Nonna’s Hands

I know she’s home
leaning on somebody loving life
all in my mind the anvil and the weight on my back

Ben Howard, ‘Small Things’

The Hordern Pavillion was not her favourite venue but the look on her face told me she was pleased at the turn out for this gig. Ben Howard had cancelled his original date and pushed back the performance two months, much to the disappointment of his fans. The venue’s website had said his set wouldn’t begin until 9:15 PM but when she walked into the general admission at 9:06 PM, he was already on stage, playing a song from the newest album: one she did not recognise. To be completely honest, she was here for ‘Black Flies’ and the rest was all very pleasant background noise.

The crowd was thick and milling, filled mostly with hipster men clasping plastic cups of beer and leaning their shaggy heads over hippy-styled girlfriends in chunky heels and superfluous hats. The room, a big hall with tiered seating on three sides and an expansive standing area all geared towards the stage. There was Ben, backlit and frontlit and all kinds of lit really, crooning away to his guitar, surrounded by more musical instruments than musicians to play them. The band was sizeable enough: a drummer at the back, keyboardist and various percussion instruments downstage right, bass player upstage right, lead guitarist upstage left and a woman alternating between cello, guitar and obscure oversized harmonica-pipe thing downstage left.

Making her way through the crowd, she was grateful for the decision to wear shoes with a hidden wedge heel. However, she was able to see little more than the lighting rig and dozens of smart phones jutting up from the crowd. Ten years ago, people at live music gigs would have had considerably less sore arms, I suppose.

Alessa made herself comfortable in the front row of a section of seats that were completely unoccupied. She had been sitting there enjoying the last five songs when a lanky young man with thick-framed glasses and a patchy beard plopped into the seat beside her, legs splayed out front and arms stretched lazily across each chair back. Alessa surveyed his shoes: beaten up black Vans. They were in no better condition than the shredded hems of his tight-fitting jeans with a tear in one knee.

“You couldn’t have sat somewhere else? Anywhere else?” she snapped, gesturing at the empty seats around them.

It was as if he moved in slow motion, removing his glasses and angling his head to look down his long nose at her. Even his voice was slow. “Sugar, you just looked so utterly lonely.”

Alessa couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing. “Sugar? Surely, you have better lines than that?” There was something about how he said it that showed he’d never used a line before.

He made a face and replaced his glasses, making no effort to respect the personal space bubble. “I saved the best for you? Honestly, walking over here and sitting down was the hardest thing I’ve had to do all day.”

Alessa fixed him with a look, quirked eyebrow and pursed lips.

“All week. All month even.”

She sighed. “You need more stimulating things in your life,” she said, patting his leg sympathetically.

He shot her a sidelong glance. “I’m sure you’ll take care of that for me.”

Alessa laughed. “Oh, alright then, what’s your name?”

“Jason,” he replied with an easy albeit slightly crooked smile.


“Alice?” he shouted over the abrupt roar of applause.

“No! A-less-a,” she replied and moved closer to his ear. “It’s short for Alessandra.”

The applause died down and Ben picked out some new chords on his guitar.

“Oh! So what brings you here—”

“Shut up, this is my song!” Alessa said quickly, sitting back and closing her eyes. Jason watched a small smile came to her lipstick-darkened lips, a matching expression appeared on his face.

The end of the gig saw Alessa and Jason holding hands walking Alessa to her car and stealing a quick kiss before waving her off. They had plans to see each other for Chinese takeaway the following Thursday night. As she drove away, Alessa’s phone lit up from the cradle on the inside of the windscreen. There were several missed calls from Nonna and a text from an unknown number: I’m really glad we met tonight – J.

When she got home, Alessa wrote back, I’m really glad he played ‘Black Flies’.

Alessa inherited her given name from her nonna on her mother’s side. Nonna Alessandra actually raised Alessa. Her mother died shortly after giving birth; she was only sixteen years old at the time and the father remained unknown. Nonna Alessandra was a God-fearing woman and Alessa was a nonna-fearing girl. Nonna kept the strictest of rules; grace was said at every meal, no men were ever allowed upstairs, there was Sunday church and Bible study on top of university courses and a small part-time job tutoring high school students in music and maths. The slightest of deviation and there would be “Hell to pay”. After twenty years growing up in that household, she didn’t like to risk Nonna Alessandra’s wrath but an exception should always be made for a chance at love. At least that’s what I think.

