What would Noni say?

A curious, naive sixth grader stands face to face with an elementary school rival on a hot, asphalt playground. As girls usually measure, both are good students, have their own sets of friends and values, however their personalities clash. Blonde and blue-eyed, Martha Wilkes stands firm in an exchange of power with slashing words, “You come from peasant stock” – words that herald from beyond the sixth grade classroom, seeded from hearth and home. The other, stunned, absorbs the momentary sting and puzzled, returns home for further explanation and discussion.
I had only understood at that moment in time that being Italian meant something inferior, but I wanted to know how and why. After walking home from school, up a steep hill to the brick home my grandfather had built with his long, scantily-rewarded days at the brass mill, I still felt the burn of the scathing commentary in front of the other children. Yet no answers. My parents had little advice for a sixth grader to fully comprehend. I remember my mother’s piercing light blue eyes darting to connect with my father’s gaze no sooner had I told the story. Unaware I was at the time that she had struggled as an immigrant Italian child, arriving in America at the impressionable age of five with pains of her own, her parents not speaking a word of English and customs that were mocked, ridiculed and derided by those who occupied the community that she “invaded”. My words at that moment must have resuscitated buried pains and challenges, seething just below the years of settled dust.
I remember they looked at each other and tried to advise me to “just ignore her.” Not an easy or fully acceptable task when unanswered questions still leave burning scars. And so, with questions unanswered, I always turned to Noni. And when in perplexity, I explained to Noni, her words were brief. “L’ultima parola spetta al Signore.”
It was Noni’s gentle wisdom and constant presence that constituted the fortress upon which our lives were shaped and edified. Just as the most powerful season in Nature may be the winter when all seems inert, her quiet essence gifted the time, focus and ambience to energize and nurture those thoughts, reflections and values that contributed to strength of character and courage that would sustain through the pitfalls that life would bring, as I now know.
To her credit was not the title of CEO, CFO or COO, yet she operated the home with the savvy and aplomb of any manager in executive, fiscal and organizational departments. There was no waste. Sustenance was sufficient and savory. Time was spent wisely, evenly distributed among family members, cherishing others, particularly the children, first. She found strength and delight in understanding the profound meaning of selflessness and the dichotomy of knowing that its value made her that much more indispensable in the family. “Se un pozzo scaverai, la sete a tanta gente toglierai.”
It has taken me a lifetime to understand the implications of words, the likes of which sixth grader Martha Wilkes parroted to me on an elementary school playground. These words and consequential actions I see replayed over and over again in individuals that seek to separate rather than unite. The players change, but the core issues remain unaltered, passed on to each generation of people seeking to maintain division and vertical hierarchy without any real understanding of its nature. They socially choose a vertical mindset rather than a horizontal one. Their belief system constructs a vertical ascent to some out-of-sight objective on a hierarchical climb, rather than the horizontal joining of hands to form an interconnected circle of strength and community. ”Credersi superiori – e’ il piu’ comune errore.” We are different, yes, but we are “essentially” the same.
The verb “essere” in Italian means “to be” and from it is derived our English words, “essence” and “essential”. Our being in this life exemplifies a common factor binding us all, regardless of our differences. And as author and playwright, Luigi Pirandello so poignantly illustrated in his works, life and our reactions to it can be totally unpredictable. We are indeed complex, changing personalities, depending on a host of variables that lead us on this ever-winding Path of Life. Appearances and reality very often fuse into one another. Clear-cut solutions to problems and identities have multi-faceted dimensions. To sit in sacrosanct judgment of one another, then, is virtually impossible, since it would be, in effect, judging oneself in a multiplicity of unknown and unsure circumstances.
Noni’s words were not always plentiful, but they were succinctly meaningful. Sometimes, no words formed an even more powerful message. It is only with the gifts of reflection and time that now these messages have evolved into the lessons I have learned and understood.
The lessons are timeless and can be applied to the most mundane as well as the most complex of circumstances. In an effort to honor Noni, giving her homage for the foundational cornerstone that her “essence” has bestowed, these words are written. It is also in full recognition that sage women everywhere and throughout the ages have offered their strength, sometimes vocal, sometimes silent, to those who would have the desire to listen and the courage to reflect.



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