17 November 2013

LIFE: This Italian Life

CHIAVARI, Italy - In many ways it was growing up in Syracuse, New York that prepared me for the life I live now. Childhood experiences buried deep in the recesses of my mind, recollections of an Italy I had never seen but knew so well resurfaced to become my reality once again.
 Six Year Old Me on the Steps of 200 Lodi St.

The Italy of my memory is made up of patches of experiences, sounds and smells - the street, the neighbors, our apartments. In my grandmother's apartment it was the kitchen  you walked into first, drawn in by the warmth and aroma of what had been eaten, or what was going to be eaten that day.

On the best of days there would be plump bulby green artichokes, fragrant with the smell of herbs from the Roman countryside, the wild mintucce that my grandmother’s sisters would send to her. In those days you could send herbs from the "old country" to America without airport alarm systems going off and drug sniffing dogs setting out a howl.  On other days it was the sweet smell of a chicken roasting or bacala simmering on the stove. There was always something.

I remember the voices of the card players coming from the back room of Joe's Bar and Grill, Joe being my grandmother’s brother. We lived in the apartments above the bar, my grandparents in the front apartment and my mother, father and I, and later my brother, in the back. I remember staring down from my grandmother’s second story porch at the craggy old man with the grinding wheel strapped to his back walking up and down the street calling out "sharp knives - sharp scissors" in his strange to our ears Jewish accent. Back in the day 200 Lodi Street was a lively, magical place. It was my little Italy.

In true Italian fashion, I was kept under lock and key, pampered and spoiled like a hot house flower. There was a small fenced-in garden in the back of the house where I used to play, swinging on the swing as I listened to the heated discussions over the bocce game that was going on the other side of the fence. As the hard ball rolled down the soft packed earth court it was accompanied to its final destination with hoots and howls and words of encouragement or disbelief.

"Cazzo!" the men would yell. "Cazzo" I would say as I sat on the swing.
"Vai, vai, vai cretino", they would shout at the ball.
"Vai cretino" I would repeat.

My Italian lessons would continue at the end of the day when I would sit near the radiator in our apartment and eavesdrop on the conversations going on over the card games in the back room of the bar below. Melodic obscenities, the poetic voice of Italian laborers, used to roll off my sweet five-year-old lips like dew off a grape.  

Our life on Lodi Street was contained, it was as Italian as Italy itself, it was only the location of the drama that had changed. My grandmother most certainly drew comfort in that containment as there were many things she didn’t understand about life and living in the land of opportunity. The one I remember best was her problem with central heating.

My poor father. Every winter it was the same old story. Every time he’d walk into my grandmother’s apartment and find the windows wide open he would shake his head in frustration.  First he would go around and close them, then he would walk her over to the thermostat and say, “Ma, if you think it’s too warm in here just turn this little knob to the left. Move the little arrow down a couple of notches and in a few minutes the house will be cooler. Do you understand?”

“Va bene,” she would say looking over his shoulder at me, her co-conspirator, and I would raise my eyebrows and put my lips together in a sign of solidarity. I knew the scene by heart. As soon as the door closed behind him, around we would go flinging open the windows once again. An icy blast of upstate New York winter would hit the thermometer and the poor furnace would kick in and start running full blast again.

She Taught Me How to Wear a Hat, Play the Piano, Love Opera, Not Be Afraid and to Know When to Keep My Knees Together

My grandmother and my father used to argue a lot. Most of the arguments had to do with my grandmother’s insistence on sending things to her sisters in Italy. The dark, heavy, almost purple mahogany dining room table was the collection point. It was always piled high with this that and the other thing she thought they might be able to use. Mostly she sent clothes and shoes. Other times she would send bolts of fabric, rolls of lace, collars and belts, photos from American fashion magazines, packages of pasta and cans of tuna fish and anchovies. The war was over but life in the small hill town of Piansano was still difficult, and her sisters still had to get dressed every morning and they still had to eat.

I remember the day the letter from Italy arrived with the news that her sister Mary’s oldest daughter Pina was going to marry Riccardo Moscatelli. My grandmother became obsessed with the wedding. The dining room table, which normally held piles of clothing and mysterious boxes that had been taped shut, was soon buried under the load.

“Ma, please”, my father would plead, “they don’t want this stuff. You don’t even know what they need. Do yourself a favor, do me a favor, just send them some money.”

But just sending money was not going to satisfy my grandmother, nor was it going to resolve the problem of the wedding. Then she got the bright idea to send her niece my mother’s wedding dress.

 “Absolutely not,” my father said. “No. Forget it.”

The white satin wedding dress with its long train, took up the whole dining room table. The lace veil, attached to a simple band of tiny satin lilies of the valley, hovered over the top of the dress like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls. Sheets and sheets of tissue paper were placed on this confection as it was folded, and folded and folded again, until it became a sort of puffy square marshmellowy thing that would fit in the box that was patiently waiting to take it to its final foreign destination.

Many years later, after I had moved to Italy, I met Pina, the recipient of the wedding dress.

 “How we use to look forward to those packages from Zia ’Malia,” she said to me. “You can’t imagine how important they were to us. We had nothing. Each package was like Christmas. I remember a dark blue satin blouse with a round velvet collar; I had never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life. But the wedding dress, oh the wedding dress,” she said, slowly shaking her head as her eyes welled up with tears. “The wedding dress was so special. There are no words.”

But I really didn’t need words, I understood. I had always understood. After all, I grew up on Lodi Street, didn’t I?

This article was originally commissioned for the 100th Anniversary Edition of the Syracuse Post Standard.


  1. What a touching story. I loved every word and your nonna.

  2. Wonderful to read, and I especially loved your old photographs and captions. We're here in Italy and I constantly have to remind my husband to cool it with the "cazzo!" as our 2 year old daughter is starting to repeat everything! ;)