“But that’s not the way I heard it said by my parents,” I responded when told how to pronounce “hard-headed” in Italian. “ ‘Desta dutta’ is the way they said it, not ‘testa dura.’ ” Oh, the complexities of trying to learn to speak Italian in the sixth decade of your life.
But as a second-generation Italian-American, as with most of my generation, parents did not want us to learn Italian. Perhaps it was because they could discuss family matters easier when inquisitive ears were listening. But more than likely it was their way of Americanizing their children. After all, as sons and daughters of immigrants, they suffered discrimination and endured the ethnic slurs hurled at them by others whose immigrant grandparents had preceded theirs.
So, consequently, the desire, finally, to learn the language of my forefathers, even if it meant three times a week sitting in a classroom with students barely old enough to vote. And, in the larger picture, it meant reaching for my roots.
Not that those roots were denied. Pasta sugo on Thursdays and Sundays, St. Joseph Day tables and homemade wine were just some of the ways traditions were kept alive as my friends and I grew. But as we aged, matured, raised families and started thinking about Social Security, other aspects of the world our ancestors left behind took on greater meaning. And, in many cases, that spawned a desire to visit the past while the present still exists.
More and more I hear from friends of their trips to Italy. As I, they found a beautiful land populated with men and women and children who reminded them of their family and friends back home.
They felt, as I did, a spiritual awakening in recognizing the signage of towns, cities and streets, and the familiar names of those who lived with them on the other side of the Atlantic.
Yes, some of the culture our forefathers left behind traveled with them to that strange new world. But until you see it, until you feel it, until you’re immersed in it, you can’t grasp the enormity of what they did. All but penniless, peasant stock mostly, they ventured to a land of promise filled with the hope conveyed to them by a brother or a cousin who went before them.
The promise in most cases was fulfilled, but all too often at the cost of not passing on what was left behind. To go to Italy, to go to Sicily is to experience the culture and way of life abandoned by those courageous emigrants.
It’s possible to find the homes your grandparents left, walk the cobblestone streets they walked, pray in the churches in which they worshipped. It’s possible, better yet, to meet relatives, great-aunts and uncles, their children you can gleefully call cugino or cugina. You can sit in a sidewalk café in a small fishing village that was once home to your maternal grandparents, as I did, and have your host point to a handsome young man across the way and tell you in broken English that he’s your cousin.
You realize in such moments that part of you sits across the way, that your blood is mingled, was mingled and will continue to be mingled with those you’ve never seen. Perhaps that’s the draw. Perhaps it’s the bloodlines that attract us to places our grandparents left.
Those you encounter with your blood will revel in your presence. They will want you, need you to stay with them. They will call together their families and friends to meet their i cugini Americani. They will, of course, feed you, and you will feel as you did when you were little, sitting at your grandparents’ table, watching the grown-ups eat, sip wine and, best of all, converse for hours. Only this time you will be the grown-up.
It is difficult to leave such surroundings. But it is joyful to have been there.