Alright in the End

Sometimes living with and near family is hilarious, and sentimental, and easy. And sometimes it’s not.

The last few months our extended and immediate family has suffered. Every family does. It doesn’t look the same for every family, but every family must endure suffering at some point. You just hope that when it hits yours, it doesn’t do permanent damage. And even that cannot always be avoided.

Tonight, I watched some old John Wayne movies with my grandparents, all of us quieter than usual (especially Nonna), and still healing from the most recent events to befall our little household. As I sat at the kitchen table, Nonna noticed me putting unopened mail I had received into one large package without opening any of it.

“Hey, you no gonna open your letters?”

“No Nonna, these aren’t for me. I’m just the messenger.”

Many, if not all of you, have probably heard by now that on August 5th, a hate-filled man took the lives of six members of the Sikh community. It is a tragedy that, like every shooting, is felt not only by those immediately effected, but by the entire community. Feeling deeply for our Sikh brothers and sisters, we Milwaukee Couchsurfers decided to collect cards and donations to help the victims and their families.

Couchsurfers are unique creatures. (To learn more about us, check out my other blog here.) Where lines of segregation tend to exist in the “real” world – religions, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, genders – they generally don’t exist within our Couchsurfing world. As a Christian woman, I have had every type of human being stay on my couch or host me. And they’ve all been very different from me, and very different from each other. But that doesn’t hinder our experiences with one another – instead it enhances them, making our passion for learning other cultures and ways of life even deeper and more genuine.

Now while I am a Couchsurfer, my Roman-Catholic-Italian-WWII-surviving-Depression-Era Nonna is not. She does not take changes or differences well, and cannot conceive of any stranger sleeping on her couch. Cooking them a meal? Maybe. Letting them use her bed linens? Never. Accepting I have multi-ethnic friends? Sure. The first time I brought home a multi-ethnic boyfriend? Mild heart attack.

“Who you messaging?” Nonna asked, getting up from her Nonna-sized couch.

“My friends and I are sending cards and money donations to help the victims of the Sikh shooting. Remember, on the news last week? Helicopters over our house?”

“Ohhh yeah yeah yeah. So sad. It’sa rrrrevolting all da shootings. Mah, why you send something? You no know them.”

“Because Nonna. There’s way too much hate in this world. And showing love to those who’ve been a victim of such violent hate is the least we can do.”

If you know Nonna, you’ll know how special what I’m about to write really is.

She walked over to her purse, took out $$, and said, “Here. I make a donation too. Put my name too. Is so very, very sad.”

This act was so much more than a donation. This act represented some barrier, however small it may be, being broken between real-world lines of segregation. This act represented a woman taking her own family’s hurt and frustrations and turning it into compassion for a family she doesn’t even know. This act, though small, made me think that good can always come from bad.

All families suffer. The families of and closest to the victims of the Sikh shooting are suffering in a way that is different from our family’s suffering, but it still bonds us together in one greater community.

And if a little old lady in her eighties can still have moments where her heart and mind are changed, then there is always hope. A friend quoted the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel recently, and I absolutely loved it (maybe I’ll even see the movie, despite it’s lack of wizards/faeries/sci-fi-ishness):

“Everything will be alright in the end. So if it is not alright, then it is not yet the end.”

Today things are not alright. Not for my family, and not for many families. But little acts every day, coupled with my faith and the miracles I’ve already witnessed, lead me to believe that it will be alright in the end.


Goodnight for now. There are two cuddly faces staring at me that insist it’s bedtime.




Friends. Family. Strangers. It’s been too long.

Why? Why have I abandoned you to wonder what on EARTH is going on with the one and only Florence Zanardi? As Nonna would say….I don’ta believe it! But I solemnly swear not to do it again. Probably.

There is so much to tell, and all in good time, but for now, let’s begin with the ghost who steals Nonna’s forks, earrings, and the remote.

I pulled into the driveway a few days ago to find Nonna outside mumbling to herself and appearing to be searching for something, and talking to herself. When I got out of the car and asked what she was looking for and who she was talking to, she said, “I’m asking St. Antonio to find the earring that the ghost took.”


This ghost excuse has been used before. In fact, she tends to lean more toward the ghost excuse than the rational ones. For instance, several times I’ve come upstairs (I live downstairs) late at night to make sure the doors are locked and that she hasn’t fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. She’ll be half dozing on the couch, and I’ll sit down to watch the last 15 minutes of Criminal Minds (hellooooo Shemar Moore). More than once, she’s woken up, looked at me, looked back at the tv, then as I stand up to go back downstairs she’s gasped and said “Oh! I thought you was a ghost! Mah no, it’s just Courtina.”  Why would her mind go to ghost before granddaughter who lives downstairs? I’m not sure, but it happens a lot.

