So much of this was patience—waiting, and thinking, and doing things right. So much of all this, so much of all living was patience and thinking.” ~ Gary Paulsent
If you don’t mind, I want to tell you a true story. Some I have mentioned before, and some I have skirted around before, and some of it has remained hidden. That part wants out, and I’ll weave them all together in this citizenship adventure of mine.
All four of my grandparents came to the United States on ships sometime between 1905 and 1917. My Italian grandparents, Donato and Liberata, came through Ellis Island in 1905 and 1906 respectively, their marriage arranged by Grandma’s older brother, Pietro, who worked in the limestone quarry with Gramps in Columbus, Ohio. They were from the same village in the Abruzzo region of Italy, Pettorano sul Gizio, and a lot of the Pettoranese had settled on the west side of Columbus to work the quarries and fields. The story goes that Gramps complained that he had no prospects for marriage, and Zio Pietro thought his youngest sister would be a good wife for Gramps.
My paternal grandparents were apparently married when they arrived here, although I have no proof of that, nor do I have an idea when they arrived except that my father was born in 1917, so I assume they were here then. That said, there is no record of my father’s birth anywhere I’ve checked, although I do have a baptismal certificate for him from the Byzantine Catholic church they attended. My father always said that their last name, Lodyn, was not the real last name. According to him, the original name was too long, had few vowels, and was difficult to write and pronounce, so, as was practice at the time, someone gave them an American name—Lodyn.
Those grandparents—Peter and Marya—did not like my mother, brother, or me. Grandma in particular was cold, cruel, and callous. She snapped at my mother (“You too weak”), slapped my brother (“You trouble-maker”), and pretty much ignored me. Children don’t quite understand why grandparents, who are supposed to love and spoil them, do the opposite and, in fact, despise and reject them. It took me years to discover that the impetus behind that behavior was that our mother was Italian, so our blood was not pure, not 100% of whatever they were. Whatever they were. I don’t want to go into the entire “whatever they were” thing here because, in truth, it’s complicated. Suffice to say that the *one* document I found on either Peter or Mary was an alien draft form that stated he was born in the Galicia region of Austria, an area that, depending on the time of day, belonged to Austria, Poland, Russia, or some other nation.
I bring all of this up because people who know that both of my parents were not Italian wonder why I am so attached to Italy and Grams. You’ve probably discerned it by now, but the deep-deep-deep-seated reason is because the other side never shared anything about themselves. I—and I assure you my brother feels the same way—never felt part of them. We existed and shared the last name because of our father. Looking into that side is like looking into a blackboard instead of a mirror.
Grams was a beloved star in my life. Every Sunday, we (and the rest of the family) would go down to visit her, and every Tuesday, my father would pick her up and bring her to our house for the day. She (and my mother) taught me to make pasta, to fry chicken her way, to make sauce, and she tried to teach me to make bread. On that last one, she and Mom failed with me. Each of Gram’s daughters had a specialty, and my mother’s was baking. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite inherit the bread-baking gene from them. I think it comes down to the fact that baking bread requires a bit of waiting, of patience, and those aren’t words that are exactly prominent in my dictionary.
Through all of this, Grams told me stories about her life, about walking to “Sumone” (which I later discovered was “Sulmona”) to the market, about marrying my grandfather by proxy, about losing three children to disease and raising eight more, about waiting at the steel mill entrance on payday so she could get some money before Gramps drank it away, about missing the hills and valleys of Italy, about so much more. I loved…love… that woman so much, and her passing depressed me more than the deaths of my father (six months before) and his mother (one month before) combined. Not a day has gone by in the 40-some years since her passing that I have not thought of or talked to Grammy.
Fast-forward to 2009 when I was attending grad school at Murray State and needed to write something for a class. I remember pacing about our house in Nashville trying to come up with something I wanted to write. There was a staircase in the center of the house surrounded by the living room (left), dining room (right), and family room (behind). I walked the circle one way and another, walked up the stairs and down the stairs, sat on the stairs with the dogs, sat in the living room, pulled out old black and white photos, threw them on the dining room table, and shuffled through them.
I came about a photo of my beautiful grandmother sitting in the summer sun, sitting as she did when she talked to me—one arm on the armrest and one on the chair back. She was not looking at the camera, nor was she looking at me, but she was burning a hole in me with that gaze. I knew right then that I needed to write about her and her life and her struggles and her joys. I had no idea where to start, but I sat at the computer and pummeled the keys of my old Dell laptop, flooding the screen with words and memories until, two days later, I had written 20+pages.
And so it was the beginning of this journey. The more I wrote, the more obsessed I became. My grandmother, like millions of other immigrants, got on a boat and crossed the ocean to come to a strange place because she and they thought they would have a better life. And as their children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children became more and more American, the hardships and the heartaches my grandmother and so many others endured just plummeted into the recesses of our collective American memory.
I could not—will not—let that happen to my grandmother.