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.