When I was a teenager, I drew the floor plan of my house a lot. It helped me tell stories about my family, where it was important to understand the view I had from my bedroom, or that there was a dividing half-wall between the kitchen and the living room in an otherwise open concept house. I’d draw lines to illustrate the trajectory of our tiny dog, who’d ricochet against the fridge, scramble down the hallway, bank off the doorframe into my parents’ bedroom, and steal a pair of socks. If I adjusted the scale of my drawing, I could show how close the house was to a nearby conservation area, and to the river beside where I’d sneak cigarettes and spray myself with CK One perfume before returning home, as though my mother wasn’t wise to the fact that the wooded areas of Guelph don’t smell like department store fragrance.
My parents sold that house last fall, and moved into my mother’s childhood home — Nonna’s house, to me. Nonna is still alive, but her dementia means she’s been relocated to a retirement community, leaving her house empty. It wasn’t an easy process: My parents, looking to downsize, hadn’t found anything suitable after two years of looking. And Nonna, fiercely independent and living alone since the death of her husband more than 30 years earlier, wasn’t ready to let the house leave the family.
She might not have ever moved were it not for the dementia, which, as a byproduct of its gradual erasure of Nonna’s memory, had made it dangerous for her to live alone. Once my parents bought the house, they began the physically necessary but emotionally taxing work of making it their own: a full reno, new appliances, new furniture. In addition to Nonna herself, most of the stuff that reminded me of her — the baby-blue shag carpet, the just-for-show purple towels in the upstairs bathroom, the Jesus portrait hanging above the staircase — is gone too.
Nonna, for most of my life, would spend hours in conversation with me — in person at her house in Guelph, then over the phone once I moved to Toronto. Last time I saw her, she remembered me as her “granddaughter,” and that took 30 minutes. Nonna is physically recognizable to me, but the version of her who exists in my mind — the woman who anchored my family down — now lives only in the objects I connected to my formative memories of her: The kitchenwares, framed photographs, and textiles that were split among her living family members after my parents bought the house. They were once just home furnishings, but are now a direct line to a person in the midst of being erased.
When I think of my parents’ new house, I draw the floor plan to Nonna’s house in my head. Then I fill it with all her physical belongings, the ones that still remind me of her, the ones I couldn’t save and that I’ll never see again. Even though Nonna is still alive, I include her.
When architects go on digs, the artifacts they uncover serve as irrefutable scientific evidence of the past. But they’re also objects that connect us to this past on a more visceral, sentimental level than carbon-dating. Physical artifacts can, to the trained eye, go well beyond confirming the existence of history — these objects tell us about habits, customs, fears, superstitions, victories celebrated and losses mourned; they tell us that people existed, and they tell us who those people were.
When my mother’s family moved to Canada from Northern Italy in 1959, they were stuff-less by necessity because there was no home ready for such things. The four of them — my mother, her older sister, and my Nonna and Nonno — first rented part of a house in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Guelph, later renting a whole house, all the while saving money for the plot of land they would eventually buy not far away by slowly buying only the stuff they needed: A matching pink couch, loveseat and chair, and a tufted, brocade couch for the basement; a television with knobs you’d twist to change the channels; a solid-wood kitchen table, so massive and imposing I always imagined they lowered it in with a crane before the house had a roof.
After her husband died in 1984 — and, I think, even before — Nonna didn't replace things often, if ever, giving the impression that everything I ever knew Nonna to own was all she had ever owned.; Iin my mind she and her furniture, her pots and pans, her plates and cooking tools, are all inextricable from her. iThey were always in the same place (and, consequently, talways in the same place as her),and always in the same condition.
