MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
Grandma Connie shall never leave us. She shall dwell inside the hearts of her family for eternity.
What does freedom mean to you? As the child of immigrants, some of whom fled southern Italy in the wake and aftermath of fascism, it has always meant much to me. Still, I took it for granted in many ways. But in the last week as we bid farewell to my 88-year-old maternal grandmother Rosaria Concetta Di Costanzo, I could not help but realize that she never experienced the freedom America promised our family.
Born in New York to Italian immigrant parents, Grandma (as we called her) or Connie (as the world called her) was American for all intensive purposes. Because of her roots, however, she always had one foot in the Boot regardless of whether she wanted it there.
No one sacrificed more than she did, and she was quick to remind us of what she had given up whenever the opportunity arose. Her five sons often say she liked to complain. Often, I was the one charged with listening. Over time, I came to realize she was not complaining so much as she was regretting. In fact, it may have even been wishing out loud for different circumstances.
Hers was a life predetermined by men. She was able to go to work in her father’s store because her father allowed it. Those were good times for her, she told me. But they were short lived. Her world changed when Grandpa Rocco’s mother wrote Connie’s father asking for one of his two daughters to marry her son for an American green card. Connie was the only choice because her sister already had a steady boyfriend. It didn’t matter that Connie was falling for the neighbor boy or that she might not have wanted an Italian husband, and certainly not one she had never met.
Together, her father and she set out for Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy that is home of our ancestors. There, Connie met Rocco and his family. They were all gathered around a long table with a big pot of pasta at the center. My great grandmother turned to Connie and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” And Connie often told me how embarrassed she was to say no. So, she said yes. Within a few days, they married despite knowing literally nothing about the other besides family lineage.
The local nuns made Connie’s dress. My own father was 2 at the time and was probably sitting on the altar with the other kids in the town of Buonopane, Ischia. Back then, of course, my grandparents never could have imagined having a daughter, let alone my father as a son-in-law. That future was far too distant.
Connie’s own family – brothers, sister, mother – were all back home in the States. There it was; these were the first pangs of regret. She was always sad to have missed out on having an American wedding with her own people. Nostalgic for the life that was, she was disappointed she would no longer work. There was no denying that the thought of “what if” crossed her mind – what if she had said no to my great grandmother, what if she insisted on an American wedding back home, what if things had gone a different way.
Love Is Complicated
Her honeymoon was even more absurd by traditional American standards. She went to Venice with her father, a girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s father. They both had married boys from Ischia, who had to wait to come through Canada and the United States to get the green card squared away. Still, she had fond memories of that trip. It was her last hurrah.
In those first years of marriage, Connie had more sacrifices to make. She knew her new husband was in love with another woman back home in Italy. Yet, she had to help him become American. So, she did. She helped him learn English. Together they hit the pavement seeking a job for him. They kept a home and built it up. And she got pregnant with my mom, the first and only daughter. Grandpa Rocco was devastated to have had a daughter, my mother Regina. He was hoping for a son, and everyone knew of his disappointment. He would eventually get over it and loved my mother, and they had five sons after her. But Grandpa’s initial reaction drew Grandma ever closer to their only girl.
Of course, Connie also loved her sons immensely. Truly, she loved all her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with utter devotion. In more recent years, she told me I was her favorite grandchild. She told my uncle he was the favorite child. She told my niece she was her favorite great grandchild. My husband believed he had a special bond with her because she stayed at our house for a couple of extended periods. My sister-in-law believed she held a special place in Grandma’s heart because the first time they met they spent an entire day baking together. We all believed we were No. 1 in her heart of hearts. But at one time or another everyone had been bestowed the title of favorite. The truth is we were all her favorites. We were her best friends. We were the best consolation prizes she ever could have received after giving up the life for which she wished.
Mothers Never Die
Now, we girls have a burden to bear. We – Connie’s daughter and four granddaughters and two great granddaughters – must seize our freedom in her honor. She never was able to fulfill her potential at a job outside the home. We can. She was never able to choose whether she wanted to marry or be single. We can. She never had the chance to pursue or experience romantic love. We can. She was never free to decide for herself. We can. Thanks to her, we will. No regrets for us.
That’s the thing about life. Sure, Connie’s path was never quite what she wanted. But, in the end, she would not have had it any other way. Sometimes, what we have not planned or dreamed or wished is the best thing to ever happen to us. Grandma would have said the way things went were God’s plan for her.
Three years ago, I stood with Grandma over my grandfather’s lifeless body. He had just taken his last breath surrounded by his eldest children – Uncle Gino and my mother – and my grandmother, cousin Morgan, and me. Grandma confided that in those days before he passed, when he was lucid, he would say, “Concetta, we made a nice family, a really nice family.” Indeed, they had. And they loved each other in their own way, in a way that endured. Their family was Grandma’s happiness. We were her everything.
While it’s true that pieces of us are now gone from this world, they remain in our hearts. Grandma always prayed hard for us. Perhaps, no one on Earth held as many Rosary beads as she. From now on, in every kind deed and warm embrace, we will live out her legacy. And I have no doubt that she will carry on as our guardian angel. A saint, who undoubtedly went straight to Heaven, she will look out for all her favorites. Always.