Her name was Isadora Kyne, but I could only call her Nonna. She was my last surviving grandparent, and the truth is she had lived so long and stubbornly in her little white frame house behind the library on Edison Boulevard in Xenia, Ohio, that I couldn't quite imagine her dying at all. There were times when I was sure she would bury the rest of us first. Her husband, the man I called Pop, had died in 1950, and she had carried on with few public tears. She had become arthritic and crotchety in her last years, and I couldn't stand to be around her for more than a day or two. But there was something about her independence, her flinty, damnable independence, that never failed to stir me, either as a grandson or a struggling scribbler.
Once, I wrote about her in a story that got on the news wires. I said she was mean as a mule. She was 70-odd then, and probably some mules were kinder. But she didn't take it amiss. I wrote about her another time, too, this one after a hellish tornado had come ripping through the town where she lived one April afternoon in 1974, killing 32 people, cutting a hole the size of a man's torso in the back of her Chevy, unearthing a giant fir tree that had stood in her yard since 1935, sailing dish-size pieces of slate from the library roof right through her dining room window and into the opposite wall. If she had been in the way, that slate would have sliced through her the way scissors cut through paper.
I was working at a newspaper in Detroit that year, and I drove down as soon as I heard. They made her go to the local YMCA after the tornado, but she couldn't sleep there, so she got off her cot in the middle of the night, dressed, put her fine old hand around her hickory cane, waved it at a National Guardsman and said, "Outta the way, sonny, I'm going home." When I found her the next morning, she was standing in splendid ruin. She wasn't crying, either. Actually, her house was in great shape, compared with some. She surveyed the wreckage and then said with perfect seriousness, "Paulie, honey, go over there and straighten that picture on the wall for me, will you?" I always despised her calling me that: "Paulie."
The last time I heard Nonna's voice was on Valentine's Day five years ago. I dialed her from the lobby of National Airport. I was either leaving on a story, or just coming home from one, but anyway I said I was awfully sorry I had forgotten to send her a card, but that I hoped she knew I loved her very much. I told her it was wonderful talking to her, and it was, and maybe just for a second I could hear both our voices rasping. I told her that next year I'd send her an original Valentine. "Pshaw, you don't need to send me silly old valentines, Paulie," she said, "even if I do love to read them." Pshaw was another one of her words.
Six weeks later she was dead. Her heart gave out near midnight on Easter Sunday, the day the Savior rose, and I like to think now there is a kind of poetic symmetry in that. I didn't get to Xenia in time to see her go, but I have since asked my first cousin, Rita Marie, about it, who was there at the end. I am happy to say that nearly right up to the last Nonna was pulling and grabbing at the restraining ropes the orderlies had tried to tie her in with. I can just hear her: "Get these awful things off me, sonny. I'm going home." She did, too.