NANA’S GOT ALZHEIMER’S AND LIVES IN EATALY, THINKING SHE IS IN ITALY
Nana lives in Eataly. Not the country shaped like Ariana Grande’s boots, but the massive food hall downtown, right across from the Flatiron building.
It’s been what, six weeks now that she has been walking through five floors of obscure pastrami, cascades of grapes and chandelier-like pieces of meat? Yeah, I guess so. It’s OK if I’m not remembering it right, since she doesn’t recognize me now, while I sit across from her in a table at Manzo, a restaurant inside her new home. Manzo means beef, and that is what she is having, a red juicy steak that Tony, her best friend in the whole Eataly, cuts in little pieces that slide in their own blood when they are chased by the fork.
She’s got Alzheimer’s. If you don’t know what Alzheimer's is, it’s ok. Chill. My dad had the best explanation: It’s when your brain goes on vacation and, instead of learning new things, it relaxes and starts letting go of stuff that was there, but the vacations are sooooo good it decides not to come back. Ever. And all that your brain used to hold drips like an ice cream on a summer day. I’d like to get vacations like that from school.
It’s my sixth visit to Nana’s new house. Before living here, she had always lived with us in the most regular house of the most regular suburb of the most regular city of New Jersey. As long as I can remember, Nana had her room, which was next to mine.
So, for the first year after she was diagnosed, I could hear her yelling stuff like “figlia mia” while I pretended to sleep and texted my mom’s number, which was no longer her number --I never got a reply from the person that owned it now, so I can only imagine it’s a Russian socialite that uses this phone number only during New York Fashion Week. Oh, yes, the yells. I guess that “figlia mia” means “my daughter” or something. And I could also smell her from my bed. An imported cheese that is small, but seems to be so big when it’s smell takes over the whole fridge. Make it two. But, more than creeping the crap out of me, it made me feel secure. There was someone there. But then, after months, there was no more yelling. Just the silence. And the scent, of a fancy cheese growing tastier and tastier as it get smellier and smellier.
Nana’s condition changed the laws of physics inside our household. We went from “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction” to “To every action there is never a reaction”. Even if someone was yelling “fire!”, “fire!” she wouldn’t bulge. I know cause I’ve tried that once when dad had to stay at the hospital until midnight and asked me to look after Nana for the first time. I was honored to be trusted. But, after five minutes staring at my phone while Nana stared at the ceiling, something hit me: taking care of Nana is like looking out for a cactus.
But, still, Dad would pretend she was alive-alive, and not dead-alive. And, on a Sunday six (seven?) weeks ago, he told her, as we were almost out the door: “We’re heading to Eataly, care to joins us?”. And she lit up for the first time in a long time. I mean, a long, long time, the last time I had seen her face move was when I got home all red and swollen because some guys at school had called me Cocker Spaniel.
Ok, not some guys. Just one guy. But the thing is he was right. I do look like a Cocker Spaniel, with the wavy hair that looks so good on Gisele, but on no one else but Gisele. My hair is like a cute frame for a bad painting. My face, that is. He was joking, yeah. Like, I know. It’s more like my brain knows, actually. But my guts don’t. And they felt punched. Every joke has a skeleton of truth supporting it. Anyways, whatever. I was kind of upset.
So I told Nana what had happened. She blinked. And a little teardrop escaped from that single blink, like a tiny Indiana Jones running through a door that is about to close. I didn’t tell Dad about the tear, cause he was talking on the phone about a patient who was having a heart attack. I have never talked to him about my hair-and-face combination drama either. What is having amazing hair but a so-so face next to someone whose arteries are clogged like milkshake in a straw?
How stupid it is to have a cardiologist father, whose attention is attracted only to serious problems, like people who are dying? Stupid Alzheimer's. Stupid Eataly. Stupid Italy and Italian boys who would be able to realize I’m interesting and exotic, but are too far away to find my beauty exotic and interesting.
But nevermind. So, dad invited Nana to go to Eataly and, instead of the usual silence, she replied with a high-pitched yell of: “Italia!”. And when we entered the room her eyes were moving, right before her arms moved and she lifted herself from bed like a mummy stripped from her bandages. And, like Jesus or someone in the Bible who resurrected, she got up, showered and joined us for a meal. Just like that.
Dad considered taking her to a doctor while we were in the car, I guess, by the look on his face and by the total of words he pronounced in a half an hour drive (zero). The look of someone who relies completely on logic driving the fruit of illogic in a Mercedes Van. But, hey, he is a doctor. And he couldn’t diagnose what had just happened, so what would another doctor do?
The moment she stepped into the place it was as if her face was bathed in sunshine. Nana was 50 years old again, being Nana. She slapped the hands of a woman I might have seen in page of fashion magazines, and told her that the big ball of buffalo mozzarella should be untangled with her fingers (“Con il dito! Il dito, stronza!”) and not with silverware. The supermodel giggled and Instagrammed a picture of her looking tenderly at Nana. It had 300 k likes. Before lunch, she actually invaded the kitchen to help the kitchen people pan-fry the braciolas she had ordered. By the end of the meal, Nana has became a sight to be seen in the place. A group of people that changes shape and size like a cloud follows her around from a distance of two steps.
