Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nonno Gino at 100

Gino, in the green hat, arriving at his mass with grandson
Paolo and "little" brother, 97 year-old Mario.

It was a day we’d all been waiting for, some of us longer than others, and Nonno Gino definitely the longest. We’d all held out hope that he would make it; that he would hang on and hang tough long enough to celebrate his 100th birthday in style.

And he did. And we did. And the whole town of Allerona did.

In the months leading up to April 27, every time Gino would start to feel low—winters are hard on him—we’d get him to talk about his party. About the food he wanted, about the music, about who would be there and who we should be sure to invite. And it worked every time—he’d rally and get excited planning his upcoming festa. What we knew for certain was that there would be porchetta—a small, whole roasted pig—and wine, lots of wine. What Gino didn’t know was that his daughter, Franca, along with Paolo’s aunts and cousins, were furiously planning a menu of antipasti to go along with the porchetta, to include a dizzying array of finger foods and so many desserts that we are still thawing and enjoying the frozen leftovers.

Neither rain, sleet or hail would keep Gino
from celebrating on his big day.
Gino wore a crisp new suit for his party, which was to commence with a mass at our town church, but not before Allerona’s philharmonic band serenaded him on the church piazza. We drove him up to town in our car and as soon as he stepped out, both the band and the skies above opened up, and he and a few hundred townspeople stood in the rain and listened to the band’s salute. There were few dry eyes in the piazza, and not because of the rain. For as much as I felt like a bystander—after all, he’s my grandfather only by virtue of a relatively recent marriage—I was hugged and kissed and told “auguri”—sort of like “best wishes”—by dozens of people, most of them waiting in the queue to get at Gino.

Inside the church, I held our squirmy daughter in my lap as the mass began. I complained quietly to my friend Estelle that someone, while hugging me, had somehow spilled some kind of lotion or body oil on me. My arms were covered with it. Estelle gave me her scarf to sop up the oil but every time I’d look at my hands or arms, more seemed to appear. It was like I was receiving the stigmata of colorless, odorless body oil, right there in the middle of Gino’s 100th birthday mass. And it was starting to freak me out.

Gino in church with daughter Franca and grandchildren,
Anarita & Paolo. This is about when my bra started leaking. 
Don Luigi congratulates Gino, as a young admirer looks on.
The second or third time I wiped the oil clean only to see more appear, I realized, with horror, what had occurred. In order to better fill out the tight fitting blouse I had on under my jacket—I planned to doff the jacket at the after-mass party—I’d inserted two “helpers”—soft, liquid filled bra inserts that add a little oomph to one’s profile. And one of them had burst. In church. In the middle of my husband’s grandfather’s 100th birthday mass. I looked down in quiet mortification at a huge dark stain covering the left side of my viscose jacket. So every time I brushed my arm or hand against my jacket, I picked up more oil from the leaky bra insert. Seriously. (Normally I would not use such an auspicious occasion as Gino’s big day to talk about myself, but exploding bra inserts don’t just happen every day, or in the middle of one’s husband’s revered grandfather’s 100th birthday mass.)

As discretely as I could with a squirmy baby (who is also Gino’s great-granddaughter) in my arms, I ducked out of church and raced home to change. I figure if anyone asked, at least I could blame my exit on her. I completed my outfit change in record time, and made it back to the church to hear our priest, Don Luigi, read the record of Gino’s baptism in 1913, and his marriage in 1937 to his young bride, Zita, who died in 2001. Don Luigi, who recites the same funeral mass every time someone dies and merely changes the name of the deceased, really outdid himself this time, and delivered a eulogy that was personal, touching and tender.
Feted with roses, plaques and scrolls.

We drove to the Sala Aurora, our town assembly hall, where the band again played for Gino upon his entry. Our mayor, our pro loco, or cultural committee, and several other municipal organizations presented Gino with plaques, scrolls, and sashes, all as he sat in a chair, monarch-style. And for that day at least, he really was the King of Allerona. (My friend Susan Morgan, who is one of Nonno Gino’s biggest fans, wrote this loving account of his party.)

Gino lasted until about 9 pm, when he was too tired of eating, drinking, singing and being kissed to continue for much longer. I took the baby home around the same time, but the party went on until 11 pm or so until the last of the revelers, my husband included, adjourned to the bar. When he came in around 1 am, he was animated and his speech a little slurred. “You’re drunk!” I said, more surprised than outraged. “No I’m not!”  Paolo protested. “Okay, maybe I’m a little drunk, but it’s not every day that my grandfather turns 100. Everyone was buying me drinks.” I guess since they couldn't buy Gino drinks, Paolo was a good substitute. 

Singing with the fellas.
If it seems I glossed over the big party, that’s because for me, and I think perhaps for Gino, the after-party was the best part. Since the fireworks we’d planned for the 27th got rained out, Franca and her crew decided to invite everyone down to her rustico, or garage, to eat leftovers and watch fireworks the next night. Our friend Isabella drove through town with a loudspeaker, and announced to all within earshot to come to Franca’s at 9 pm.

And come they did. Just as it was getting dark, cars started pulling up, and other groups arrived on foot for a snack and pyrotechnics. There were far fewer people than the night before, so the affair took on a cozy intimacy as people talked, mingled and drank in the cool night air. Gino was brought outside and sat down, again in monarch style, to watch his fireworks show, which he gazed up at with awe. It was a fitting cap to a weekend of festivities.

Coming out to watch his fireworks.
I’d wish Gino another 100 years if I thought he wanted it. But I know that he doesn't. He is tired, and we can see him winding down. He reached his milestone. He’s buried his wife, two of his three brothers, most of his friends and even his son-in-law. He doesn't need money or gifts, and I don’t believe that he longs for more time. But we sure hope he’ll stick around a little while longer. At least for a few more birthdays...

Gazing up at his fireworks show. 


  1. Ahahah I'm an italian expat (currently living in Berlin) and all this looks pretty surreal to me...I can't imagine how it looks to you. But are you american or british?

  2. Federico - I am American. I spent a lot of time in Italy before moving here, but nothing really prepares you for 10% immersion in small town culture! :)