A Remarkable Life

First published August 30, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This morning, my plan was to do a column about the wrap-up of SES in San Jose last week. And for those that urged me to share my ideas about personalization, I was going to tell you about a new white paper. But I’m going to push that to the back burner until next week. This week, I’d like to share a story about a remarkable lady.

At 10 this morning, my wife called and asked me to come home to look after our kids while she went to stay with her grandmother in the last few hours of her life. So I’m writing this from home, knowing that just a few miles away, there’s a hospital room filled with far more visitors than it could possibly hold, all holding hands and praying for a woman who has lived an exceptional life in so many ways. My wife is Italian, her family is large (a typical family gathering numbers more than 60) and for many years, including the 20 I’ve known this family, Yolanda has quietly sat at the head of it. She doesn’t talk often, and very little of it in English, but there’s never been any doubt about who the boss is. Yolanda has a spine of steel, with a stubborn side that has made itself apparent in some rather amusing ways in the last few months. She is everybody’s Italian Nona, and she is loved dearly by many, many people.

Yolanda came from Calabria, which would be the top of the arch of Italy’s foot, across the strait from Sicily. Her home was a small stone house high on the side of a hill a few miles from the Mediterranean. I had the opportunity to see it last summer when we visited. The entire home was smaller than most people’s garages here.

Life was never easy for Yolanda. First in Italy, and then here in Canada, she built a life for herself, her husband and eventually six children through back-breaking work and sheer iron will. After immigrating to Canada, Yolanda’s husband passed away, shortly after the youngest child was born, leaving Yolanda to raise a large family in a largely unfamiliar country where she didn’t really speak the language. Today, all six children are successful, many have their own businesses and at various times, they have all asked Yolanda to come and live with them. She refused, preferring to live on her own in a small house on a small street that will forever be known as Nona’s house. Today, the house is empty (Yolanda was moved to a nursing home as her health started to fail) but the memories that live in it are rich and abundant. I’ve always said that the measure of a person is the size of the footprint they leave as they depart this earth. How many people have they touched, how many memories have they forged, and how many hearts will ache with their departure.

Yolanda’s small, black, no-nonsense leather shoes will leave a gargantuan footprint, and many tears will be shed for her over the next few weeks. But what is remarkable to me is how the world has changed from Yolanda’s vantage point. The village where she was born in 1924, Aiello, had not changed much in the past few centuries. There was no electricity, transportation was by foot and communication was solely through conversation, as olives were picked, grapes were crushed or bread was made. From that, she lived to see her children, grandchildren (16 of them) and great-grandchildren (13, including one born just last week) all communicate with relatives around the world, including those back in Calabria, through the Internet.

This Yolanda won’t come up for any Google searches. She never went online. But I think somehow, she understood the importance of connections, especially between family. Although she never had the chance to return home to Calabria, I believe she would be happy to know that the generations that have followed her are reconnecting with family there, thanks to technology she never tried to understand.

In some ways, the wired world today is a little like Aiello, the tiny little speck of a village she grew up in. We’re closer, we communicate quickly and informally while we work and we are part of a large extended family. Somehow, I felt it was important to leave a very small trace of Yolanda online, because although she never used it, the Internet was part of the world she lived in.

Yolanda was a remarkable lady. When I look at the world through her eyes, I can’t help but wonder what it will look like when I’m her age. I just hope I can leave half the footprint she did on it.

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