“You give from what you have. And you give with your love. That’s what’s what you give with. Not just to give. It’s got to come from the heart.” – Hansine D’Ambrosio
My maternal grandmother — Hansine Whippie D’Ambrosio — passed away on April 6th, 2019. She slipped from one world into the next while lying in the arms of her husband, Pasquale, who had been wildly in love with her since long before their marriage of 70 years. My sweet mother had never left her side for long. The voices of her grandchildren and the so many souls whose lives she had touched had often been close by.
It is impossible to describe such a woman as my Nana. She grew up very poor on a small family farm outside of Keane, New Hampshire, one of nine siblings and half-siblings. She once described to me the many jobs her mother would work to help keep their large family fed: on top of planting and selling vegetables, she’d crotchet garments and cane chair seats for the local furniture factory, working past midnight to be up again at five or six. Christmases, Nana told me, were lean but full of thanks, and a package from an aunt or uncle bearing books or coloring pages or socks had them so, so grateful.
“…We kids were like happy little goats in Ireland some place, to get them. Where most kids were getting large toys and everything, we were so contented to just get coloring books and crayons; just to have those for us. It was unbelievable!”
Am I trying to describe my Nana? Maybe.
Let me keep trying a little longer.
As a child, my Nana woke at six a.m. to tend animals and then ride her bike miles from the farm to go to school. As a teenager, she worked two jobs to put herself through nursing school only to use that money to bury her father when he died unexpectedly. In adulthood, she kept working two jobs to help make ends meet, then made dresses for her children after hours like her mother had before her: to keep her family moving forward; to make sure her children got the higher education she hadn’t; to support any child or hungry mother who came to her table for help.
“I do not hesitate to give to a child. If I can give to a child, I’ll give to a child… And I have no qualms at all of giving to that child so that child can give to his parents. Because I know what it’s like to be in that boat. It’s not easy. It’s not. When you see something and, ‘Oh, I know my mother would love that… I wish she could have that.’ You want them to have that, Jackie.”
I know my Nana’s words because I’ve recorded some of our conversations over these last few years. Some, I’ve recorded out of sheer journalistic curiosity for stories before my time that will be lost if not penned down. Others, because I selfishly knew I’d need her voice when this time came. And I do.
But in the space I’ve made to mourn her this last week — pulling the things my Nana touched close to my skin, writing her eulogy, and quieting my chronically ill body so that I could be present with my family to honor her — I feel no closer to articulating this one human being — this wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and surrogate fill-in-the-blank for whatever person you needed; this 91-year life made through sheer grit and strength of will.
My grandmother was tough, I can tell you that — but her hands were so gentle. She had a sharp tongue, but she was also aware that it couldn’t convey all the love she felt for her husband and her family, and for that she was afraid; afraid we might not know deeply she loved. And if my Poppa was the sweet, cuddly Teddy bear of the two, my Nana was the lioness: if truly afraid for your future, then she helped you get back up and keep going through her words, actions, or by setting example.
“What else?” she would ask if here now, shied by my overemotional attempt to open her thus to the world.
I’ll let her continue below. Two years ago, I had my grandparents speak about their marriage of then-69 years on Love Bites Radio. Thankful, I now tuck this all away as but part of a 91-year chapter in a very long family story. With thanks, and an understanding that there will always, forever, be more of the story to tell.
Me And You: 69 Years of Marriage with Pat and Hansine. On Love Bites Radio, July 2017.