In May 2011, I read one of the most powerful books on southern Italy that I have ever read. Carlo Levi’s CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI is the account of his year-long exile in the most rural of rural Basilicata. Levi’s autobiographical work touched me in so many ways. The most significant was the description of every day life in the 1930s. Prior to reading CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI, I had no idea of what life was like in 1913, the year my nonni got married in the little church of the Rosario in Miglierina.
My memories of my nonno, already old when I knew him, were of him sitting on the back porch, his impeccably arrayed garden within view, soft breezes blowing through the screened windows. Cesare Sacco was 70 years old when I was 8. My nonna had already died in 1952, three months after my birth. My father would bring me to visit my nonno and his new wife Grandma Lucy right after Mass. Like clockwork my nonno would greet me with his gravelly voice and scrape my tender cheeks with his traditional abbraccio. Cesare Sacco had no need to shave daily, so he didn’t. My scraped face was evidence of his new grooming habits. Inevitable, the dog would bark, jealous of the attention, silenced only after cursing at the dog in calabrese dialect.
I never wanted to be there with him despite my love for him because an 8 year old prefers playing with his friends, or in my case, with my cousins. Cesare Sacco showed no irritation at this. Throughout his last years, he attended every major event in my life until I left for college. He posed for pictures next to me, first in my military school uniform and then my high school graduation gown.
When we moved to my nonno’s living room, the furniture seemed always to be covered in plastic. I sat there impatiently but listened intently (as was my way then and now) to the conversation between my father and my grandfather. Cesare spoke slowly code switching between Italian and English. By this time, he had given up his Italian citizenship and had, miraculously passed his test to become an American citizen. They discussed politics, business, and a myriad of other topics. Cesare spook slowly and measuredly, coughing up a lung at every other paragraph. My father treated him with deference, like Jacob with his father Isaac in Genesis. Despite his struggles speaking, my nonno generated laughter with quips, voice imitations–all samples of biting humor.
Cesare Sacco was an example of a southern Italian, immersed in poverty as a young man, who came to America and succeeded financially. He defeated the barons in Calabria, the Turks in Libya, and the Great Depression in America. His work ethic, but even more, his cleverness, afforded him a middle class life that his paisani back in Miglierina marveled at.
I learned Italian from scratch for him and now teach Italian at the university because of him. It’s my gift to the man who tolerated my indifference when I was a young boy.
In heaven, I know he will correct my grammar and tell me stories of the old country that I wouldn’t have appreciated as a boy.