June 20, 2010
My Grandfather was an American
It's been many years since he lifted me into the air, threw me squealing over his shoulder, and in broken English with a mock solemn voice threatened to toss me into the branches of his apple tree and abandon me forever. I worshiped my Nonno. He was a baker. He was also the son of a baker and the grandson of a baker.
You didn't know him, so let me describe him. He was the smartest, strongest, tallest, and funniest man who ever lived. That was when I was 7.
By the age of 12, I saw him as mysterious and downright cool. One autumn Saturday morning we drove to Manhattan where he bought me a fedora almost identical to his. It was my birthday. We lunched at an neighborhood eatery where people knew him as "The Major" and cheerfully greeted him with embraces. We ate soup and bread while Puccini on the jukebox filled our corner of the room. My head swam trying to follow the conversations in Italian he shared with visitor after visitor to the table.
We walked through New York, side-by-side in overcoats and fedoras, as he told me about Ellis Island and Brooklyn in 1910. Our outing included Flower Drum Song on Broadway. It was as magic a day as I've ever experienced. Six months later, I was living in California, part of the great migration of the time, and I never saw him again.
Nonno loved America. He was proud of his Italian heritage, and he was certainly cynical about politicians, but he was patriotic without embarrassment. When he walked past the American flag, he'd crisply lift his hat.
He left Italy because, as a working-class teenager in a poor village, he wanted to avoid an arranged marriage, guaranteed servitude, and a death in his 40's like his father and grandfather before him.
America promised wealth and success for hard work. He wanted his own house with a small orchard. He wanted his own business.
He wanted to eat. He loved sausages, cheese, wine mixed with tap water, Schlitz beer, coffee, pastries, ice cream, potato pancakes, and, of course, macaroni. And the man smoked at least one cigar every day.
He wanted to buy a Ford. Nobody in his family had ever owned an automobile. He was never happier than when preparing "the machine" for a Sunday drive to Woonsockett or Fall River.
He once told me he should have been a cowboy. He loved Glenn Ford, Amos & Andy, and Jimmy Durante.
America promised education for the 6 children he would inspire and frustrate. The education he never had. There would be no more bakers. He wanted doctors and teachers and accountants. Five out of six ain't bad. My father became a baker.
Nonno wanted to marry a beautiful girl who would love him, respect him, laugh at his jokes, and grow flowers in their orchard.
He wanted to live past 60 with teeth in his mouth.
He was an American and, in America, his dreams came true.
He would weep to see us now. Contrarians, elitists, feminists, intellectuals, and political operatives have managed to belittle almost all the things he loved about America.
Eventually, his work ethic, materialism, independence, heterosexuality, diet, tobacco habit, patriotism, gruffness, generosity with DDT, upward mobility, and carbon footprint would each be mocked or outlawed.
I've been told that when my father was fighting somewhere in Italy during World War II, my grandfather (not a big fan of the Catholic faith) would go to church every evening to pray and light a candle. After the war, my father returned to Rhode Island and surprised his parents by sneaking through the kitchen and suddenly appearing as they sat in the living room.
He proudly told them that, while in Italy, he had been able to see his father's village and birthplace.
My Nonno answered, "Never mind that, you home now!"
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