My sister-in-law was getting ready for the Christmas Eve dinner she and my brother were hosting when the phone rang. It was my 93-year-old godmother, Pinnini. The conversation went something like this:
Pinnini: “What’re you doing?”
Michele: “Making dinner; we’re having company.”
Pinnini: “Want to have more?”
At this point, Michele looked out the front window. Even though Pinnini was supposed to be home in Youngstown, Ohio, it was perfectly plausible that she could be out in the driveway. As it turned out, she had talked her niece into driving to Buffalo to spend Christmas. The only truly surprising thing was that Pinnini didn’t drive herself, as she usually does. Did I mention my godmother is 93?
Her real name is Margaret but she has always been Pinnini to my brother and me. The nickname was a result of our childhood mispronunciation of “madrina,” Italian for godmother. She is one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, and a part of my past that seems almost quaint compared to the hustle and bustle of today’s world.
Growing up, we used to spend holidays at the century-old farmhouse she and my godfather lived in. First came the drive. In the days before the interstate, we traveled on winding country roads that took us through small towns. At Christmas, we would ooh and aah at the lights and decorations that would appear as we drove. As the years went by, we took the Pennsylvania Turnpike and then the highways that were built. It improved the drive time, but something special was lost along the way as we hurtled to our destination.
Their home was in rural Youngstown, 60 acres of woods bordered by a state nature preserve. Drinking water was supplied by a hand pump in the side yard. My brother and I were handed plastic jugs and sent out to pump away, even if it was below zero. There was a largely empty and dangerous old barn that we inevitably ventured into, and a chicken coop that we gleefully helped tear down one summer. We trapped snakes in an old outbuilding foundation when bored.
The woods were like a poem – lovely, dark and deep. One winter day, Dad took us for a walk and we wound up on a ridge overlooking a valley with a small stream meandering through it. He hoisted us onto a thick tree limb and we ate sandwiches that had been packed. In the years to come, I would take solitary hikes there that lasted hours. I would climb into that tree and watch as the deer came to drink from the stream. It was one of the prettiest places I have ever seen.
Through it all was Pinnini, who reminded me of Auntie Mame with her high spirits and madcap ways and joie de vivre. My godparents hosted a houseful of guests at the holidays and they were like something out of a Damon Runyan novel. We kids were sent upstairs, but we would creep out of bed so we could listen to the adults crack nuts and jokes and play pinochle. They would holler and laugh until the wee hours and do it all again the next night. The older I get, the more I appreciate just how much they enjoyed themselves with penny ante card games, a few beverages and each other.
Those were wonderful times. The farmhouse is gone, as are most of the people I remember from those days. But there’s still Pinnini, the best example of living well I’ll ever know.