For years, childhood memories of my grandparents would come to me like slides of an old film reel with no sound. I could see poppy Mario sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper and a cigarette — smoke rising and dissipating around the maroon and orange glass light fixture above. Nonna standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the Legnini’s house as she washed dishes. Poppy Mario hugging and kissing me as I giggled and squirmed, while nonna smiled and stirred meatballs at the stove. My brother and I in the bathtub, across from the bidet in their bathroom. Lying in nonna’s bed, staring at the illuminated portrait of Jesus that sat on her dresser.
I could see their house on Hawley Street: The Last Supper hanging between doorways on the back wall of the kitchen. The wooden staircase with the thick, smooth railing that curved to the top floor, where my grandparent’s tenant, Joan, lived. The picnic table underneath the grapevine, across from the pear tree in their backyard. Poppy Mario’s white plumbing truck sitting in the driveway, full of old tools.
Poppy Mario died in 1986. In 1990, when I was 11, my family spent the month of August in Italy with nonna’s sister, Zia Maria. I met aunts, uncles, cousins, and my great-grandmother, Anna Alvino. We even visited poppy Mario’s family in Minturno.
Zia Maria lived on the fifth floor of a flat in Atripalda, and every day she and nonna would sit on the balcony off the kitchen, preparing food — their deft fingers working rhythmically, peeling and chopping and tossing vegetables into a bowl or bucket. During the midday meal, while we sat at Zia Maria’s breakfast nook, nonna would translate for us. But mostly she spoke in Italian, and I marveled at how her tongue danced around her words more fluidly than when she spoke in English.
Over the years, I discovered little about my grandparent’s lives in Italy. What I knew was a microcosm of all they had gone through: they immigrated to America in the 1950s — nonna through Ellis Island, poppy Mario through Canada — met at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, where they took their citizenship tests and English language classes, got married, and had three daughters — my mother being the oldest.
When their daughters were still young, my grandfather suggested they move back to Italy, but my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it. Although her six siblings and their families were still living near Atripalda, she felt that they should raise their daughters where they were born.
“Why did you decide to come to America?” I asked nonna once. “I had an aunt. She move here, and she needa someone to take care of her. My mother, she had five girls. She was going to send my sister, but my sister didn’t want to go. So I say ‘okay, I go’.” She shrugged. “And so I went.”
When I asked nonna about her life, I expected snapshots. Instead, I got a collage of memories, all overlapping one another — tangential stories about people and places I didn’t know: about the crazy aunt she lived with when she first moved here, about her first job working in a shoe factory. “I stay upa all night and lay on the bed in my clothes,” she explained. “Just lika this.” She folded her arms across her chest and clenched her hands into fists. “I was so nervous, I couldn’t sleep.”
I wanted to fully understand my grandparents’ lives and experiences, but I couldn’t piece together most of nonna’s stories, so I decided to learn the best way I knew how: by teaching. In the spring of 2010, I created an Italian-American literature course for the liberal arts college where I had been working for almost a year. Despite being surrounded by Italians all my life and visiting Italy four times myself, there was so much I didn’t know.
Food. Hospitality. Family. Catholicism: these were the tenets of Italian life I was familiar with, but after hours of reading and research, I discovered a much more complex history and culture: how Italy had been separated into different states for centuries and remained a nation in name only, even after unification; that the Mafia came out of Sicily’s struggle with being conquered and ruled by empires and nations imposing unjust taxes and laws; about the divide between Northern and Southern Italy and how different regions shaped people’s lives; that it was starvation — not just the search for better opportunity — that drove millions of Southern Italians out of their homeland during the first diaspora.
Italy’s deep-seated and tumultuous history became instrumental in understanding themes found in the poems, essays, short stories, novels, and memoirs we would read, discuss, and write about for my class. And when it all came together, I had a more complete picture of my grandparents than ever before. I recognized them in nearly everything I read.
Helen Barolini’s table beneath a grapevine in “Turtle Out of Calabria” mirrored my grandparent’s yard on Hawley Street. Poppy Mario was the overprotective head of household, Roberto Sartori, in Adriana Trigiani’s Lucia, Lucia. Nonna was the devoted and practical Giovanna in Laurie Fabiano’s Elizabeth Street, putting family above all else. I thought of how poppy Mario gave me pastina when I was sick and how nonna always made me chicken cutlet because she knew it was my favorite as I read Nancy Savoca’s essay “Ravioli, Artichokes, and Figs,” where she declares “Love is food and food is love.”
In 2018, while in a hospice bed at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, nonna took her last sip of espresso. “I’m going to see Jesus,” she told her daughters before she died. “But first, I’m going to see poppy Mario. I have to tell him about our grandchildren.”
Now, I see my grandparents sitting underneath the grapevine on Hawley Street, nonna narrating our story to Poppy Mario in Italian as I continue to uncover theirs. Only this time, the reel has sound, and it resonates with laughter, tradition, family, food, devotion, perseverance, and love.
*In loving memory of Lucia Alvino Scampone and Mario Scampone