Sunday, October 27, 2013
I've never spoken or understood Italian. But I think I know why it makes me cry.
I was walking Isis around Lion's Park tonight when I heard music coming from the park's shelter. I stopped and listened, and what I heard was church. A church service of some kind, and it was in Spanish.
Isis was distracted by something in the grass, so we were able to stop for a bit. And as listened, something began taking me back.
Except for two years of fumbling though it in high school, I don't speak Spanish; I probably picked up more watching Sesame Street with my kids than I ever retained through class. So it makes little sense that it took me back, but it did; warmth washed over me, and I felt myself tearing up a little.
And then I realized that the feeling came from somewhere far, far back, and that the sounds I was hearing, while not an exact match, were so very close to sounds I used to hear when I was little. And even though I'd be hard-pressed to identify any of the words, they reminded me of words my grandmother and aunt and other family members used to exchange.
I can't speak it, and I can't understand it. But I was remembering Italian.
My sister, who can get by in both languages, has always told me Italian and Spanish resemble one another; like many languages, both have Latin roots, and the word and sentence structures are much the same as well. And she'd know; when she was a little girl and our dad was serving in World War II, she and our mother lived with our mother's parents in the heart of Little Italy on Des Moines' southeast side, and when my sister was old enough to begin speaking, she was bilingual.
Although my grandparents could speak English, when they were home, they preferred the language they had spoken until they had come to this country as young adults. I don't remember my Grandpa Jim, who died when I was 3, but my Nana lived until I was 20 and was a big part of my life. And I don't think she ever spoke an entire sentence to me in English.
I don't remember my mom, either, but my sister tells me when Mom and Nana spoke to one another, especially on the phone, they spoke Italian. I do remember my mom's sister, my Aunt Mary (or Aunt Mim, as we called her) speaking to her mother in Italian; my grandmother was Mama, not Mom, and the conversations I remember were ones that implored "Mama" to do something, or to stop doing something. A lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking on the part of my aunt would follow those conversations.
My little-girl self followed all that dialogue as if following a tennis match; my head would turn to each as she spoke, and I can recall the drama, always the drama, behind those words I didn't understand. My dad and my grandmother spoke Italian to one another as well, and from the little I was told, the words that were exchanged were never exactly flattering. I'd ask Dad what he'd said, and the response was always the same:
"You don't need to know. That woman ... [insert more Italian here]. But you know -- one thing I've gotta say, she sure as hell can cook."
The more sedate part of my family also spoke Italian, but with perhaps a little less passion. When my sister married and she and her husband, Jon, set about raising me, I inherited Jon's family, including his grandparents, Johnny and Lizzie Renda, also known as Papa and Nana (yep, another Nana). They were dear, sweet, gentle people who also had grown up in Italy, and their native tongue was their chosen one inside their home. I think of them and I think of M&Ms and Pepsi and Chinese checkers, and of conversational Italian going back and forth when the adults were speaking of things the kids didn't need to hear.
It's pretty easy to understand why I never learned Italian; my mom and two grandfathers died within a year of one another, and a few years later brought the deaths of my aunt and uncle on my dad's side, and Papa Renda; everyone had more to be concerned with than why little Lisa, who didn't really need to speak Italian, didn't know how.
And there was more: In many immigrant families, there's a desire to assimilate, and my family was no exception. As the oldest generation died, no one saw the need for our family to appear anything but American. So as people passed away, the language, for all intents and purposes, died with them.
This feeling I had tonight, though, made me wonder just how much a part of me this language is. Although I can neither speak nor understand it, I wonder if my subconscious reacts to it; did I hear it in utero, when my mother spoke with her mother? Did anyone -- my Nana, my aunt -- speak or sing to me in Italian when I was a baby? My reactions when I hear Italian remind me of the way Isis perks her ears when she hears a name or word whose sound and cadence she recognizes; she can't define it, but it holds meaning for her.
I wanted to stay and listen tonight, but I felt that I was intruding somehow, and before too long, other sounds pulled Isis away, and I had to follow. I wonder, though, if this happens every Sunday night -- this church, and the singing, and the strange-but-not-so-strange language. Isis and I usually walk earlier in the day, but something tells me on Sundays, we may have to hit the park a little later.