The Way of Wisdom from Grandmother to Grandson

Coffee with Nona and More Coffee with Nona, two charming, delightful books by Vincent M. Iezzi published by Servant Books, recall the fond memories of an Italian boy during World War II growing up in Philadelphia amid an extended family. The stories illustrate the humanizing, civilizing nature of a traditional culture where a child hears stories from a beloved grandmother, inherits an ethnic identity, receives a religious heritage, and gains a familiarity with many loving relatives. In the fragmented America of the twenty-first century where nuclear families have replaced extended families, where restless mobility, career changes, and individualism have established an erratic rather than a rooted way of life, and where isolated smaller families and single-parent families deprive children and adults of the friendship of the other adult members of the larger family, human beings often feel like whirling atoms in the void rather than persons who belong to a larger family, a culture rich in traditions, and a world of common sense and accumulated wisdom. These stories about growing up with Nonna in the 1940s show the way to perpetuate and transmit a living tradition, accumulated wisdom, a Christian way of life, and the blessings of family life. The secret is the home and the extended family.

While no one can live in the past or return to an outdated, ancient way of life, some wise practices of earlier ages need restoration in the modern world to combat the radical individualism that disintegrates family life and thwarts the transmission of the perennial wisdom and living traditions of culture. In these stories about Nonna, the preservation of culture requires identification with an ethnic background and a religious heritage. Young Vinzie goes to Mass with Nonna, speaks Italian in the home, and knows the love of aunts and uncles and grandmother in addition to the love of a father or mother:

Nonna taught me to think and to use my imagination. She made me see and     appreciate simple and ordinary things. She directed me to God and helped me see that He was always within reach and could be found in the plain and simple moments. She made me fall in love with being Italian. She tutored me to love and to speak her language. She showed me how to live in a family and how to re-create it for others.

The ethnic and religious identity Nonna provides Vinzie combats the restlessness of the generations that call themselves Generation X and Generation Y who relate to no past and belong to no culture.

The home is the center of civilization and the first school, and parents teach by example and by word. It is the place where one “tastes the sweetness of the Lord” in the deliciousness of home-cooked food and the aroma of fresh coffee. As Nonna explains, “The pizzelle is made of sugar and anise to remind us of the sweetness of God’s love and forgiveness.” It is a place where one learns the stories and history of his parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Sitting at the kitchen table with his grandmother and following their custom of enjoying coffee, conversation, and storytelling, Vinzie inherits all the religious ideals of his Catholic faith, all the civilized customs of the old country, all the perennial wisdom of his grandmother’s experience, and all the blessings of a large extended family. He receives all these formative, educational influences from his close bonds with a grandmother who created the culture of a loving home for her entire extended family and neighbors. Conversations and stories at the kitchen table over coffee unite the generations. Vinzie recalls the home as a center of civilization, a world of hospitality where generosity and kindness were lived and taught.

The custom of a weekly family reunion on Sunday at 1:00 was a long-established practice: “One of the unbroken traditions we have in our family is our Sunday 1:00 p.m. dinner” –a way of life common to many Italian families, the author adds. “After Nonna died, this 1:00 p.m. dinner was continued in an unbroken tradition by my mother and aunts. Even today, this tradition is continued in the families of Nonna’s grandchildren’s families.” To restore Christian culture in a pagan, secular world, this ritual of a Sunday dinner among family and friends needs revival. It establishes the solidarity of the family, unifies the old and the young in a special bond, and communicates the sense of belonging to something greater than one’s self. Vinzie recalls the occasions when many members of the extended family all participated in family projects like the jarring of tomatoes, the making of homemade wine, and the preparing of sweet liqueurs: “When a pot of cooked tomatoes had reached that ‘right time,’ Nonna would call for help. If you were ‘invited,’ you reported to the basement where you would find six or seven chairs arranged in a circle.” The ritual of winemaking also followed time-honored rules: “Uncle Tony had one rule regarding his wine . . . . If-ah you don’t-ah make-ah da vino, you don’t drink-ah vino. Tutti capito? (Everybody understand?).” The members of an extended family who share these common memories, who continue these arts from one generation to another, and who combine work and play with conviviality live in tune with nature, close to God, bonded with one another, and never feel alone or alienated in the world. All these shared family experiences of food preparation “were invaluable because they were made and shared with love”—a way of life synonymous with the art of living and enjoying life to its fullest.

