She Knew

Hello Mr. Magazine - - SHE KNEW - By Rafael Soldi

Ev­ery gay man takes a pil­grim­age – some ear­lier than oth­ers – to de­fine his iden­tity and come to terms with who he is and who he wants to be. Through my late teens and early 20s, un­cer­tainty was pretty much the norm. There was one place though, where I al­ways felt I fit right in: with my grand­mother, my Nonna. Through­out my child­hood, I felt a con­nec­tion to her that I am only able to un­der­stand now as an adult – she was a quiet woman, but from an early age I ap­pre­ci­ated her view of the world, even if I didn’t quite un­der­stand it. My fam­ily re­lo­cated to the United States from Peru when I was a teenager, and I came to cher­ish the yearly vis­its and lim­ited time with my Nonna, who still lived in Peru. While I had come out to most of my fam­ily, it had never crossed my mind to dis­cuss it with any of my grand­par­ents. They prob­a­bly wouldn’t un­der­stand, I fig­ured, and see­ing that they wouldn’t be around much longer I ques­tioned the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing such a con­ver­sa­tion. But I did al­ways wonder if it was a con­ver­sa­tion I should have had with my Nonna be­fore she passed away; would she have been okay with it? Would a woman whose vi­sion of the world I ad­mired so much also ac­cept mine?

My Nonna, Anna Maria Soldi, was born in 1919 in Ovada, Italy. In 1941, she grad­u­ated with a de­gree in chem­istry, a re­mark­able ac­com­plish­ment for a woman dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Af­ter the war, she re­lo­cated to Peru to marry my cousin, Car­los, with whom she’d de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship over the course of many let­ters sent across the At­lantic and dur­ing the time they spent to­gether in Europe af­ter the war. My grand­fa­ther died when their five chil­dren were young, leav­ing her to raise them while also build­ing an im­pres­sive life of her own. One of the most in­tel­li­gent women I have ever known, my Nonna lived her life as an eth­no­his­to­rian, dab­bling in arche­ol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, and pa­le­og­ra­phy, be­com­ing an ex­pert in Peru’s pre-Columbian his­tory. She nur­tured spe­cial life­long friend­ships with peo­ple that went on to de­fine their field to­gether. I re­cently learned of her close friend­ship with Craig Mor­ris, a gay man from New York and an im­por­tant fig­ure at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory for over 30 years. Through­out the 70s and 80s, Mor­ris vis­ited Peru fre­quently, and my Nonna be­came his right hand woman there. Friends and schol­ars would come from all over and talk for hours; I imag­ine a salon of sorts, with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple from around the world at the din­ner ta­ble – the same ta­ble I shared with her some 40 years later.

Her home was a trea­sure trove filled with books in all lan­guages, an­cient ar­ti­facts, tex­tiles, and pottery. There were strange in­stru­ments, beau­ti­ful paint­ings, and is­sues of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic and other pub­li­ca­tions that told tales of the out­side world. As a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dent, I started to pho­to­graph her home, and I con­tin­ued to doc­u­ment it through her death and the build­ing’s even­tual en­counter with a wreck­ing ball. I doc­u­mented nooks and cran­nies, warm vi­gnettes, makeshift still-lifes, col­lected spa­ces, and to­kens of a worldly life. I don’t rec­ol­lect ever ask­ing if I could pho­to­graph her home; it hap­pened or­gan­i­cally ev­ery time I vis­ited, but slowly be­came more and more de­lib­er­ate as I learned how im­por­tant those pic­tures were

be­com­ing to me. In the last few years be­fore her death I was fin­ish­ing my pho­tog­ra­phy de­gree and be­com­ing more se­ri­ous about my work; she in­sisted I bring my port­fo­lio with me on my next trip home so she could see it. As most artists know, shar­ing your art­work with fam­ily mem­bers can be a bit of an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion. I re­mem­ber clearly open­ing up a port­fo­lio of large prints on her bed; she drew the blinds so the di­rect sun wouldn’t dam­age them – I found this ges­ture alone to be a sur­pris­ingly in­sight­ful one for a grand­mother. We con­tin­ued to have a con­ver­sa­tion about ev­ery im­age; her pa­tience never ex­hausted, she was cu­ri­ous, thought­ful, and pre­sent – not just then, but through­out my en­tire life. She was in­ter­ested on how the pic­tures made her feel.

My Nonna was a soft-spo­ken woman of few words – in lieu of emo­tional good­byes she would sim­ply place her hand lightly on my cheek and look me di­rectly in the eyes in the most gen­tle, lov­ing way. She would kiss my cheek as she held my face in her palms. She typed on her type­writer and later on a com­puter – her e-mails and let­ters were al­ways for­mal and po­etic, she made her words dance in a beau­ti­ful way that only the Span­ish lan­guage can af­ford. She slept on a sim­ple twin–size bed, sur­rounded by her life’s work.

She died when I was 20 years old. At the time I was liv­ing in Bal­ti­more, and was com­ing into my own. I was about to grad­u­ate from art school and our dis­cus­sions about art, and my in­ten­tions and ideas for the fu­ture had just be­gun. I looked for­ward to shar­ing much of my life with her be­cause I felt she would un­der­stand it – with her I felt at home. From her I learned that I didn’t need to be de­fined by my her­itage, my sex­u­al­ity, or by other peo­ple, but by my ac­tions, my char­ac­ter, and my life’s work. She died at the age of 90 – lu­cid and awake un­til just days prior –in her bed sur­rounded by her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, as she had wanted.

Months af­ter her death, I found my­self miss­ing her, and I searched my e-mail in­box, want­ing to read her words again. I found an e-mail in which I’d sent her a pho­to­graph that I had taken of my then-boyfriend, my first love. It was a por­trait that I liked very much and I wanted to share with her, though I never ac­tu­ally told her who the man in the pho­to­graph was. I had no rec­ol­lec­tion of her re­sponse un­til I found the e-mail again. It read:

“Well, my dear grand­son, although I have prob­a­bly al­ready told you, when I saw that pic­ture I liked it in a very spe­cial way. The pho­tos I have seen be­fore have al­ways been good, some even very good, but in this one, I’m hav­ing dif­fi­culty find­ing a more elab­o­rate ex­pres­sion. I see your soul. I can tell you know him in­ti­mately, and amongst all the ex­pres­sions you know him to have, you have found a very spe­cial mo­ment in which he is, well, vul­ner­a­ble. Vul­ner­a­bil­ity is a con­se­quence of trust, and I can tell he trusts you. I don’t know how to say it in any other way, but it makes me very happy that some­one ap­pre­ci­ates that qual­ity in your pho­to­graph.”

I will never know how much she knew about my sex­u­al­ity, or whether it even mat­tered to her. But what I have come to un­der­stand, thanks to my Nonna, is that the con­tent of my char­ac­ter is far too com­plex to be boiled down to my sex­u­al­ity alone. What she saw in that pic­ture and en­crypted in her mes­sage was a dif­fer­ent type of ac­cep­tance, a much more im­por­tant one, one that cel­e­brated and rec­og­nized a mean­ing­ful step in my pil­grim­age to de­fine my iden­tity as an artist and as a man.

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