On Thursday afternoon Alessa was finishing a tutoring session with her neighbour. She pulled out her phone, already open on the conversation with Jason, and tapped the phone button. It rang seven times and was just starting on an eighth when Jason answered, somewhat breathless.


“Jason? It’s Alessa,” she said, letting herself into the apartment and heading straight for her bedroom. Nonna Alessandra was baking; pastry smells hung in the air.

“I know, sugar. I’ve got caller ID. Your name in heart emojis comes up when you ring.”

Alessa could picture him winking at her. “I’ve never called you before! Anyway, it’s a formality. Isn’t it nice to be formal sometimes?”

“Well, I’ve only got paper napkins and plastic cutlery to offer you tonight. Formalities will have to wait for our next date. What did you ring for, sugar?”

She smoothed the covers on her bed and sat on the edge, fidgeting. “I just wanted to check we were still on for tonight.”

There was a smile in his voice as he said, “I’ll see you at seven.”

“Ok, see you at seven.” Alessa hung up and collapsed on the bed, exhaling.

There came a knock on her bedroom door and Nonna let herself in. She was a small statured woman with greying black hair tied back into a knot at the nape of her neck, kind brown eyes beneath elegant brows and a severe mouth framed by frown lines. A white apron protected navy pleated trousers and a maroon cardigan. The gold cross at her throat flashed.

Alessa sat up and watched as Nonna bustled over to the window and pulled open the white lace curtains, throwing a broad rectangle of light across the bed and desk. “Who was that on the phone?” she asked in Italian.

This was the moment to make a choice: truth or lie? Neither was without consequence. If Alessa told the truth she’d have to explain where they met, that Jason was not Italian or Catholic (he saw himself more as a spiritual person than a religious one). He lived in a share house in Parramatta, worked in a comic book shop on Pitt Street, writing science fiction novels in his free time, and had an older brother in prison for tax fraud.

Of course she was going to lie. “Just Amy, Nonna. I’m going to her house tonight for study. Her mother is making eggplant lasagne for dinner.” A crease appeared between Nonna’s eyebrows. “Not as good as your lasagne, Nonna. No one’s lasagne beats yours.” Alessa smiled broadly, sliding the mobile phone under her leg and sitting up straighter. “That’s still ok with you, right, Nonna?”

Nonna’s face softened. “Yes of course.”

Grazie, Nonna.”

Jason’s house was brown and simple; two greying lawn chairs in the front yard and a rusting bike leaning against the water hose. The neighbour’s tree was dropping orange leaves over their fence. Alessa walked up the front steps and knocked on the off white door. The sweet but stale smell of pot hovered over everything. Slow footsteps could be heard coming towards her. There was no mistaking that gait. The door swung open to reveal Jason barefoot wearing a pair of board shorts and a suit jacket over a charcoal button down top in desperate need of an iron.

His face split into a grin as he gestured at his outfit and grunted, “Huhn?!” as though there was some achievement here.

Alessa found it entirely endearing although eclectic. “Hey,” she said warmly. Stepping through the opening, she reached for his jaw and kissed his cheek.

Jason led her through the hallway, with several pairs of shoes against the wall and a battered umbrella propped in the corner, to the lounge room. Plastic containers of Chinese food were spread out on a wooden board with mismatched empty bowls for soup and rice set side-by-side. The seat cushions from the couch had been laid on the floor for extra comfort. There was a large flatscreen television with a mess of gaming consoles and wires, and book case of mostly games and some BluRay DVDs; the Star Wars box set was present and accounted for.

The pot smell had abated in this room. Jason must have had the windows open to air it out.

“I thought we could eat and then watch a movie?” Jason asked, taking a seat on the cushions and gesturing for Alessa to do the same. He produced a lighter from his pocket and lit the small tea light candle in its red glass holder. How quaint.

