Joan Leotta


As a child, I loved tales of fairies who spoke blessings over children, forever fixing them in a positive destiny. Alas, no fairies ever appeared to me with words of guidance or approval. Instead, someone far more important, someone who loved me offered words of blessing that summed up what she saw in me and what she hoped for me—my Grandmother DiLeonardo. someone did speak words of blessing over me—again and again— offering me a view of myself that sustained me through times of self-doubt and that has powered and propelled me to help others find their strengths.

Growing up, I was surrounded with loving relatives, including two wonderful grandmothers. I was fortunate to bask in the love from mother’s mom until I was twenty -three. My father ‘s mother only in my life a short time, and this was perhaps why she felt it necessary to repeat her same blessing over me each of the few times she saw me—so it would become a part of me.

My Dad was the youngest of her thirteen children—born in her late forties. My Dad was thirty-eight when I was born. They came to America when my Dad was in 1921 and by the time I knew her, time and illness had stolen any English she may have acquired.

However, because of my Dads desire to “Be American and speak English at all times,” my father never taught me any Italian—not even a few words to speak to his dear fragile Mama on our weekly visits. 

Each time we followed the same ritual. My father would bend down, kiss Grandma who was seated in an easy chair a blanket across her lap (winter and summer) and speak softly to her in Italian. I would stand on my tiptoes, gently hug and kiss her and listen while my father talked.

I heard my name occasionally. She would smile at me, her youngest grandchild, when my Dad used my name. Too ill to get up from the chair, unable to speak English with me, but with eyes bright, full of love, she patted me on the head and spoke these words over me in Italian: “Bella, astuta.”

Before leaving her side, I would stretch up to press my lips against her soft, paper-thin cheeks. I often wondered what she was saying but was too shy to ask.

My teenage cousins, future engineers, would shuffle into the parlor to entertain me, their much younger cousin, with trains or other mechanical toys. Aunt Adeline, my father’s sister, would, take us into the kitchen for “snacks.” Then, when it became apparent that Grandma was tiring, it was time to go home.

Good-by kisses were shared all around. Grandma patted me on the head again and repeated those words, “Bella, astuta.” Then Dad and I drove home.

One afternoon, as we navigated the narrow streets back to our neighborhood, I finally remembered to  ask my father what Grandma meant with the words she spoke as she patted my head.

“She’s saying you are beautiful and smart,” my Dad said.

My father then explained that bella, the word for beauty beauty covered actions too. “Grandma and I both think you are pretty, but I know she also means pretty is as pretty does. A kind and gentle heart is beauty never fades. She sees that in you. Astuta meant smart and, my dear, that carries an obligation to be wise and help others who might not have that same gift.”

Grandma died the winter I was seven. I was considered too young to attend the funeral. My tears were my goodbye. Over the years, Dad told me a few stories about his mother and her kindness to others. When my migraines began, he shared that Grandma had also suffered migraines.

After that, I often imagined her cool, frail hand on my brow soothing my pain, murmuring those words – bella, astuta over me.

Her assessment of me, her hope for me, and a prayer of blessing. She hoped I would live with an inner beauty that never fades. In fact, those words became a sort of mantra for me. When trouble of any kind surfaced, in school, as an adult, on the job, I was not shaken or bowed. I remained confident that I could resolve any situation or problem with grace and wisdom. Thanks to Grandma, I always know that I am bella and astuta.

I am humbly aware of the honor to have been touched with such a blessing and of my immense responsibility to pass such goodness on. As a Mom, I tried to practice speaking words of love and inspiration, blessings to and over my children–words revealing my confidence in them, my loving view of their capabilities and future.  With this essay, I speak these words to all of you. Bella, Astuta.  May they work in your life as they have done and continue to do in mine.


Joan Leotta is a writer and storyteller.