“Save your dollars for college.” –Nonno Giovanni
Nonno Giovanni was the boss of us all. I like to think of him as a lovable, charming dictator. We ate lunch – pasta with meat sauce – promptly at 1 p.m. every Sunday and let him cheat at Italian cards and dole out noogy farts to the unsuspecting (usually me). He had his ways – and those ways were right. Everything else was wrong.
Watch out if you were ever late for anything. He called the police on my father once because it took him too long to get back from the airport in a snow storm. My parents, long after they were married, would have to call him every night before going to bed, so that he knew everyone was safe and locked in.
We had no choice but to put up with his quirks. If we didn’t, we’d have to face his wrath, a lethal combination of noise and guilt. He would first yell in Neapolitan dialect and then get quiet, mumbling something about his blood pressure. Over his dish of pasta, he would hold his head in his hand and start taking his own pulse. In his later years, he would sometimes fall asleep in this position and start snoring right in the middle of the meal.
There was a soft side to Nonno Giovanni, too. He sure got a kick out of us kids. And we could do just about anything to him and he wouldn’t say a word. My cousin Damiano once used Nonno’s bald spot as a target to land his flying chocolate cupcakes – icing side down. Nonno let him do it and even giggled when the chocolate oozed onto his head.
He loved music and would teach us the notes every chance he got. He would play for us on the Casio keyboard that we gave him for Christmas. Even after he lost a finger working in a factory, he would still whip out his clarinet to show us the instrument he played as the leader of an award-winning folk group in Ischia, his birthplace and home for the first 50 years of his life. My brother insisted we bury him with the clarinet when he died in 1992, just after he had turned 90.
But nothing reminds me more of Nonno Giovanni than the sight of green dollar bills. Our ritual never changed. We’d put his glass of wine on the table just as papa drove up to the house with Nonno, who would be wearing a coat and one of those newsboy caps that all old Italian men wear. Entering the house shouting, “Ello,” one of the only words he would ever say in English (or at least something resembling English), he would slowly make his way over to the table. We kids waited patiently for him to take his seat, always next to me. Then, he’d give each of us $1 and pat us on the head while saying, “Per l’universita’” or “For college.” If it was Christmas, our name day, or birthday, we would get more. But it would still all be for college.
For years, I didn’t even know you could spend money. I just assumed everyone held onto it until college. Some might call Nonno cheap, but I prefer to think he was just smart about money – and education. He didn’t get beyond the third grade before his parents had him working the land to make a little wage. But he worked hard – day and night – and he knew enough to invest in property in Italy. Then, he came to the United States to give his children opportunities to earn money that he would never have. He also realized that his American-born grandchildren had to go to college if they wanted to make something of themselves. That was a big part of the American dream that he bought. And his dollars were going to make it happen.
Of course, I opted for an expensive, private school, The George Washington University, so I didn’t exactly stretch Nonno’s dollars. But at $30,000 a year (I started college in 1996 and graduated in 2000), university was, at least partially, paid for by Nonno. We estimate that he covered one year for me.
I’d like to think his dollars were for freshman year because I was thinking of him as I bought my books, especially the notebooks with the university’s name on them, for the first semester. What was he thinking as he looked down on me from Heaven? Was he proud? Probably, not. But he sure would be once I graduated and put that degree on the wall.
Those dollars helped get me the education that helped me get a career in journalism that helps me pay other bills. Every dollar I earn counts, and I learned that from my Nonno. That’s why, in Nonno Giovanni’s honor, I save about 10 percent of all my earnings before I spend a dime. I have piggy banks in my house for any loose change, which pays for luxuries like travel. If and when I have kids, they will all get a dollar a week and a pat on the head “per l’universita’.”