Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Nonna Tears Apart a Chicken

Claire loved to sit at the kitchen table with her grandmother, watching her tear apart a chicken. Nonna had square brown hands with ropy veins that stood out like rivers on a map. Her fingers were quick, yet did not unbend all the way. Nonna’s hands wore diamond and emerald rings that glistened with chicken fat as she dismembered the plump, picked bird.

Bits of cartilage dropped onto the floor as Nonna separated flesh from bone. Arthur lay poised and alert beneath Nonna’s chair. Arthur was a dirty white rag of a dog with the mind of a criminal. The phrase “animal cunning” only began to do justice to Arthur’s shrewd intelligence, which he deployed ably in his devoted service to Claire, who was thirteen years old. Arthur more than fulfilled his destiny to guard and protect, notwithstanding that he weighed a scant ten pounds.

On most days, he was attached to Claire by an invisible umbilical cord. She filled his food bowl each morning and ran around the yard with him, tossed the tennis ball for him, kissed him and cradled him in her lap. Arthur was wild about Claire alone and no one else, except when Nonna came to visit. His loyalties shifted just a bit, during the hour that Nonna tore apart a chicken. Arthur positioned himself beneath her chair, the better to catch the odd flying morsel. When some piece of flesh fell near his nose, Arthur darted out from hiding, snapped up the treat, and pulled himself back into the shadow of Nonna’s chair. He was fast. He had to be. There was no telling who might notice him and throw him in the yard. Arthur kept an eye on the main chance, but he kept a low profile. He also slept under Nonna’s bed when she stayed overnight at their house, in case she spontaneously flung a piece of chicken onto the carpet while she slept. Arthur believed that Nonna continually shed meaty bits and bobs, so he never let her out of his sight during her visits.

As Claire watched Nonna work on this chicken, the words formed in her drifting thoughts: intelligent hands. Her grandmother’s stubby fingertips knew without pause how to pull a wing or a leg in such a precise way as this and that and then tear away the fibers that once animated this nearly brainless bird and put it all into a pile on the plate to make a hearty soup, thick with carrots and celery and fat tortellini. Earlier in the process, when Nonna rolled dough for pasta on the floury slab of marble, she whispered the names. “Strozzapreti” was Claire’s favorite. “Strangle the priest,” Nonna mouthed to her granddaughter, transfixed by this blasphemy. As she watched her grandmother prepare the chicken soup, Claire realized that Nonna would never explain how to tear apart a chicken. Only her intelligent hands knew the way, and they weren’t talking. If Claire wanted to learn the secret, she would have to apply her own gaze and figure it out for herself.

Nonna had been born at the turn of the century in Acquaviva delle Fonti, a village in southern Italy, a long way from Claire’s mother’s New Jersey kitchen with the milky almond Frigidaire and tangerine Formica countertops. Acquaviva was an even longer way from the diamond and emerald cocktail rings that Nonna now favored. She compensated for her upbringing surrounded with dry dust and chicken feathers by making sure that later in life her stout brown hands would glitter with precious jewels.

“Acquaviva. It means ‘living water,’” Nonna once told her granddaughter.

“How can water be alive?” asked Claire.

Nonna tilted her head to one side and opened her palms in a manner that forestalled any more questions. “Everything is alive.”

Today, while she tore apart the chicken, Nonna told Claire a story from her childhood in Italy before her family immigrated to America. “The doctor said there was something wrong with my blood.”

“Anemia?” guessed Claire.

Nonna shrugged. It was a familiar gesture that could speak infinite variations on “Yes,” “Maybe,” “Of course,” “There is nothing to be done,” “Who knows?,” “Who cares?,” “Stop this nonsense,” “Pull yourself together,” “Go straight to hell.”

For this story, Claire took her grandmother’s shrug to mean yes, she had been anemic as a child.

Nonna went on with her story. The doctor had given orders that this tiny girl, seven years old, hardly bigger than a minute, must be dispatched to the butcher’s shop each week for a certain period of time. There she would be given a glass filled with the blood of a recently slaughtered ox and required to drink it. The hope was that the child’s weak body would take strength from the life escaping this massive animal. Nonna described the sensation of holding the glass and feeling the heat of the fresh blood through the thin, hard surface. The blood had to be pitch-perfect fresh or it would curdle and be undrinkable. The butcher held the glass beneath the open neck of the dying animal, filled it and brought it to the front of the shop where obedient Nonna waited.

