Thursday, February 4, 2010


I first started writing directly to Nonnie, to her spirit, hoping that she would enter into a conversation with me, by coming to me in my dreams, into my thoughts, into my heart and inform me of all the things I overlooked as a child. And all the things I have forgotten as an adult. I wrote as a granddaughter.

And then I started writing to Concetta, my daughter, speaking to her as a mother, of all the things I want her to know. What I feel is important. How I want her to view our family’s past, to see her namesake.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Leaving you in the hospital to go to Italy

Youth is when your selfishness is somehow stomached, tolerated,

People say, do it while you are young.

If you have children, it’s difficult to take risks

That is when you are meant to be the protector, to put a curb on your carefree ways.

Nonna, I used to say hello to everyone. Everyone. Just like you. When I first gave birth I stopped saying so many hellos to so many people. I became like a mother bear, suspicious of surrounding strangers.

I didn’t used to think of the world as filled with strangers before. People I hadn’t met yet were still potential friends and acquaintances.

Now that Concetta is turning into a toddler and is interested in making friends, I am regaining my friendly ways, reaching out to the children around us, encouraging her to share her toys and baby dolls, which she hands to them easily waiting for their speech to and facial expressions. She loves to go up to children and say “Hi”. Just like you Nonna.

Everywhere we went together, you would hum and sing quietly and talk in a lilting voice. You always had a kind thing to say to anyone who crossed our path at K-Mart or the grocery store. “What a lovely smile, what a happy color you are wearing” she used to describe inanimate things as happy. This always made me see her as infinitely happy. So it surprised me when my mother told me Nonnie had suffered from depression when she was growing up. Nonnie, you did tell me that you sometimes felt trapped in the house without a car and all those children to care for. Especially after the whole gang of you moved from New York to Texas. That’s how I ended up being a Texan. My mom was just 13 or 14 when she moved here, and she married my Dad when she was 17. My sister and were born immediately after. And the love affair with Nonnie began.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Guide to Literary Agents - ''Dear Lucky Agent'' Contest: Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction

Guide to Literary Agents - ''Dear Lucky Agent'' Contest: Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction

memoir writers, check out this competition!

"Dear Lucky Agent" Contest:

Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction

Welcome to the first "Dear Lucky Agent" Contest on the GLA blog. This will be a recurring online contest with agent judges and super-cool prizes. Here's the deal: With every contest, the details are essentially the same, but the niche itself changes - meaning each contest is focused around a specific category or two. So if you're writing book-length memoir or narrative nonfiction, this first contest is for you!


You can leave your entry in the Comments section of this post, or just e-mail it. Send e-mailed entries to (If using e-mail, paste everything. No attachments.)


The first 200 words of your unpublished, book-length work of memoir, femoir or narrative nonfiction (also called creative nonfiction). You must include a contact e-mail address with your entry and use your real name. Though not mandatory, feel free to submit the title of the work and a logline (one-sentence description of the work) with your entry.

Please note: To be eligible to submit, I ask that you do one of two things: 1) Mention and link to this contest twice through any social media - blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, message boards, comments on other blog sites; or 2) just mention this contest once and also add Guide to Literary Agents Blog ( to your blogroll. Please provide link(s) so I can verify eligibility.
Keeping animals and Trichinosis

Dear Nonnie,

Aunt Fran rung the necks of chickens. She cut the main artery in the necks of pigs, letting the blood flow out into a bucket to save for blood pudding. “She knew just where to cut. It was usually at Christmastime, because that is when we would eat the blood pudding. Most people think it sounds disgusting, but they don’t know how delicious it is. Oh what I wouldn’t do for some right now. When it is cooked, it becomes a lot thicker, and she would put the spices in and give it some flavor. It really is quite delicious. It has been a long time since I had such a treat.”

