Friday, January 8, 2010

"Nonnie" from Nonna, grandmother in Italian

Dear Nonnie,

You always believed in me. You never said these words, but it was just understood in your patience with who I was, your quiet nod of your head, like you were thinking and considering all the complexities of each human being. You never presumed to have everything all figured out. This is what made you a good scholar. Though you never studied formally, you studied life, the New York Times, your eight children, Walter William Hawver your husband with as much fervor as a student of university. Perhaps you had your PhD in your family.

You were sensitive to others' failings, because you were afraid of failing. Many nights you dreamed that you were taking an exam, that you had failed the exam and you would wake in terror. Whenever you told me about this, many times, you said, “I always dreamed of studying,” with such a forlorn voice. Many times, Poppie was wrong about a historical fact and you “called his bluff” as he put it. You read everything around you. Your husband was a literary man and you were his literary wife.

There were many things I didn’t understand about you and your upbringing, your way of being, your family heritage, until I went to Italy, to Calabria more specifically. The land of your father and mother’s birth, the hard terrain, the poverty, the political strife that caused them to sail to Ellis Island a century ago. What was it that drove them to New York and what was it that kept the others there in Calabria?

I remember when I called you on the phone from a pay phone in a small town near the Ionian Sea (the sea Great Uncle Fillipo said made him weep with joy). I told you about how the people wanted me to stay there, how welcoming they were. How the women wore black for the rest of their lives after their husbands died. How the men grabbed you and kissed you in the street without permission. How…I left out some parts of my journey that caused me the most grief, but you sensed something in my voice. You said something like, “Don’t let that life swallow you up. Don’t get trapped there.”
I felt the truth in your words at that moment and I made the decision to leave for Florence, where you had always said you could see me.

The land in Calabria is beautiful in way that causes your heart to break, the silver shining in the olive leaves, the turquoise shimmering on the surface of the sea, the powerful spines of the cactus and its purplish fruit waiting the most patient and daring person to take and eat it. The eucalyptus trees swaying with their long tear-shaped leaves and mottled white trunks. The endless sloping hills and mountains, the endless fresh water springs where you could drink straight from the spout. The unpaved roads swerving through forest and planes. Is it true what the women told me, that when a man made love to his wife for the first time, he hangs the blood-stained sheet over the balcony to show the world his wife was a virgin? There was a pervasive machismo to the culture that was difficult to digest, but some of the men are changing. Why was it that Great Uncle Phil said to all the women in the family, “Never marry an Italian man.”
When your family arrived at Ellis Island, the authorities chopped your surname Grandinetti and changed it to “Grand,” saying it was too long. All your brothers and sisters were born in the old country, but you were just waiting to come. By all accounts, it is said that you were born when your mother was 52 years old, the 13th or 14th child May 11 in the year 1924. Your mother Concetta had contracted tuberculosis and could not care for you in your infancy. Your oldest sister Francesca took care of you like you were her own. She was just 14 years old.

Your mother had a jealousy so fierce, she said in her Calabrese dialect, “She’s not your baby, she’s mine.” How it pained her to give over this most sacred of gifts to someone else, after she had labored with you for so very long. She passed away when you were just three and your memories of her are all from what others told you. What must it have been like to lose your own mother at such a young age? How did you weep knowing she was no longer with you? Your attachment to Great Aunt Francesca became so great that you would spend the rest of her life trying to please her and feeling guilty if you felt you somehow failed her. She did not forgive you for moving to Texas from New York, so you told me many times. That she did not speak to you for two years.

How fierce the emotions in our family. Great Aunt Francesca became your model for what a strong woman should be. After your mother died, you and all your younger brothers and sisters were put in orphanages. Your father Giovanni could not take care of you all as one parent. The only way to get you all out was for Aunt Francesca to marry and provide a two-parent home for all of you.

The whole lot of you survived off of the brick-making trade. Still I am fascinated with the beauty of bricks. In the winters, to keep warm at night, the Italians in the south heat bricks in the oven, wrap them in cloth and put them in the mattress where you sleep. The whole bed is like a toaster then. I experience this myself one January when I went back to visit a good friend. How easily I become ill from the cold. Because of the sea air, the cold becomes infused in your bones. Not even the churches have heat. No wonder so few people were in the churches. It was a true sacrifice to stand there for one hour, my extremities turning blue, mucus running down my nose. Those heated bricks saved me.

Your friends said that Uncle Phil (Fillipo) was ugly. With his dark skin and big nose, his large hands and muscles. You saw him as beautiful. You said the girls with their fair skin and blonde hair didn’t know what true beauty was when it stared them in the face. You defended your uncle to the end. When I see photos, he is a good-looking man, strong and sure even in his old age, with a sincere smile. At that time, Italians were seen as dirty, as poor, as the lower end of society. Funny enough, your own mother had blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin. So you inherited her strong blue eyes, and fair skin, wavy hair, but it was the color of your father’s hair, black.

You did not talk so much about your father Giovanni, though you called him Pappa. It seems Uncle Phil became your father figure in most ways. It was your stories of Uncle Phooie (as Frannie and I called him when we were little girls) that inspired so much in me. How he wept when he ate fresh figs off the tree, because the flavor was so rich and filled with the sun and bursting with life and juice. How he went back to Italy and returned with Italian sausages, pepperoni, salami stuffed in his clothes and boots. I later did the same, coming back to Texas from Italy. I too wept when I ate a fresh (stolen) fig plucked off a tree for the first time (and the 50th time). I shivered when I entered the Ionian Sea on the east coast of Italy’s boot, not for the cold, but for the overwhelming emotion that inundated me.

How the knowledge of my family’s history has formed the vision, feeling, thought, spirit of how I live my life. How it will form and influence little Concetta’s life I can only wait and see.

This story is above all for my daughter, for you Concettina, the bearer of such a name filled with centuries of meaning. Concezione Imacolata. The Immaculate Conception. What did the parents of Calabria intend when they gave this name to their daughters, centuries ago? That she should be pure, as innocent at the virgin Mary, as clean as the act of bearing God’s son without the blemish of the making love? Making love, dearest Concetta, should not be shameful, as long as there is truly love between two people.

Nonnie, you used to say that your dream was to be a nun. I do not see how that would have worked out. How passionate, how vivacious you were. How much you loved your children, “I was never so happy as when I was with my babies.” Perhaps, the idea of purity had so infused your soul, you felt that you should live up to your immaculate name. What a loss that would have been. I can say that now, now that little Concetta sleeps next to me each night, with the most peaceful profile of families from both sides of the world.

Nonnie, and little Concettina, it is your father we should thank for this journey into discovery. He made the decision to name you after your greatgrandmother. He understood the importance of such a name, though many around us thought the name odd, not knowing its meaning. The importance of the person behind the name.

Please guide me in this discovery of who you were, and who you will become in our memories of you. This will be my memories, my understanding, my striving to understand situations that influenced my own life. Others in my family will understand in different ways, will have other ways of seeing you, but this is how I remember and I how I see. I hope my memory is accurate, and honors all sides of who I perceive as one of the greatest influences on my life.

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