An Italian family is like a blankie, the kind little ones gather and hold and rub against their cheeks when they are finally ready to surrender to sleep. You find the ultimate comfort from it. Both sides of your family are quilted together on your parent’s wedding day. The four corners of the blankie are held by each of your grandparents and the others fill in the rest of the spots.
You’re all sewn together by love. Sometimes, blood is a factor and sometimes it just isn’t. Family, after all, manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Through the years, the patches of the quilt start to fade. People pass away or get distracted or choose to jump out of the quilt, and your precious blankie starts to unravel. You might even go through a phase where you don’t think you need the blankie to survive. Then, you try to go it alone. Usually, you return and snuggle up to the blankie even more closely than before. But it’s always different than when you first took hold of it.
The years begin to pass and people come and go from the family. Some move onto Heaven and visit you in your dreams. Others simply move on without you. A few remain attached to the quilt. You will try to repair some of the rips, and half the time, you’ll find success. Still, the seam is never quite the same.
If you’re like me, you hold ever tighter to the blankie and feel profound sadness at any missing patches, tears, or worn out sections. You wanted your son to hold that blankie and experience it exactly as you did, but that’s simply not possible. As time passes you can’t make fixes fast enough and you start to lose your grip on the blankie. Sometimes, you feel as though you’re trying to hang onto it in the middle of a tornado that is swallowing you whole. The pillars in those four corners get weaker and weaker until they simply vanish. And you wonder if all you will be left with in the end is a swatch of fabric.
But there’s a secret to keeping your blankie in one piece and close by when you need it. You must accept that the blankie is always evolving, and you must continuously sew patches and make repairs – even when it seems useless – using the traces of your heart as thread. When you give love, you truly get it in return.
I just might be the best wife in the world. At least that’s what I tell my husband every time I get on a 9-hour flight either to or from his native Italy or my United States…all by myself…with our toddler son. We travel back and forth because my husband wants our boy (rightfully so) to know his family, too. Still, getting on such a long flight – really, any flight – alone with a toddler is something my husband admits he would never ever do for me.
Last weekend was the second time I took flight with Baby Boy. One of my requirements is that we travel directly from Naples, Italy to the United States. If you know anything about Naples, you know it’s not exactly a business capital. This means there are rarely, if ever, direct flights. But for a few months each year – at the height of tourist season – Meridiana offers non-stop flights from Naples to New York City. So, we took one of those. And every other old-school Neapolitan-American was on the flight with us – replete with walking canes and newsboy caps. It was like being locked in a senior citizen’s home run by Toto’ and Sofia Loren. I felt like I was traveling with both my father Pasquale and his sister, my Zia Maria. This is not a bad thing. But it did mean I’d be subjected to unsolicited advice and no-holds-barred judgment. People of this generation from Napoli and its surrounding area have severe cases of “I’m so old that I don’t give a shit about what comes out of my mouth” disease. And my son had to face lots of pinched cheeks and adoration of what my Italian-American cousins refer to as his undeniable and inescapable guidoness (oh no).
But I digress (much like all the 80-year-olds on the plane recounting their moves from Italy to the States). I’m not sure I’ve ever touched my son’s face as much as the people on the flight did. Everyone was caressing his cheeks, pinching him, and running their fingers through his thick hair (which they reminded me needed to be cut). “Quant’ si’ bell,'” they’d say. “Good-a boy-a.” My son’s stomach did not agree with this turbulent flight or the unrecognizable airplane food, so he was constantly pooping and we were constantly in line for the bathroom. That’s when we would have these interactions with our in-flight nonni.
