Since launching this blog four months ago, and sharing my life’s stories with the world wide web, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to tell me how strong I am… some of these people I’ve never even met. They’ve told me how impressed they are at my bravery in sharing such personal information in a very public and raw way. Many are baffled by how I’ve managed to deal with the insane circumstances I’ve faced this year.

Last week, with the passing of my 93-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of my family, it all came together… this strength of mine didn’t come from nothing.

I’m the product of a lost generation… one that makes something out of nothing. One that knows you cannot survive without living with integrity, ambition, thick skin and a lot of guts. One that knows the value of family and the importance of keeping the family together, even if it means humbling yourself, admitting a fault and making amends. Family ALWAYS comes first.

Strength is not an anomaly, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just something you’re born with.

It’s something you learn.

I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t grown up surrounded by my family, whose foundation was built from my grandparents’ love, guidance and unending influence.

I’ve survived cancer twice not because I’m so tough… but because I come from an entire family that is tough as nails.

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I’m going to tell you a story about the woman who created my family… I want you to know exactly where I  come from.

I’m going to tell you about my grandmother, Angela Danisi, who never went by that… her name was Nina. And to her seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, she was Mama Nina.

And I’m going to tell you about her husband Philip (born Felice, “happy” in Italian). We called him Pop.

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Nina and Phil — Mama Nina and Pop — met when Nina was only 16. They got married when she was 19. She had her first child at 20 and Pop went off to war, leaving her as a single mother for the next four years.

Pop was the first and only man she ever dated.

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They were hard-working. Pop worked as early as age 8, with his father, in Brooklyn, pulling a horse-drawn wagon filled with ice.

As married 20-somethings, Mama Nina and Pop became business owners.

They owned a fish store and used their only vehicle to both deliver fish for their business, and to generally get from point A to B. At the end of every day, Mama Nina would hose out the car thoroughly so that if they had to go somewhere, they would be presentable, and wouldn’t smell like a fish store.

Pop also co-owned an Italian deli with other family members, and credited himself for inventing the 6-foot hero… how else were you going to feed an entire family of hungry Italians?

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After moving out of Brooklyn, Mama Nina worked at the largest hospital on Long Island while raising all four of her children… a most unconventional life for a married woman and mother in the 1950s and 60s.

She made dinner every single night from scratch for her kids and for Pop. By the time I was born, her daily uniform consisted of these old-school Italian, button-down, smock-like aprons… she was always in the kitchen, and always splashing food on herself.  Every Sunday, she cooked and hosted whoever wanted to come and eat Italian gravy, meatballs and macaroni. And the adults would sit around her dining room table and talk for hours, while the kids did what kids do.

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She hosted Christmas Eve and Christmas day every single year and cooked both meals all by herself… Christmas Eve dinner was the traditional Italian seven courses of fish and took about three days of prep work, but it was worth every ounce of effort to bring her four children, and their children, together. Years ago, my mother took over as hostess and the tradition remains alive… Christmas Eve truly is the best night of the year, and anyone who’s ever joined us would agree.

Mama Nina’s house was always full, always noisy and always smelled like Sunday dinner.

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Her husband, my Pop, was a strong-willed man… not overly affectionate… not exactly Webster’s definition of “Felice,” but a straight-shooter who’d tell you like it is. He never needed to be the center of attention, but he was the decision-maker, and if he disagreed with you, you knew it.

He was the type of man whose face showed the years of hard work, sacrifice and loyalty he’d dedicated his life to.

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Mama Nina was funny, kind and loving… I don’t think there was anyone she didn’t like. But her gentle nature was matched with an equally strong and extremely witty sense of self.

A typical old Italian couple, Mama Nina and Pop were always arguing about petty bullshit. Pop would insult her in Italian and she’d translate it back in English so everyone could hear it, and we’d laugh our asses off. Mama Nina must have said, “OH SHUT UP, PHIL!” a thousand times a day.

But their love for each other was palpable. And their love for their family, and the importance they put on gathering together every single Sunday, was undeniable.

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Mama Nina and Pop worked their entire lives… they took their first vacation when she was 50 and Pop was 55. They’d earned their retirement and enjoyed 20 solid years spending winters in a condo they bought in Florida and cruising around the world.

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Growing up, Pop always wanted to know how I was doing in school and told me how proud he was of “my marks.” He encouraged me to “keep it up, Mariooch,” because I’d need those marks to get into a great college one day so I could get a job that would “make me a lot of money.” And knowing that he was instilling ambition in his grandkids, he’d ask about our boyfriends… “Maresy, does he work hard? Does he make any money? If not, GET RID OF HIM.”

We’d laugh, but he was serious… he was a child of the depression and wanted his family to be provided for in a world that was expensive and unpredictable.

He was teaching us never to be dependent.

Mama Nina taught me how to be street smart. She’d let us watch movies with mature storylines, difficult concepts to grasp, and never made us feel like babies. She had her grandkids playing complex card games like Gin Rummy, Canasta and Poker by age 5. She taught us how to play the crossword and the cryptoquote from the newspaper… all of which she could do in her head without having to write anything down.

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When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease at 16, I saw Mama Nina and Pop cry for the first and only time in my life.

I’d planned a Sweet 16 party and it was taking place on a Friday… my first surgery was scheduled for that following Monday. My parents didn’t want to jeopardize the mood of what was supposed to be a huge birthday celebration, so they waited until the day before my surgery to even tell my grandparents.

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After leaving the hospital after that surgery, I was violently ill from anesthesia and in severe pain, so my parents drove to my aunt’s house, the closest destination from the hospital. My grandparents were there.

