Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"Being an American, according to my Italian Grandpa

By Joni Daidone

Ever since the days, weeks and months following 9/11, when our government’s so-called leaders declared war on the followers of Islam and all those who shared the same religion and culture as the handful of disturbed men who bombed the World Trade Center, I have hung my head in shame.

When the patriarchal cowboy reactionary otherwise known as the President of the US of A flipped the switch and started bombing innocent Afghani and Iraqi woman and children and their country men in the name of freedom and justice and family values, I felt that I could no longer consider myself an American woman because I could not comprehend or endorse the anger, the bloodlust, the ignorance and the greed that would empower such hate and destructive words and actions.

I have tried to understand what being an American woman meant to me, even as I listened to newscasts and read newspapers where those who shared my views were called traitors and anti-American fanatics.

It has been six long years of numbing pain at the loss of my country, and my identity. But now, after much contemplation and prayer and countless conversations with my countrymen, the taxi drivers, news stand vendors, train conductors, cleaning women, bodega clerks, token booth operators, farmer’s market vendors, and my cohorts at the dog run, I am finally ready to lay claim to my country again, and to my place in it as a woman, and a daughter of first-generation Americans. It is by way of channeling the voice and the image of my grandfather, my mother’s father, a lover of America and a man who adored and honored women, that I can once again feel a sense of compassion and affection for my ancestry, and their investment in the American character.

My grandfather, Joseppi Tucciarone, epitomized the heart, the soul and the very essence of the American character. Born in a small hill town northeast of Rome, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1920 at the age of 22, with only the clothes on his back, about 1000 lire, (the equivalent of $50), and a small canvas sack filled with a change of clothes, a rough wool sweater handknit by his sister, two loaves of bread, some canned sardines, a few jars of olives, a bag of pipe tobacco, a one way ticket to Ellis Island, and enough hope and dreams to fuel an ocean liner around the world twice over.

One of his cousins, my great aunt Ray, was already living in Brooklyn, so he had the guarantee of a blanket and a spot on her living room floor for a few months until he found work, and a place to live for him and his wife to be, my grandmother, who was still in Italy waiting for a ticket and the money to join him in New York.

Joseppi was a wigmaker and beautician by trade, and would walk the streets of Myrtle and DeKalb Avenue going from shop to shop looking for work, any kind of work. In those days, not many women went to salons to have their hair done. Only school teachers and well-heeled wives of doctors and professional men. But with his bright green eyes, contagious smile, and disarming charm, he found a salon in Manhattan that was willing to bring him on for tips. No salary, no pay, but tips from those generous enough to spare some extra change.

Each day he would walk across the Manhattan Bridge and up Park Avenue to 52nd Street to save the cost of the subway or bus. He called it his walk of love, for he was walking for his fiancée Teresa, his little flower, my future grandmother, walking to save the money to bring her to America.

As much as he loved Italy, he considered himself an American from the very first day he stepped onto Ellis Island and his heels kissed the shore. This was the place that had fueled his imagination and ignited his optimism. This was the dream that he had held in his heart from the days of his boyhood, reading stories of cowboys, of open prairies and majestic mountains, sparkling rivers, of pioneers, and native spirits, the land where people of all nationalities, and religions and classes and politics came together and shared the same soil.

In Italy, you were born into a class of society and you lived according to the unspoken rules of that class for your entire life, no matter what your talents, ambitions, education. But in new York, in America, the poor and the rich, the Illiterate and the educated, the working class and the aristocrat, old and new money, Italian and Irish, Chinese and African, all collided together, loved and fought together, shared food and recipes, stories and tragedies, and strove to claim their little piece of hope and paradise.

In their four room flat on Knickerbocker Avenue, he never quite realized the stereotypical American dream, but he did manage to bring over his bride, raise four daughters, become the unofficial mayor of DeKalb Avenue, and eventually, on one of the proudest days of his life, became an American citizen. Becoming a passport-carrying “official” American citizen, to my grandfather, was akin to a degree from Harvard or Yale, or a nest egg in the bank. It did not mean rejecting his Italian ancestry that ran deep in his blood, in his senses, in his soul. For him America was not a nationality, or a place, or a country of origin, it was a state of mind, a state of liberation, a way of looking at the world through a lens of hope, of optimism, of youthful potential.

In Italy he would always be tied to the earth, to the rich soil, to its scents and sounds and tastes. But in America, he was free to let his imagination run wild, to go beyond the earth to the mystery and the promise of the heavens.

Writer Joni Daidone lives between Millerton, New York, and New York City. She lives with her husband, Brian, and dog-child Miles. She writes advertising copy to pay the mortgage and short plays and stories to keep her sanity. “Being an American” is part of a longer series of essays on Daidone’s Italian American heritage.

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