Lemonade with Nonni

A family tradition.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA

Buon giorno, fia di mia (Good morning, my child)! Dia, pane fresca (Come in, fresh bread). Just in time!”

Nonni, my grandmother, would call out to me from her small front porch while she rubbed her flour-laden hands on a big apron. The apron was usually covered with ruffles that disappeared behind her curly white hair. She would then scurry down the porch steps and throw her arms—almost three-fourths the length of her tiny five-foot frame—around my thin body.

Sometimes I was there when Nonni prepared the bread. I sat in the vinyl-and-chrome chair in her tiny kitchen, watching her forcefully knead the dough. There was always homemade bread, pasta, and soup begging to be devoured at Nonni’s, with basil, oregano, garlic, and onions fresh-plucked from her garden.

I grew up thinking that everyone should have a Nonni—a real Italian grandmother—especially one who called her eldest granddaughter fia di mia. Summer vacations always included ex-tended overnight visits at Nonni’s. “How many bags of books are you taking?” my mother would ask. “You will only be there five days.”

I took as many as I wanted, because I had lots of time at Nonni’s. She never made me do any chores. “Read, read, fia di mia<,” she would say in a wistful tone. “E bene, bene, bene (it is good, good, good).”

Nonni wanted me to read. As a child in Italy, she only got through third grade before she had to work in the fields. Then, a teenaged mother-to-be, she made a treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to America in the early 1900s. Nonni never got much chance to read, but she was very smart. Her adult children and grandchildren always sought her advice.

After we deposited my suitcases and bags of books, we always went out to her garden. Smoky, Nonni’s almost-human canine, scurried along at our heels.

Nonni took the lead, treading carefully down each row, tugging at a forgotten weed or gently plucking a handful of parsley. She waxed proudly in broken English about the Swiss chard, rhubarb, tomatoes, and leafy greens at our feet.

“Is it all right if I have a tomato, Nonni?” I’d ask.

Si, Si (yes, yes), no need to ask, fia di mia,” she would answer, waving her arms. “What’s mine is yours. Mangia, mangia (eat, eat)!” Nonni’s fresh tomatoes were a treat, but the real reward for strolling through the garden was always a glass of her fresh-squeezed lemonade. Lemons did not grow at her Midwest home, but Nonni always had a fresh supply on hand. My grandmother squeezed and strained them just for me. Sweetened with sugar and poured over ice cubes, the luscious drink tasted best sipped on the back porch—legs akimbo over the arms of her big wicker chair.

But that was long ago…

Nonni, Nonni, come out quick!”

My own granddaughter’s voice jarred my consciousness. Sensing danger, I tossed a lemon rind into the sink and dashed out the patio door.

I live in the Arizona desert. The temperatures were edging toward a record 90°, even though it was only late February. There are many wild creatures that bask in the rays of hot sunny days. I was worried that Gina had encountered one.

I found my granddaughter. She put a hand to her mouth to signal me to be silent and waved me towards her with the other. Her brown eyes were big. She was excited, but evidently safe.

I tiptoed as quietly as I could, peeked around the corner of the house—and saw an entourage of baby quail marching in proud unison behind their mother. She confidently led them down the path between the lettuce and the chives. The fuzzy little creatures were enjoying an afternoon stroll in my garden.

“Aren’t they cute, Nonni?” said Gina gleefully.

“Very cute, fia di mia,” I chuckled and hugged my granddaughter.

We were silent for a moment. Then Gina said, “Is the lemonade ready, Nonni?”

“Yes, it is. But while we’re out here, the lemons on the tree look ripe. Let’s pick a few more for tomorrow.”

“Then can we have some lemonade and hear a story, please, please?” she begged.

Si, si,” I said smiling.

I glanced toward the wicker loveseat on the patio and thought how lucky I was to live in Arizona with Gina, where I could pick lemons and make fresh lemonade. I couldn’t wait to plop our legs akimbo over the chair’s arms and read away the rest of the afternoon.

This article was published originally in 2019, in GreenPrints Issue #116.


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