Sea story: Getting to know Maria Grazia (1985)

“Thank you, Glenda,” I said, squeezing her hand. “I’ll see you next week.” Glenda smiled, too tired to talk anymore. Her eyes closed in sleep by the time I reached the door. The perspiration in my undershirt from riding 10 km to the nursing home had long since dried. I was ready to go out in the summer sun and ride home. 

“Commander Hine, could I have a word?”

I turned to see the Resident Care Director walking quickly up the hall from the next wing.

“Sure,” I said, stopping to wait for her. “What can I do for you?”

“We really appreciate what you do here. The residents you see each week have responded wonderfully. They really look forward to your visits.”

“It’s easy. They’re so pleasant, even when complaining about children who did not come.”

“Well. We have one that is a bit of a challenge.” She paused, and the concern was written all over her face.

“What kind of challenge?”

“Her name is Mary Grace, and she’s not pleasant at all.”

“In what way? Something about being here?” This was a bright place, and the staff were well-organized and very attentive. The personnel cuts and “cost savings” would come much later.

“We don’t know.” The RCD took a breath. “She won’t talk. She abuses the staff. Throws things. Sometimes shouts, but not words. She can’t get up without help, or we would have to lock the door. I know she hates it here, but I have a hunch that there is something else. Something that is not aphasia, or dementia, or the other things we see here. Could you just sit with her for a while and see what you think?”

“I’m not a doctor, you know.”

“She has seen all the doctors. This isn’t a doctor thing. It’s just an old nurse with a hunch. You’re so good with the different residents that you have visited. We would like to see what happens with Mary Grace.”

She was clearly worried; whether that I would say no or that she was breaking some rule, I could not tell. But obviously she cared about this Mary Grace who would not talk.

“OK. I can certainly sit with her for a while.”

She led me away from the main entrance, past the wing that I usually visit, and down the hall to a wing that I had never seen. Second door on the right.

At first glance, it was a room all the others. A pale pastel on the walls amplified the sun that brightened the room in spite of the white curtains on the high windows against the wall opposite the door. Beneath those windows was a single bed. In the bed lay a tiny woman, resting against a pillow half her size. She was thin to the point of frailty, her skin like Italian marble, stretched over high cheekbones and bold features. Her silver hair shone with health, no sign of dye damage, combed back plainly. She had what some would call a Roman nose, but to me it was simply the normal nose of a meridionale, a Southern Italian, perfectly proportioned for her face. She had clearly been a great beauty in the day.

I walked over and sat down quietly. On the wall above her bed was taped a collection of black and white photographs. Color photos in frames adorned the window sill. They told me the familiar story of an Italian immigrant family that came over at the beginning of the 20th Century, worked hard, had many children, and prospered.

I got up quietly and walked over to the wing nurse, who was watching from the door.

“What do you know about her life?” I asked.

“Not much, sir,” she said. “I think that she is Italian, but her last name is English. Her son comes every week, but he’s not Italian for sure. I have not seen anyone else.”

I knew not to press for details. We referred to the residents only by their first names.

“Does she speak English or Italian to you?”

“Neither. I have never heard her speak.”

“OK.” All I could do was to smile, and go back to the bedside.

After about five minutes, the silver hair stirred and the eyes opened. She looked directly at me, startled. Something in her gaze told me what to say next.

Maria Grazia, come sta oggi?” How are you today?

Her eyebrows went up and a light came on behind the eyes.

Chi sei?” Who are you? Her voice was almost inaudible, but her tone was firm, even threatening.

Sono il comandante Hine, e vengo qui ogni settimana a trovare delle amiche che abitano qui vicino.” Her face calmed, as I explained that I came here every week to see some friends nearby.

I sat there for another five eternities (of sixty seconds each, I think), as we stared at each other. Her breathing was shallow but steady.

Di dov’è?” she asked, switching to the formal address. Where are you from?

Di Roma, e Lei?” from Rome, and you?

And so the conversation began. She told me that she came from San Bartolomeo in Avellino province. I had heard of it. It was a tiny, impoverished village when she had left it at the age of 14. She said she was tired, so I promised to come back.

And so I did, each week. And each week she told me more about her life as a young woman coming to Brooklyn and growing up in a strange country.

I told her that I had lived near her town. I promised to go by there some day and take a picture if the Navy ever sent me back.

One afternoon, as I rolled my bicycle to the post where I usually locked it, I saw a light blue Ranger pickup truck that looked familiar, in a visitor parking space. I did not think anything of it, until I walked into Maria Grazia’s room, and saw my commanding officer coming out the door.

“Hello, Jonathan,” he said, as I stood in stunned silence. “They tell me that you have met my mother.”

“Yes, sir. She’s a very interesting lady.”

“Do you know that you are the first person she has talked to in more than a year?” He motioned for me to accompany him.

“My mother was a firebrand. A spirited woman with a short temper, a big heart and a joie de vivre that knew no bounds. We loved her dearly and she loved us back. But everything changed after she fell through a table at a family party. She broke her legs and something else happened in the hospital, but after that she stopped talking. She just lies there, staring at those old pictures.”

He stopped and faced me.

“What happened? How did she open up to you?” This was a man caught in the grips of great emotion, struggling to keep his composure.

“At first, not much, sir,” I said. “When she first looked at me with that threatening stare, something told me that she was not Mary Grace any more. She was Maria Grazia. I started by calling her that, and everything opened up from there.”

I thought he was going to hug me right there in the hallway, but he simply gripped my hand with both of his and thanked me.

As the burning anger that she had nursed since losing her mobility slowly cooled, Maria Grazia opened up to the staff and her family (none of whom spoke Italian). Then I got orders to Italy. She died before I could visit her hometown and take a picture, but I hope to ride through there some day. It is still tiny, but not impoverished. She’ll be in the stones of the place, waiting, I am sure. Arrivederci, Maria Grazia. 

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