My grandparent’s clung tightly to their Italian roots. My grandfather was born in Italy, and 4 of my grandmother’s siblings were born there. She and her youngest sister were born here. As a matter of survival between home life and American life, they were both bilingual.
While raising their three sons, they wanted so badly to preserve their native language and pass it on to the next generation. To support and promote this intent, no English was to be spoken at the dinner table. Only Italian. I’m guessing that this strategy didn’t work so well because none of the boys became fluent in Italian.
Grandma continued her language lessons on the next generation by often speaking and singing songs to her grandchildren in Italian. I have fond memories of waking up in her house while being serenaded by a beautiful woman standing in the bedroom doorway softly speaking this poetic romance language. She’d say “Buongiorno, Angel. Come Stai?” And then she would translate: “That means, Good morning, Angel. How are you?”
I’d smile and think it was corny, but never failed to see her commitment and devotion to passing on something that was so important to her, and truly part of her soul.
In the evenings over savory Italian meals, Grandma would tell me stories about the family. She would start off by saying “I’m going to tell you a story. I’m first going to tell it in Italian, then in English.” Being the restless non-Italian speaking youngster, I would roll my eyes (not outwardly, of course), and endure a whole story in Italian. Aside from not understanding a word of it, I have to admit that I was always mesmerized by the rhythmical sing-song sounds coming from her smiling face.
One night, my brother and his friend, Brian were visiting her. Brian speaks four languages fluently, including Italian, but Grandma didn’t know this. During the course of the evening, chatting over the dinner table, Brian blurted out something in “proper” Italian, sending Grandma into a whirlwind. She screamed, and lunged across the table at him, trying to kiss and hug him. This secured Brian’s place in the family forever. She never thought less of him than blood kin.
When visiting Grandma and Grandpa, we were often in the company of Grandpa’s cousins and friends, who were all from Italy. The atmosphere would always be filled with gibberish that really looked like a structured visit. Then, some of them would try to speak English to Grandpa Nap about us by saying things like “Nice-a girls-a Nap-a.” Grandpa would smile at the compliment, and respond in Italian.
Since 2004, I’ve been to Italy 3 times. I tried so hard to learn Italian to prepare for these trips. I took four classes, and sadly was only ever able to speak Italian minimally. I made it a point though, to learn some important things like “Dov e il Bagno?” (Where’s the bathroom?) which I used every time I arrived in an Italian airport. And I recall vividly yelling: “Per l’amore di dio!” (For the love of God!) one night while 5 of us were stuffed in a tiny cab, while “Evil Knievel” sped through the narrow cobblestone streets of Rome to get us back to our hotel. In a thick Italian accent, he replied “I am Mario Andretti!” He seemed quite amused about our fearful reaction to the danger he exposed us to.
So now, in memory of my Grandparents, whenever I have a patient who’s Italian, I always ask: “Parli Italiano?” (Do you speak Italian?) The patients who do, light up like my Grandmother did that night Brian spoke “Proper Italian” to her. I interject Italian words here and there during my visits with them, and never leave without saying “Buona Giornata” and “Arrivederci”– Have a good day. Good Bye.
Ti amo, Nona. Grazie per essere così grande che.
(I love you, Grandma. Thank you for being so Great!)