As Claire listened to the story, she imagined the interior of the shop, the light from the window. She could see the butcher. His face was not visible, but he would have a thick, sloping gut covered by an apron and his sleeves rolled back to show black hair on his meaty forearms. Claire could see her grandmother as a girl. She must have leaned against her mother’s thighs, pressed into her mother’s skirts, and waited with eyes wide to receive this dark remedy.

Nonna said she drank the glass of blood, drank it right up without fear.

“What did it taste like?” Claire could not contain her curiosity.

“Nothing. It tasted like nothing. It was warm. I drank it quickly.” Nonna shrugged again, her thoughts, feelings, memories, decisions, all collapsed into one dense pile to be obscured behind this opaque movement.

Nonna went back to the chicken at hand, while Claire was lured into a trance by the magic of her own inner sight. Dazzled by her own gift for seeing, Claire created the rest of the story that her grandmother had left out. Her vision dissolved the boundary between what Nonna said and what Claire drew from the words. The images rising within Claire’s eyes became Nonna’s life. Claire found herself “remembering” things that happened long before she was born.

Claire saw little Nonna take the glass and drink the contents. She would drink with a clumsy rush, and so there would be a red stain on her upper lip when she was done. The child Nonna would smile with some uncertainty, her teeth gleaming with ox blood, looking for approval from her mother and the men in the room, her father perhaps, the butcher too. What did the girl know? Babies died every day in this village. Claire knew that much. Her great-grandmother had birthed sixteen children. Only eight of them lived to adulthood. When babies slip away without a moment to hold them, a cup of blood to maintain the life of a girl seems like a reasonable thing.

In what Claire could only see as a perfect alignment, Nonna had grown up to be a small ox of a woman. Low to the ground, strong and thick, Nonna trundled through the decades with a hard, obstinate purpose to keep body and soul together. That was it. Nonna left philosophy to others, like her fool husband. She tore apart chickens and made tortellini. She lived.

Not that her life was easy. The hardest part for Nonna was keeping track of her husband screwing around with other women. She could not stop his infidelities, but she made it difficult for him to enjoy them.

This was family lore that Claire had absorbed with rapt attention. Whenever her aunt came to visit, she and Claire’s mother poured gin cocktails and told stories while Claire hid, much like Arthur, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, hoping that the women would forget she was there and let the tales roll without censorship. While her mother and aunt reclined on the couch like two well-fed house cats, Claire made herself small and quiet and grabbed every morsel of information that fell.

Nonna and her family first made landfall on this bright new continent by way of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Nonna dropped out of school at thirteen because her English was not good enough for her to be in class with other girls her age. The nuns had placed her in a class with much younger children, and Nonna felt embarrassed that she was the biggest girl in the room. For the rest of her life, Nonna’s reading skills never stretched beyond deciphering the labels on soup cans. She could sign her own name.

Nonna walked out of the classroom and went to work. At night she took in laundry and washed it in the sink of the tenement where they lived. Nonna had to turn over a tub and stand on it to reach the sink where she scrubbed shirt collars for wealthy Upper East Siders. During the day, she and her sisters worked in a garment factory on Mulberry Street, sewing piecework. The man who owned the factory clapped his hands and called out, “Ach, die kleinen Schwestern!” when the three little women arrived for work in the morning.

Nonna and her sisters gave their wages to their mother, who deposited the money in a leather wallet hidden within the folds of her capacious bosom. This money paid for the education of Nonna’s baby brother Joseph, who was the only one of her siblings to be born in America. It was agreed. None of the sisters would marry until Joe finished medical school. Not that anyone was really keeping score or anything, but Nonna’s older sister Francesca did not stick to the letter of that agreement. She did, however, uphold the spirit of it by continuing to make contributions to their mother’s wallet from her earnings even after she married Uncle Panfilo.

