Inspiration

*Normally I wouldn’t post something so “non-poetic” on this blog, though it occurs to me that many of my family who were in attendance at the Florida eulogy for my grandmother could not also be there for the NY version (which I subsequently edited). Here it is in its original version:

 

Calverton National Cemetery, NY, August 20th 2014

 

The great American author Kurt Vonnegut, once asked, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” I think he was referring to the fact that while we don’t always get to choose the exact circumstances of our lives, we do have the power to make the most of it with those around us.

So I’ll say it now, and then I’ll ask again later, to all of us gathered here today, sharing our memories and thoughts – remembering so that we’ll never forget of our time with one very special woman: how she inspired us before, and continues to this day – to all of us gathered here now to remember:

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

 

One of my earliest memories is of a holiday party at the little blue house where I grew in the quaint neighborhood of Lakeside Key, in the modest town of Pembroke Pines. I don’t remember much about that party other than that it was a typically muggy Florida evening, our home packed with old relatives and young cousins. I don’t even remember what we were celebrating or why. But what I do remember is standing out on the front lawn, amongst our very large Italian family, and staring up into the clear evening sky at a star – the brightest star I’d ever seen.

“Do you see that star there?” Nanna Millie noticed my gaze and asked. “The really bright one?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “The big one.”

She smiled. “That’s because it’s not a star,” she explained. “It’s a planet, called Jupiter.”

And just like that, my imagination was off and soaring…

 

Nana Millie’s special like that. An inspiration. She’s more than just your typical grandmother. A daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend; Nana Millie lives many names, but to me she always was and always will be just that: Nana Millie.

I can only talk as one of those whom she has one of these very special relationships with. Each of us has our own unique connection. But as different as our experiences with her are, the essence of these bonds is exactly what we also share.

Our memories will shift and sway, but some memories seem as potent now as they were way back then – and they always will be. Let me explain: Aroma… Need I say more? Okay, Sunday aromas. Salivating yet? Meatballs, lasagna, homemade gravy, Easter pies… Eggplant parm. I’ll say it again. Eggplant parm. Now that’s what I thought. Now that’s aroma. That’s memory.
If that isn’t nice and delicious, what is?

 

Some of my earliest memories are at Nanny and Poppy’s house – of refrigerator candy: stiff twizzlers and cold chocolate, playdough, and catching tadpoles in the lake out back… Great memories. Golden memories. Childhood memories. Nanna Millie memories…

These are family memories, though her family doesn’t end with just you and me. Nanna Millie was always as giving as she was grateful. Nothing made her happier than making others happy – treating others as family. Long before I was born, and back when many of you here now were children or had much more hair, Nanna Millie used to bake cakes for the nuns at her church. How greatful were they? Luckily, I happen to have a thank you note from one of the nuns from way back when, which I’ll share with you now:

“Dear Mrs. Labriola,

Last night all the sisters agreed to make you the president of the cake club. The cake we all enjoyed was the one you so generously made for us. God bless you very very much for your kindness to us. Your time you gave, and all those delicious flavors that go into cake making is deeply appreciated by us all. I hope you know that our prayers of thanks are ever offered up for you and your dear ones. God bless you always.”

Now if that isn’t nice, sweet and caring, and wonderful, then what is?

 

Though she loved to make others happy, Nanna Millie liked to have her own fun too. You know, I never knew that while she was teaching me to play Gin Rummy as a child, she was also going off to hit the Vegas slots with her gambling co-conspirators. “Don’t tell your father,” she’d say if she won. “Don’t tell your father,” she’d say if she lost.

Win or lose, they’d take mid afternoon breaks to watch the soap opera ‘Days of Our Lives’ back in their room. Watching ‘Days’ on the bed, eating ice cream. Then hitting the slots. Now that sounds nice.

No wonder I could never beat her at cards. No wonder none of my friends now can beat me at cards. If that isn’t awesome, what is?

 

Whenever I get down, as do we all, I think of those in my life who have picked themselves up in the face of far greater odds. Nanna Millie lived for many years with Parkinson’s. She’d say that Parkinson’s is just a word and doesn’t define you as a person. So instead, she lived those words. She exercised regularly. She walked. She took yoga classes and energy healing. Whenever I get down, I go to yoga class now. I think of the ways I can pick myself up. While our challenges are very different, our refusal to admit defeat is very much the same. If that’s not inspiring, what is?

I could go on for ages, and in another use of that phrase, I will. We all will, in large part, because of the inspiration and teachings shared with us by one very special woman. A daughter, and a wife, and a mother and sister, aunt, and friend. Nana Millie fills all these roles as we now all fill for others. An inspiration.

 

So for that, I would just like to thank you, Nana.

I love a good gamble, so thanks Nana.

I love yoga. Thanks Nana.

I love refusing to give up, no matter the odds seemingly stacked against me.

I love cooking. And of course, I love eating. Thanks Nana.

And I love staring up at the stars, and wondering, and remembering those who’ve helped open my eyes. So thank you, Nana Millie.

 

And so I’ll ask you all again now: if all of these memories and experiences, and lessons, and inspirations aren’t nice, what is?

And I’ll ask you just one more thing too. You don’t have to right now, but at some point today or tomorrow or even a year from now, I think it would be nice if we all shared one of our memories or experiences, or lessons, or inspirations we enjoyed with Nana Millie. I think it would be nice if we all shared that with someone. Whether with someone here or someone who never knew her, share how she helped you become who you are – even if you didn’t realize it at the time. Share that inspiration in you now.

 

Above all, Nanna Millie loved to see those who she loved be happy. Surely now, with all of us gathered here together, she’s smiling, and very rightly feeling: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

Thank you.

 

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