Nonna and her things were constants, and while the stuff wasn't expensive or elaborate, but it was hers. She favoured olds sets of dishes for weeknight dinners of meaty pasta or perfect fried chicken cutlets with garlicky, parsley-studded mushrooms, and ancient tupperware for food storage. When things broke a little, she kept using them; when they broke a lot, she would fix them. There was a system to the way things were cared for: No plate or glass ever hit the kitchen table without a coaster or placemat beneath. Nonna cared about her home and possessions not because they were expensive, but because she bought them with her own money, and kept them in good shape. Her independence reflected in the purchase, the care, and the maintenance of a set of powder-pink living room furniture that may well have been brand new if not for their sort of awful late-60s hue.
The way Nonna viewed her home and her things reflected how she viewed herself (and vice versa): With meticulous grooming, diligent upkeep, and the ability to either work around breaks as they happened, or fix them on her own. She cared for herself like a person who had the potential for permanence.
There came a point when things began to degrade beyond her capacity for repair and upkeep. At first, this had to do mainly with Nonna’s physical limitations. It was difficult for her to descend the stairs to vacuum the basement, for example, so the rec room became permanently sealed off. Soon, my family was beginning to pitch in with laundry and small household chores. Without Nonna’s diligence, the house began to show its age. The plates, pans and utensils in her cupboards collected dust as they fell into disuse — she’d still cook sometimes, sure, but she didn’t have the energy for family dinners anymore. And sometimes, the recipes tasted just a bit off, like she’d forgotten a step, or confused the measurements for a couple of ingredients. She became anxious, distracted, and confused. But despite the physical evidence collecting around her — the house and everything in it, spotless and new for decades, was suddenly old and worn — Nonna denied there was anything wrong.
Four years ago, she left a pot of water on the stove so long it was blackened beyond the point of cleaning or repair. She had completely forgotten it was there. In any other context, the incident might have been innocuous, but for Nonna — who had already been slowly losing grip on her stuff, her home, her independence — it was a tipping point. lLiving alone was no longer safe. My family began discussions about moving her to a retirement home, which involved discussions about what would come of her house, and of course, all her things.
Near the end of Nonna’s time at the house, that kitchen table — around which we’d gather every Christmas, and at least on Sunday a month — began to crack right down the middle. The springs on the basement couch had become so worn, you’d almost hit the floor if you sat on it. And and who wanted a television that forced you to walk up to it just to change the channel? As anyone who’s divided an estate will tell you, the conversation around a loved one's possessions revolves largely around one question: What do you want? Some things were readily spoken for — the only two pots that remained of the set shipped over from Italy went to my mother and aunt. An espresso set, long coveted by one of my cousins, was set aside for him. The basement furniture, all of it worn by time or by the misuse of my sister and I, was donated or trashed.
Last Easter, my sister and I sat down in my aunt’s basement to divide the possessions that had been set aside for us — mostly things from the kitchen. What was initially a conversation of utility, of looking at objects and determining, as I always do when deciding what I should own, whether they’re of actual use to me, became an exercise in remembering Nonna through her possessions. Things became impossible to discard.
When presented with the physical manifestation of every Sunday dinner I’d ever eaten, invisibly imprinted with the memory of the woman who cooked them as I watched over her shoulder. I couldn’t imagine living without any of it. I took broken Tupperware that might have once carried leftover lasagna from Nonna’s house to ours, and a full set of cutlery despite already owning more than enough forks. I took a giant gilded soup tureen that I had never even seen before, because I knew it was part of a set that had been carefully carried over on a boat, in 1959, and an awkwardly-shaped, tall spouted pot whose only use, as far as I can tell, is boiling water. I wrapped it all up in a set of rags—threadbare after years of use dusting the framed photos of Nonno, which, along with some wedding gifts and pieces of jewellery, were the only sentimental things I knew Nonna to own—that are now vacuum sealed and packed away, to preserve Nonna’s crisp hemmed edges, never again to be used for their intended purpose.
In Nonna’s things, I can still see her the way I remember her best: Proudly self-sufficient and independent. And if I keep her things clean, in good working order and in good repair, I feel like I can keep that Nonna — the one she herself fought to maintain, the one she tried for so long to deny we were all losing, the one who, in reality, disappeared many years ago — alive forever.