Ever faithful, Nonna did stick to the agreement and managed to hold off the amorous attentions of one slick-talking Domenico, a friend of her brother’s who came for Easter dinner one year and wouldn’t leave. She kept him at bay until she was thirty years old, rather late in the day for a woman of her generation. Dom sported a pencil-thin mustache just like Clark Gable, and he gave Nonna a diamond ring that knocked her on her rear. Nonna carried calla lilies on her wedding day and wore an intricate, long-trained dress that her sisters, expert lacemakers, had crafted over nine months of eye-straining work in the dim evening light after they came home from the factory. It would later make a lovely tablecloth.

Nonna and Dom spent a few days at the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City before they took the train to Florida for their honeymoon. Nonna would learn much later that during this short stay at the Jersey Shore, when Dom disappeared for several hours one afternoon, he was visiting his girlfriend. Dom was not the sort of man who would allow something as incidental as his marriage vows to get in the way of his sex life. This was only the beginning for Nonna and Dom.

What followed was a series of protracted skirmishes in the Marital Fidelity Wars. It was hot and messy. Nonna did not suffer in silence. At one point, Dom suggested that since Nonna was such a talented dressmaker, perhaps she could fashion some clothes for the other woman who was not so fortunate as to possess Nonna’s gift for handiwork. Dom, who was still young and didn’t know what he was doing and would never understand the workings of the female mind, actually imagined that all his women ought to be happy to please him in this way. Nonna looked up from her sewing machine and said, “Sure. Gimme her address.”

The next day, Nonna presented herself on the doorstep at the home of Dom’s girlfriend. She told the woman in impolite terms—Nonna had learned to cuss on Mulberry Street—to keep her greedy, filthy hands off her husband. Nonna held a ten-inch cook’s knife, well sharpened, as she uttered these words. Later when Dom learned of this confrontation, he cornered Nonna in the kitchen. She was frying chicken cutlets. The air was filled with the scent of parsley and bread crumbs mixed with a little Parmesan.

“You stay out of my business!” Normally dulcet and persuasive, Dom could roar like a lion when provoked. His eyes went white. Spittle flew from his mouth.

Nonna threw the pan of hot oil in the sink and turned on him. She put her hands around her own throat and made her words explode like shrapnel. “You! Choke! Choke until you die!” She would not feed him for a week.

Dom was not repentant, but he was canny. He continued to do whatever he wanted with this girlfriend and the next . . . because he could. He did, however, make an effort to be more secretive about his extramarital alliances. For the sake of peace at home, he did not rub his wife’s nose in his sexual freedom. This small concession to Nonna mollified her sufficiently that she agreed to feed him again. About halfway through their six decades of marriage, Dom got tired of screwing around. He could still think about it, but his prick was not up to the task. This development prompted Dom to think about death. He grew lonely. To his great relief, Nonna was still there and still willing to feed him. So it was that time, the amnesia-inducing drug, brought something to Nonna and Dom that went deeper than mere truce. They reached tranquility.


The moral of the story, as far as Claire could see, was that Nonna did not win the battle and maybe not even the war, but at least she went down fighting. Claire’s other grandmother gave up without resistance. Her paternal grandmother was Klara, the source of Claire’s beautiful name, yet she knew this grandmother only in legends. Klara had remained fixed in the Old World in a small harbor town on the North Sea, where dried eel and red cabbage were staples of the local cuisine. Klara danced where other women merely walked. She wrote her husband Dieter’s dissertation for him because he was confounded by his own research topic. Dieter became a professor, while Klara shelved her own research and forced herself to confront the cooking of a hare, a task that confounded her. Instead she played Beethoven sonatas on the piano and grew tobacco in her window boxes (rather than vegetables as instructed by the Führer) during the war because cigarettes were so scarce.

When Dieter started having affairs with other women, Klara tried to ignore it. That was impossible because Dieter made a public display of his conquests, even inviting his teenage son (Claire’s father) to enjoy a beer with him and his girlfriend. Dieter was too dense to see that his wife was miserable, and she was too miserable to hammer the message through to him. Instead she withdrew into silence, would not sleep in the same bed with her husband, and moved into the attic where she made a room for herself. Up against the roof, Klara sat at a small wooden desk beneath the gabled window and filled her journals with dense black script like a nest of baby spiders exploding across the paper. When she arrived at the last page, she put the notebook in the trash. Then she began again with a fresh page in a new journal, her head bent low—writing, writing, writing. No one ever saw what she put into these notebooks. Klara occupied herself in this manner until her son was grown and living in America. Dieter hardly noticed her absence.