So, back to the outdoor earring search party in 100 degrees.

“Can I help you look for the earring Nonna? When did you last see it?”

“No no no, you can no find it. The ghost, he took it. Only St. Antonio will get it. I know.”

This is a little insight into the rationale of Nonna: Ghost + Saint = The Answer. Human Granddaughter = Ridiculous Suggestion.

Even though I’d been shunned for a supernatural solution, I began searching with Nonna. Neither of us survive in heat well, so eventually even I have to give in to the hope that Slimer took it and St. Antonio would somehow win it back. We go inside, and several days pass without me thinking much about it again.

Until I came home later that week and saw Nonna wearing both earrings! I asked her where she found it, and she said she didn’t find it, St. Antonio did.

“Well, where did he put it for you to see?”

“Rrrrrright on the table.”

“That’s impossible Nonna, we eat at the table every day. We would’ve seen it.”

“I know. You see? St. Antonio. I pray pray pray, and he bringa it back.”

Nonna’s a lot of things, but she’s not a liar. And like I said, we eat at that table every day. So if the earring showed up on the table, days after “the ghost” took it, I started to think I better just believe that St. Antonio really did deliver on the goods.

Until I looked across the living room and saw Grandpa giggling in his recliner.


Welcome home, Courtina


Do you know what it’s like to walk into a warm, inviting home after a long, hard day at work and have 7 people shout this genuinely, loudly and excitedly in your direction? Probably not, because your name is not Courtina. But this was my greeting today. Just a regular autumn Wednesday night, but when you live on a street where 90% of the homes are occupied by your family members, this is not an unusual scene.

Last month I decided to move in with my grandparents. As with most decisions, I have both selfish and unselfish reasons. Yes, I want to save up so I can travel more extensively in the relatively near future. But most importantly, I want this time with Nonna and Gramps. And the time thus far has proven to be full of laughs and sweet memories.

And lots of pasta.

So tonight, as I walked through the sliding glass door with a fierce head cold and my hands full, the reception of love from grandparents, cousins and an uncle was beautiful. I said my hellos, surveyed the kitchen that still smelled and looked of the amazing feast Nonna had cooked just hours before, chatted with my cousin about “family things”, took my NyQuil, and trotted downstairs – with a slap on my rear from Nonna for good measure.

As I lay here in bed just under the kitchen where my family sits, stands, and stomps above me laughing, eating and drinking, I hear Nonna laughing louder than them all, and I say my prayers and thank God for the family he blessed me with.

Me and my roommates....Gramps and Nonna

Driving with Nonna

Driving with Nonna is always an adventure. And I mean that in every sense of the Merriam-Webster definition: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks. Getting in the car with Nonna is an undertaking that often involves danger on some level and always involves unknown risks.

Like when she breaks into song, lunges over the front seat to redirect your driving, and/or hits on passengers in other vehicles.

Why would Nonna’s singing cause danger?  Because she makes up her own lyrics, and then hits you on the back of the head (while you’re driving) when you don’t sing along to the song, with her lyrics. In the spring, driving back from my Uncle Johnny’s place in Chicago, that John Mayer song “Say” came on the radio. Nonna broke out into her own rendition, with swaying dance moves and baritone melodies. It was hysterical, beautiful, and utterly distracting. And while she was serenading Gramps and me, Nonna gave a little smile and wink at a line of Harley riders passing us, and laughed her belly-filled laugh when one waved back.

She stopped singing just long enough to say “I’ma rrrreally frrrriendly!”

We made it home in one piece, and I tried to prompt her to sing on film, even trying it with “her” lyrics. It’s not nearly as remarkable as her car performance, but you get the idea:

Then more recently my best friend Angie and I embarked on another Chicago-bound trip with my two 80+ year old grandparents. We drank big cups of coffee and prepared ourselves for a constant stream of consciousness aimed our way for 2 hours down and back. On our drive home, we were all having pleasant conversations – my grandfather and I in front, and my Nonna and Angie in the back seat. As we passed the familiar 7-Mile Fair signs, Nonna lunged forward and screamed “WAIT! YOU GOTTA TAKE-A RAWSON AVENUE!”  Angie, God bless her, patiently asked Nonna why we’d get off at that exit, when ours was much further ahead on I-94.  Nonna said, “Because, eh, what do you think? I know what I’ma doing.” I, not nearly as patiently as sweet Angie, reminded Nonna that I’M driving and know EXACTLY where I’m going, and that she shouldn’t scream orders at the driver because it causes accidents. I also reminded her that there’s no good reason to take Rawson, because whatever construction Nonna thought there was on the freeway, there wasn’t. To which Nonna simply replied:

“I love-a Rawson. It’s a little cutie street.”  How do you argue with that? I exited at Rawson.

