They were people of their time, of their place, of their background, of their class. He: born 1922, in East Orange, full Napolitan’, the first and only son of a 15 year old seamstress with dark skin and dark eyes and a 22 year old of a number of different occupations who ran off soon after. She: born 1931, in Belleville, full Napolitan’, the sixth child of a 39 year old, blue-eyed, blonde-haired gambler-cum-factory supervisor and his 37 year old, red-haired, blue-eyed wife.
The North Jersey of their time was as close to self-subsisting, self-contained “Italian America” as the East LA of mine is to a “Chinese America” or “Mexican America”.
It was a cog within a cog, a system within a system. My grandfather spoke only Napolitan’ until he was six or seven, learned how to read and write in Italian before he learned a word of English. Community associations were Italian-only. Politicians got elected on Italian slates. Your doctor, butcher, priest, grocer, dentist - all Italian, preferably Southern, preferably from Campania, preferably from Avellino. Marriage was between Italians, between people of the same region, between people of the same ancestral village or area. My grandfather’s family was from a place that was 5 miles from where my grandmother’s family had lived. God forbid, you would date or marry a Milanese, a Sicilian, a Pugliese. God forbid double, you would date or marry a German or an Irishman or a Jew.
For both, life was working class. He was, from 9, a clerk, a caddy, a newsboy, a mail-carrier who occasionally delivered mail to Thomas Edison’s house. She was a family cook, nurse-maid, the prettiest and therefore the most over-protected, a disciplinarian, an expert seamstress and mender.
Their educations were high school. For him, not even complete high school. He forged the papers, found his dad to sign them (“Only good thing he ever did for me”), and joined the Marines at 16. Survived Camp Lejeune, Brisbane, New Guinea, Guadalcanal.
She dreamt of joining a convent, being a nun, volunteered for the church, tended the house, mourned Roosevelt, came of age with the first nukes.
They met, dated, and eloped, in the face of her family’s wishes. Married on the run to California, in Tennessee, in a Baptist ceremony for which she never forgave herself. My grandfather, skin like coffee, deep brown eyes, jet black hair- a Dean Martin look-a-like. My grandmother, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, nicknamed “Dolly” and “Antoinette”. People said she looked like Carole Lombard.
He later told me her father had the heart attack that killed him when he heard the news. They had to turn around to make the journey back for the funeral. Just a week in California. Two weeks back home for the burial. Then back, a second time, to California. In a month, escape became exile.
They were of their time, though. They did the things of the time. They pulled away and also clung to the past. They got jobs in a warehouse and a hair salon. They bought a tiny house in the “Timbuktu” of the 1950s San Gabriel Valley. They got remarried in the Catholic Church so it was valid and recognized and their children would be legitimate where the Pope was concerned. They raised their only daughter Catholic, Italian, obedient. They joined the Elks and the Catholic women’s clubs. They tended house and paid the mortgage.
Of their times, of their time’s prejudices. My grandmother hated feminism and feminists. She told my mother she could never rent her own apartment until she was married, because only a slut would want to live alone at her age. She told my mother she should go to school to be a secretary, because that was the best job a woman could or should get.
My grandfather never saw an Asian he liked, never hesitated to curse “Nips” and “Japs”. He disliked Latinos (“Cholos”), Blacks (“ditsoons”), gays (“fags”), atheists, Muslims, Germans, the English, the Irish, the Poles, the Russians, Northern Italians, Sicilians, and Greeks. Only people I never heard him talk negatively about were Napolitans (obviously) and Jews. Blood in the first case; friendship in the other.
They both hated my father, at least in part, for being of Anglo-German descent. Said his blood made him a cold, unfeeling, faithless, lying drunk (probably in those exact words, or with a "mameluke" or "mammon'" at the end). They both blamed him for me not being named “Rocco” after my great-grandfather. In truth, though, my mother didn’t want a son named “Rocco Records”.
In their later years, they were Reagan Democrats. For her, there was Mother Angelica and healing masses and novenas and everything “pro-life”. For him, there was Michael Savage (whom he sometimes applauded and sometimes cursed) and “What happened to my Democratic party?” even as he reluctantly voted for Gore. For both, there was gold-leaf and leased Cadillacs and trips to Vegas for shopping and the Sportsbook.
After my mother and father’s divorce, there was also me. Seized by them, in a way. My grandmother: “A woman shouldn’t raise a son alone.”
I was their last project together- blonde and light skinned and a ravenous reader like her; brown eyed and history-loving and an arguer like him. She made me a spelling bee champ by 9, taught me to put my pinkie up when drinking, tucked me into bed every night with the same Italian lullaby her mother sang to her, made me memorize saints’ lives, cooked me stuffed shells and lemon ricotta (“rigott’) cannoli. He taught me ancient history, made me memorize the names of the Julio-Claudians, had me root for the Mets and the Jets and Notre Dame, walked me up and down the hall over and over again to get me to stop “walking like a fag”. They both taught me our family's particular version of turn of the century, village Napolitan', with the vowels clipped off at the ends of words, with "c" pronounced "g", with Americanisms sprinkled throughout (as in my grandmother's term for the bathroom, "bacaos", a word based on her mother's Italianized mispronunciation of "backhouse").
Toward the end, it was this, before it very quickly wasn’t. For more than a year, she felt the lump in her breast and didn’t tell anyone, didn’t make a scene. She went into the community hospital on June 16, got the diagnosis, got the last rites, and was dead June 21, after a day of gasping and heaving and hacking in spite of the morphine drip. The second to last day, my mother came in crying. “God, Theresa, if you’re going to do that, you better get out and do it in the other room” my grandmother said to her. Soft at moments; hard as nails at others.
9 months and he was there, too. $90,000 in gambling debts at the craps tables. Every weekday, the cemetery and mass; every weekend, the Indian casinos. He died in the middle of the night. He had a heart attack and hit his head on the door and bled out onto the carpet and was dead by the time I came down and found him in the morning. The coroner took his body away as Baghdad fell. He was declared dead as Saddaam’s statue was pulled down. Some events that don't seem correlated to you are correlated to someone else.
10 years later, things change. I am of my time, of my place, of my background. Born 1988, Californian, mutt-Euro-American, Master's degree, gay. Sometimes, I wonder what they’d say about that. Sometimes, half-seriously and half in jest, I wonder whether it would be worse to them that I’m gay or that I have an Asian fiance. Sometimes, I wonder what they’d say about my politics, about my atheism, about the president I voted for, about the students I teach. I wonder, if they were still alive, if I’d ever have been able to stand in front of them as I am, and not feel like a kind of ingrate, a kind of traitor, a kind of thief, robbing them of the son/grandson they deserved.
But the past is the past for a reason: it contributes to the present; it doesn’t dictate it. It gives us the outlines, and then it recedes and keeps receding.
They were of their age, of their world; I am of mine.