The last time I talked to Nonna on the phone, it was on her 87th birthday. She told me that she was very old now, that she hadn’t really felt up to doing anything that day. She asked if I was happy with my job and my apartment. Then she thanked me for calling and said goodbye. No “I love you.” Until four or five years ago, Nonna would repeat her “I love yous” at the end of a phone call until I had no choice but to hang up on her. I don’t doubt that she still loves me; it’s more likely that these days, after a few minutes, she doesn’t remember who called.
When I was younger, I took for granted what an indomitable force Nonna was. She lived alone and kept a home by herself for three decades, while acting as an emergency contact for my entire family, no matter what we needed: A ride, a loan, a night off. She could be difficult and demanding, but we were close. I was patient with her when she struggled with English, and, later, eager to learn from her when she cooked. When she still lived at home but had begun to experience waking nightmares, I spent a night there, and she felt safe enough to sleep through the night. In my adult life, I have used Nonna’s immovable spirit of independence as a guiding principle. Now, her loss of independence is devastating because it means I have lost the part of her of which I was most in awe, but also, because I am terrified of someday losing my own.
The same things that happened to Nonna will probably happen to me, with or without dementia. I might not be able to wash the plates I took from her kitchen to mine, because they’re too heavy. My eyesight might prevent me from patching up small holes in t-shirts and dish cloths, and my back — which is already in bad shape, frankly — could make it hard for me to vacuum my carpets. I might forget how to cook the things I most love to eat. I will get old, and I will fight back against age as it claws back against my ability to do things for myself. And I, like Nonna, might refuse to negotiate and to accept that I simply can’t do things the way I used to. Frankly, I probably will: I’ve adopted a lot of Nonna’s obstinate self-sufficiency. I wonder if I’ll forget her awkwardly-shaped, tall spouted pot on the stove someday, and I wonder who will decide what happens to all of the things I’ve inherited from Nonna after I’ve forgotten that most of them ever existed in the first place.
When I first saw how my parents had changed Nonna’s house, was like one of those dreams where you know you’re at your old high school but everything looks like your best friend’s kitchen. The cognitive disconnect was overwhelming. On an early visit, I ran my hand along one of the hallway walls, wondering if I’d be able to physically register that it now ends sooner than it used to. I’d close my eyes while sitting on the new, grey couch and pretend I was still sitting on the old, pink one; a feat of imagination assisted by a living room window that’s still the same width and height that it used to be. Though, with horizontal blinds replacing the old vertical ones — and slightly less light coming in — it feels like everything has gotten a bit colder, and a bit smaller.
The truth is actually kind of the opposite: Nonna’s furniture took up so much more space than the stuff my parents own. Especially the table. And somehow, they lifted the massive wood one that hosted all the Christmas dinners, coffees, and conversations we never had anywhere else, and moved it out of the house. Nobody saved it. The crack down its middle had deepened into a chasm; the solid foundation that had once supported our family gatherings was being gradually replaced by a widening, empty gulf, unyielding as it was irreparable.
Before that Easter afternoon at my aunt’s house, my mother set aside a pair of Nonna’s wooden spoons for my sister and I to keep. I don’t think she thought we’d cook with them — they’re old and in rough shape: their rounded edges have been made flat after decades of vigorously stirring soups, stews and sauces for those Sunday dinners, and their handles worn smooth and narrow from Nonna’s grip. But it’s the only thing of Nonna’s I have that I actually use. Sometimes, when I’m trying to cook something I once ate at that massive wooden table, I reach for it. I might have, in the past, phoned Nonna for help with a recipe, or asked her to recite one when I saw her. In the intervening years, her memory has failed, and that’s no longer possible. So I depend on this half-broken old wooden spoon to remind me of her. It makes me feel good — and connected to Nonna — but I worry that, someday soon, the head of that spoon might snap clean off into the pot. I don’t think that’s the type of thing you can fix.