The women were the best. They really wanted to help when he would start to fuss a bit. And they had lots of of consigli for me. “Fa tropp’ fridd’ per il bimbo. Mett’ una copert’,” they’d say. “It’s too cold for the baby. Give him a blanket.” A little while later, someone else would say, “Fa tropp’ cald’ per il bimbo, togli la copert’,” they’d say. “It’s too hot for the baby, take off that blanket.” Then, after one of the big poops, one of the nonna stopped to ask if I was taking the baby in the bathroom to change the baby’s diaper. When I said, yes, she said not to do that. “E’ troop’ sporc’,” she said. “It’s too dirty.” Then, she suggested I change the baby in the corner by her because she wouldn’t say anything and it was cleaner. When I said the baby pooped, so I really think we need to go in the bathroom, she insisted I was wrong. I insisted that I could not subject the others in flight to the stench and disgust. Then, she said, “Va ben’ ma non farlo toccare niente, nient’.” Translation: “Fine, but don’t let him touch anything, not a thing.” Sure, I’m going to be able to take a 3-year-old boy, who is too tall for the changing table, into the bathroom to remove his poopy diaper, clean him, and put on a new one, and he’s not going to touch anything in there. Yeah. Right. I smiled and said, “Hai ragione. Certo non faccio toccare niente.” Translation: “You’re right. I won’t let him touch a thing.” I know my people. Those were the exact right words.
Still, the best was yet to come. We had the bumpiest landing I’ve ever experienced and I’ve been traveling to and from Italy since I was 2 years old. As we were descending, Baby Boy turned all shades of green, wiggled out of the seatbelt, and put himself stomach down on the floor. The flight attendants and the nonni were telling me to get him in the chair for his safety. Duh! Anyway, as I was trying to get him back in the chair, he began vomiting. This was no ordinary throw up. It was projectile and chunky and all kinds of gross. After the first few rivers of vomit landed on Baby Boy and me, not to mention the seats the window, the belts and everything else around us, I asked the flight attendant for a bag. All the nonni started throwing me the tiny vomit bags that you find on every airplane. The kid had just thrown up the Bay of Naples on our laps. Those little things were never going to cut it. Finally, one of the stewards handed me a garbage bag, and I was able to fill it up with our rancid clothing. I used an entire package of baby wipes to clean up. After all, a plane full of nonnas would now be inspecting my housekeeping skills, too.
Next, Baby Boy began crying because he wanted to keep on his pajamas with a crab on them even though they were drenched from top to bottom in throw up. As I was forcing him to take them off and get cleaned up, he urinated on the seat. The diaper didn’t do a thing. It was like he didn’t have one on. Baby Boy kept shouting, “Crabby, crabby, shirtie, shirtie, want it, want it.” (which of course sounded like a different word). I was wrestling him in the seat and trying to change him as the others were getting off the plane. I said, “At least we are in New York.” And Baby Boy – too weak to keep fighting for his beloved pjs – responded, “Yeah!”
As we bid farewell to our flight, we noticed a line of about 60 wheelchairs waiting to take the nonni to immigration and the luggage carousels. No joke. The line up swung all the way around and into the terminal. By the time Baby Boy and I got downstairs, our new nonni had already alerted the authorities that we were coming and that we had had a rough flight and found someone to help me with my bags and get the baby, who was still green, his stroller, so he could lay down. My parents – my son’s actual nonni – recognized their people as they were entering the terminal. They asked one of them if there was a mom with a little boy, who may have been crying. “Stanno venendo,” the old man replied. “Si, stanno venendo. They coming.” With the mix of Neapolitan dialect and broken English, long-winded stories of the Old World, and constant criticism of me, I realized that I was already home once we stepped onto the plane. Casa dolce casa.
Imagine an 83-year-old great grandma babysitting for her three young great-grandchildren? I couldn’t imagine it either, until I read that she was Italian. Then, I understood. And I knew exactly where the story would go from there, especially the parts about unwanted opinions on child rearing. In “The Real Cost of My Grandma’s Babysitting,” blogger Nicole Caccavo Kear, tells the story of her helpful grandma and all her opinions on raising kids. It takes a village to raise a child and the Italian village has its matriarchs who are always right, and Kear gets it 100 percent accurate with her depiction. You must really read this blog, especially if you have nonne in your life.