Nonna, your very large family kept many animals you told me. “That is how we made it through the Depression. We never went hungry. We had the garden and we had the animals. Fresh eggs from the chickens, fresh milk from the goats. The goat’s milk saved my life when I contracted the Trichinosis. I drank that everyday to keep my strength up. I am sure that is what saved me. When pork is not cooked properly or thoroughly the germ from the Trich is still alive and can get inside of you.” She often called the disease “Trich”. It took many years of listening to these stories to figure out what Trich was. You told me so much starting when I was very young.

The stories fascinated me, they still do. That’s why I am hurrying to write. Your voice is still in my head, exactly as you told me these things. I want to preserve that voice as best as I can.

Many of your brothers and sisters died before you. But somehow you survived. You were a miracle child. It did not seem that you were strong but you were. Or maybe it was the daily visits from Poppie that saved you.

In bed for a year with trichinosis, Poppie visiting and winning over Aunt Fran and Uncle Phil’s hearts. “They must have seen that he was a good boy, because they let him in to see me. I told him, ‘Why do you come here? Go away! I don’t need your pity.’ But he stayed and kept coming everyday on the bus, out to our house in the Columbia County countryside. We didn’t have a phone. It was a long distance. He said, ‘I don’t have pity.’ He would just sit and talk to me. He had made up his mind that he was going to marry me no matter how many times I said no. I didn’t even know him.”

On Halloween, I sang Salve Regina at our high school. He came outside afterwards to talk to me. I knew he was on the basketball team, and wrote for the newspaper, he was two years older than me. His younger brother Jack had passed away from a burst appendix. But I didn’t him very well. He said that I sung beautifully. Back then we had paper straws to drink with and he took one of those and made it into a ring. He said, “I’m going to marry you,” and he put that paper straw ring on my finger, just like that. I thought, this guy is crazy. I said, ‘You’re crazy. I will not marry you. I am only 17 years old and I am planning on going to school to become a nurse.’ I also had the dream of becoming a nun. I was just a girl. 17 years old. He just repeated, “I’m going to marry you.” I laughed. I didn’t take him very seriously, but he talked about the future and what he was planning. He was going to put a few dollars in the bank and save it for our wedding. He was planning his career as a journalist. He was confident about that.

I remember later on when I was scared about what we would do. We had nothing back then. But he talked me through the finances and how he knew we could make it on his meager salary writing a sports column for the paper. He had plans for getting his Masters, for getting a higher position in Journalism. It was his passion. Always was. He put my mind at ease. In the bank, he put away a few meager dollars , but I knew that it would be okay.

* * *

While I walking down the aisle of St. Mary’s Church, I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” I was getting married and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. All those dreams of going to school to become a nurse. Or becoming a nun.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Water Dreams

What is this water that surrounds her

Day and night

And invades my dreams?

How is it she does not drown?

She makes me want

to move fluidly

To get up out of my chair

And flow in ways I have not

For years.

To think in ways

I have not thought before

Without borders to restrict

My reasoning

To reach out to heights and depths

I have only touched in memory

Or in dreams

Or never at all

It is a longing she implants in me

To roll like rain across the countryside

And gently caress the grass

The way she caresses me.

She is bone and flesh

and water

So salty

She sucks at it

imitating her longing to eat

to nourish herself

I can give her nothing except what I give myself.

Is that enough?

We are one and still we are separated by barriers.

I cannot hold her hands in mine, but she touches me with her fingers and toes.

My brain is working independently of hers, but our movements influence one another.

My heartbeat is separate from her own faster beating, but she causes mine to beat harder to provide more blood for her.

My legs and back are stiff, while hers are undulating like a fish.

She sends me dreams of oceans, rivers, pools of water

where I can be held up, where I can defy gravity for a moment.

This is what will pull her from me.

The turning of the earth, and the face of a full moon

Will one day turn her head towards the earth,

towards the surface of the seas

and she will dive into this world

for a moment, amphibian,

and then suddenly a lover of land.
Labor, past and present


What she was

What you will be.

The first, my grandmother

The second, my child

With me in the middle

Cradling both

One in the arms of memory

One in the embrace of the future.

