I’m A Luciani

When my mom was born her last name was Luciani. Her grandfather immigrated from Italy at the end of the 19th century and bought a 100-acre farm in southern Connecticut. On October 14, 1916 his first daughter was born — Rose Luciani. 100 years later I spoke with her in a nursing home while she was suffering from dementia. In her words, she was “100% dead.” It’s not every day we get to speak with someone who considers themselves dead, so I took careful notice of the conversation.

The truth is that during the 27 years our lives have overlapped, I don’t remember ever having a real conversation with Rose (even though she lived up the street from me when I was a kid). When I search my memory, I can find only a few still photos of her from the 1990s.

In one of these snapshots she’s opening her front door after I’d knocked on it from behind the mask of a Halloween costume. Her hair is blonde and short and neatly arranged in waves around her head. The golden light and warm air from her kitchen is escaping into the twilight.

Another set of images shows her barefoot along the old curved street that eventually funnels down to the house where I grew up. In this memory I’m riding in the passenger seat as my mom slows her SUV and calls out: “Hi, Aunt Rose.”

A woman of more than 80 at that point, Rose straightens up, takes her hands from the dirt of her garden, and walks toward the driver-side window.

From the passenger seat, I observe this old lady (linked to me through genealogy the way two tree branches share a common trunk) as she leans against the car with the dirt-stained hands of a farmer. In both memories she’s wearing a pink shirt, and I always remember thinking it matched perfectly with her name.

Last week, as I’m driving to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts. It’s hosted by an entrepreneur who fields questions from his social media followers, answering them in terms general enough that many non-businesspeople also find inspiration in his words.

“If I can inspire you to do one thing!” he’s pleading with his listeners. “Go and spend time in a nursing home. Go and spend time with 80 and 90 year old people, and you’ll understand that ‘time’ is your most valuable asset.”

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I take his advice.

I check into the building, and the staff tells me she’s in room 403 — down the hall and to the right. The atmosphere in there is dehumanizing, a mixture of working people and dying people. I pass through the corridor, turn the corner, and there — sitting in the hallway among half-a-dozen deteriorating elders — is Rose. I feel slightly off balance. I’ve never been great with faces, and there’s definitely some dust resting on those still shots in the recesses of my memory. But for some reason she points her finger right at me and says, “You know what my name is?” Then she pauses for a beat and speaks emphatically, “Luciani!” She’s wearing a pink shirt.

“You know what?” I reply, taking a seat in the open chair beside her. “It’s funny, because that’s my name too.”

“I’m not buying it,” she says, waving her hand across her chest and turning her head in the opposite direction.

I lean in and place my hand on her arm. “Do you know Sheik?” (Sheik was my grandfather and her younger brother).

She pauses, leans back in her chair, “Sure I know Sheik.”

Despite her remembrance of him, I don’t feel any closer to her. I do, however, feel as though — even if just for a second — I’ve been elevated in her withering mind to a higher status than the other strangers in the room.

Then she asks, “Is Sheik dead?”

I feel a shot go off in the depths of my gut and it swells upward and outward until it lines my inner torso and creeps into the base of my throat.

Dead.

What a thing to be.

Even though he’d been gone for nearly six years, dead still isn’t among the words I’d use to describe my grandfather. Determined, tough, funny, entrepreneurial, and reliable still seem to fit him so much better.

Looking directly at her eyes, I nod and say softly, “Yes.”

She looks down, and her voice moves in the same direction. “Yea. I thought so.”

She was eight years old when Sheik was born, and I imagine some of the childhood memories they must have shared — almost all of them set against the backdrop of vast New England farmland and the despair of the Great Depression.

Perhaps starting to trust now in our common lineage, she leans toward me with pinched eyebrows and a grave tone that sinks to a whisper: “They took all my money.”

“Who?”

“All of them. The other day I was at home — just like I always am — when they came in and took everything.” Now her shoulders slump and her eyes point at the floor. “Even worse, they have all my information — my name, my address — they’ve got it all right up there.” She points toward the round desk in the center of the room where several employees are at work. “See these shoes?” She lifts her feet, showing me the navy sneakers that surround them. “They’re not mine. You can’t trust any of these people. They’re all crooks.”

“It’s ok,” I respond. “You don’t need any of that stuff.”

“You mean my money?” She sounds shocked.

“Not your money, not your shoes. You already have everything you need.”

Again she leans back in her chair and now her voice returns to its normal level. “Ah, I guess you’re right.”

“You see all these old people?” she asks, making a circle in the air with her index finger. I look around and notice her elderly peers. One woman is smiling and mutely clapping her hands like a toddler. Another is only sometimes supporting her head. I watch it bounce toward her chest, recover, and collapse once more. Between them is a man whose oxygen tube runs across his chest, behind his ears, and loops below his nostrils. I can hear the wheezing air tank that rests on the floor beside his chair.

“You see all these old people?” she asks again. I nod.

“We’re all nuts.”

She barely completes the sentence when I burst into laughter. She smiles. The Lucianis have always had a way with bluntness.

“Well, so long,” she says, planting her palms on her chair and using her upper body to push herself to stand. “I have to go to my father’s house.”

“Wait a second,” I tell her, gesturing back toward her seat. “Tell me about your father. Tell me what kind of person he is.”

She sits back down and looks at me. The lines on her face are strong and deep and her eyes are dark brown, “He’s a great person. He’s a farmer and he takes care of his family. That’s what he’s always done. Work hard and take care of people.”

Those words send me back nearly a decade, when my grandfather and I were alive together. He’s telling me about his father, how he arrived on Ellis Island at age 17, how he struggled to speak English, how he migrated to Connecticut and eventually bought farmland in a rural town on the outskirts of New Haven. He and my great grandmother raised 11 children — “22 more farmhands,” my grandfather would tell me. During the depression they would often accept migrant workers — paying them a dollar per day when things were good but more often trading a place at their dinner table in exchange for extra hands on the farm. Sometimes the men would remain for weeks or even months.

Still hearing my grandfather’s voice in my mind, I listen. “There was no money when I was a kid!” I always noticed the way he phrased that. Different from saying “We had no money.” With the way he phrased it, I gained a firmer understanding of the reality of the Great Depression. No one had money. There was no money.

At the end of a good week on the farm, his father would buy a few cartons of ice cream — other times a case of beer — for his workers to share.

My great grandfather had only enough money to buy each of his children one pair of shoes per year. Using the same practicality that guided my grandfather through 86 years on this earth, he’d work barefoot on the farm through the summer and fall, saving his only pair of shoes for the coldest and snowiest months.

“Luciani!” I hear Rose shout, and her voice brings me out from under the cascading memories. “That’s our name. You may have heard of us.”

I smile.

I certainly have.