Catch Family Stories While You Can

I've been thinking a lot these past several weeks of my Zia, Carolina, whom everyone called Lillina. She passed away just a few days before Christmas. She lived in Italy, and we spoke only occasionally, when I popped my face into her line of sight as my mother video called with her, and on the visits we made every few years.

I miss her more than I perhaps would have imagined, considering she was never part of my daily life, considering I only saw her a handful of times. But, twenty years older than my mother, she was like the Nonna I never had; their mother, my namesake, having died before I was born. She gave me a type of love and attention that I soaked up, unapologetically. In the years when the only meat I ate was fish, we would return to her house from an outing to find the refrigerator stocked with more fish than I could eat in a year, let alone the three weeks we would be in Italy. One time, I sat at the table in the portico of her home eating the biggest plate of spaghetti I'd ever eaten, drinking her homemade wine, and I recall it as one of the most complete, satisfying and true moments of my life. It must be what those of you who had grandparents all your lives felt. A contentment and safety that wholly surrounds you.

Zia Lillina told me many of the stories I know about my family. On trips to my mother's hometown, where we stayed with her, she opened like a treasure chest through the touch of our conversation, and she revealed so many beautiful things; and by "beautiful" I mean also horrible—stories of poverty, of loss, of mistreatment. But they were our stories, and because of that they held beauty.

She told these stories thrillingly. She became animated. She banged the table. She looked away and shook her head. She asked Jesus to pardon her for telling the truth.

Just a few weeks before she died, she sent a lovely gold bracelet for my newborn son. I never got a chance to thank her. I had a newborn, life was busy, I was distracted, exhausted. I kept telling my mother we needed to call Zia, and one day bled into the next, and then, unexpectedly, she was gone.

Those are things we have to carry. I've been up in the night more than a few times since her death, feeling this trespass sting me. I try to take heart in the trust that she knew I was thankful. That she knew, without my telling her one more time, that I was grateful. Grateful for the gift of the bracelet, which I will always cherish, making sure my son knows about the woman who gave it to him, but grateful even more so for the love and attention she gave me. Grateful that she entertained the questions of her curious, somewhat-distant American niece, and in so doing, gave her a desperately desired window into her Southern Italian family.

I would have liked to learn even more. I mourn her, and I mourn what she's taken with her.

The stories she gave explain things about my family we may never understand. What ghosts haunt our veins. What brutality bore forth our blessings. Somehow. Inexplicably. Through the strange and meandering force of time. So that wherever you are, Zia, you are both there and here, in me, in us, a passionate story told in that passionate manner of yours, as if the story had not happened fifty years ago, but yesterday, alive and wild in your voice and in my ears.


We learn about family stories by asking questions of our elders. Very few people just spontaneously jump into the telling of difficult stories from the past. We have to ask them to talk about it. Once we do, more often than not, stories we never imagined pour forth. And, more often than not, those asked relish the opportunity to talk about their lives and loved ones.

Make Time

Learning about The Majesty of your particular family takes effort; slowing down to have a conversation is a lot rarer these days than we like to think. You have to make a conscious effort to learn about the past from those who lived it by making time to talk to family members before it's too late.


Pretty much every cell phone these days has a voice record option. You don't need fancy equipment to record a family member telling stories. Your phone will work just as well, and, better yet, your phone is portable and always with you, so you can pull it out on the fly. Also, a cell phone on the table recording is inconspicuous, which takes pressure off the person talking so that they can speak with ease in a way a microphone in their face might hinder.

Eternal rest, O Lord, grant unto her,

And let perpetual light shine upon her,

May she rest in peace...

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