After eating at Manzo, Dad told her it was time to leave. She got up and walked away, and was already knocking on a melon, that seemed to hold a whole cave on the inside, by the echo it created, when Dad took her by the arm. “We’re leaving!” And Nana did the same thing she had done with me. She cried. But not a single Indiana Jones like tear. An army of tears that crossed her still face. She cried using only her eyes, and not a single muscle.
Pitty takes you further than money. Someone must have said that somewhere. Cause that’s how it works. All of the employees, not just Tony, fell in love with her. Mr. Eataly must have fallen in love with her, cause she is there ever since, walking around in a
red flower wrap-dress from Diane Von Furstenberg. It was mom’s, and it looked like a million dollars on mom. But now is Nana’s and looks like something out of Dollar Tree on Nana. She is always barefooted, running imaginary errands, like dipping the focaccias in sardela and placing them back in their shelves, with tips as red as the fingernails of the women who shop there. I guess Dad is spending a bucket of money to pay for her stay at Eataly.
She sleeps on one of sofas by the registers. The couches made for grumpy husbands, where they can sulk while wives get an afternoon of sophistication picking imported olive oil that will never be used. Dad would be one of them, if he still had a wife. Dad is a Mr Potato Head. The same spud face his father carried from Ireland. Red when happy. Red when nervous. Red the only time he was sort of drunk, the New Year’s Eve after mom passed. Maybe he gets so red because he has a heart that, just like his head, is bigger than average.
Maybe that’s why he brings me here every week. Last Sunday, Nana removed a artichoke from a young bearded man’s basket. No explanation, but saying “matazzo” while she walked away carrying it like a baby Jesus. “Butecatto di piulurina,” she whispered while caressing the baby-artichoke.
Dad said she is not speaking Italian at all. (But that’s all right. No one is speaking Italian in Eataly anyways: the current language there is Eatalian, which is just English spoken with an A in the end of every othera worda and hands waving like flags).
“Don’t mind her. It’s just gibberish,” Dad said to Tony, who is a waiter at Manzo, three Sundays ago when she asked for “strogliofolinnio”. Tony’s glance would chop Dad’s head, if it could. “He-hey! She is speaking Italian! Not all of it makes sense, but there’s a big chunk of language there, mister,” Tony told Dad while he placed the napkin in Nana’s lap. She asked Tony for “strogliofolinnio” once again, he poured her a glass of tap water and it was all good. Maybe that is “strogliofolinnio”, just a new way of saying water.
I guess she has her own dialect. Dad says there are, like, hundreds of dialects in Italy. “That shows how much of an unorganized country it is,” he used to joke with mom, every time she lost her glasses, keys, credit card, driving license or right foot of the shoe. It was a joke about origins.
Grandma came from a place in Italy called Sicily. A beautiful island which was full of hot criminals back then --it sounds like a place out of Game of Thrones for all she and mom told us. I would love to go to Sicily.
But she has been in the US for a looong time. She left Italy before there was even mom. Before dad met mom. Before dad and mom graduated from med school. So long before there was me --and there wasn’t mom anymore.
Today, Nana is at Il Pastaio (I don’t have to explain this one, do I?), having spaghetti and yelling at Tony, who seems to be apologizing from where I stand. I walk towards Nana. Her scent (OK, her smell) still beats her body by two seconds, and reaches me before I can sit. But the smell here is not bad. It mingles with the other aromas and creates something unique, like the smell of heat in a city that is not yours. Nana looks at me. Her eyes actually meet mine, but for a very short time, cause something inside stings me and I look away and pretend to be super interested in a menu I know by heart.
I feel a finger, thin like a crostini, touching a strand of hair that escaped my ponytail. “Capelli più belli del mondo. Capelli lunghi setosi, luccicanti,” she says. And I get it. “Something something Capelli”. “Capelli.” What is capelli again? Capeletti, I read on the menu. Past in the shape of hat. Hat. A Camila Cabello song starts playing in my headphones. Cabello. Hair… hair.
She is saying good things about my hair. And about her hair too, I guess, or why would she be caressing the white cascade that falls from her own head while she talks to me? An aging Cocker Spaniel. You know what? I do look like a Cocker Spaniel, just like my momma did. And my Nana before her. I do look like a Cocker Spaniel. I do look like my Nana.
I get up and open my arms to thank Nana for helping me see something so clear. She turns her face in Tony’s direction, points the same crostini-finger to me and says.
“She’s a little giddy today,” Tony explains, when he gets a break from laughing. “I guess she’s in love,” the tall bearded man giggles.
“That’s all right”, I shrug. “Hey Tony?”
“Do you know any Italian teachers?”
Tony says that he is also an Italian teacher. “A gooda onea”, he flips to me the Super Mario accent most Americans use seriously to talk to him.
“Can we meet here next Sunday, after your shift? To, like, have classes?”
“Yeah, sure. What’s your level of Italian?”
“I can say strogliofolinnio. And that’s all.”
Next Sunday, I will put on my best dress and travel to Italy. It’s right across from the Flatiron building. My Nana lives there.