“Through an eye with teary edges,
My brain swears this can’t be real.
But my heart’s another story. Yes my heart’s another story.” – Another Story. Song and lyrics Gabe Marshall and Bryon White
If there is an upside to writing it’s in the therapeutic value.
I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route.
Maybe it was fate, or as Cora puts it the good Lord had a plan; or maybe it was just dumb luck. I guess I’ve told this story a hundred times if I’ve told it once. I was working in a retail hardware store at Fourth and Mission in Downtown San Francisco. Across Jessie Street, which was less street and more alley the company kept an office building/warehouse. The retail workers often went to the basement warehouse in that building but rarely to the third floor office. It was late 1979 and I’d had some sort of business in that third floor because I remember bounding down the stairs, throwing open the door and then slamming on the brakes to avoid knocking over the new hire. There was the awkward pause followed by that awkward little get past each other dance. You know the one where you try to get past each other and then end up sliding right back in front of each other? I remember exactly what she was wearing. Tight designer jeans, a purple sweater and impeccable makeup that complimented her clothes. I turned and watched briefly as she started up the stairs and promised myself that I would take her out. Cora was a head turner. Even after we were married and she was working as a bookkeeper for a dental office in the Mission District she would tell me about the men who turned to look at her, sometimes calling out to her. She was a head turner.
Before Cora there was Nana. She was my original and only other head turner. Any other women I dated, I did so after being acquainted for a while. Nana was originally from Pusan (now called Busan), South Korea. Busan is a port city in South Korea’s southeast corner.
I didn’t know any of this when she seated me in the little Japanese Restaurant located in San Francisco’s Richmond District where she worked as a server. What I did know was she was a head turner and she wasn’t sporting a ring, not even the strategic cheap one to keep creeps like me at bay. So that night I started conjuring up this grandiose plan to ask her out. I didn’t know how I was going to go about it but I was certain of one thing. Any plan that could leak out of my little mind was hopelessly doomed because my own logic dictated that there was no chance and no reason for a girl that beautiful to consider giving me anything beyond what her job required; friendly service, my food and the check.
And so brimming with pessimism I did what guys do. I set sail anyway on my own little ship of fools that I was certain would run aground. The first thing to do was to become a regular customer, something that a retail paycheck didn’t really support. But that’s what guys do right? They pour money that they don’t have on impossible snipe hunts. And they do so particularly when there’s a woman involved.
What good is a credit card if you can’t fill it to bursting by becoming a regular customer at a restaurant so that you can schmooze with the server who’s caught your eye. Yes I know, in 2019 it’s creepy and it smacks of stalking. Not so much in the 1970’s even if it was creepy and smacked of stalking. After a few visits to the restaurant we were on a conversational basis but every visit ended in shameful cowardice and no request for a date. And then there was the matter of that credit card bill telling me in no uncertain terms that it was time to fish or cut bait.
One evening I mustered the courage to ask her if I could take her out to dinner. On the face of it that seems a little absurd doesn’t it; asking a server if I could take her to a restaurant. That’s sort of like asking a teamster if he’d like to take a drive. As I expected she politely declined and that should have been the end of it.
Should’ve but wasn’t. I went back and made another run at it asking if I could see her sometime. Yes I know, at this point I’d clearly crossed into creepy. I guess that Nana didn’t see it that way and she said yes and we agreed to meet for a walk in Golden Gate Park.
It was better than dinner out. It was open ended, no money spent, no expectations; just a walk and conversation. She told me all about Korea and I told her all about….I don’t know. I was probably just overwhelmed that this beautiful girl was giving me the time of day, a really great time of day. I could have listened to her all day. I was absolutely enchanted. I was just starting out with my photography hobby and so we arranged to meet at the park again and I would shoot some pictures. Yes I know that’s probably creepy.
She brought a change of clothes and we shot photos at The Japanese Tea Garden and the Rose Garden and when we left she gave me her phone number so that I could call her when I had the photos back.
When the photos were ready I picked her up from work and we went to a now defunct 24 hour coffee shop, Zim’s, just around the corner from my flat on 17th Avenue. She was delighted with the pictures and I remember her exact words when she looked through them, “I didn’t know I was pretty. The camera makes me look pretty.” If I said anything in response it was probably to tell her that we didn’t need a camera to make her look beautiful.
Nana lived on 26th or 27th Avenue, I can’t recall exactly but it was only about five minutes from my flat. After Zim’s I drove her home and she said that if I waited for a minute she would get some things and come stay the night at my place; if that was okay. Well of course it was. The offer didn’t come without “fine print.” Absolutely no touching. Fine with me. I threw on a pair of sweats and we held hands and talked in bed until we fell asleep. Over the course of the next few weeks we continued dating and after a while she removed the “fine print.” I was without question in love and enjoying life more than I could ever have imagined.
There was one small detail. At some point I would be bringing her home. I was always a little nervous about bringing someone to meet my family, be it just a friend, one of the guys, or a girlfriend. Dad was usually ambivalent but it was mom who wasn’t afraid to pass judgement. If my maternal grandmother, Nonna Maria had an opinion I imagine that she shared it as an aside with her daughter.
Mom, a war bride from Italy, claimed innocence from any prejudice but she had strong opinions that leaned heavily towards prejudice and she freely believed some of the stereotypes about Asians. While she never said as much I had the feeling that she fully expected her son to marry a good Italian girl, or a white one at least. I was certain that she was already disappointed in her son, the college graduate working as a retail clerk. Bringing home a Korean girl was probably going to be the proverbial icing on the cake.