And finally, my most recent experience driving with Nonna happened just two nights ago, when my car broke down for the 5,000,000th time. The tow-truck man offered me a frequent-tower card (not funny dude, not funny) as he dropped me and my rebellious car off at my grandfather’s warehouse. Gramps graciously came to pick me up at the warehouse and drop me off at my apartment, as all were in the same little town. So at 10pm, Gramps pulls up with a little Nonna in his passenger seat. I took over the driver’s seat for the ride home, and as I climbed in Nonna was all giggly and bouncy like a little kid.  “Wow, this is an eesighting night!”  **I love how she says exciting – someday I will have to get it on film.

We start to drive home, windows open, me venting about my dying car, Nonna just listening quietly in a very unusual, un-Nonnalike manner.  And as we sit at the red light near my home, me still blabbing, Nonna still listening, a little Honda pulls up next to us with its windows down and a handsome young man behind the wheel. Nonna takes a long puff of her cigarette, smiles her wide smile, gives a little wink, and says, “Hello Sweetie.”

Perhaps it was her tone; perhaps it was her overall delivery. But the driver’s face looked like Donkey’s in the first Shrek, after their introduction to DuLoc:

The light turned green, Nonna gave another wave with her cigarette-free hand, and I just leaned over and said, in my best Nonna Voice, “She’s not hitting on you…she’s justa rrrrrreally frrrrriendly!”

We accelerated through the light, laughing together as Nonna said over and over “I am! It’s-a true! I am! I’ma soooooo frrrrriendly!”

Where to begin? Ah yes: Chuck Norris.

They say “the best place to start is at the beginning”. I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above a good cliche. In fact, I will use them unapologetically throughout my writings. However, the beginning isn’t the right place to start when telling the story of Nonna. Let us start with Chuck Norris. You know it’s a good story when it begins with Chuck Norris….

When was the last time you sat down and watched Walker, Texas Ranger? If you were not aware, this masterpiece ended a decade ago, but can still be caught (marathon-style) on USA from time to time. This show is amazing – no one ever defeats Walker (our beloved Norris), even if they have a gun and he has a roundhouse kick to the jaw, and his mystical Native American heritage gives him super-human senses.

Several weeks back, I stopped into my Nonna’s house to partake in the nightly espresso. When I opened the sliding glass door, my grandfather was asleep in his recliner with a toothpick dangling from his lower lip, holding on for dear life as he snored softly. My Nonna was sitting at the kitchen table apparently talking to someone that I did not see. Not uncommon; her house has an open-door policy, and one often enters it to find others already there, taking in the hospitality and sipping on a beverage.

“Nonna, who are you talking to?” I asked.

She looked up at me like I was crazy, and replied, “No no, I no talking to nobody. I say to Walker, Texas Ranger that I love-a him.”

“Why do you love him?” I probed, mostly because I love Chuck Norris conversations with her.

“Io bescado! He is a GOOD!” she stated, matter-of-fact. **Now, it’s imperative that you understand what ‘Io bescado’ means. First, I have no idea how to spell it, and am still convinced it’s a word she’s made up. Second, she uses it 50 times a day. Third, it means (loosely) ‘What do you think, I’m stupid? Why are you asking and/or saying such a ridiculous thing?’

And as I turned to see what heroic acts Mr. Walker was engaged in to elicit such deep devotion from my Nonna….I saw him fighting a bear. With his fists. And you know what? He won. And you know how he won? With his Jedi mind tricks. You need to see it for yourself, don’t you? I understand, see you back here in 1 minute and 2 seconds:

Accepting that my Nonna’s adoration for Walker, Texas Ranger was absolutely warranted by his mad fighting skills, I sat down to await the espresso and whipped cream that I had come for. And as I sat down, I realized that Nonna was drinking her Dewar’s out of the Chuck Norris mug that I’d had made for her several Christmases ago.  That’s right folks: my Nonna is a Chuck Norris groupie.

She may not have a firm grasp on the English language, but she knows her Chuck Norris.

She’s never once used that coffee mug for coffee. Only Scotch.