Justin Cascio reflects on his Sicilian heritage and how it has changed through the generations.
My grandmother, not my mother, was my model of ferocious love. Before my sister was born, my parents and I lived with them, my father’s parents, for six months. I would wake up very early in their house and wait on the staircase for my grandfather to wake and come out to the common area of the house. He would feed me the same snack cakes he ate for breakfast, and I would tell him not to forget his lunch, repeating things I’d heard my grandmother tell him, though I cannot remember hearing them, now.
My grandfather was a professional musician who led a band, gave lessons, fixed cars, and worked in factories. The stories I heard about my grandfather often involved punching someone, or a practical joke. There is a story about a recruiter coming to visit my grandfather when he was still a young man living at home. My great-grandfather was expecting the representative from Juilliard, but the boxing coach showed up, instead. When my great-grandfather realized his error, he threw the man out of his house.
It goes without saying that my grandfather graduated from Juilliard, not the boxing academy. But he taught all of his sons how to fight, and my father did the same with me. My grandfather taught me to play the organ and gave me lessons for years on Sundays, when we came for dinner. He was the kind of teacher I still respond to: careful, thorough, strict.
My sister likes to pretend we’re related to Vito Cascioferro, who is credited with bringing the Mafia to the United States. We add the similarity of our names to a list of clues—suspicions, really, that we’ve gathered over the years. On my father’s father’s side of the family, we are from Corleone, Sicily. In Puzo’s books, the Godfather, Don Vito, is from the same village. As a boy, he’s forced to flee the Mafia in Sicily, and at Ellis Island, takes the name of his village.
Among the older family members in my grandparents’ house on a given Sunday, there was a certain tension that would rise when the jokes about the Mafia went on for too long. My youngest uncle could start to goad his father, and our father would trot out the same joke each time, about an Uncle Fegucce who carries a violin case, yet does not play an instrument.
We are enough generations removed from Corleone that we speak no more Italian than any other person born and raised on Long Island. My grandparents used to argue in Italian, so I learned that this was a step in assimilation: first there would be a generation who reserved their mother tongue for themselves, for arguing and secrets. Then there would be the generation who flunks Italian in high school. I envied my friends who spoke Spanish at home as well as English; I would have to practice for years to make myself understood in another idiom.
My father says that he flunked because Sicily is full of dialects. Then there is the generational drift, of which I’m uncertain how many there are to account for, on either side of this fork of the family tree. When my grandparents traveled back to Corleone to visit relatives, my aunt and uncles tell me, no one could understand a word of my grandmother’s Italian. And my father and his siblings all agreed, when their parents were fighting, they were the only two speakers of their particular dialect.
My grandparents were born in New York City, fell hard in love as teenagers and married in secrecy. My grandmother wanted children, and kept having them even after doctors told her to stop. Their last apartment in Queens was where my father was born, and my grandmother’s city friends sometimes came out to their house on Long Island to visit. She drank and smoked, though she was diabetic and suffered from ulcers. My grandmother laughed a tremendous loud cackle, was a shrewd gambler who could count a deck, and smoked Benson & Hedges in the gold box. She was vain: even when I was a child, she owned wigs to cover her thinning hair, and she and grandpa always drove a Cadillac.
My grandmother had a way of buttonholing any one of us, pulling us aside, and presenting a rolled wad of bills while demanding an oath of silence: do not tell your little sister, do not tell your cousins, how much money I gave you. My first lessons in omertà, I could say, but that’s a joke. We are thorough Americans, claiming our diaspora heritage when it makes us feel good to do so. We aren’t criminals, but Cosa Nostra was our thing: sure. It’s fun to watch your guys beat up the other guys. Nobody watches The Godfather and roots for the cops, for heaven’s sake.
When my grandfather died of cancer of the brain and lung, I was ten years old. My grandmother nearly followed him in her grief: she had two heart attacks, that year, and spent a long time in intensive care, where children were not allowed to visit. My sister and I spent many afternoons in the hospital cafe where my grandmother hovered between life and death, eating French fries bought with the guilt money our parents pressed into our hands as they left us in the lobby with commands to do our homework and be good.
When I talk to someone from somewhere I used to live, I can’t help but pick up the accent again. Lawn Guyland. You guys. After my grandmother’s health stabilized, my parents and sister and I moved again, to Florida, where we knew no one. Broke and at loose ends, the four of us began watching dollar movies on Saturday nights, traveling to the shopping plaza that housed both the second-run theater and a Wal-mart, stuffing our bags with contraband from the latter and smuggling it in for the show. Soon after our arrival, we saw My Cousin Vinny, a comedy in which a couple of Italian-American Yankees get framed for murder in a small Southern town, and one’s cousin, a lawyer, is called to help. From the opening credits, we began to laugh at ourselves and our situation—we felt like we’d passed that sign for “FREE DIRT” already—and by the time Vinny’s girlfriend is stamping her foot to the metronome of her fertility, we were all crying with laughter and homesickness. Those were my people, and now we knew what it looked like when we came to town, with our uncertain race, long, deep vowels, our ignorance of grits and common racism.
I moved back up north by myself in my mid-twenties, having no more reasons to endure our exile. Now I live a few hours’ drive from where I was born. Just this week, a friend from Long Island was here visiting, and we began trading ferocious mother stories about ourselves. She told one where she moved to a new town and some well-meaning neighbor drove her child home after tennis practice. A difference of opinion, perhaps, on who is a friend, what is a neighborly favor, and what is likely to make a mother dial 911. When it was determined where the child was and that she was safe, the cops wisely accompanied my friend to retrieve her daughter. They had to catch her in mid-air as she leapt at her neighbor’s throat.
In telling the story, she had used some Italian word I hadn’t heard in decades, one I can’t spell because I’m a generation removed from even being able to fail at Italian, and it sent my mind spinning back to older stories, and this one in particular, which my grandmother told me long ago. Like all of her stories, it attained mythic proportions in my head. This became my protective myth, assuring me that I was watched over by a fierce and loving force, stronger than any bully or threat.
Her story took place in my father’s childhood in Astoria. My grandmother had been driving around a shopping mall parking lot, looking for a space, and had finally spotted one close to an entrance. She signalled, and as she prepared to turn her enormous coupe, another driver, young and sporty, whipped into the space, flipping her off as he did so. My grandmother was furious, but her mind was honed not simply for rage, but revenge. She drove past, circled, and when the driver was walking across the lot to the store, my grandmother rolled through and doored that man flat onto his back.
With him still pinned to the pavement beneath the open car door, my grandmother leaned down and told him the warning that still rings in my ears, in my grandmother’s cracked, loud voice: “Your MOTHER, you do that to. BUT NOT TO ME!”
Photo credit: pwbaker/Flickr