When Claire was born, Klara made a rare exit from her attic to travel to the States. It seemed necessary to inspect this new baby girl who would carry her name into the future. According to Claire’s mother—who loved to tell this story with all the timeless shimmer of a fairy tale—the old woman appeared like a wraith in the nursery doorway. Unlike Nonna, this grandmother was painfully slender, her limbs held together with a wispy will. She wore a checked cotton skirt and blouse that hung on her frame, and she held her purse close to her ribs as she walked to the bassinet where baby Claire drifted in a milky trance. The room was shadowy and quiet. Klara leaned into the crib. She placed her hand over her granddaughter and straightened the coverlet, her thin skin stretched over sharp knuckles. Klara looked deeply into the twilight of Claire’s sleep. She placed her hand on the girl’s belly that was warm and moved a little with each faint breath. The subtle, wishbone-shaped line of the baby’s ribcage opened to her rounded belly rising beneath the old woman’s hand. Such a delicate flutter held enormous potential. Impossible for the grandmother or anyone to say how this slumbering child in the years to come might wake to her own strength and grow and tear open her place on the planet. This much was true: nothing else in the world in this moment would ever rise with such perfect softness.

“Hübsch,” said Klara. Then she straightened up and withdrew her hand from baby Claire. “Wie Schade.”

When her mother told tales about Klara, Claire climbed onto the couch. She was invited into the story circle because this installment concerned her namesake. Claire curled around her mother’s hip and demanded a translation. “She said that you were pretty,” her mother said. Claire looked doubtful. Her mother added, “Then she said, ‘What a pity.’”

“What was that supposed to mean?” At this young age, Claire scorned everything and distrusted what her mother said, even as she stowed away every word in her memory.

“I don’t know. A blessing and a curse?” Her mother sipped her gin and tonic. “Your grandmother was strange.”

Claire saw that her mother was not saying something else. She could see more words at the back of her mother’s throat. Claire knew her grandmother Klara was dead, but she didn’t know much else. There had to be more to it. Claire demanded that her mother finish the story.

Her mother tried to stand up from the couch. “That’s for later. When you’re older.”

Claire hung on her mother’s arm. “No. Now. Tell me what happened,” Claire said. “She is one of the people I came from. I have to see all of her.”

Claire’s mother sank back into the couch and told the rest. After this visit Klara returned to Germany. She went to her attic room, fashioned a slipknot in the rose silk cord from her dressing gown, tied one end to a rafter, then placed the loop over her neck and strangled herself. She did not execute this task immediately upon her return. She waited a year. Nothing too dramatic. She didn’t cause a fuss. Klara was finished.


Aside from the meeting at her crib, when she was too young to remember, Claire had no physical impression of Klara. There were only whispers left behind. So Klara didn’t exist as a real woman for her granddaughter, but as a mythical character in a story that Claire carried around. By contrast Nonna was as real and solid as a loaf of bread. Despite their differences, or maybe because of them, Claire always felt the two grandmothers stood as sentinels on either side of her. She never asked for these women. They were given to her. They enveloped her and seeped into her thoughts, whether she liked their stories or not. Claire felt the weight of their lives, the pain, the ragged mess of it all. She sensed them partly as guardians, who warned, “Don’t make my mistakes! Do as I say, not as I do!” Then at times she sensed them as parasitic goblins, clinging to her back and shrieking, “Save me from my own life. Only you can be that one.”

The two women could not have been more at odds with each other in style and content, yet it was obvious to Claire that they had one important thing in common: their husbands had betrayed them. Marital infidelity, the great democratic leveler, had made a common bond between these vastly different grandmothers, and also threw their differences into high contrast. For it was in this cauldron of broken trust that their characters were forged. The fact that they were bound by marriage to a philanderer forced each woman to answer certain questions: Would she fight? For her man, her marriage, her self-esteem? Whatever the final outcome, did she have the guts to grab this crisis by the throat and bend it to her will?

