Today is St. Paddy’s Day and that means I’m honoring my maternal grandmother, Catherine Crystal Costa. I’m mostly Italian, that’s true, but I get my quarter Irish from my Nonna Costa, as we called her. Nonna epitomized the Irish fighting spirit. She was tough, outspoken and more fun than anyone I know. She loved to drink cheap beer in a can and she would actually yell at you if you gave her anything other than that. She dressed like Jackie O and had the best hats of all time. She had funky dance moves and loved to show them off. She’d give you her opinion even if you didn’t ask for it and she’d always make you laugh.
Nonna had a fantastic ability to laugh at herself, and because of that, the “Clyde Awards” were created in our family, an annual ceremony on Christmas Day. Clyde was the affectionate name my grandfather donned anyone who did something that wasn’t too bright. All year long we would save up stories of people in our family doing the most bone-headed things, for example: my uncle going over (and paying for) the George Washington Bridge three times in a row because he was in the wrong lane, my brother taking the dog’s heart worm pills for a week thinking they were vitamins, or my grandmother writing a note to herself saying she hid the camera “in the usual place” and then forgetting where the usual place was). Then the Clyde Committee (made up of various family members) would vote on the best story, recounting them all around the dinner table and pronouncing a winner at the end. Nonna had a nomination just about every year and oh, how she loved to win! She would beam and ham for the camera proudly, silly statue in hand.
Nonna was a true matriarch. She cared deeply about everyone in our extended family and took a vested interest in our well-being. In fact, I credit her with the start of my acting career. She was a regular cast member in the local Gilbert & Sullivan productions and how I loved to go see my grandmother on that stage. The costumes, the singing and dancing, the whole production of it took me into another world and I was entranced. After playing Dorothy in the 8th Grade play, she urged me to continue and insisted on getting me into a summer theatre program. She saw something in me. For a 13 year old kid with lots of outward self confidence but little on the inside, this was almost shocking to me, that she would care, that she would believe in me in that regard. She saw an ad in the local paper and brought me to the audition. It was for “I Believe in Make Believe” directed by Steve and Carol Ford at the McKenna Theatre at SUNY New Paltz. That summer I did the play and it solidified my life’s path. I was a performer, or nothing at all.
Nonna Costa was adored by everyone, most especially her husband Poppa Bill. He worshipped the ground she walked on. It was obvious and delicious to watch. He doted on her, cooked for her, cleaned and provided. They were great role models in that their love and mutual respect was so palpable and alive. They travelled together constantly, visiting exotic lands and always bringing home a doll from each country for their grandkids. I loved my huge collection of strange looking dolls that grew and grew.
Whenever I think of Nonna Costa, I hear her infectious laugh. It was really more of a cackle. She did not hold back. She was a liver-of-life and took full bites. And now, I know she’s watching down on all of us and helping direct the show. Happy St. Patrick’s Day Nonna…now let’s go get some Meister Brau!