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.