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Hackie: Nonna


From the moment I met her at the airport, I knew Christy Lee Spencer was my kind of woman: Long Island through and through and more than ready to chew the fat with a cabdriver she just met. Think one part Edie Falco, one part Rosie O'Donnell, and with a dollop of Alec Baldwin for the finish — that's the accent and personality profile.

Long Islanders, in my experience, are rarely shy and inhibited. Typically, they are New York City émigrés, and the relocation a couple dozen miles east does little to blunt their Big Apple effervescence or edge.

"So, what town did you grow up in?" I asked as we motored south on Route 7. "I think you told me, but I forget."

"Port Washington — that's on the north shore," she replied. "Born there and still living there. How about that?"

"Unusual, but very cool," I said with a chuckle. "Will you be vacationing on Lake Dunmore? It's a lovely spot, but not known as a haven for out-of-staters."

(I was going to say "flatlanders" but checked myself. With its slightly disparaging connotation, I think the term is best reserved for Vermonter-to-Vermonter communication.)

"Well, the camp has been in the family for a couple generations. My husband's grandfather purchased it years and years ago. Oh, excuse me — I need to take this call."

"Yes, Angela," she spoke into her cellphone. "That's OK, it's no bother whatsoever. I want you to call. And don't worry about Norm's reaction — he's just getting used to you. Try the canned peaches. He likes that in the afternoon."

"That was my husband's new caretaker," she explained after clicking off. "Norm's at the point where he needs constant assistance. It was a big deal, me coming up here for the weekend, but my kids insisted on it."

"What's his condition, if I can ask?"

"He has aphasia and associated dementia. The irony is, Norm was always healthy as a horse. He played just about every sport, including college hockey and barefoot water-skiing, of all things. The doctors can't say for sure, but my intuition is that all the blows to the head he sustained as an athlete brought on his illness. It's been nearly 10 years now."

"And you take care of him in your home?"

"Yes, me and our three daughters, ages 32, 35 and 37. Luckily, they all live in the area and pitch in every way they can. They'll be at the camp this weekend with the grandkids. Earlier in the week they all drove up.

"My girls are such dolls. Last month, for my birthday, they took me into the city to see Billy Joel at the Garden. Billy's my absolute favorite singer. You know, we call him 'the pride of Long Island.'"

"Oh, I like that — 'the pride of Long Island,'" I said. Though I've never been a big Billy Joel fan, I did understand his appeal. Changing the subject, I asked, "So, how'd you and Norm meet?"

"We were childhood sweethearts. But my mother and father — the whole family, really — pressured me to split up with him. Both of my parents are Italian — Sicilian, if you know all that entails — and they were set on me marrying an Italian. Norm, God love him, is a total WASP."

"But love conquered all?" I asked.

"It did. My father died when I was 16, and my mother changed her tune. 'Love is all that matters, Stellina.' That was her pet name for me. 'If you love Norm,' she told me, 'then never let him go.' And, despite these last 10 challenging years, I don't regret a thing. We've had a glorious life together."

In sickness and in health, 'til death do us part, I mouthed the words silently. Marriage is about a lot of things, but that might be the most meaningful portion of the vows. No one gets out of this life alive, as they say. To be blessed with a loving companion, someone you can count on to take hold of your hands and look you in the eyes when you're at your most frightened and vulnerable — that is truly the tender mercy that only love can bestow.

In Vergennes, we drove past the extensive solar field, one of the largest of its kind in the state, if I recall correctly. Christy Lee, meanwhile, was regaling me with tales of her nine grandchildren, "the most gorgeous children in the world" in her studied judgment.

"What did you and Norm do for work?" I asked.

"Oh, I still work!" Christy Lee made clear. "I teach fourth graders. Norm was also a teacher. He taught science to middle schoolers and was a gifted teacher. His kids loved him. A number of them still stay in touch."

Just south of East Middlebury, we turned onto Route 53 heading east. Soon Lake Dunmore came into view, bordered by a plethora of mostly rustic cabins — none of which you would call ramshackle, but not a one approaching opulence. To the left was the Kampersville Campground, with its iconic giant wooden squirrel beckoning passing vacationers.

We turned onto a side road and approached the Spencer family camp. It was one of the larger and nicer properties, with white clapboards, blue trim and a rambling, screened porch. The yard was littered with all manner of toys, mostly big ones — summer toys — made of brightly colored plastic.

From the sandy lakefront, just 50 yards away, the family spotted us pulling in the driveway. Little ones began running up the hill, their faces alive with joy and excitement.

"Nonna, Nonna, Nonna!" they yelled, bursting with glee.

Christy Lee jumped out of the front seat. "I'm here!" she exclaimed, her arms open wide, ready for the precious tumble of hugs.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Nonna"