Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very fine place to start. I grew up in a fairly average, smallish, and typical American town. My father was the son of Italian immigrants. They came from Italy for various reasons, most of all to have a “better life”. This is the story of most immigrants, is it not?
It was rumored that my grandfather was a trouble maker in his late teens. He was booted out of his tiny village for his own good after some liasons with a few of the married ladies. He was not so polietly warned to go somewhere else, somewhere very far away. I will never know the truth on that story since he died when I was a mere two years old. But, I do get a sparkle in my eye knowing that I probably get my most mischeiveous qualities from him.
My grandfather, Pasquale Grasso, was a tough cookie in every sense of the word. He did not mince words. He came to America and he toiled putting down railroad spikes. His forearms were so big he made Popeye look like a wimp. He reportedly had a glass eye, which he would take out and polish after drinking a few glasses of homemade grappa and accidentally drop on the floor, and I , his beloved granddaughter would chase it around squealing, “Oh no Papa, you lost your eye again!”.
He had an enormous garden in our suburban back yard. and a beautiful grapevine He had no mercy on his sons should they get in any trouble or talk back to their elders. Basically, he was a gentle soul with an exterior of steel and he was not to be messed with.
My grandmother, Serafina, was a spitfire. She made beautiful lace with the tiniest of needles. She had great passion for food, love, life, her family, and my grandfather. I remember my mother showing me her “Trousseau” many years after she died. It was scandalous that she had created her own lingerie out of sacks and lace. They were the most modest of garments and they were clearly made from little income, but lots of imagination. When my grandfather left this earth, my small family consisting of my mom, dad, and myself moved swiftly into her home. My mother gave up her newly earned place as “lady of the house” in her first ever home and moved into her mother in law’s home.
I am sure this was not easy, but my mother was lucky enough to have a matriarch in her house who helped her with all things. She taught her how to cook, clean, love, discipline, and also just how to be an adult woman. My mother was one of the few women who considered her mother in law to be a mother and a very good friend.
After Pasquale’s death, my grandmother became the independent woman she always was inside. She traveled, she went to events with her friends, she giggled while she ogled good looking men on the street. She laughed, she flew, she joked and she embraced life with a great passion. But still, she always put her family first and insisted we have a Sunday dinner with as many of us around the table as possible.
So, this is a small window , a tiny peek inside of who they were. They lived in a neighborhood carefully selected. Their neighbors, not surprisingly, were also Italians. Next door and across the street lived another very large Italian family. They had oodles of kids and I could walk in any time and be either fed or given a head crushing noogie, depending on who was around. My uncle, who was 20 years older than my dad, lived diagonally across the street and had his own family who loved and tortured me in equal measure.
My neighborhood was pretty amazing, now that I look back. It was filled with children and teens. We were let loose in packs to roam the nearby woods and we were trusted to run in the streets until darkness fell. We felt both free and entitled to walk into most homes on the street and be taken care of. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
The other thing about my neighborhood though, was it was clear who was Italian and who was not. There were open discussions about the Portuguese neighbors next door. How they were loud. How they did not speak any English. How they drank too much sweet strange wine. How they seemed obsessed with soccer.
There was the man who lived behind us. His name was Manny. He was possibly from the Dominican. He had a huge garden and we would play in his corn field, even though we were not supposed to. He did not speak English either. He would give us strange candy and had milky eyes. He was wonderful.
Up the street lived a Polish family. I’m ashamed to say, to this day I am not sure they are from Poland or somewhere else in Eastern Europe. They had many children and their house was seemingly not large enough for them all. They had a great big porch and we would often spend our afternoons sitting there spying on all the neighbors nearby. Making up stories like kids do. The father was a very stern man and we were somewhat terrified of him, as children have vivid imaginations. The mother was the sweetest kind of woman and would take us on picnics in the woods with delicious sandwiches. This family was a mystery to me, as they had “strange” smells coming from their house and they spoke a language I had never heard.
One of their son’s was jsut slightly older than me and we often played together. He was incredibly smart and went on to Harvard and became a doctor. Looking back, I realize that he huge influence in my early success in school because he was always asking me how I did on tests and assignments. He and I shared our first paper route together. I can vividly remember counting the money after we had been paid and tipped, sprawled out on my parents living room floor. He would fight me for that last penny because it could not be split. These were the joys and the cunning of coming from blue-collar immigrant families.
I suppose I could ramble all day about this, but I will attempt to get to my point. As I was walking this morning I realized that I am an immigrant. I have been an immigrant since I left America nearly a decade ago. When I was a kid, in my town, “Immigrant” was seen as almost a dirty word. And now today it is even worse, given the current political climate. I grew up in a house full of immigrants. Our neighbors were immigrants. Our friends and family….immigrants. We were all American Citizens, but every single one of us….immigrants.
Though my neighborhood was lively , fascinating, and loving, there was a clear line of distinction between first and second generation immigrants. The second generation looked upon themselves as Americans. They were better than the one’s “fresh off the boat” who could not speak English. They took pride and taught their children to take pride in the fact that they belonged to the USA.
This was not done out of hurt or malice. It was done out of the fact that they were a product of parents and/or grandparetns who worked their tails off, who left struggle behind, who made the tiring journey to belong to a new society and a new way of life. But it was, nonetheless, an “us versus them” mentality at times, however subtle and discreet it was. “They” looked funny, they ate weird food, they did not have the same values as “us”.
Now, I am “they”. I walk around this strange place with oblivion. I don’t know if people are laughing at me or curious about me. I don’t know what they are saying. I don’t know what they want. I don’t know if I’ve offended them. I try not to stare at my son’s bus driver, who is sitting cross legged in his socks eating dried fish in the driver’s seat when we arrive 3 minutes early. I try not to take it personally that everyone seems to be staring at my crotch because I am wearing pink pants, not the black ones every woman here seems required to don.
I am a stranger in a strange land. I am obvious. But, yet at the same time I have the comfort of knowing that my struggle is temporary and I have all the resources of safety, money, and help when I need it. I am living a life of luxury though I only have one knife, no dryer, and thread bare towels to dry my ass.
I have much less food than I ever have. But I have far more food for thought.