They have the same name,

Though one has transferred to the spirit world

And the other is not yet born.

The two of them will deliver me,

Concetta, meaning Conception.

While she was letting go

of her ability to walk

curled up like an infant in a bassinet,

You are kicking aggressively

Against my engorged abdomen

Like an Olympic swimmer in a baby pool.

When I spoke to her,

At times she could not hear the words spoken

But understood the meaning on my face.

When I speak to you, the language is not important;

Your hand and foot curl against either end of me

In response.

It is the touch

That most impressed

And impresses them both.


Will delivering you

Be as difficult as it was

Delivering her?

The arduous months of holding on

like an animal

Caught in a trap

it could only hope to escape

By losing some part of itself.

The gift of acceptance

coming only after the hollow scream

at her bedside

after exhaustion

from fighting the inevitable.

She had escaped.

Let the acceptance come sooner this time.

Let me not fight

whichever way my daughter chooses to come into this world,

the way I fought how my grandmother chose to leave this world.


You need a lot of patience

To go through all the phases of labor.

You must sit at the side of the bed

And hold her hand

Sing her songs

Apply strong pressure to her back,

Pushing her by centimeters into what’s to come.

She must be able to grip you strongly

You must be able to stand up under such weight

You must look at your watch,

Not to see when this will all be over,

But to help her count,

To measure breaths more than time.

Your love for numbers can be shared now.

Contract for 30 seconds, rest for 5 minutes.

This is only the beginning,

Reserve some energy for the hours to come.

Contract for 45 seconds, rest for 3 minutes.

Keep some strength for the pushing to come.

Contract for minutes, rest for seconds.

Hold onto hope for the life to come.


Death is measured

Watched over



Worried over

Wondered about

Prayed through

Lifted up with our hearts

Into our throats

In ways similar to life.

One woman delivers her mother

Into the next world

And feels as a mother giving birth.

She has labored intensely.

There is a heavy overwhelming ache

And stripes of pain

That cannot be alleviated through an IV.

Afterwards, she hopes for a release

That allows her to walk from the bed to the trees,

To look above and into the skies,

The way her mother looked into her eyes

When she was born.

I hope to feel the birth,

To be aware

To trigger some memory that was my grandmother’s before

And has since been forgotten.

This pain may be a gift

Of understanding

That carries across generations.

Or it may be a stoic dream

That I may not be able to carry.


I cannot start the garden,

Because I cannot bend over,

Cannot dig with a shovel.

The seed has already been sewn.

There will be a greater unearthing soon.


There is a large muscular man

Who insists that I say certain words

To appease his ego,

Or else he will hurt me,

Will beat me up.

I say something defiant

And refuse to change my words.

He replies, “I’ll be back,”

Meaning that the next time he returns

Will be the reckoning moment.

Even though I anticipate his return,

I know I will respond in the same way

Each time.

My father stands as a barrier

Between the muscular man and me.

He does not speak,

But makes it clear by the look in his eye

That this man is not to lay a finger on me.

The muscular man returns again and again

And we repeat the same script.

There are times when he returns in minutes

And times when he returns in seconds

And times when I fear he will actually

be able to take a hold of me and hurt me.

I tense up my body and hold my pregnant belly

With anxiety.

When he leaves each time,

I relax and let go a little more,

Realizing it is my response

That lessens or maximizes his power.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dear Nonnie,

You told me times the day of your birth. Who told this to you? You must have seen this act of remembering all the details of a person’s birth as noble, since you could tell each of your children and grandchildren (whose births you had attended) about the mood, weather, and special details only you would think to remember that make it poignant.