The food was delicious but much greasier than she was used to. She discovered that when Jason told stories he liked to swing his arms around and frequently knocked things over with the enthusiasm.

“So what’s your family like?” he asked, popping a green bean in his mouth.

Alessa chewed on her chow mein noodles and looked down. “It’s just me and my grandmother,” she mumbled. Unable to look up, she went on, “My mum died a long time ago and I don’t know who or where my father is.” A burst of defiance came over her and she looked Jason dead-on. “I don’t want your pity. My nonna is all the family I need so please let’s not talk about it.”

Jason reached out with his habitual slowness and squeezed her soldier. His hand was solid and warm.

“Thanks,” Alessa said with a lopsided smile. The story needed to be known but not dwelled upon. She’d done enough dwelling herself.

The movie they chose to watch was Guardians of the Galaxy, neither one of them being a fan of romantic comedies. Half an hour in, almost to the minute, Jason yawned exaggeratedly, stretching his arms over his head and cupping Alessa’s shoulders.

This is awkward just writing about it. Alessa, just go with it, honey. He’s harmless, really.

Alessa sighed and turned her body towards him. Jason tightened his grip and they stayed like that until Alessa decided kissing was inevitable. They put on another movie as a pretext to make out more but fell asleep halfway through.

The feeling that someone was watching her, coupled with the smell of smoke, was what woke Alessa.

Three men stood in the doorway passing a joint back and forth and watching them silently. Alessa reached up to smooth down her hair, caught sight of her watch and swore.

“Jason! Jason! Get up, you idiot. We fell asleep!”

Jason wriggled but showed no further signs of consciousness. Alessa grabbed her bag and coat and pushed past the guys in the doorway. As she was leaving she heard them say, “Whoooooaaaa, duuuuude. Was that a girl? Fuckin’ aaaaaye!”

Alessa shook her shoulders and pulled out her mobile phone. There were twenty missed calls from Nonna and a few from her aunt and cousins. Amy’s mother had not seen Alessa at all, no one knew where she was. With each voice message, Nonna grew more frantic than the one before. She had called the police, who were getting a bad rap for not taking a missing granddaughter seriously enough because “twenty four hours need to pass before you can report an adult missing”. Finally, the last message was Nonna praying to Maria vergine e lo spirito santo for her safe return.

Here’s the point where I get totally stuck. Nothing I write could be as bad as the reckoning Alessa imagines for herself. Her grandmother raised Alessa as her own and with that comes the classic Italian guilt. Alessa could have been lying dead in a gutter, kidnapped and sold into white slavery, wrapped around a tree somewhere, comatose in a hospital… We know she was sleeping in the lounge room of harmless Jason and his stoner roommates but there’s no convincing Nonna of that.

There’s a theory that the writer injects herself into the story. A facet of myself is in Alessa, Jason and Nonna Alessandra. The horrible reality of this story is Alessa and her family circumstances are completely foreign to me. I can’t fathom a parental figure who wouldn’t trust me. I’m not Italian, at least not immediately, and I have never been forced to look within one nationality to find a partner. Two generations of values and experiences separate Alessa and her nonna. Of course, Alessandra losing her daughter at a young age permanently altered her family attitude. The fear of that circumstance repeating itself in Alessa makes her behaviour perfectly understandable.

You’re probably wondering what happens to Alessa and Jason? I’d like to tell you they end up together. Happily ever after and all that. The thing is, Alessa is twenty years old and loves her nonna more than anything. I feel bad for Jason; he’s an awkward young man who doesn’t come across a girl like Alessa very often. The problem with their relationship is the only way it could work was if Alessa moved out. She’s not ready for that and neither is her grandmother.

There’s no guarantee it would really work out anyway. Maybe Alessa will take some inspiration from Lane Kim in Gilmore Girls and introduce Jason to Nonna in an effort them to build up a good relationship. Maybe Jason will fall for Alessa and prepare a dramatic speech for Nonna. Maybe Nonna will pretend her English isn’t good enough to understand it all. Maybe they’ll continue to date in secret. The outcome could be anything you want it to be because this is all imagination. I guess the point is at least they tried.


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