Nonna’s secrets

The art of writing and finding your inspiration

Lisa Clifford
February 28, 2013

One day, my 14-year-old daughter looked at me and waved, a swing of the arm that looked more as if she was drowning than greeting. She was in a huddle with her Italian grandmother in the kitchen and had been in it for some time. Nonna was gesticulating when again Natalia sought out eye contact and mouthed ‘help!’


With what I hoped was nonchalance, I asked them if everything was OK. ‘Si, si,’ replied Nonna with her typical enthusiasm. ‘I was just explaining to Natalia that she doesn’t have to shower every day. No need! Too much bathing dries your skin and robs the shine from hair. When I was young, all we did was sponge under our arms and around our necks every now and then. That’s all she needs. She should shower maximum once a week. Oh, and vinegar is so much better for her hair than conditioner.’


Natalia looks at me pleadingly, I come to her rescue. ‘True enough, Nonna, but things have changed since you were a girl. Nowadays we have running water and electricity so we can shower daily.’ ‘I know that … but still, why do people think they have to shower every day? It’s not natural.’ And so Nonna held off on yet another feudal system hygiene speech. Till the next time.

This kind of advice from our eastern Tuscany, Casentino mountain-born and farm-raised Nonna is not new. She was born under the mezzadria farming system, whereby 50 percent of the food produced on the family farm was given in lieu of rent money to the farm’s owners. Her guidance has ranged from never be found sitting when the working males come home because women must never appear idle; to never kiss children on the lips or you’ll give them germs; to always wear shoes or you’ll get worms through the soles of your feet.


For 33 years I’ve received regular instructional advice on her family’s ancient and time-honoured family and baby care tips. Her directives have included wean the children off breast milk onto a bottle of blended minestrone or raw veal liver blood; put a parsley stem up the baby’s bottom to help with colic; rice or barley water is good for gas, though stewed fennel and bay leaf also does the trick; warm milk and grappa does wonders for a bit of an earache; and dine on farinata (a thick white sauce or béchamel) to produce more breast milk. Then again, for a truly beneficial farinata, chestnut flour is far superior to wheat flour.


Over the years my mother-in-law’s outlandish cures, or ‘nonneopathy’ remedies, have driven me crazy. There were times, mostly when I was a new mother struggling with little babies in a foreign country, when I found her at best interesting and at worst downright intrusive. Having my mother-in-law breathe down my neck with ‘tsk,tsk, don’t uncover the children’s stomachs after dinner or they’ll catch a cold in their tummies,’ or ‘tut, tut, I don’t understand why you let the children do sleepovers, they should be kept at home, always’ made me avoid having her in my home at all.


But not anymore. No doubt I’ve curbed my fury at my mother-in-law’s interference because I no longer question my own mothering skills (well, not as much as I used to anyway). The maturity that comes with age has helped me accept and overcome the cultural challenges of marrying an Italian and living as an Australian expatriate in Florence. Then again, maybe Nonna’s meddling is fine with me now because my kids are big, modern teenagers who raise their own eyebrows at their grandmother’s far-fetched requests. In any case, Nonna’s handy household tips, no matter how forcefully delivered, no longer gall or frustrate me.


Actually, I love her advice now. Cheekily, I even goad her for more old-fashioned curative instruction. Go ahead; accuse me of selfish opportunism because I also encourage Nonna to reveal her secrets so that I can steal her words. Her ways of living, healing and child-rearing are almost forgotten. She is a true country Tuscan woman, brought up in a classic casa colonica without electricity, running water or toilets. Her family used the same medieval farming techniques that were practised 500 years ago. So few people, Italians or otherwise, are recording those lost traditions and that has been a big part of my joy in transcribing my chats with Nonna.


Over the course of my courtship and marriage to her only son, my mother-in-law has given me enough material to write two books and countless articles. It’s a swap system that works well for both of us. By writing about Nonna’s ‘nonneopathy’ I get her to share her fast-disappearing culture, express her love of the old traditions and sate her thirst to pass them on to the next generation. I get to express to myself, as well. Our heart-to-hearts make me face the daily dynamics between us and be clear about them. They help me work out, resolve and embrace our vast differences. By writing about my husband’s family’s past, I grow to understand him more, too.

So, what once created conflict in my home is now a delight. Nonna is pleased that I pass on her thoughts and I feel enormously fortunate to have this unique window into the old Tuscan world. Nonna’s secrets are safe with me. Sort of.

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