My parents helped me into the house, and onto the couch, where Pop and Mama Nina came to hug me… and Pop broke down into my shoulder, sobbing. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible for them to demonstrate such sorrow. My aunt later joked that she’d spent the next several weeks picking up tissues all over her house.

But that was the only moment of weakness I witnessed in either of them. And from that moment on, there was never talk, at least in front of me, about how awful or sad it was that I had cancer. Instead, we talked about the future… are you keeping up your marks, Mary… you’re looking good, Mary… you’re gonna conquer the world one day, Mary…

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As I progressed through my teenage and college years, I never stopped paying attention to Mama Nina and Pop’s stories. Mama Nina loved to tell stories about times when she’d stood up for herself, particularly to men in positions of authority who were trying to take advantage of the fact that she was “just a woman.” In those moments, she never needed my Pop’s help… she was tough enough. She was proud of being provocative, and she loved to curse (much to my mother’s disgust).

But Nina’s stories were mostly about family. She was extremely close with her siblings and all of her cousins, and so we followed her example. She referred to her sister-in-laws, always just as her sisters.

She outlived nearly all of them and while it saddened her as her closest family and friends passed away, she always treated death as a part of life, one that she was ready for when it came for her, because she’d lived a FULL life. She was always just grateful for having been blessed with a happy, healthy, fortunate family that stuck together like glue.

As Mama Nina and Pop aged into their 80s, their memories started to become hazy, and getting together as a larger family, with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins, looking at pictures, enjoying meals together, gave them such pleasure.

They had a lot to be proud of. They did so well.

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When Pop died at age 91, we obviously grew concerned for Mama Nina’s well-being. In truth, it was the beginning of her decline. But as her physical and mental health weakened, she never lost her spark, and spunk.

One day, a few months after he died, Mama Nina, at 86-years-old, asked my brother John, a tattoo artist, to give her a tattoo. Shocked, John asked her exactly what she wanted and inked her up, at my mother’s kitchen table, before she could change her mind. She immediately called my Uncle Joey, her youngest son, who insisted she put on one of my Pop’s standard v-neck Hanes undershirts, some red lipstick and strike a pose.

She was so proud of it and told everyone she knew, for the rest of her life.

And so did we… she’s fucking fabulous.

I’m so glad we have these photos of her, because they capture the Mama Nina I knew before age took its toll.

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My family is spiritual. We believe there are angels among us. After Pop died, we felt him around us, always.

The same medium who told me three years ago that I would have a lump in my left breast, and pointed to it, also started off our session that day by letting me know my Pop is always with me, guiding me. I’ve dreamt of him, I’ve seen his spirit in my apartments more than once, and I’ve often prayed to him for guidance… the medium knew all about that.

This past September, while recovering from my mastectomy, I visited a new medium, and the session started off identically as it had three years ago… your grandfather is here. She told me my grandfather was proud of the decisions I’d made related to my relationship, and my health, and that the conviction I’ve had in the big decisions I’ve made in the last four months is not a coincidence… it’s his gift to me. Much of what the medium told me has not been discussed in detail in this blog, but it was all spot on.

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Just days before my surgery, even though Mama Nina had been wheelchair-bound and unable to really communicate for quite some time, I went to see her. I needed to tell her what was going on. I explained it through tears, praying that she heard me and understood, even though she couldn’t nod, or react. As I walked out of her nursing home afterward, my mother told me, “Mary, she’s watching you leave…” I knew then that she’d heard me.

Just a few weeks ago, in October, I visited her again with Uncle Joey. She was alert, we styled her hair, we dressed her up, we talked to her and fed her dinner. I held her hand and told her, “I’m all better Nina… my breast cancer has been removed, and I made it through that terrifying surgery… it sucked, but I did it.” I placed her hands on my expanders, looked in her eyes, told her I felt great and kissed her hand. And unable to speak, she looked back at me, and slowly raised my hand to her mouth to kiss me back. I’m grateful for that one last memory with my sweet Nina beana. She was tough until the very end… and so was my Pop.

Imagine all of the things you could accomplish in 90 years of life…

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There’s a certain finality my family feels with Nina’s passing that is so heartbreaking… we are all products of this lost generation, and the only way to preserve the gifts she, and Pop, and their brothers and sisters, left us is to nurture them, and model them, everyday.

We live in a world where society hides behind technology and distances itself from human contact. Times have changed. We may not have Sunday dinner EVERY week, or often enough at all, but I’m proud to say that with the news of my breast cancer, my family showed up. Cousins whom I’ve missed over the years, sending cards, praying for me, stopping by, making a phone call, inviting me over, driving me places I needed to go. When I needed strength from others, I didn’t need to look for it… it found its way to me.

And in the private moments when I was scared out of my mind, and at a loss for what to do, and when I knew something just didn’t feel right, and I needed an answer, I silenced my brain, and listened to my heart, and my soul, and I found what I was looking for. Because Pop was with me the whole time. And I knew he wouldn’t let me down.

So as this crazy year comes to a close, and as we anticipate the first holiday season without Mama Nina, I will remember to be grateful. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a heart-to-heart with Mama Nina, and I could not be happier that she’s rejoined her life-long love, and is right there with him, telling him to shut up so she can have a turn helping guide me through the rest of my life.

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My whole family has had a tough year, with one blow after another, sometimes several blows all at once. Thank God we had each other (and food, and wine).

And thank Mama Nina and Pop for showing us the most important parts of a fulfilled life. There are always going to be bumps in the road, but with family, and faith, I know that however life turns out will be exactly as it was meant to be.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours this year. May the end of 2015 give you a sense of renewed purpose. Namaste ❤

2 thoughts on “where my tough comes from…

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