A fond farewell illumines family’s history

A tribute to my great-grandmother Evelina Fettel, Feb. 6, 1901 – Jan. 22, 1998. Nonna passed on recently, two weeks shy of her 97th birthday. Nonna means grandmother in Italian, she was actually not my grandmother but my mother’s grandmother — Nonna becoming the appellation that everyone would call her for well over half of her life. My great-grandmother was a remarkable woman.
I wore purple on the day of her passing to celebrate the woman who I consider a sort of royal matriarch for my family, not to mention the fact that I have smiling recollections of her purple-tinted hair.
Despite the fact that Nonna was born in Turkey and lived all of her 96 years there, she never really learned or spoke Turkish. She preferred the Italian of her father or the Greek taught to her by her step-father. She lived among the Christian minority of Istanbul where Turkish was rarely used.
Nonna was a rich woman. The daughter of a well-known Italian architect in Istanbul and the wife of a successful husband, she lived comfortably and was able to be very generous with all those around her. She was famous for her hospitality, her amazing cooking and for single-handedly running a home which sometimes housed more than 15 people during the summer months. She would grace her guests with sumptuous tea cakes and conversation. I can only imagine the crumbling sabl with sour cherries that is a cherished memory of my mother’s generation.
Life was not always so comfortable for Nonna. She and my great-grandfather cosigned loans for my grandfather, their son-in-law, for his fabric shop. When my mother was in grade school and her siblings at preschool age, my grandfather gambled away the business, losing everything. My mother remembers going to the apartment of my great-grandparents one day after school and finding only a series of empty rooms. The furniture and everything they had ever owned had been taken. My mother’s family then moved in with Nonna and her husband in a smaller apartment. Her husband died soon thereafter, and my grandfather left his family for a number of years.
Ours became a family run by the three generations of women, with my mother taking on a number of responsibilities as the eldest child. Nonna would spend the rest of her life as a widow, caring for her grandchildren and the great-grandchildren to follow, living with them and never again having a lira of her own. As far as I know, I don’t believe Nonna has ever blamed my grandfather for their financial loss, nor spoken a negative or regretful word about other unpleasant events in her life.
My grandfather later returned to his family and has repaid the love granted by Nonna many times over. As she entered her 90s, Nonna lost her sight and then her ability to walk. About five years ago, my grandparents accepted the fact that they could no longer care for her and she has since lived under the care of the nuns of Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres. My grandfather was probably her most frequent visitor. He’d spend hours with her in the garden praying, talking and just sitting. When the time came for Nonna to leave their home, my grandfather suggested that he and my grandmother should move in with her, so she would not feel alone.
I have many powerful memories of my great-grandmother. I can remember her pulling me aside as a child to offer a few liras to buy some pistachios or sweets. I remember her lighting candles often and smiling at me though we could not easily communicate due to language barriers that were constructed between the generations. I remember that well until her late 80s, she was still a primary cook and caretaker for the two families that spent time together over the summers. She would run up and down the stairs, do laundry, cook and laugh, taking breaks for prayer and a daily siesta. I remember her laughing often. She would not merely chuckle, her entire body would take part and every cell of her being would be overcome with the joy.
The only time Nonna ever left Istanbul was to visit my family in Virginia when she was 80 years old. She hollered and screamed at her first sight of steep escalators in the local malls. She threw glass bottles in the carport of our suburban home to celebrate the new year. And she hardly missed an episode of “I Love Lucy” during her stay. Though not understanding a word of English, the antics and exaggerated expressions of Lucy and Ricky were enough to sustain a half hour of rolling laughter.
Nonna was a spiritual woman, and though never schooled, she knew quite a lot about living. I have received advice from Nonna via my mother my entire life. Many of the family traditions we treasure are gifts from Nonna: Ch”rek at Easter, Pita at New years, Bñche de N”el, and other delights my mother continues to create with guidance from Nonna’s memory. It is clear to me that her legacy will not die easily. Two years ago, in one of her moments of clarity, Nonna mentioned to my mother that she feared God forgot her. As the nuns sang around her bedside on the day that she died, and Nonna peacefully passed on, it is clear now that this is not the case.

Leila Harris is a graduate student in geography.