Dear Nonnie, You were born during a snowstorm in Columbia County New York, out in the countryside, far from a hospital or a doctor. A doctor had been called and was on his way, making the treacherous journey to your family’s humble house. Your mother was very ill, and there were so many children already. 12 or 13 you told me. Concetta Grandinetti was 52 years old. Women from Calabria must come from the strongest and most fertile stock. Your father Giovanni stood worried, not knowing what to do. Was he in the room holding your mother’s hand or outside the room calming the children? Your father had a great mustache you once told me. Now I see him in my mind with this slightly curled thick dark mustache, so that I cannot tell if he is smiling or frowning.

What was your sister Francesca thinking? She must have been 11 or so, and a strong girl, being the oldest in the family and already taking over most of the chores and helping to rear her sisters and brothers. She must have been there or as close as they would let her be, waiting for you, wishing for you, praying for her, the way she worried and looked after you in your whole life ever after. The photos I saw of her were of a stout woman of muscle and soft skin. Arms that could cuddle or crush, eyes that could bless or curse you, thick wavy almost blonde hair, cut short to be practical and save time. Including her in this moment is not what you had explained, but describing any aspect of your early life without Aunt Fran wouldn’t be right, as she was your guardian angel, one of your greatest admirers who loved and adored you in ways only a mother can.

The midwife was already there you said. Perhaps she did not live so far away. Or they must have called her earlier. Maybe your family did not want to call the doctor, unless there was an emergency. Your mother Concetta could not wait any longer, and you yourself could not wait to come into the world. It was dark outside, night or early morning when the midwife delivered you. When the doctor finally showed up afterwards, he was the one who was paid and of course fed. Everyone was always fed well in your family. Was it Aunt Fran who prepared the food while you labored to enter into the world?

You would forever be the baby of the family. Your brothers and sisters fawned over you, holding you, playing baby games with you, arguing over who could feed you, as your mother could not, being ill with Tuberculosis. And of course, your sister Francesca took over the role of being your mother, which infuriated Concetta Grandinetti. It was a terrible blow to her, her one source of pride and strength, to be a mother she was not allowed or even able to do. Separated by medical necessity, but having all the desire and need to hold and love you, crushed her. Sometimes when you spoke about your mother, you cried. How you longed to know her. How you wished she had survived past your third birthday.

Going to school with the nuns and being Italian

Venerating the catholic mass rituals with utter reverence

Going to Italy and crying at seeing Michelangelo’s statue of David

Singing Salve Regina at your high school and Poppie proposing to you

Wanting to be a nun then a nurse

In bed for a year with trichinosis, Poppie visiting and winning over Aunt Fran and Uncle Phil’s hearts. “They must have seen that he was a good boy, because they let him in to see me. I told him, ‘Why do you come here? Go away! I don’t need your pity.’ But he stayed and kept coming everyday on the bus, out to our house in the Columbia County countryside.” Growing up with pigs, chickens, cutting their throats ringing their necks

Goats and how goat’s milk saved her life when she had trich

Licia, licia, duve sei stata duve nana, che hai portaste pane casa? Portast’a mi, no? Dat da da da da (old Calabrese dialect rhyme said to children.)

The way she made salads, meatballs, sauce. Chianti

Always a girl, playful, loving

Making friends with strangers in the grocery store line

Dear Nonnie,

What was it like all those days and nights in the retirement home? What were you retiring from? Do we ever really retire? So many in the family felt that you gave up too easily, lost all desire to walk, to try to make maintain your vitality, to keep your strength and balance. That you didn’t try.

I remember you at Poppie’s grave. “So this is it Walt?” You had a waver in your voice and you threw your hands up, but you didn’t look up at the sky. In my faith hopeful mind, I expected you to utter a prayer to keep Poppie safe and keep him until you meet again. But there was nothing more said. I now realize there is no way to imagine what you were thinking or feeling in that moment. Maybe a handful of people attending the funeral could have understood to their core what it meant to lose a life-long partner. Maybe I never will know that feeling. Juan and I have so many years ahead of us, God-willing.

You stopped cooking for yourself. After cooking for 9 people on a regular basis, for more than 20 years, and running after all the requirements of Poppie’s tastebuds for so long, who wants to cook for one? How is it possible to measure such a small amount? Are there spoons and cups small enough for such a small appetite? You stopped brushing your hair, looking after your appearance, there was a vacancy in your voice.

