A Love Letter to Joanne


Lavendar, Joanne’s favorite flower. (PHOTO VIA FLICKR)


I love my mother’s cousin Joanne. Like the majority of women and men on my mother’s side, Joanne is a woman steeply grounded in her Italian grit—a characteristic only someone born and raised in New York with Sicilian immigrant parents such as she can truly encapsulate. She could honestly be a character in “Goodfellas,” with her no frills attitude, street-smart skills and quiet lethality that she carries along with a charm and warmth that is incomparable.

She’s truly wonderful, larger than life… and slightly terrifying. Which is exactly what I love about her.

Some of the fondest memories that I have from my childhood and adolescent years involve Joanne. I recall many times sitting around the kitchen table with her and my mother at 3 a.m., picking at reheated penne a la vodka and eggplant rollatini from the dinner we had eight hours earlier. Or spending hours upon hours laying in bed with her on the best mattress I’ve ever slept on, watching old movies or the Home Shopping Network and talking about the latest family drama. My cousin Anthony is actually crazy.

It was during those times of eating and talking until the early hours of the morning that Joanne would impart her bits of sage wisdom on me. At the age of eight, it was “stay focused on school, education is a gift that you shouldn’t take for granted.” When I was fourteen, it was “don’t worry about boys, they’re all terrible.” Well, she didn’t exactly use the word terrible, she had a more colorful use of language, but I’ll let you use your imagination to guide you on that one. When I was seventeen, it was “stop worrying about growing up so much, enjoy the moment you’re in now. You’ll regret it if you don’t.” And even through years of her sharing bits of advice with me, there is one piece of advice that has remained constant throughout the years: “remember who you are.” Now, when I was young, I was terribly confused by this notion, not fully understanding what it meant to remember who I was, because at the ripe young age of eight, I hadn’t really lost sight of myself yet.

Through the years, this advice sounded to me like it was either (A) something that was once said in a Toby Maguire-era Spiderman film or (B) something a mafia don says to his son before he gets taken away by the feds (which, considering my family’s history, the latter isn’t such a stretch). But nonetheless, the advice has never really resonated with me the same way the others did.

I was reminded of this piece of advice once again during Thanksgiving break last week, when I had the pleasure of staying at Joanne’s home on Long Island. The day was spent talking, eating and laughing, and later that night around 1:30 a.m., I found myself at the kitchen table with my mother and Joanne, picking at some rainbow cookies and sfogliatelle. Some things never change. In the midst of our conversation, I had brought up the immense amount of stress and pressure I’ve had to endure this past semester and feeling burnt out by it all. I told her about the craziness and noise of living in Manhattan, and the toxic dialogue in my head that reminds me of my impending, possibly-unemployed doom come May. Joanne glared at me and said in an almost aggressive tone that would have scared anyone else, “What have I always told you?! Huh! You never listen to me. Remember who you are!” Then all at once, the meaning of her words had washed over me with a tidal magnitude. I had become so lost in the vivid blur of schedules and applications and homework and extracurricular activities and resumes and part-time jobs and internships, that I had just become a shell of whom I once was. I had never taken the time to consider my own needs or wants, just what was expected of me or what I felt needed to be accomplished. I wasn’t a person anymore, I had become a checklist; and as I sat there with the pastry flakes around my lips at the kitchen table where so many stories and moments such as these had taken place, I felt like myself again. Almost childlike, curled up on the chair in my pajamas. I realized that although my future is uncertain in many regards, the ties to who I am in terms of the love I have for my family and the love they have for me is a way for me to touch base with an identity, and a feeling of love that I lost in the chaotic void of my life.