, Nonna isn't going to make it. My mama is dying."
"I'm coming, Nonna."
I got into my car and drove the 60 minutes from Ann Arbor, where I was living at the time, to Mt. Clemens. I remember wishing that my windshield wipers worked on more than the windshield as I drove with tear-filled eyes through a tear-filled sky. "Please, let me say good-bye," I thought. I couldn't drive fast enough.
When I arrived to my Nonna and Nonno's house, the family had already begun to gather. All my cousins were seated in the kitchen...eating of course. My Aunt Mary Lou, Uncle Dennis, Auntie Dee-Dee and Uncle Bob were comforting my Nonna as she said her good-byes to her mother laying in the bed in the next room. My Great-Nonna was very much alert and aware and frightened by the fact that her breathing was becoming heavier and harder. Her lungs were giving out from 97 years of use.
My mom and Ray were on the way, as was my sister. The great-great grandchildren, the youngest was six-months old at the time, were unsure of what to feel or do, as they watched with frightened curiosity, the older generations' group despair. We took turns going in her room to say good-bye. I went in with my cousins Laura and Gina. We held her hands as she looked at us, we told her we loved her and thanked her for everything she had done for us...that we would never forget her. She blinked a smile and nodded, as if to say “Nonna, loves you too." Then we left the room to go back into the kitchen, finish our biscotti and coffee and wait.
My mom and Ray finally arrived, as did my sister. Everyone was now together hugging and comforting each other. Knowing that we were experiencing the end of an era. Not five minutes later, my Nonna cried in anguish from the next room, "Mama! Oh, Mama!" Like a whispering wind gently blowing out a candle, she took her last breath and...poof, she was gone.
All four remaining generations of the Zuccaro clan piled into the room to pay our final respects and say our prayers of thanks and gratitude to our matriarch.
My cousins and I bowed our heads holding each others' hands. Evan, the two year old great-great grandson was at the foot of her bed making the sign of the cross repeatedly while holding a rosary, mimicking the prayers of the adults, "A-men! A-men! A-men!" he repeated. We couldn't help but chuckle, as he tried to convey the sadness he saw around him, but not really understanding why. Parker the six-month old great-great grandson was laid resting peacefully on his Great-Great Nonna's chest, both their eyes closed.
From end to beginning, beginning to end, the family she made was there to thank her and say their good-byes. And while I had not yet travelled to South Africa to know what it was, I felt strongly the spirit of Ubuntu as I looked at my Great-Nonna lying in the bed so peacefully, her lips curled into a restful smile and I thought to myself;
We are, because you were...
This is Aida, Founder of 365 Days of Love <3
First, a big thank you to Heather for sharing her story. It was such a beautiful reminder how love stems not only from your partners but from your family members and especially your grand mother. It was also a beautiful reminder of the sacrifice our family members have taken in order for us to just to be alive and to have the chance to love. This story inspired me to call my grandmother, something I definitely should do more often.
Second a big thank you to YOU for reading this and taking the time to care for yourself, your heart and your life. If you enjoyed this and have a story or thoughts on love that you would like to share please get in touch (button below). We have 350 more articles to share and we hope to hear from you!
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With Lots of Love,