Been there, done that, many times. Of course, the nonne in my life aren’t all my nonna. Some are zie. Some are cugine. Some are amiche. What unites them is that they all know better than I do. And that’s fine. They’re veteran Italian women, so I was expecting all the “suggestions” the minute I saw the positive sign on the pregnancy test. Every now and then I want the “suggestions,” even if they are criticisms disguised as advice. It is all doled out with love and a meatball, which makes it better than okay. Someday, I’ll be one of those nonne, zie, cugine, and amiche, and my “suggestions,” along with my lasagne, will be just as welcome – or at least that’s how I’d like to imagine it.
In the meantime, as you can tell from the photo above, I am raising the Energizer Bunny. From the day he was born, he has been set for maximum speed, volume, and power. His batteries never get old or tired. And there is no off button, or at least we haven’t found one yet. Get me a nonna stat!
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.
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Chapter Fourteen – Welcome to America
That phone call in October 2004 came from Tony. He let me know that he and my cousin Roberto would be traveling to the United States to visit me in November. They had made the tickets already, and by coincidence they would arrive just in time for Thanksgiving and stay for a month, just until Christmas. It would be a dreamy holiday season…maybe with a little romance.
From the start, the relationship between Tony and I was a challenge. My father and I drove to JFK Airport to pick up Tony and Roberto. My grandfather – Roberto’s great uncle – insisted on joining us. But he would not come in the car with us. He wanted to drive his own wheels. We all waited with open arms. When the Italians arrived, my grandparents greeted Roberto and Tony, and we introduced Tony to my father before heading back to the car.
As we packed the luggage into the trunk, my father and the two young men teased one another about the various towns they come from in Ischia – “All the wimps come from Barano, all the lazy bums are from Ischia Porto, all the pains in the neck come from Buonopane.” Once we all got in the car, they started discussing Buceto, the wooded area in Ischia that is the place of my father’s childhood and dreams. There, he would pick mushrooms and chestnuts, hike with his family’s dog Fox, and camp out with his sisters and father during the various feast days that had them taking in fireworks from the top of the mountain in their little cantina (wine cellar). My father’s eyes sparkle like the stars in an Ischia sky on a crisp fall evening whenever he gets on the topic of Buceto. Noting this and my father’s brown leather jacket with the collar upturned prompted Tony to nickname him James Dean of Buceto.
There was a lot of traffic that night as we were trying to get from New York to New Jersey, and my grandparents were still behind us in their car. All of a sudden, my grandfather pulls up next to us and starts shouting. We can’t hear him because the windows were down, and we were boisterously reminiscing about my father’s youth in Buceto. We rolled down the windows only to learn that Grandpa was running out of gas. We had to get off the highway somewhere in the Bronx and find the nearest gas station. We made it in the nick of time. But it meant that Roberto and Tony’s first glimpse of the United States was the ghetto. In fact, we saw shady characters with hoodies covering their faces exchanging money in the corner. And the smell of pot wafted through the air.
We took it as an adventure, and so did Roberto and Tony, who are used to the far grittier Napoli, which is right outside of Ischia and their gateway to the mainland. From the moment we got in the car, Tony was secretly texting me sweet little notes. The first was about how happy he was to finally be here with me and how much he was looking forward to this month discovering America. Others followed commenting on how great my father was and what the flight was like.
I was smitten, and I wasn’t paying attention. When we got back on the highway from the gas station, there was a detour. Somehow, we must have gotten on the wrong road. An hour and a half and five more stories on Buceto later, my father and I wondered aloud why it was taking us so long to get home when we were at the Bronx (which is really only 15 minutes away from our house barring traffic). We also realized my grandparents had lost us. They were nowhere to be seen. Up ahead, we saw a sign for Connecticut. We had been driving in the wrong direction. By the time we realized our mistake, turned around, and got home again, we had been traveling for five hours in the car. At least we were all laughing. And we found out my grandparents had just returned home to Long Island when they noticed the mistake.
I sent Tony a text message apologizing for the major error and the lousy start to his vacation. He responded, “I guess this is the price I have to pay to be with you. It’s worth it.” When we entered the house, my mom was waiting with a great spread of food and red, white, and blue balloons to welcome Roberto and Tony. As they were shuffling in and out while unloading the car, my mom whispered to me, “Wow, Tony is tall and handsome!” I couldn’t agree with her more.