In the course of Sunday dinners, preserving tomatoes, winemaking projects, holy days, and old-world traditions, a child’s circle of friends and relatives enlarges, his repertory of stories expands, and his knowledge of human nature deepens. To inherit and belong to a noble culture is to receive an education in manners and morals and to acquire an understanding of the human heart. Vinzie’s many conversations with Nonna over coffee at the kitchen table refine his mind and sensitize his heart. Good and evil, right and wrong are never relative, ambiguous, or uncertain. The conscience is formed.

“Nonna was very patient, but she absolutely could not tolerate unkindness . . . . Having a deep sense of hospitality or being grateful and appreciative was part of kindness. She pushed the limit of kindness to include thoughtfulness, consideration, concern, gentleness, respectfulness, politeness, and many, many other qualities.”

Vinzie also learns the graciousness of Christian hospitality when Nonna reprimands him for calling a man who knocked on the door and begged for food “a bum”. Reminding her grandson of Christ’s words, “When I was hungry, you fed Me, and when I was thirsty, you gave Me to drink . . .,” Nonna instructs Vinzie that the stranger at the door “could have been Jesus or one of His messengers coming to give us a test or an opportunity to do a good deed”—a lesson Vinzie never forgot because whenever a stranger knocked on the door, the grandson would tell his grandmother in Italian, “Nonna, Jesus is at the door.”

Nonna in her role as a stay-at-home mother forms the conscience and heart of a child and refines his sensibilities so that he sympathizes with the sufferings of others and discerns their essential needs. Modern civilization, which has transplanted too many women from homes into workplaces at the expense of the impoverishment of children, needs to restore the ideal of full-time motherhood and the civilizing influence of a home surrounded by a woman’s constant, daily love for her children and the powerful example of her compassionate heart.

These stories about a grandson’s daily coffee with Nonna, however, provide an education that no school can equal, an understanding of life’s mysteries such as love and death, for Vinzie comments, “A lot of the things you teach me, I don’t see or read in books.” From his grandmother Vinzie learns to appreciate simple pleasures and great gifts: “But always remember that when you enjoy something, it is because others have given it to you out of love. You enjoy life because God gave it to you. You enjoy pizzelles because I bake them out of love.” Heartbroken over the loss of his beloved fun-loving, lighthearted Aunt Tzizzie, Vinzie grows in faith when Nonna, who was widowed twice by the age of twenty-six, explains the mystery of love: “I have lost many loved ones, Vinzee, and I have learned that they really never leave me. I cannot see them, but they are there with me, around me.” Because love is stronger than death and the spiritual nature of love can never die, she comforts her grandson with the thought that “dying and sealed caskets and being covered with dirt cannot break the strength of love and respect that people have for each other.” Nonna’s stories teach practical wisdom as well as Christian faith. Everyone is intelligent or gifted in some way, she explains, and no one is without some talent: “We are all smart, but in different ways . . . . God doesn’t make dumb. We make dumb because we are lazy or because we don’t care.” These conversations provide simple but profound, even philosophical, answers that evoke wonder in the mind of the child—the wonder that is the beginning of knowledge. When Vinzie asks how the saints knew they were pleasing to God, Nonna’s answer explains that the telltale sign was “the stillness they had inside . . . when we feel this peace, it means God is resting in us.” The restoration of Christian culture demands that homes be schools of wisdom and faith where an older generation easily transmits the experience of wisdom and the lore of the past to the young in stories and memories in which heart speaks to heart—cor ad cor loquitur.

It is not sentimental to recapture this ideal of American family life in the 1940s. It is a portrait of sanity, common sense, and right reason. To restore these ideals of stable homes, extended families, Sunday dinners, the vocation of full-time motherhood, the custom of hospitality, and the festive celebration of Sundays creates the reality of a human culture where people once again discover the art of living well, of living an authentic human life, of enjoying all of life’s abundant simple pleasures from tasting coffee to making wine to hearing stories to enjoying people to loving laughter. Without this art of living, the by-product of culture and tradition, the modern world becomes more more dehumanized and more alienated. The chaos of restlessness and constant change disconnects human beings from their past and traditions, the nuclear or single-parent family suffers isolation and loneliness, the compulsion to work robs the human spirit of the enrichment of leisure and play, the two-income family empties the home of its civilizing influences, and the absence of hospitality and celebrations in homes deprives people of friendships and bonds of love that give life purpose and meaning. What kind of a human life is it without coffee and conversation in a hospitable home with a wise, kind, loving woman who cherishes children and teaches them lessons like “Sometimes the small things we do are bigger than all the big things”?

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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