Gramma immigrated from Italy when she was 16 years old. My grandfather, who was 32 at the time, brought his recently acquainted with wife to America. Their new life eventually brought them to Gary, Indiana where they became business owners, running a neighborhood grocery store.
For my mom, having immigrant parents certainly affected her upbringing. Their family worked their hard-earned grocery store, tirelessly, everyday from open to close. They all lived in an apartment attached to the business so it was physically and conditionally an extension of their home.
Mom never understood the language her parents spoke to each other. Her mom and dad always conferred unobtrusively in Italian, but only communicated with their kids in English, wanting them to be completely “Americanized.”
Her parents, either together or separately, would occasionally leave their kids for months at a time to return to Italy. Once their store was established and trusted hands were found to help look after it, they left to visit family and help out with the harvest on family vineyards.
For me, being of Italian heritage simply meant I only consumed boxed pasta at friends’ houses and Gramma talked funny.
Subsiding on fresh, homemade pasta was never something to complain about, and Gramma’s thick accent provided plenty of entertainment for my sisters and me.
We would giggle at how she spoke, and laughed even harder when we played the Make-Gramma-Say-Something-Funny game. She always obliged, repeating phrases we doled out to her, such as “I love Kirk Cameron,” and “Jenny is Butt Head.“
I would ask Gramma relentlessly, “When are you going to me take me to Italy with you?” When my older brothers were around 15 years old, she brought them, for five weeks, on one of her long trips back home.
I never let Gramma forget her promise to do the same for me when I became of age.
As I approached that age, Gramma became ill, wasn’t interested in much treatment, and succumbed to a short bout of cancer. I always regretted never taking the time to learn more about her life in Italy, what it was like to leave your family an ocean away, and make a new life in a foreign land with a husband you barely knew.
More than 25 years later I finally made my dream trip to Italy, and my husband and I were graciously received by my grandparent’s relatives. They showered Ryan and I with love at a huge reception, honoring their “American granddaughter” and my deceased grandparents.
We travelled from where my family lives in Marche to Tuscany, Florence, Cinque Terre, Lake Como, and Venice. We spent two weeks being awestruck by how enlightened Italians live and the astounding beauty of their land and architecture.
I saw and felt my grandma everywhere in Italy. Memories of her flooded back as I realized how much being Italian was part of her.
I recognized Gramma in the old ladies, standing in a sturdy, wide-legged stance with their hands clasped behind their back.
I realized Gramma was never rushed because there is no racing the clock in Italy. Time doesn’t seem to be a finite thing, and no one appeared stressed about the insurmountable task of squeezing it all in. They stop, often, to engage with friends, savor wine, food, coffee, and live in those moments.
This also plays out in their pace of walk, which was right on par with Gramma’s. My sisters and I would constantly urge my slow-moving Gramma to hurry along. Sometimes her insistence at getting no where quick, caused her to lose the pack. She would fall farther and farther behind until we’d all have to turn back for the mission of finding Gramma.
Most of all I saw Gramma in the love her family showed us. Family trumps all in Italy. People travelled from all over to just meet me because being family was reason enough.
I was astounded by all the trouble and fanfare. My cousin explained no other culture does family like the Italians. Family, all of it – parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, comes first, end of story.
Gramma would do anything for us, without ever showing the slightest indication of being put out. She absolutely passed that down to my own mother, who is known to say “yes” before she even knowing what she’s in for.
(Will you watch our four kids for 2 weeks while we live it up in Italy? Sure.) End of story.
Going to Italy was beyond anything I dreamed about all these years. Better yet, Gramma did take me.
While attending mass in St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, I felt, without a doubt, Gramma sitting next to me. She was so happy I finally made my trip to Italy, met the family she loved there, and got to experience first-hand the beauty of the food, land, and people.