Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thoughts on my grandparents

My parents came to visit us this weekend for Easter, and as he often does, my dad got to telling stories about his family. It's a long, convoluted history, with many twists and turns, just like any good story of immigrants making good in America. My father is 75 years old, and he was the next to the last of 11 children born to his parents, who came to New York City from the dusty privations of their former lives in Sicily around the turn of the century. My grandmother, Theresa, had met my grandfather, Philip, in Sicily but they got married in America. She was a teenager then, trying to adjust to the change from farming life (she carried water jugs on her head in Sicily!) to the tenement jungle of New York. My grandfather toiled with untold numbers of other Italian immigrants to lay bricks and mix cement, building Manhattan from the ground up. My grandmother? Well, she gave birth.

And she had miscarriages, too -- nobody knows how many. But she bore 11 live babies, 10 of whom made it to adulthood. (See them all in my parents' wedding picture above!) In the photos of her as a young woman, what is most striking is the look of determination on her face. It's as if she's thinking: I dare you to throw something at me that I can't handle.

My dad tells the story of the local midwife, a German woman who attended Theresa through her 11 births. My grandmother was apparently legendary for her ability to give birth effortlessly. I like to picture her throwing her elegant, black, wavy hair (for which she was also famous) out of her eyes, clambering up onto the kitchen table, and settling down calmly to the task of pushing out another baby. No epidurals for her! When I delivered the Peanut I pictured her spirit hovering over one of my shoulders and that of my mother's mother (who gave birth eight times) over the other. Those imperturbable, hard-as-nails Italian women, whose lives were studies in hardships and misery, yet they kept going forward. Always forward.

Someday I want to tell the Peanut their stories. How her Italian ancestors helped build New York, and how the Chinese immigrants, ancestors of her daddy's family, who worked their way from China all the way to Ohio and then back to California, built the train tracks that expanded across the whole country. How, without the rest of the world, there wouldn't be an America.


Misty said...

what a great ancestry! Truly!

Anonymous said...

this was a beautiful post- thank you for sharing. Lisa