I remember your vitality Nonna. From your retelling of your personal history, I imagine your youthful vivacity, your energy, your dreams. You had such thick beautiful almost black hair. You never lost that dense waviness, that lush darkness that complemented your pale soft skin. The perfect slope of your nose and high cheekbones, blue like the midway level of the ocean, not too clear like the surface not too dark like the depths, but in-between. Which is how you felt when Poppie past. Part of you left with him and part of you stayed behind. For me it was a gift that you went on to survive so many years past Poppie’s death. For you in many ways, I could see that it was a form of torture. To be a survivor.

Friday, January 8, 2010

"Nonnie" from Nonna, grandmother in Italian

Dear Nonnie,

You always believed in me. You never said these words, but it was just understood in your patience with who I was, your quiet nod of your head, like you were thinking and considering all the complexities of each human being. You never presumed to have everything all figured out. This is what made you a good scholar. Though you never studied formally, you studied life, the New York Times, your eight children, Walter William Hawver your husband with as much fervor as a student of university. Perhaps you had your PhD in your family.

You were sensitive to others' failings, because you were afraid of failing. Many nights you dreamed that you were taking an exam, that you had failed the exam and you would wake in terror. Whenever you told me about this, many times, you said, “I always dreamed of studying,” with such a forlorn voice. Many times, Poppie was wrong about a historical fact and you “called his bluff” as he put it. You read everything around you. Your husband was a literary man and you were his literary wife.

There were many things I didn’t understand about you and your upbringing, your way of being, your family heritage, until I went to Italy, to Calabria more specifically. The land of your father and mother’s birth, the hard terrain, the poverty, the political strife that caused them to sail to Ellis Island a century ago. What was it that drove them to New York and what was it that kept the others there in Calabria?

I remember when I called you on the phone from a pay phone in a small town near the Ionian Sea (the sea Great Uncle Fillipo said made him weep with joy). I told you about how the people wanted me to stay there, how welcoming they were. How the women wore black for the rest of their lives after their husbands died. How the men grabbed you and kissed you in the street without permission. How…I left out some parts of my journey that caused me the most grief, but you sensed something in my voice. You said something like, “Don’t let that life swallow you up. Don’t get trapped there.”
I felt the truth in your words at that moment and I made the decision to leave for Florence, where you had always said you could see me.

The land in Calabria is beautiful in way that causes your heart to break, the silver shining in the olive leaves, the turquoise shimmering on the surface of the sea, the powerful spines of the cactus and its purplish fruit waiting the most patient and daring person to take and eat it. The eucalyptus trees swaying with their long tear-shaped leaves and mottled white trunks. The endless sloping hills and mountains, the endless fresh water springs where you could drink straight from the spout. The unpaved roads swerving through forest and planes. Is it true what the women told me, that when a man made love to his wife for the first time, he hangs the blood-stained sheet over the balcony to show the world his wife was a virgin? There was a pervasive machismo to the culture that was difficult to digest, but some of the men are changing. Why was it that Great Uncle Phil said to all the women in the family, “Never marry an Italian man.”
When your family arrived at Ellis Island, the authorities chopped your surname Grandinetti and changed it to “Grand,” saying it was too long. All your brothers and sisters were born in the old country, but you were just waiting to come. By all accounts, it is said that you were born when your mother was 52 years old, the 13th or 14th child May 11 in the year 1924. Your mother Concetta had contracted tuberculosis and could not care for you in your infancy. Your oldest sister Francesca took care of you like you were her own. She was just 14 years old.

