(The following is an essay that is close to the heart. It's been 13 years that we lost my grandfather, and last night, as we all assembled on the anniversary of his death, I presented these words to those who were there when he took his last breath. )
It's not everyday a wild lizard gets a funeral.
My eyes squinted into the distance as the bright sun reflected off the rocky terrain. Our three sets of feet snaked up a trail near the mountain’s edge, following one by one, kicking up dust as we went. The air was hot and electric with child-like expectation—unburdened from grown-up agendas and incomprehensible conversation, our ears not tuned to the local Italian dialect. My barely-a-grown-up uncle led the way as my older brother held a small box with the lifeless body of our lizard friend. We found a spot and began to dig with borrowed shovels. Having completed the work, we placed the box in the shallow hole we had made, sealed it with dirt, and giggled as my uncle gave a silly eulogy.
When you’re a visitor in a new land, the wildlife—even the locally disregarded wildlife—becomes sacred to you. And when your deeply wrinkled great-Nonna fiercely broom-bludgeons a lizard without so much as a thought, two Canadian kids are bound to take offence.
My grandparents gifted this trip to their children and grandchildren. For three weeks in July we travelled from house to house in our motherland of Calabria, Italy, offering both our cheeks to new relatives. Our home base was my Nonna’s parent’s house where we would eat every night with her many sisters and their families. Both my grandparents emigrated from the same area in Italy but met in Canada; therefore, we had two sets of family trees with which to become acquainted.
Being just seven-years-old, I collected memories from our family trip like a child gathering stones, filtering them with flippancy and keeping only the smoothest or most colourful. My mind holds tiny vignettes: bobbing in the Mediterranean with a new uncle and the salty taste of sea water; looking out the car window to see charred earth and smelling the grass fires of that hot July day; playing dolls with my cousin in the quiet of a mid-afternoon siesta; the chickens strutting free-range in the front yard of my great-Nonna’s house; a curvy ride through the mountains to visit a great aunt who rasped through her stoma; the string beads that dangled in the doorway in lieu of a door; the red fire ants that marched up and down the large knobby tree in the yard; the late-night dancing; the loud laughter between Nonna and her sisters. And then there is the most vivid memory of all—Nonno's wide-toothed grin as he took his place behind his enormous video camera.
That video camera was always propped on his shoulder. In Canada, he would take videos of every moment, both ordinary and extraordinary. When he was in front of it, he would tell stories in Italian or strum the one chord he knew on his guitar while he sang a hymn, his mouth so wide we could see the crack in his tongue. His purpose was to send our home videos to our family in Italy. In truth, I'm not sure how many actually made it there because for years they occupied space in the second-bedroom closet, VHS’ stacked like books. After it was my aunt's bedroom, it became a TV room. Months before my Nonno’s death, as the cancer worked to weaken his body, he would sit in that room and watch the bygone years on tape, reliving his days in the sun before it set on him one last time.
Nonno had made a feast from crumbs. He disembarked the ship in Canada with his parents and siblings as a penniless shepherd, the oldest of 5 children. With no more than a grade 4 education, he learned to speak English and worked jobs to financially contribute to the household income. He worked, he married, he had children, they had children, and in the summer of 1997, he was a Canadian home owner revisiting his birth country as a vacationer. That must have been baffling to consider—returning prosperous to where you once were a pauper.
Nonno was proud to present us to his relatives and almost giddy in his zeal to share his birth place with us. His round face would transform with mirth and memory as he recounted his early years. My imagination bloomed as my grandparents told stories from their past on our family’s daily trips, sitting in the domestic kitchens of family and friends more often than tourist spots. But those kitchens, with their wooden high backed chairs and plastic-covered floral tablecloths, were an education unto themselves. There were significantly less “things” in those houses. I noticed the tiled floors and plastered walls kept the houses cool, the heat of the sun never reaching the shadows, unlike Canada’s humid summer heat. Milk came by daily delivery to each home, crates placed on doorsteps and filled before the rooster crowed. It was a different world.
On that trip, when he gathered me onto his knee to tell a story about shepherding sheep, a nearby fig tree, or regularly drawing water from a well, I listened in a new way. My grandfather as the shepherd boy was just as ancient and holy to me as young King David. I imagined his staff in hand as he gracefully redirected his flock across a dawn-lit field, an ewe draped across his shoulders. As he narrated his early years, the fig tree took shape over a preaching apostle Paul; the Well became a meeting place for Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I felt that I had not only travelled thousands of miles but back thousands of years, in a time where meals were cooked over fire pits and sandaled feet walked cobble-stone streets. Present-day rural Italy and ancient Rome occupied the same space in my imagination; therefore, it wasn't much of a stretch to place my story-telling, Jesus-loving Nonno into the Biblical narratives I heard every Sunday morning.
I remember the strange way my Honey nut cheerios tasted with unpasteurized milk more than the details my Nonno relayed to us as we swept up and down the hills of Calabria. Nonno would tell me of fig trees because he used to eat a lot of figs. In Italy, figs were free and plentiful yet somehow, fondly remembered. I think that if I had been forced to eat a particular food in excess I would come to hate it. However, at the airport after we returned home, I watched baskets full of figs rolling out on baggage carts through the customs automatic sliding doors. A delicacy to a Canadian—a taste of home for an Italian. Figs still find their way onto our table at every family meal.
I don’t remember seeing figs at his funeral though. Just hundreds of people packed into a church basement munching on church-lady finger sandwiches, eyes glistening with remembrance. And those many videos became a source of grief for some of us, yet in time, a treasure to all of us. Through the lens of Nonno's camera we caught a glimpse of the way he saw us all—not dissimilar to the devoted love a shepherd shows to his sheep. His example guided us; his care embraced us; his eyes recognized us; his voice encouraged us, and for a time, the loss of his presence stunned us.
Legacy is not just the leftovers from a life once lived, but the accumulation of intention that trails behind us, that equips those who must keep on living.
I was given my name because it was one of my Nonno’s favourites. The meaning of my name in Hebrew is “Lamb”.
I reimagine the shepherd boy, but this time, I am one among his flock. Whether it was on the slopes on a hill in Italy, the suburban sprawls of Canada, or in the wake of his prolific life, Nonno gathered his sheep.