A quick note: New episodes of The Italian American Podcast will resume airing on or around November 27th. Anthony and Dolores are pulling together some terrific new shows with amazing Italian Americans, including holiday episodes, so stay tuned! In the meantime, blog posts will be published on each of the next coming Sundays for your reading pleasure!
The last trip I took to Italy, I asked my Zia, Assunta, my mother’s sister, if she had anything that belonged to my grandmother, Addolorata, which she would be willing to part with. Nonna Addolorata lived with Zi’Assunta in her final months, in the same apartment Assunta still lives in. Zi’Assunta and her children are the poorest people I know, yet anytime I’ve visited her, she goes out of her way to give me some thing. One time she reached into a dresser drawer full of folded tablecloths and linens and handed me a watch; another time she gave me a gold and silver ring right off her finger, and through my stammers of protests that I could not accept it, told me that if I didn’t take it, she’d be offended and insulted. I have it here with me still and think lovingly of her every time I wear it.
My nonna died before I was born, so of course I never knew her. Her story is, like so many Southern Italian stories of her time, a sad one. She never made it to America as her youngest daughter did, and she suffered a hard life. My father used to say to me, whenever her name came up, that one of his biggest regrets was not bringing her over to America to live here with us before she died. Time moved too quickly. They had immigrated to the U.S. only a few years before her death. Things were unwieldy. Confusing. He thought there’d be time, and then there wasn’t.
Since I never knew her, am her namesake, and she is my mother’s mother, I’ve always had a soft, yearning spot in my heart for Nonna Addolorata. I wish I could’ve laid my head against her chest. I wish I could’ve poured her a cup of coffee. I’m convinced I would’ve been the sweet, grandchild-love that brought light to her eyes after a long life of trouble, and I would’ve learned things from her. My mother’s told me stories of being back in Italy when nonna was sick in her dying bed at Assunta’s, and my brother Anthony, running away from my mother after he’d done something he shouldn’t have, used to slide underneath nonna’s bed to hide. When my mother came looking for him, nonna would sit up in bed and tell her to leave the poor child alone, he was an angel, get out, what could he have possibly done wrong? I envy my brother, who got to hide underneath nonna’s bed, shielded by her fierce love.
Not surprisingly, considering Zi’Assunta’s generosity, she didn’t even blink when I asked her about nonna’s belongings. She marched right out of the kitchen, into the narrow, dark hall, and went into the even narrower storage space behind the kitchen. She unlatched the gold buckles on a black steamer trunk, and opened it. She didn’t pull out jewelry, or fancy china, or expensive furs – things, of course, that my nonna could have only dreamed of! She pulled out two nightgowns that were originally part of my nonna’s bridal chest, whose contents would have been gathered together and packed by my great-grandmother, as per tradition, in anticipation of her wedding day.
In this chest there would have been towels, linens, tablecloths, underwear, bandanas for housework and headaches, pillows, as well as nightgowns. Zia held out to me the nightgowns, made of a thick, coarse cloth, embroidered on the chest with my grandmother’s initials. My eyes began to tear up. I felt, in that moment, like a piece of the woman I had always wished I knew was being handed to me.
My younger cousin, who lives right down the street from my aunt and has been around these items literally all of her life, stood beside me as zia asked if this is the kind of thing I meant, and apologized for not having anything “better.” My cousin looked at me. The look on her face was tender as she saw mine, “But look how much it means to her,” she said in Italian, and her own eyes began to tear up. Which was a beautiful moment, too, standing beside my nonna’s great-grandchild, the two of us connecting over something that had been handmade for her years and years ago, before she brought forth the women who would, in turn, create us.
Objects have this type of power. For all the talk of “things” not being important, I’d like to argue that certain “things” indeed are. When we recorded Episode 4 of The Italian American Podcast, Dr. Joseph Scelsa, founder of The Italian American Museum in New York’s Little Italy, wore a ring that immediately caught my attention. When I asked him about it, he told me that the white stone, if I’m remembering the details correctly, had been part of his grandmother’s cameo, and the thick, gold band it was set into his grandfather’s ring; he melded the two and made a ring of his own, and he wears it everyday. Dr. Scelsa added, “There’s always someone in the family,” by which he meant, as I awed and fawned over the ring, there’s always someone in the family who appreciates and recognizes the importance of things, of objects, and seeks to preserve them. Clearly Dr. Scelsa and I – generations apart on the timeline of life – both serve as those people in our own families (although I am not the only one in my family, to be sure!) The Italian American Museum, filled with items of the larger Italian-American family, is a testament to this; I know that Dr. Scelsa feels a responsibility to gather and house these objects of our community. Somebody has to do it.
As many of you know, we have a close relationship with The National Italian American Foundation. Whenever I walk into the Foundation’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, I feel at home. Its President and COO, John M. Viola, is that “someone in the family.” The Foundation is filled with the Italian-American artifacts, memorabilia, posters, medals, folk art, banners, flags, buttons, and more that he has gathered over the years. While his collection far eclipses mine, I instantly understood his inclination to be the caretaker of these objects of our heritage. Somebody has to do it.
These things document our past, holding its spirit within them, and holding, too, the spirits of those who owned them.
My father used to hang his work pants by the belt loop at the entrance of our basement, tucking his work boots there as well. They were always weathered, cracked, and caked with grease and dirt, and they were always there, like testaments to his hard labor and devotion to work. Even after he died, they remained; slowly, as they did not move in the years after his death, they became a kind of museum exhibit. Artifacts on display of the man who once was.
One day, not too long ago, I realized they were gone. My mother had gotten rid of them. When I asked her about it, we got into an argument. I was hurt, devastated on some level, because that was it – My father would never again wear work pants, and he would certainly never again lace up work boots for a long day of labor. They represented him. They defined him. If it were me, I would have kept them forever. I would have shown them to my children some day, evidence of the man their nonno was. Now, to be fair, I know that my mother getting rid of those objects was her own necessary work, something she had to do after years of letting them hang there, as if, if she left them there, my father might return and slide back into those pants and boots, and go to work, as he had every day of their lives together. To get to the point years later where she could finally get rid of his things, that was her own path.
Not that this knowledge stopped me from getting upset with her, because I have my own attachment to family things. If I think about it too much, it still upsets me, and I imagine it always will. After I first realized she’d gotten rid of those things, I marched through the house like a maniac, snatching up any remnant of my father’s – belts, baseball caps, tools, hunting and fishing licenses, bullets from rifles, I recall a beebee gun in my hands, anything my arms could hold, and hid them away like a squirrel hiding nourishment for the long winter ahead.
Holding the things the people who came before us held brings them closer. A banner, a medal, a poster, we know it was an expression of the time our people created it in. A sweater, a handkerchief, a nightgown, we hold it and remember someone wore it, lived in it, carried it on their bodies through the days of their lives. In this way, our ancestors become more than photographs. They become people.