Your mother had a jealousy so fierce, she said in her Calabrese dialect, “She’s not your baby, she’s mine.” How it pained her to give over this most sacred of gifts to someone else, after she had labored with you for so very long. She passed away when you were just three and your memories of her are all from what others told you. What must it have been like to lose your own mother at such a young age? How did you weep knowing she was no longer with you? Your attachment to Great Aunt Francesca became so great that you would spend the rest of her life trying to please her and feeling guilty if you felt you somehow failed her. She did not forgive you for moving to Texas from New York, so you told me many times. That she did not speak to you for two years.

How fierce the emotions in our family. Great Aunt Francesca became your model for what a strong woman should be. After your mother died, you and all your younger brothers and sisters were put in orphanages. Your father Giovanni could not take care of you all as one parent. The only way to get you all out was for Aunt Francesca to marry and provide a two-parent home for all of you.

The whole lot of you survived off of the brick-making trade. Still I am fascinated with the beauty of bricks. In the winters, to keep warm at night, the Italians in the south heat bricks in the oven, wrap them in cloth and put them in the mattress where you sleep. The whole bed is like a toaster then. I experience this myself one January when I went back to visit a good friend. How easily I become ill from the cold. Because of the sea air, the cold becomes infused in your bones. Not even the churches have heat. No wonder so few people were in the churches. It was a true sacrifice to stand there for one hour, my extremities turning blue, mucus running down my nose. Those heated bricks saved me.

Your friends said that Uncle Phil (Fillipo) was ugly. With his dark skin and big nose, his large hands and muscles. You saw him as beautiful. You said the girls with their fair skin and blonde hair didn’t know what true beauty was when it stared them in the face. You defended your uncle to the end. When I see photos, he is a good-looking man, strong and sure even in his old age, with a sincere smile. At that time, Italians were seen as dirty, as poor, as the lower end of society. Funny enough, your own mother had blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin. So you inherited her strong blue eyes, and fair skin, wavy hair, but it was the color of your father’s hair, black.

You did not talk so much about your father Giovanni, though you called him Pappa. It seems Uncle Phil became your father figure in most ways. It was your stories of Uncle Phooie (as Frannie and I called him when we were little girls) that inspired so much in me. How he wept when he ate fresh figs off the tree, because the flavor was so rich and filled with the sun and bursting with life and juice. How he went back to Italy and returned with Italian sausages, pepperoni, salami stuffed in his clothes and boots. I later did the same, coming back to Texas from Italy. I too wept when I ate a fresh (stolen) fig plucked off a tree for the first time (and the 50th time). I shivered when I entered the Ionian Sea on the east coast of Italy’s boot, not for the cold, but for the overwhelming emotion that inundated me.

How the knowledge of my family’s history has formed the vision, feeling, thought, spirit of how I live my life. How it will form and influence little Concetta’s life I can only wait and see.

This story is above all for my daughter, for you Concettina, the bearer of such a name filled with centuries of meaning. Concezione Imacolata. The Immaculate Conception. What did the parents of Calabria intend when they gave this name to their daughters, centuries ago? That she should be pure, as innocent at the virgin Mary, as clean as the act of bearing God’s son without the blemish of the making love? Making love, dearest Concetta, should not be shameful, as long as there is truly love between two people.

Nonnie, you used to say that your dream was to be a nun. I do not see how that would have worked out. How passionate, how vivacious you were. How much you loved your children, “I was never so happy as when I was with my babies.” Perhaps, the idea of purity had so infused your soul, you felt that you should live up to your immaculate name. What a loss that would have been. I can say that now, now that little Concetta sleeps next to me each night, with the most peaceful profile of families from both sides of the world.

Nonnie, and little Concettina, it is your father we should thank for this journey into discovery. He made the decision to name you after your greatgrandmother. He understood the importance of such a name, though many around us thought the name odd, not knowing its meaning. The importance of the person behind the name.

Please guide me in this discovery of who you were, and who you will become in our memories of you. This will be my memories, my understanding, my striving to understand situations that influenced my own life. Others in my family will understand in different ways, will have other ways of seeing you, but this is how I remember and I how I see. I hope my memory is accurate, and honors all sides of who I perceive as one of the greatest influences on my life.