The word storia, in Italian, means story. And also, history. Growing up, Italian was always part of my history, but never part of my story. Until, one day, a fire for learning the language unexpectedly sparked.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, Italy was no big deal.
The following was all quite normal: Sundays at my aunt’s house. Cousins everywhere. Lots of talking (yelling) over each other. Constant hugs and kisses. A long table lined with steaming bowls of deliciousness. My tiny but plump, fair-skinned, copper-haired grandma endlessly stirring a boiling pot of something. People in your business at all times. It was a wonderful way to grow up, especially being one of the youngers.
At the center of these weekly gatherings was Grampa Mike, who began my family’s American story. When he was younger than my own teenage son now, he left his Southern Italian home and all he knew and, like countless other immigrants of the time, sailed into a new life in a new country by way of Ellis Island.
He was an 18-year-old foreigner, who spoke no English and knew no one here. And even though he would live another 70 years in this country, Grampa Mike spoke with a thick accent and those famous Italian hand gestures until the day he died, shortly after my wedding.
I never asked him to teach me a single word of Italian. Truth be told, the self-conscious, unenlightened teenager in me was, at times, a teensy mortified by his Italian-ness, particularly in public. What a missed opportunity.
Even though I had no interest in his language, Grampa did instill in me a yearning to visit his land. With his big mustachioed grin and twinkling eyes, during our Sundays together he would tell me how all the roofs in Italy were flat, and that we could sleep on them, outside, underneath the stars. He would talk about how we would go there one day, together. From the time I was four years old, I had wanted to take that trip.
But when I did get to Italy for the first time I was 15 and on a whirlwind three-week European tour with a high school group, not Grampa. None of the others had Italian roots like me. We all agreed that Italy was old. And crumbly. Even though I was thrilled to find 22 families with my Italian surname listed in the Rome phone book, I was relieved to leave the chaos which is Italy in the summer. I will confess, however, that Florence and Siena had me at ciao. I’ve had a crush on Florence for decades.
Years and years went by and I gave very little thought to Italy and even less to the Italian language. A lot happened in life. I became a college graduate. A wife, a teacher, a homeowner, a mother. Milestones I had always planned. Unexpected were the bumps in the road.
By the time I reached my 40th birthday, our family had suffered a couple of blows, that, cumulatively, I was finding difficult to bounce back from. The first, losing my beloved dad, Grampa Mike’s adored youngest child and textbook grandfather to my three little ones. Just a few years before my dad’s death and barely after the birth of our third child/only daughter, my husband contracted a life-threatening infection and in the course of one day, we nearly lost him. Thankfully he survived, but traded both feet in the process.
My heart felt sad and worried all the time. My mind, in quiet moments of the day, defaulted to anxiety, maybe even depression.
So it was that just months after losing my dad, Husband was determined to help me find my spark again, and turned to our bucket list. He burst into the house one day with his signature enthusiasm — thankfully still intact — and made a quick announcement: “Let’s rent that house in Tuscany! Let’s take the kids! We’ll find your family! And we’ll learn Italian!” And that is what we did.
That innocent statement — not my native grandfather, nor my high school trip to Italy, not even being a fan of Eat Pray Love — changed the course of my days and in this way, Italian unintentionally found me. In it’s lyrical loveliness, Italian saved me. It gave my grief-filled mind and heart a better place to rest.
Instead of ruminating over my dad’s final days and how I could have prevented the unpreventable, my newly found Italian brain offered up more productive options: the meditation of verb conjugations; the transformation of the ordinary (for example, parsley) into the exotic (prezzemolo — che bello!); the imagined exhilaration of ordering a cup of coffee or asking for directions, were I ever to do so in Italy.
Most unexpected is how something which had always been the background of my life, something which I never had any intention of embracing, waited for me, and, in my time of need, provided me with what was first a beautiful distraction and now has become a lifelong pursuit. I feel fulfilled and nourished by Italian. I feel connected to my roots, to my heritage and to my sweet father, all of which felt lost to me in losing him. I feel relieved of grief’s burden.
Early in my language journey, it hit me that fluency is not the goal, although that would be a fantastic bonus. The goal is joy. And what I really hope to encourage in others by sharing this story is that you find something you love, whatever that may be, and jump into it wholeheartedly. Do it for the sheer luxury of the pleasure it brings you. I urge you to practice regularly a passion, somehow. Not necessarily during indulgent, undisturbed stretches of time (*insert wistful sigh here*) which elude us all , but in the tiny chunks of time which pop up at random in any given day. Even if it’s just for ten minutes here or there, carve out a pinch of time for your personal joy.
My love of learning Italian found me 20 years too late to share with Grampa. But, in something out of a fairy tale, during that bucket list trip to Italy with the kids, we found Grampa’s relatives — my cousins –happy and thriving in the heel of the Italian boot. They took us to Grampa’s house, still in our family after all these years, lovingly restored.
In a most surreal full-circle moment, Husband and I led our children out onto Grampa’s flat roof, breathing in the balmy summer night air together. I hugged my four-year-old daughter especially tight. Through her, the four-year-old me seemed to make it to Italy after all.
And in that twinkling Italian starlight, I’m sure I caught Grampa’s little glimmer of delight winking down at us.