For one grandmother the answer was clear: Klara was too fine to fight. For her, a fight like that wasn’t worth winning. This grandmother believed that at the moment a woman finds herself faced with a battle like this, she has already lost. Not only lost her man but lost her faith, her innocence, and her trust. There was nothing left to fight for after those were gone. If life had any value at all, it rested on these ephemera that were so difficult to grasp, not much to dine out on and yet so vital. Even Claire could see that Klara’s was a delicate point of view.

Nonna was never too fine to fight. She’d close in like a pit bull to claim her man. Not that Dom was such a great prize, but he was hers. To fight for him had less bearing on his inherent value than it did on Nonna’s own life force. A fight for her man was really a fight to stake out her territory in the New World, to hold her ground, and to survive. Also to know herself as a woman. Claire got that message.

So in the inevitable weighing of the two grandmothers, it was easy to say that Klara lost and Nonna won because Nonna lived through it. The brutality of the comparison was not lost on Claire, whose childhood had unfolded with her Nonna close and warm. Nonna’s was a life that Claire could witness as changing flesh and blood, while Klara was forever locked away in the dry perfection of a fairy tale. A life that was neatly bookended with a dramatic arc, rising action, and a denouement. It didn’t seem fair to side with Nonna simply because she was alive. Claire always felt a debt of loyalty to her dead grandmother, a duty to give both women equal weight. Nonna lived in the world as it was, not as she wished it to be. She accepted the man she married with his weakness and failures. Nonna adapted. That was how she remained alive and more or less at peace. Klara would not accept a degraded version of anything she had loved, including her own flesh and blood.

Who could say which was the more honorable choice? To hold on with savage determination to fashion a life even out of the vulgar remnants left after innocence, faith, and trust are destroyed? Or to preserve the beautiful purity that gave life dignity and meaning, even to the extreme of taking control by taking life? Claire knew she didn’t want a life story like either of her grandmothers. Still, their competing voices would not give her rest.


Nonna wiped her oily hands on the dish towel in her lap. Claire needled her for more details about the story of the ox, the butcher shop, and the blood. Nonna turned to her granddaughter and said, “Honey, what I have in my heart, you should never know.”

Claire felt a movement under the kitchen table. Arthur came out of hiding. Nonna picked up the plate of chicken meat and carried it to the pot on the stove. She tipped the plate over the simmering broth and slid the white fibrous chunks into their final bath. Claire closed her eyes. She could not make herself stop seeing her grandmother as a little girl in the butcher shop. Then Claire felt a light touch along her foot. She looked down and saw Arthur had placed one paw on her toes, presumably to hold her down while he licked her ankle, another of his favorite pastimes. Must be the salt on her skin, Claire had figured. He went at it now with his customary focused, gentle persistence. His small pink tongue lapped a rough pattern onto her knobby anklebone and would continue for hours if she allowed it.

Claire leaned down and placed her hand on Arthur’s ears, his neck, and then his sturdy belly. Her hand knew the way. It had followed this soft path so often. Arthur rolled onto his back for her, momentarily forgetting the ankle project. Claire ran her fingers through his curly fur, felt his warmth. Arthur arched his back and pawed the rug with helpless joy. He rubbed his face on Claire’s instep. Now Arthur was at the center of the universe. Nothing in heaven or earth could improve his life at that moment. Nonna’s chicken bits, Claire’s feet, her hand on his belly. He didn’t deserve any of these blessings, yet God was good to Arthur.

Claire closed her eyes again and felt her way down through Arthur’s skin. She saw his flesh below the fur, his blood, and the strong muscle of his beating heart. He is alive. The words flashed across Claire’s eyes. Arthur’s warmth seeped into her hand, traveled up her arm and across her own chest. Her neck and face became hot. It was a brutal enterprise to remain alive. She wanted none of it. Yet she could not stop the stream of visions that came to her. The blood would not leave her sight.

Claire did not eat Nonna’s chicken soup that night. Her parents were aghast. Nonna shrugged. Claire told them she did not want to take life from someone else’s life. After that day, Claire did not eat meat ever again.  

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