I am the grandchild of Italian immigrants, the daughter of a truck driver, the sister to two brothers: a retired high school teacher and a professional wood worker.
I grew up with an extended family. My grandmother, who lived with us, spoke little English and could not read or write--English or Italian. She came to the United States when she was just 12. She wanted to learn so, sneaking off to night school, she would sit outside the door of an English Language classroom, crocheting and listening to the lessons going on inside. She was hoping to learn something, anything.
But, soon enough, her father, my great-grandfather, caught her and he beat her. He did not believe in education for women. Until the day she died--at 82--she could not read or write except for her name. As a young girl, I used to see that long thin scar on her head. She never spoke about it. She never complained. Every day she would stand at the picture window in my mother's living room. Her eyes would scan the street. Her arms folded in front of her as if she knew she had to protect something, someone from a harm which she could not yet see. Her loneliness seemed like something I could actually touch. And I knew, even at a young age, the voices I had encountered in my own reading--those writers who comforted me--would not ever speak to her.
My mother and aunts were young they had to leave school and go to work. It was the depression. It was a hard time. Then, just after Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father left high school to join the Navy. He served on a ship for the duration of the war. His rank was that of Boatswain's Mate--which I am told is like being Sergeant.
My aunts --my mother's three sisters--she was the baby of the group--were like second mothers to me.
Two of my cousins lived just three blocks away from us. They came to our house--or I went to theirs--just about every day. My aunt, the oldest sister, was an executive secretary in an airplane manufacturing plant. She knew the value of education because, as a young working woman, she watched how the "Americans" lived. I credit her insistence that "No one is better than us." as one of the fundamental reasons as to why our family has had so many successes. Growing up, she repeatedly told us to "Beat'em with Your Brains." And it was because we took her admonition seriously that we-- the grandchildren of immigrants and children of the working class-- have college degrees today. In our family, we have teachers, engineers, lawyers, business owners etc. etc. We have our share of advanced degrees. We have our share of artisans. We have more than our share of extraordinary.
And I was always glad that as an adult I got to say thank-you to my aunt for pushing us. I am so grateful she told me to "Stand up straight. Have pride. Work Hard. And stop all that crying!"
Her husband, my uncle, was born on a famous man's birthday so we called him by that name instead of his given name. My uncle was a longshoreman. He was also the biggest man I have ever seen in my life. He must have been over 6 foot something. He also loved to cook and made the most delicate homemade breads and sesame seed rolls--the best I have ever tasted. And so I grew up thinking that's what men do--they are big and powerful and they cook and they bake. They love and they protect. It all seemed simple enough.
My cousins, their daughters, were among my first friends and teachers even though they were 5 and 6 years older than me. They had tea parties with me, cast me in the plays they put on in the backyard using the branches of their Weeping Willow tree as a stage curtain, took me for walks where we gathered blueberries growing in the "forest," showed me where and why wild ferns grow, buried me under piles and piles of dead leaves in autumn, played batminton with me in the summer, made snow men with me in the winter, anointed me with Italian bread on St. Patrick's day to make me "officially Irish." They taught me my A-B-C's. They listen to me as I struggled to read.
I have other cousins and aunts and uncles I love as much as I love these two. And then, of course, my parents who lives were the stuff of great literature and who were as devoted to creating a life centered in wisdom as they were to making a life founded on love. Then, of course, there is my older brother who taught me how to think-- how to love poetry. But all this is something I have to write about at a later date.
Below is part of a letter I sent this past Christmas to one of these cousins. I don't think she will mind my sharing part of it with you. It is inadequate in so many ways....but perhaps you will begin to see how fortunate I have been.
I hope you know—despite time and distance that separated us—I love you. And that you were so important to me growing up—indeed shaped so much of who I am now. I am a writer, in part, because of you. I read my first poem in your upstairs bedroom, lying on the floor one rainy February. It was Poe’s "Annabelle Lee"….you told me it was “true” story—about Poe’s cousin etc. I know I cried but I don’t think I let you see that. Then, when you were in 8th grade—which would make me about 8--you wrote a story about a boy reaching for an apple. I thought it was a great story though you said it was not…but then you told me you wanted to be a writer and I thought to myself—“This is possible? Maybe I will be a writer too."
You played with me, you taught me, you loved me….thank you. From me then, from me now to you then,
to you now-- thank you.
Just thought I would tell you in case you didn't know.