My grandfather was nothing short of incredible. Last year, Nonno Franco passed away at 91 after a long battle with dementia. The neurodegenerative condition is recognised as the second most common cause of death by Dementia Australia, making this an extremely sad reality for many people and their loved ones. I do not want this piece to be a sad story.
Growing up, I could be sure of a few things when visiting my grandparents in the northern Melbourne suburb of Fawkner. A step through the door would find my Nonna Angiolina preparing to fill my belly with a delicious feast and my heart with unconditional love. Nonno would be dressed in a chesty singlet and short shorts, attending to his abundant vegetable patch and doing his best to make you laugh. A match made in wog heaven.
A few years after we lost my nonna, Franco was diagnosed with dementia. These first few years were the hardest. A social man and a great orator, he slowly withdrew into himself. I watched as his confidence in doing basic tasks rapidly declined. Anxiety towards social situations developed so much that he would become physically sick and not be able to leave the house.
It took a village to keep him in his beloved home. Cousins, nephews, nieces, grandkids, and friends rallied to support my mum and her sister by bringing Franco meals and keeping him company. In these visits, the house felt oppressively silent. Nonno would seldom eat the pasta that he used to love and, worst of all, the vegetable patch was in decline.
I watched as an intelligent man slowly forgot the skills of harvest that were once second nature to him. Growing up on a farm on the Italian island of Elba, growing crops was the means of survival for a young Franco, who lost his mother as a small child. At 24, after traveling across the world by boat with his two brothers and their wives, the garden became a connection to home, and a love letter to his family and friends.
As the community of Italians who arrived in Melbourne in the 1950s slowly dwindled, the garden and food became all the more important, and a way for Franco to fill his days. But growing fresh produce is an art that requires knowledge, attention and functioning memory — all the things that Nonno was losing. I felt despair watching him confuse weeds for herbs, pull plants from the ground well before their time, and forget the names of fruits and vegetables he’d been growing for over eight decades.
Yet, despite his growing confusion in the garden, the citrus trees continued to grow and, over time, parts of Nonno’s personality began to bear fruit again. In these final years, elements of Franco that I had long grieved began to reemerge. He started opening the door again with the hallmark enthusiasm that had fallen victim to anxiety. Nights by the dinner table were suddenly filled with spontaneous singing and dancing.
Most precious were the new stories that floated out from the recesses of his mind, accessed by the strange developments of dementia. For a man who had been reduced to a few limited conversation topics, it was a wonderful surprise to unearth anecdotes from his youth that were completely fresh to me. Some were true, and I’m sure some fabricated, but I relished in the commitment to storytelling that I had missed. Even with an almost empty fridge and a shrinking garden offering, he’d be sure to saddle me up with an overflowing basket of lemons (this was non-negotiable), a block of hazelnut chocolate, and a story that gave me a new piece of him.
The last time I spoke to Nonno was on a Thursday evening in June. He had been in hospital, and then a nursing home, for almost two weeks and was rapidly losing consciousness. But when I came into the room he opened his eyes to look at me, and bore the widest, most generous smile. It was one I’d seen a thousand times before, closing and opening the door to Fawkner. He gestured to me to come closer, grasping my face between his gentle hands. His language was gone, but the connection was still there. Without saying it, I knew he was insisting that I take some lemons, one last time.