My last grandparent, Nana as we all called her, passed away Saturday, just 5 days short of her 95th birthday. She spent her last years in decline, but she was still pretty sharp until the end. And I have to say she set quite the example for all of her family during the other 90-something years.
Two things that stand out to me the most: she made many sacrifices to emulate a selfless existence, and she was an incredibly thrifty spender. I’d love to tell a little bit of her story here.
Jeanette Patricia (Ciani) Bongiovanni was born on July 8th, 1926, in New Jersey. Her father’s side came from Italy, and her mother’s side came from Ireland.
I would say she spent most of her life taking care of others more than anything else, which presents a bit of a tough life. She didn’t finish high school because she helped care for her mom, who had rheumatoid arthritis, and one of her brothers who had polio.
She met her husband, my Pop-Pop, at just 17 years old through a blind date, and they eloped one year later. My mom was their first child, followed by a boy (Uncle Fred), a girl (Aunt Janet), and a boy (Uncle Joe). One funny story from her first weeks as a new mother is that she took my mom in her stroller to the market, but left her outside while gathering things. When she got home, she got a call from the market. She had forgotten something … my mother!
In those early days, she stayed busy as a wife, mother, and homemaker in Jersey City surrounded by family, while my Pop-Pop worked at Public Service Gas and Electric. Raising the kids as good Catholics, she would make them tuna fish sandwiches every Friday, even though it made her gag.
On June 18, 1976, her life drastically changed. My Pops was working on a dock that day. The wind picked up, and after he tied a thick rope from a barge to a mushroom, the rope loosened and its hook hit him in the temple above his left ear. Even though he was wearing a helmet, his head opened, and the EMTs had to hold it together so his brain wouldn’t separate from the skull too much.
The subdural hematoma left him unconscious for 9 weeks and hospitalized for more than three months. He moved into Kessler for rehabilitation, where he was considered 100 percent disabled. A few months later and with continued at-home therapy, he learned to walk and talk again. Still, there were terminal repercussions from the accident. (Fun fact: this is why my sister became a speech pathologist! She often stayed with my Nana & Pop-Pop for one-on-one time being the first grandchild, and she watched how much Pop’s therapy sessions helped him).
Even still, this was not the life the two lovebirds had hoped for. They wanted to travel now that the kids were out of the house. My Nan kept Pops going for many years, and they did still travel, just with some adjustments. His speech and comprehension were severely limited, leaving him—and others—often frustrated. It was quite challenging, and she had a lot of help from other family members, but cared for him all those years until he passed away in 2004.
When it came to her grandchildren, she was there for every occasion. Grandmas are really the best in giving of themselves, so it’s no surprise Nan was this way. But with everything on her plate and 12 grandchildren to spoil, it’s amazing how generous she was and how she gave individualized attention to each granchild. She never forgot to send a card for every occasion, nor calling for birthdays and check ins. She would buy things in advance when they were on sale, picking the items out for specific people, then holding onto them for months (which is how she gifted me my beloved KitchenAid Stand Mixer for my wedding shower).
She would call me “Treecy” and loved to inquire, “where are you?” She always asked about Justin, and I secretly think she had no problem remembering his name because she went to church at St. Justin’s for years.
She dressed beautifully with jewelry to boot, loved to clean, iron, and cook. Nan’s meatballs, chicken soup, and breaded chicken wings will go down in history for me, and many people have tried to match her “recipes” over the years. She and my mom had to work to get along; we like to laugh that they were like oil and vinegar. My mom rebelled and never took to dressing up, cleaning, ironing, and cooking, probably partially out of spite!
Hers was a life well lived, despite its obstacles. Love you always, Nan!