Nothing Lasts Forever


When I was young, and newly in love, the song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas was a big hit.I loved that song. I still love it. I love it for its harmonies, its tender thoughts, its melancholy.

I remember being a young wife, thinking, “I don’t want all of this beautiful life to simply fade into the wind! There has to be a way to make it all last!”

But you know what?  Now that I am a grandparent, I have a very different feeling about that song. I feel differently about the idea that nothing lasts forever.

Now, instead of feeling bereft at the thought, I feel comforted.

Let me try, in my limited way, to explain what I mean.

At the age of 28, I was so filled with life and new love that I thought the world must surely embrace and celebrate my feelings. I knew that I was only one tiny person in a wide world of others, but the strength and the depth of my feelings were so intense that I could not believe they would ever go away.

Then I gave birth to my first child, my perfect, most beloved, most cherished little girl. When I held her in my arms, it was impossible to me to imagine that the universe could fail to recognize the power of my love and the impossible gravity of her life. As I rocked her against my heart, I could not believe that there could exist a time in universal history when her life would not have the power to move us all.

I honestly did not believe that anyone else had ever felt this same miraculous love. I thought we were unique.

Back then, “Nothing lasts forever” was the worst thought that I could possibly hold in my head. I held myself firm against the very idea. I WOULD keep my love for my children alive! I would! I took photos, I wrote notes, I kept cards and letters and little mementos. I loved my kids so hard that I thought I had created an eternal monument of my devotion.

We were here. Our love for each other was too strong to ever fade. We mattered in the life of humanity, and I refused to believe that at some future point we might simple cease to register.

“Everything is dust in the wind….”

I hated that. Hated it.

But time has passed. Time has changed my view.

Now.

Now I have a whole different view, although it’s no less loving and embracing and proud. It is just maybe a bit more wise.

Now I understand that the love my grandparents felt for their children was every bit as intense, as strong, as deep as what I felt when I first held my own. Now I understand that the families that my grandparents created were meant to be islands of strength in a world of turmoil, but they were not ever meant to be eternal.

My maternal grandmother, my Nana, was such an important figure in my life. She was the matriarch. She was the hostess of the holidays, the provider of Sunday dinners, the center of our Italian-American existence. She was Nana. She was the center of it all, of all of the family tradition on my Mom’s side.

But when she died, I began to realize that her time in the spotlight had died, too. I mean, I still teach her recipes to my granddaughter, Ellie, but they don’t help to bring the real, true Nana into existence. Nana was the center of my Mom’s life, a huge part of my life, an important person in the lives of my children.

But Ellie doesn’t know her. Ellie and Johnny will never hear the sound of her laugh or eat a piece of apple that she sliced for them. They will never have the “Nana” experience that we have had.

Because they can’t. They shouldn’t.

Life can’t be all about the past. It can’t be a ceremony of love for those who have come before us. Life has to be about life, about this moment. It has to be about the people we hug and touch and love every day.  Life has to be about the new loves and the new families and the new memories that shape the world today.

So.

I don’t think I’ve don’t a very good job of expressing this at all, I truly don’t.

But let me end by saying that I am now happy to be “Dust in the Wind.” I know that for every day of their lives, my children will remember me and think of me with love. I know that my Ellie and Johnny will live every day of the rest of their lives knowing me and understanding my love for them.

As for their children? I hope that they grow up having heard my name and maybe a funny story or two. They don’t need to hang on to my old possessions or my faded photos.

Love goes on. Love moves from one family unit to another.

That’s just the way it should be.

Nana

Nana with her great grandson, Atticus. 

 

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You Can Learn a Lot From Dogs


You really can. Dogs can be such fabulous mentors. Such great teachers.

You know, like role models.

I’ve learned a lot from my dogs over the years. For example, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how much your aging hips hurt, you should still run through the woods when you get a chance. I’ve learned to age with grace and humor, and to keep my mind in the present moment, rather than wondering about the future or obsessing about the past.

But I’ve learned a whole bunch of new things in the past 5 days. I’ve learned these lessons by watching my new doggie, Bentley, as he integrates himself into our household.

I’ll give you the general description of the situation here, and I bet you’ll see those lessons, too.

We have to start with our boy Lennie, also fondly known as “Devil Dog.”  He is a jumper on guests, a licker of faces, a yipping, barking whirlwind of joyful dogginess. He has learned our household rules in the almost two years that we’ve had him.

He’s adorable. We love him!

Lennie and John

Two sweet baby boys in the winter of 2017.

Lennie does well with the grandchildren. He is loud and feisty, but he’s gentle, too. They get along very well, which brings us nothing but joy.

But recently we felt sad for Lennie. Our older dog has been gone for a year, and Lennie seemed to be in need of a canine buddy.

So we decided to adopt the world’s cutest, goofiest little boy, Bentley Bass. Bentley is a basset hound/lab/pointer? mix. He’s short, sassy, shiny black and so full of love that it practically oozes out of his velvety ears.

Bentley took about 3 minutes to get to know Lennie. It took him one transit of our house to learn where the goodies are.

It took him one nanosecond to recognize the grandkids as his best source of snacks/toys/hugs.

He’s so. so. so. lovable.

Ellie and Ben

“I bet she drops snacks.”

But here are my observations of how my two sweet dogs differ, and what that means for them.

I have two young dogs who want the best doggie toys. One of them barks every 2 seconds, shows his hackles and his teeth, threatens death and destruction over the blue nylabone.  The other stays quiet, sits back for a minute and waits until the barker is in full throttle.

Then he gently grabs the nylabone and brings it onto the couch to chew.

The hysterical screamer, Lennie, keeps yipping, jumping in circles and basically threatening to annihilate his little brother. Meanwhile, Bentley happily enjoys the bone.

The same is true with food. Lennie barks, yips, backs up and shakes his head when I put down the two matching bowls of kibble. You can practically hear his thoughts, “You just better keep your pointy nose in your own dish, buddy! Don’t even think about eating mine!”

And as he does, Bentley stands quietly at his own dish, eating his meal without any stress. He’s usually all finished and happily back on the couch (with the nylabone) before Loud Lennie has taken a bite.

Bentley growls and fake bites with Lennie as they play. He is brave, solid, unshakable as his bigger brother rolls him over. He grins, nips, pulls on Lennie’s ears and makes sure that everyone knows he’s just having fun.

When the kids are eating breakfast or lunch, and Lennie whines and begs for a bite, Bentley calmly and quietly inches his way forward into the room. If I tell him to leave, he does. But when I look away, he silently moseys back in and gets a few bites from Ellie and Johnny. If I reprimand him, he lowers his sleek head and gazes up at me with his gentle eyes.

“Oops. Sorry, Momma.” He says it so clearly. I can’t be mad.

When the two dogs come onto the bed to sleep, Lennie prances around, turns in circles, yips a few times and makes it generally known that he is the man in charge. He’ll take the best spot, thank you very much.

But of course, while he’s posturing, Bentley lays himself down beside me with his head on my pillow. He hasn’t said a word, but he’s taken the prize.

Oh, what a lesson there is in that!!!!

This goes on all day.  I hear Lennie yelping, arguing, barking and when I come to see what’s going on, there’s my Bentley, chewing on one dog toy while calmly lying on top of three more.

Bentley does not shoot off his mouth, although I have heard him bark twice in five days. He doesn’t posture or make a big deal of things. Bentley stays calm, stays friendly, and quietly gets himself what he needs.

Don’t you wish he could run for President??

The boys

“See, Lennie, I really am a good kid.”

 

This House


We bought our modest little house 28 years ago. We bought it from a family with three young kids. At the time, the house itself was only about 5 years old. When we went to see it, it was messy and filled with toys. There were socks on the floor, if I remember right.

We bought the house. We filled it with our three children. We filled it with two cats, several good dogs and a lot of family and friends. We filled with our lives, messes and all.

SONY DSC

Yes. There was lots of finger painting in this house.

Over the years, we haven’t done a lot to change the place. We haven’t had much extra money at any point, so our improvements have been limited to repainting the walls, adding a few new windows, putting our hot tub on the deck.

Slowly but surely, we have also changed the yard. When we moved in, the front yard was guarded by seven towering white pines and one big choke cherry. There were no flower gardens at all. Since then, we have had five of the pines taken down and have added perennial beds, rhododendron, tons of wildly growing forsythia and even a vegetable garden and a strawberry patch.

irises

Finally: a good patch of perennials!

The yard where our boys used to play baseball for hours has become a fenced in space for the dogs. The rock garden where I once planted little “hens and chicks” has turned into a thriving raspberry and blackberry patch.

Over all these years, our yard has been filled with birthday parties, baseball games, a trampoline, countless piles of leaves and several scarecrows. There was even an ice hockey rink for several winters. Our yard has sported Christmas lights and Halloween pumpkins and even a few May baskets.

But the wheel of time has turned, around and around again.

The house has guarded us as we have aged. It has seen the sadness as the dogs and cats have died off and been replaced by eager, loving puppies. It has seen the children grow from squabbling toddlers to rebellious teens.

It has stayed steadfast and ready when the children eventually moved out. Like me, I believe that the house was waiting for them to come back.

Over these many years, this little house has held in our grief and kept us safe. It has watched us celebrate births and weddings and countless holidays. This little house, set in the middle of our mostly wild yard, has rocked to the sound of music created by our sons and by their friends.

It has held in the wonderful smells of Sicilian Easter Pie and Christmas octopus. Of meatballs and Chinese dumplings and roasting chicken. It’s walls have somehow expanded when the place was filled with young people celebrating the birthdays of our grandchildren. It has always seemed to me that the house itself has loved the times when it has been well and truly filled.

Kids cooking

Cooking for Nonni’s birthday.

 

This house has seen its share of abuse, too.

It has been peed and pooped upon by humans and animals alike. It has had chocolate icing smeared on its walls and Southern Comfort regurgitated upon its floors. It once had a child’s hand go right through a pane of glass.

This house is a home.

It might not be elegant, or stylish, or worthy of a photo shoot. But it’s a house whose walls need noise and life and delicious smells and voices and laughter.

I love this middle class, not quite rural place. I love the slightly off kilter walls and the weird little nooks that the builders left in. I have grown to love the narrow closets that barely hold our towels and the spidery garage where we store so many tools.

I love my house. The only house I have ever owned and lived in.

And that’s why Paul and I have decided that when the house falls quiet, it will be time for us to move on. When the children are grown, and the parties have stopped, it will be time to pack our bags.

We love this house.

We don’t want it to fall silent, or to become sad.

When we aren’t cooking dinners here, when we aren’t hosting family and friends, when the music has mostly stopped, then we’ll tell each other that its time.

Time to cut the grass, pull the weeds and get the garden ready for another season. Time to clean out the garage, give away the extra dishes, put the photo albums into a big plastic box and call a realtor.

When the house is quiet and sad, that will be our time. Our time to move on to the next phase, the next step, maybe the last step.

And if all goes according to plan, that will be the time when we sell this funny little house to a young family with loud and messy children and maybe a shedding dog.

We owe this house at least that much.

 

 

Keeping Nonni Humble


Oh, man.

Every time I think I have really mastered this “watching and nurturing kids” thing, something happens that forces me to be totally humble.

Totally. Humble.

As in, “This is way more than I could even begin to handle in any world I have ever envisioned.”

Yeah.

Yesterday I was Nonni in charge of my three year old granddaughter, her four year old friend and our one year old grandson. It was challenging but wonderful. The two girls laughed, played, shared toys, argued, snacked and were generally the epitome of young children learning to cooperate.

It was great.

I put out snacks, I mediated a few arguments, I made lunch. Mostly, though, I was a cheerleader.

“You guys shared those toys so well! I’m so proud of you!”   

“You are so good at taking turns!!!”

I thought that the fabulous day was due to my wonderful Nonni-ness. I went to bed last night patting myself on the back for my superior child management skills.

Then today dawned. If you have a secret universe where there are rainbows, unicorns and little tiny children who cooperate without effort……..Well.

Then you are completely delusional. And you have never met an actual child.

I know this because I woke up this morning feeling relaxed. “Oh, I only have my own to grandchildren”, I thought. “It’s like a day off.”

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahhaahahaha

No.

This one short day of child care, which Nonni started with a feeling of smug confidence, turned out to be one huge exercise in keeping Nonni humble.

Holy chaos, Batman.

I won’t go into every detail, but let it be said that Nonni has had her commupance.

I thought it would be a good idea to quickly throw together a little nightstand that I had ordered online. What I didn’t know was that the maker of said little nightstand failed the “Impossible-to-follow-Ikea-test”.

I tried. And tried. And covered the entire kitchen table with said random pieces of nightstand.

I attempted to follow the “oh-so-simple” directions which are provided for free without ONE SINGLE word of explanation in any language.

Today it was roughly 900 degrees outside, so we had our AC running as well as it could. We had fans running. Skylights were closed.So it was only about 85 degrees in the dining room where I was fighting to the death with the nightstand directions. I was a big, fat, old lady sweat ball by the time I had connected the first two pieces.

By this time, I have to brag, I had already fed breakfast to both kids, cleaned the kitchen, thrown in a load of laundry, and set up a glo-in-the-dark racetrack.

But I spent my morning trying to build the world’s tiniest and most useless nightstand. I was determined to get it done.

In the meantime, I had set the timer for potty training and taken the toddler to the potty three times , made breakfast for two, served that breakfast, cleaned up said breakfast, washed two faces, pulled out a bag of toys and cleaned the kitchen.

The day went on with pretty much the same rhythm. Hammer in stupid pointless nail number 43, change a poopie diaper. Hammer in stupid pointless nail number 52, serve some goldfish snacks. Put the dog out. Let the dog in. Wash faces. Repeat.

I hammered, hugged, sweated, served, screwed in useless screws, mediated fights over crayons, changed diapers, took Ellie to the potty, let the dog out.

For a while, I thought I was OK. I thought it was working out.

Then Ellie asked for a new snack. Yet another snack. A wicked messy snack.

“Nonni,” she asked with her big innocent eyes fixed on mine.  “Can I have some yogurt?”

Shit.

I mean, really? Healthy, wholesome yogurt? Of course I said yes. I said yes even though I knew that Johnny would want to do exactly the same thing that his big sister was doing.
I gave Ellie her vanilla yogurt cup and a spoon and set her at the dining room table. I took off ALL of Johnny’s clothes, put on a big, set him up in his highchair with its big tray. I put the yogurt and a spoon in front of him.

I went back to nailing in useless nails and gluing useless connections. I let the kids eat.

Then I looked up.

“I’m all done!” chirped Miss Ellie with her nice clean yogurt cup and her clean spoon in front of her.

“MMMMMMMMMM” said Johnny, with vanilla yogurt on his cheeks, his ears, up his nose and into his hair. “MMMMMMAHHHHH!”

I dropped the useless hammer and the pointless nails, ran into the bathroom and turned on the tap in the tub. Back to Ellie and Johnny, grabbing spoons and yogurt cups and hustling both of them into the bathroom.

I thought I was pretty cool. Mostly exhausted, but still pretty much on top of things. I had (mostly) made the stupid waste of money nightstand. I had fed the kids and entertained them and kept us all mostly cool in the desperate jungle heat.

Now I dropped the yogurt covered baby into the tub, and helped his big sister climb in with him. I scrubbed, I shampooed, I scraped dairy products off of key body parts.

It was only noon, but I had already had a long day. I was silently patting myself on the back as I sat back to watch my grandchildren playing. “Nice,” I told myself, “I have helped them to share, to learn from each other, to appreciate the special relationship that only siblings can understand.”

And then.

“What’s that?” asked Ellie, pointing into the tub full of bubbles, toys and …..meatballs.

“OH.” I said. “Um. I think Johnny pooped in the tub.”

In a feat of athleticism rarely seen outside of an Olympic stadium, Ellie hurled herself out of the tub with a bloodcurdling shriek.

I was left with the fallout.

*************************************************************************************

So. Now the kids have gone home. The tub has been cleaned, the toys are put away. The sink is filled with hot water, bath toys and white vinegar.

I have a martini in my hand.

Every time I think I have it all figured out, the kids find a way to keep me humble.

kids

Don’t get too comfy, Nonni!

 

 

 

I Feel Useful….


I love watching my grandchildren. I love it so much when their Momma drops them off at my house and leaves me in charge. I. Love. That.

I love it for all of the obvious reasons, of course. The kids are cute, sweet, fun. They hug me, they make me laugh, they snuggle up against me and tell me that they love me.

I love feeding them, and washing their sweet little faces after I do. Naturally, I am thrilled when they ask me to read to them or sing to them or snuggle with them. Being Nonni in charge is so fun!

But.

I realize that there is something else going on when I readily, happily, joyfully agree to watch the kids unexpectedly.

Here’s what I realized today, while Ellie and Johnny were dancing around in my living room.

I realized that being Nonni-on-duty makes me feel useful. It makes me feel like I matter.

On summer days when I am at home alone, with no grandchildren to watch and no students to teach and no job to rush to, I find myself feeling pointless. Oh, I have my list of chores, and they are all significant in their own way. “Stain deck,” “Wash siding,” “Call Comcast Again,”  Laundry, shopping, gardening, canning summer’s bounty, cleaning closets. They could all be called useful, I guess.

But in my heart, when I am crossing each chore off my list, I am feeling useless. I am feeling that I could so easily be replaced by a local teen or a small business or a better cook.

I can’t help it. When I am at home, with nobody here who needs me, I feel completely pointless.

But bring on those grandkids, baby, and everything changes.

Ellie needs me to pour milk! Johnny needs me to hold him! They look at me, and it is as if the sun has risen and poured its golden light over everything. When they are here, I am not the old teacher lady who was put out to pasture. I’m not the middle aged woman with fibromyalgia and arthritis and whatever else is going on that week.

Nope. When those two beautiful little people are here in my house, I am Nonni. I am the giver of hugs, the reader of books. I am the funny lady who runs up and down the darkened hall with flashlights on, screaming about monsters who chase us. When they are here, I am the one who kisses the bumps, the one who laughs at the jokes.

I am the ONE. The center of their small, protected universe.

When my grandchildren are here, I am Nonni.

I have a purpose. A job. A role to fulfill.

They convince me, with one hug, that I am important to the world around me.

kids

“Nonni, we are making dinner! Can you help us?”

What Gender Roles?


I love being a grandmother. I mean….jeez, I love it! I get to adore my grandchildren without worrying every minute that I’m ruining their lives. (Yup. I remember being a neurotic Mom.) I get to play, make a nice mess, then have the evening to put things back in order.

I get to feed them. A lot.

I love that.

I love watching them grow. I love watching them change, and learn new things. I love seeing which parts of them are nature and which parts are pure nurture.

Ellie, at the tender age of three, is a bit cautious and very sensitive to feelings and moods. And she’s dramatic.

She also loves to solve problems. She has a certain tenacity that lets her scream in frustration while trying to put things together, then sob in outrage, then pick up the tools and start again.

She works with her tongue in the corner of her mouth, frowning and humming as she tries to figure out which piece goes where. She does NOT quit.

When she’s done, she often looks up at me and says, “I did it!!!”

She loves to dress up, she loves to dance ballet. The more glitter, the better, as far as Ellie (“I’m Elsa and Anna right now.”) is concerned. She loves hair ties, and jewelry and plastic princess shoes with high heels.

And she loves blocks, trains, cars, fitting things together and tool kits. She loves to cook, to plant flowers and to defeat the bad guys with her magic.

She is a warrior woman. She is all things that a strong, brave, beautiful, self-confident young female should be.

Warrior Woman Child

Yes, I am using a drill while dressed as Ariel. Why do you ask?

Hooray for letting kids choose their own way. Hooray for telling young girls that they can be sparkly superheroes who defeat the bad guys with drills and high heels.

Hooray.

And while we cheer for the power of little girls, let’s embrace the power of little boys to choose their own paths, too!

Our little Johnny is only a year old. He can walk, climb, throw a ball, drive a car, play the drums and smack his Nonni in the head with a block.

He hurls himself backward into whatever is behind him, whether it’s the couch, a blanket or a pile of bricks. He kicks, he squeals, he eats with both hands.

He seems like the traditional description of “all boy.”

But.

He also looks at his Nonni from across the room. He tucks his little chin, grins and toddles across the room with both arms wide open. When I scoop him up, he rests his cheek against mine and coos, “awwwwww” as he hugs me.

He puts his toys to sleep on the sofa pillows. He feeds them and sings to them and rocks them.

Johnny sings and dances when any music comes on. He asks me to sing when I rock him to sleep, but if he doesn’t like the tune, he sits up in my arms and puts a hand on my mouth. He likes gentle, repetitive songs that have words he can imitate. “Blue bird, blue bird, at my window” is one of his favorites.

He is sweet.

When he was here with me the other day, without his big sister or his Mommy, he found a headband of Ellie’s in a drawer. “Ah”, he said, handing it to me. “Ah” . He tilted his head forward, so I’d put the band on his head.

Then he started to dance. There was no music playing, but he knew that on most days, he and Ellie would dance to the music on my computer.

He twirled, he raised his hands, he picked up one foot at a time. He was delighted to be dancing in the sunshine of my living room, all by himself. He was dancing for his own pleasure.

Then his internal ballet music must have stopped, because he bent down to pick up a toy car.

Johnny

“One pirouette and Vroom!!!”

“Vrrmmmmmm!” he announced, his headband still delightfully in place.

Kudos to the new generation of parents, who let their boys dance around in pink tutus while their girls use the drill. You all give me so much hope for a happy, more balanced future.

 

 

Way Too Clean


Well.

The house is very clean. We cleaned and rolled up the garish rug that used to be in our living room (we got it so that our old dog, Tucker the Wolf King, could get up and down with his arthritic back. He’s gone now. So is the rug.)

The floor is clean. The bathroom is clean. There’s a nice table cloth on the dining room table. The dust has been wiped off. The kitchen sink is clean and deodorized.

God help me. I even dusted the hutch.

The house smells good. Clean, fresh, summery.

Empty.

I haven’t had my grandkids here for, um, four days.

All the toys are in the correct places. The dress up items in the white bag. The building toys (all pieces in one place) are in the brown toy box. The stuffed animals are organized and washed and dried, and are resting quietly in the blue toybox. The play kitchen has been cleaned and organized.

If nobody stops me, I might even wash the inside and outside of my living room windows.

Please, someone help me.

Someone needs to call my daughter Kate and tell her to get those kids over here ASAP before I completely snap and start organizing my sock drawer.

kids

Kitchen floor picnic? Yeah, count us in!!

 

Dogs


Dogs. Dogs and more dogs.

I tell you, dogs are like Lays potato chips. No one can have just one.

In the past two years, we have found ourselves navigating the tender steps between owning two old dogs to owning one young pup.

As we let our sweet old friends cross that rainbow bridge, we pushed ourselves to welcome a new, young puppy into the house.

This was a very smart move. Even as we grieved the loss of our slow, sedate, cranky old friends, we found ourselves viewing the world through the eyes of our happy, energetic, joyful puppy.

Len

Life is good….but I’m bored.

But now we are the aging parents of one young doggie. He adores us, and its mutual. We (as in, my husband) walk him every day. He plays with our grandkids, and takes rides in the car and sometimes gets to play with our next door doggies.

He seems pretty happy.

He sleeps with us most night, resting his chin on my chest or on my husband’s hip. He follows us around with his adoring brown eyes. He kisses the grandchildren every day when they come in. He plays with us.

He seems…mostly….happy.

Until.

Until our daughter and her family go away for a few days, leaving their two dogs with us. That’s when we get to see how overjoyed our boy, Lennie, is when he has playmates of his own. Izzy is an older lady, somewhat aloof and somewhat removed from the raucousness of the kids. When things get out of hand, Izzy barks and snarls and makes the kids behave.

I consider her my ally.

Izzy

Do. Not. Cross. Me.

Nino is a funny little guy, with some significant special needs. He has dwarfism, so he can’t run as far or as long as he’d like. His head, his big old bullet pit bull head, is bigger than the rest of his body. He is awkward at best.

And he is affectionate, energetic, loving and full of beans.

He and Lennie jump on each other, bite each others’ necks and roll over each other for hours.

You can feel the happiness pouring off of both of them as they do.

Nino

Don’t you love my giant head?

It’s clear.

Lennie needs at least one more canine pal.

Kate and Sam are unlikely to turn over their two pups to us, so we need to start shopping. Lennie loves us a lot, but he obviously needs a buddy to boss around.

Just like Lays chips. You can’t get away with only one.

Anyone have a sweet youngish dog to give away??? H’mmm?

 

 

“Il Mondo è Una Famiglia”


Before I begin this last post about our trip to Europe, I have to preface it by saying that in a million years I could never have been as warm and kind as the people I’m about to describe.

I know myself. I love having guests, but I need to know they’re coming first. Also, I like it better if I have a clue about who they are.

With that, let me tell you the miraculous and wonderful story of our day in Roccabascerana, province of Avellino, Italy.

My paternal grandparents came to the United States around a hundred years ago. Growing up in our big family, I knew that they had married in the little village of Roccabascerana. I knew that my grandfather’s brothers married my grandmother’s sisters, and that all of them came to the Boston area.

I have always wanted to go there, to see the place where our family has its roots. At last, a few weeks ago, that wish came true.

Now, I have to tell you that I had reached out on Facebook to try to find relatives still in the area, and I had connected with one man who thought it possible that we might be related. But he didn’t speak much English, and I definitely didn’t speak much Italian. We exchanged a few messages, then lost each other.

So when I got to the village with my husband, my sons and their girlfriends, I didn’t plan to try to find any actual living relatives. I was content to see the streets, the church, the piazza where my family had once walked. I took pictures of the war memorial where the family names were inscribed.

Avellino

I was happily crying my eyes out as I thought about my Dad and his parents, and all of my family who have gone. I hugged my boys and listened to the church bells in the peaceful air of the town. The only living thing other than us in the whole village, it seemed, was a sweet little street dog who came to greet us.

As I was thinking of heading back to Pompeii to process my experience, the kids noticed a building that seemed to be the local Town Hall. “Let’s go in!” they said, “We can ask about the family.”

I didn’t want to. I didn’t want the embarrassment of my bad Italian or the bad manners of showing up on someone’s doorstep unannounced. But as I was trying to back out, the kids and my husband kept pointing out how much I’d regret being so close to my family and not meeting them.

We were in a little tug-o-war when a car drove up and parked. A well dressed, dark haired woman got out and looked at us. There I stood, sweaty and tearful, surrounded by my kids.

“Prego?” she called, opening the door to the building. She gestured me inside. So I stepped in.

When the woman turned to me and raised her perfect dark brows over her brown eyes, I stammered out the fact that my family had originally come from this town. I told her my last name.

“Si,” she answered easily. “Antonio.” She named the possible relative I’d found on Facebook so many months ago. She lead us all into another room, where she explained to another woman that “This woman from the US is a cousin of Antonio.”

“Ah, si!” said the second kind woman. “His family lives in the village of Squillani.” I had heard this name my whole life, too. It was where my grandmother’s family had lived, I thought. “His mother was Maria Domenica. Who was your grandfather?”

Then she picked up the phone and dialed without even looking up a number. My kids were delighted, as was Paul, but I was still internally thinking, “Wait!!!!!”

Antonio didn’t answer his phone, so the kind woman (who kept speaking rapid fire Italian as if I might learn it if she just tried hard enough) indicated that we should all get in our cars and follow the two young men who worked with her and who were sitting wide eyed over the whole thing.

So off we went. The boys didn’t speak English, either, so we weren’t exactly sure where we were headed. I was hoping that we were going to the village of Squillani, where we could look around, have lunch and take photos. I was both thrilled and afraid that we were actually headed to Antonio’s house.

And you guessed it, I bet.

After ten minutes of hairpin turns over beautiful, tiny, mountain roads, we stopped in front of a lovely big house and the boys hopped out. As I cautiously got out of my car, I saw them knock, and heard them tell the young woman who opened the door, “The American cousins of Antonio are here.”

Yikes!!

I was really embarrassed to be banging on the door of a total stranger! There were six of us, none of us fluent in Italian, and all of us nervous and excited.

With a show of grace that I could only dream about, the woman smiled at us all, thanked the boys, and invited us in. She called to her husband, who came in with a puzzled look on his face. We stumbled through introductions, apologies and welcomes.

The next three hours were an amazing, life changing and really fabulous affirmation of every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Italians. It was proof of the power of family, of food, of shared laughter.

I could never, ever, ever have pulled off what this family did for a group of strangers on their doorstep.  Antonio and his wife, and his brother Mimo and his, took us in as if we had known each other all of our lives.

They sat us down, gave us cold drinks, offered coffee. We looked at pictures, finding similarities in our faces and in shared stories. We got to know a bit about each other.

At some point I realized that the women had disappeared, and being Italian myself, I suspected that there was a meal being prepared (in spite of our attempts to assure them that were not here to disturb them or to drop in for a meal.)

I was right. As predicted, after about a half hour a door opened, and Antonio’s beautiful wife, Angela invited us upstairs to eat.

And we shared one of those meals that you know you’ll dream about for years. Without any plan or preparation, these amazing women put out a “lunch” of spaghetti with homemade sauce, sausages, zucchini frittata, olives from their property, a bowl of bread the size of a bathtub, cheese, salami, wine, fresh figs, watermelon, home made lemon ice and delicious sweet esspresso that will haunt my dreams forever.

We met Antonio’s daughters, who are charming, funny, interesting and who speak English! My sons played with his young son. We all laughed, we shared jokes somehow.

We all friended each other on Facebook.

It was amazing. Amazing and humbling.

We found out, Antonio and I, that we share the same great-grandfather. We are indeed cousins.

But before we knew that fact, this family welcomed us in just because we were there. At one point, when I was once again trying to explain that I hadn’t intended to bother them, Antonio asked in a gruff, no-nonsense voice, “Why? What are you sorry?”

“I didn’t mean to bother you….”

He gestured around the table to where our families were eating, laughing and drinking together.

“Do we look bothered?” I think he said.

He raised one finger, and both of his slightly pointed eye brows. Exactly the gesture that my Dad used to make. Exactly the same expression on his face.

“Il mondo è piccolo.”  Yes, I agreed, the world is small.

“Tutti una famiglia.”  We are all one family.

I can never express how profound and moving it was for me to see my sons laughing with some of the cousins who never left our home place. My deepest wish now would be for some of them to come here to visit us, so that I could cook for them, and tell them how my connection to them and to that beautiful place has shaped me for my whole life.

 

 

 

Immigration…and Emigration


For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.