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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Saying goodbye to Nanni

Dilma Viotti Spagnoli: A Class Act.
...and a "great" great-grandmother.
I just lost my last living grandparent and with that came a rush of memories flipping through my mind like a rolodex of our time together and thoughts about our family mosaic, our heritage and the generations that have built who we are today.

“The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” Psalm 16:6

Indeed, I’ve always thought that of my family. I’ve been blessed. I had great-grandparents until I was 16. I had three grandparents until I was married. I had two until I had my first child. And they weren’t just alive, but they were fully invested in life and family.

And our heritage is indeed beautiful.

Dilma (nee Viotti) Spagnoli, or Nanni, stands tall in a generationally minded family that instilled values and passed on traditions, without words or lessons, but just by their very essence. Nanni, like her husband and her parents before her, stood with honor as patriarchs and matriarchs before passing the baton to the next generation. 

Nanni herself was the kindest and most approachable person. While she spent most of her life as the backdrop to Popi’s exciting career as a band leader, Nanni avoided the spotlight. 

Nevertheless, Nanni had an uncanny ability to shine the spotlight on any person that came into her presence. While Popi played to the crowds Nanni played to the one. She made each individual feel like the most important person in the world. And that is because she actually believed it. Nanni saw the best in everyone.

Joy to the World. One of many family
Christmas celebrations.

And when it came to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she saw only perfection. We could draw nothing less than beautiful or get grades that rendered us anything but brilliant. She referred to her great-grandchildren her “little angels” and let them ride with her on her wheelchair and run circles around her peaceful living room — far from the decorum with which she normally lived. She accepted all of them as they are without question and she defended them fiercely.

Though Nanni eschewed attention she channeled “attention to detail” into everything she did. Details that brought life to the ordinary: Mint leaves from the garden in ice tea; beautiful stitching she added to a dress; matching accessories with every outfit; an infectious and ever present smile. It was this attention to detail that set a tone of welcome in her home, which always teemed with love.

Nanni radiated warmth. She was approachable.

Nanni was a class act.
In fact, Nanni was the definition of class. With her passes an era, an irrevocable time gone by. A time when jeans and cell phones did not exist. Her marriage lasted 63 years, until death did they part. It wasn’t luck that they fell upon, but hard work and principles. Dilma comported herself with poise, always dressed smartly and even elegantly for outings. She maintained a connection to her Italian relatives writing letters by hand and sending photos until recently. 

63 AMAZING years. 

She was industrious and hard working as a wife and mother and before that as a seamstress in New York’s Garment District. Long after she stopped working she created her own clothing and that of her daughters for years to come. Her dresses were fit to appear on the runways of the time.

At just 3 years old she traversed the Atlantic Ocean with her parents from Italy to live out the American dream. The Viottis were the immigrants of yore that came to the United States prepared to work hard and integrate fully into society and the English language.

But the family fiercely clung to their traditions, those glorious Italian traditions. Northern Italian food, music and the dances we all attended. 

It always comes back to food: When Nanni and her mother, Clelia (Nonni), pulled out the special wooden board for making pasta we would swoon with expectation. I’ll never forget witnessing the day-long miracle of gnocchi creation. There was the occasional polenta production. And there were the days leading to Christmas when they would together churn out bugie, deep frying the bowtie cookies and sprinkling them with powdered sugar. 

Family events at their home were opened up with a toast: A Negroni for adults and a Shirley Temple for the kids. Cin-cin (a shortened version of cent’anni), we would raise our glasses — To 100 years!

Most of us, when our elderly loved ones die, wonder if perhaps we’ll find a treasure buried in the yard or concealed somewhere in their house. We did find one after Nanni passed: My sister uncovered a letter that our grandfather, Dilma’s husband Pete, wrote a year before he himself died some seven years ago. In it he listed his chief accomplishments and highlights in life. All had to do with family. 

“I had a very good life. The good Lord gave me a wonderful wife and children. I loved her dearly… I couldn’t live without her.”

He talked about his two daughters: “They were a blessing. We were very proud of them. … The girls married wonderful guys.”

And when mentioning the highlight of his life, he again turned not to career, fame or fortune: “The height of my life was when I took my family to Italy in 1997.” He called it “one of the best things” he ever did and added, “with the help of Nanni.”

With the help of Nanni. 

One of the highlights of my life too, Popi!
Trevi Fountain, Rome, 1998
We have so much to be grateful for as we say goodbye to Nanni. With the help of Nanni we grew up loved, feeling valued, building character and knowing our roots. It is here we found our treasure.

It’s hard to glance at our lives here on earth and not physically see the human representation of our history such as Nanni and Popi. But we trust that this treasure they have deposited has been woven into the fabric of our beings. 

And as history moves on, we can only hope to fill their enormous shoes.

The following photos are from the last time we saw Nanni, summer 2018: