My great-grandfather Giuseppe married his wife Michelina in 1929 in Bitritto, Italy. He left for America six months later. My great-grandmother, who was pregnant, stayed back in Italy. He naturalized and after 7 years, sent for his wife and daughter, my nana, Carmela. Michelina and her 6-year-old journeyed solo from Bari to Naples to New York on a ship called The Rex. On the boat, an American couple took an interest in little Carmela and taught her what to say to her dad when she met him for the first time. As the train pulled into the station, my great-grandmother pointed to a man with a top hat waiting on the platform and told Carmela it was her father. Carmela ran into her dad‘s arms and said her first words in English: “I love you daddy. Give me kiss!”
My nana was full of wonderful contradictions — She was 100% Italian but had no interest in being the kind of wife who lived to cook and clean. She loved to work hard but also didn’t blink at taking two months off from her job to go on a Euro trip with a friend. As a Depression era child, she shopped at thrift stores but also loved Ferragamo. She grew up an only child and daddy’s girl, only to have four boys and a huge family of her in own. But in matters of faith, she never seemed to waver. It was the basis on which she and my papa built their family.
She took us to thrift stores, parks and the library as kids, valuing time together over things. When she’d take Kevin Morgan and Tim and I on walks in Des Plaines, she’d pick a bird feather up off the ground and exclaim “St. Francis is saying hello to us!” and stick it in her pocket. Like her favorite saint, Nana had little interest in extravagance: the house she raised my dad and uncles in was the house she died in. It’s tempting to view her extreme simplicity as difficult, bizarre or even masochistic, but for nana it was none of those: her worldview was always one of abundance, which made the sacrifices she made seem annoyingly effortless. She repeated “Aren’t we blessed?” and ”abundanza” so often that they felt cliché. “Bill Gates has nothing on me,” she’d add. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes.
The lessons of a grandparent are rarely forced and never shouted. Instead, their example quietly leads us back to basics in order to find what we truly seek. In fact, “listen to the silence” was what she was always reminding the 18 cousins to do (often trying to get everyone to be quiet before grace). Silence and its virtues is something I have yet to master, but now that she’s gone, hearing her there is my only option.
Thank you nana for your wisdom and love. I am nothing without you. ❤️ 🇮🇹🙏