I knew that if mom had something negative to offer it wouldn’t be said in front of Nana. She would convene our own private “come to Jesus” meeting, just me and her, and if that happened I was ready to push back – hard. Screw it. I loved Nana and I’d already had thoughts of marrying her.
Nonna had come to America in 1951. By the time I was seeing Nana, Nonna was well into her eighties and mom and dad were no longer up to the task of caring for her, even though Nonna was physically sound and as mentally alert as any healthy twenty year old. Still, mom and dad liked to travel and they felt that they couldn’t take Nonna on trips and certainly couldn’t leave her alone. And so it was arranged that Nonna would go back home to Italy, sooner rather than later. I wanted Nonna and Nana to meet and so one weekend I brought Nana home.
I don’t even recall how mom and dad reacted. What I will never, ever forget was the meeting between Nonna and Nana. While the family usually stayed in the kitchen or family room Nonna’s place of choice was by herself in a corner of the living room seated in a big easy chair, feet on a hassock watching TV shows that, with her limited English she could barely, if at all, understand.
With the formalities of hello and nice to meet you out of the way, Nana went into the living room by herself and sat on the hassock in front of Nonna and took the old woman’s hands in hers and spent most of the visit there. It was as if nobody else existed. Watching my 26 year old Korean girlfriend holding my elderly Italian grandmother’s hands while the two smiled at each other and tried to make some conversation; I didn’t care what mom or dad said. This was a scene that has stayed with me to this day. It has always been the affirmation that in other cultures the elderly are held in an esteem that is absent in America.
A short time later Nonna was back in Italy and mom and dad had gone to Italy themselves. I was charged with housesitting and whenever she could Nana would stay with me in San Mateo. For a short time we played at being a suburban couple.
It was indeed a short time. Soon after my parents returned I managed to blow the whole thing up. I committed a stupid act not even worthy of a teenager that ended my relationship with Nana. No I didn’t cheat on her or abuse her but what I did created a rift between Nana and I that she wouldn’t allow to be mended. There was going to be no reconciliation. She was adamant that we were done. I loved her so much. I was crushed.
Of course I would eventually come bounding down the stairs and almost run into the cute Filipina in the purple sweater who I would eventually marry. We are of course still together. Yesterday circumstances dictated that I tell Cora all about Nana. Cora had seen the pictures and knew that Nana was at one time my girlfriend, but that was as far as it went. There was no need for details.
I was originally intending to write a post about my maternal Italian grandmother, Nonna Maria. Sometimes circumstances lead you to a fork in the road and you find yourself compelled to veer from your intended route. The post would of course mention briefly the meeting between Nonna and Nana.
And so yesterday I was going through photos and referring to Ancestry.com to get some details about Nonna’s life. And then I thought, “I wonder if there’s anything about Nana in here.” And so I did a just for the hell of it search.
Nana died on July 19th, 2013. She was 59. She was gone.
My first reaction was to utter a single word, “What?”
I rechecked and looked for more records but there was only that one record; Nana died on July 19th, 2013.
There is pain. And then there is pain. It was all coming back; that same feeling that I had over forty years ago when Nana ended our relationship. It’s the pain that cleaves your heart and makes you feel as if you’re tumbling into a chasm with no end. Falling and falling and falling. It’s the pain that you want to stop but you can’t. It’s an exhausting pain that wears you out until you fall asleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night hoping it was all a nightmare and then realizing in that awful winking that it wasn’t.
It’s the pain that makes you realize that there’s bullshit in the world that really doesn’t matter. It’s that searing pain that fills you with anguish pushing out the crap because all you can do while you’re in that pain is to feel. If there’s anything that’s positive about that pain it’s that for a short time it cleanses the pettiness out of you. But of course the bullshit always returns.
I kept looking for the error that I must have made in my search but the error wasn’t there; would never be there. Well I was on Ancestry. What did I expect? Did I expect a photo album of the 26 year old girl whose beauty both intimidated and captivated me way back when? People die, right. I’d moved on from that first hurt. For years I could just go through photos, run across Nana and smile at the good times. Now it was all back and here I am moving on again because I couldn’t let well enough alone with a stupid website and I came to find out that Nana was gone. Nothing else; no how, no why, no where; just gone.
The sobs came in waves and they wouldn’t stop. Cora wasn’t home and my first thought was to get myself together and just not say anything. But I could not stop crying. There was no way to hide this. My eyes were red and swollen shut. And then she came home.
“I need to talk to you, but I need you to also understand that nothing I’m going to say reflects on you or our marriage. Before I say anything you have to know that I love you.”
I showed her one of the pictures of Nana that she’d seen a few times before, “Her name is Nana. She died six years ago. And it hurts. And I’m so sorry that I’m hurting like this but I can’t stop. I can’t help it.”
“It’s okay. I understand. You loved her. It’s only natural.”
I cried all evening and into the night and I kept apologizing to my wonderful wife who on that one day in 1979 wore the purple sweater and made me pause and turn my head and vow to myself that I would somehow get a date with her. And now she just kept telling me. “It’s okay, I understand.”
It’s ironic that just a couple of weeks ago Cora and I talked over breakfast and I asked her, “Do you ever think back on your old boyfriends?”
Her answer was a simple, “No.”
“How can you not?” I answered.
The conversation petered out but I came away thinking that she wasn’t being completely forthcoming. How, I asked myself, can you give someone your heart even if only for a short time and then somehow discard it all?
Before publishing I asked for Cora’s approval which she gave.
I still have photos of Nana. Most from the day of the photoshoot and two others, the last two shown below taken in the backyard at my parents’ home. Shortly after that photo session in the park I gave her the originals and the negatives and asked her if I could keep a few copies that I showed her. Even in those pre-internet days I didn’t want her to think that I would be doing something creepy.