Both of my parents were first-generation Americans and when I was growing up they often sprinkled their speech with Italian words and expressions that hit the nail on the head for them much better than any English translation could. Their words were like background music in my life—heard, but not quite listened to, imperceptibly seeping into my soul. During my teenage years, when it seemed I was constantly running out of the house with this friend or that friend, to this dance or that party, my mother used to teasingly call me zingara, gypsy.
“Hey, zingara, don’t forget to come home sometime!” she’d call after me as I bolted out the door, propelled by the full urgency of adolescence. “Remember you have a mother and a father!”
My routine response was to wave her words away with a flip of my hand and leave them floating on the wind behind me as I once again disappeared out of her sight. Because, teenager. And teenagers think their parents will always be there, waiting for them.
After high school, life zoomed by at a frantic pace. College, jobs, starting a family of my own and several cross-country moves all took me far from my parents’ home and far out of earshot of my mother’s words. Before I knew it, more than twenty years had passed and I found myself unexpectedly staring my parents’ mortality in the face. My father was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in March 2002 and gone by mid-May. Soon after, my grief-stricken mother fell into a semi-comatose state from which the doctors said she might never recover.
I was devastated, feeling altogether unprepared to face life without my parents waiting in the wings. Life was forcing me to shoulder adulthood in a way I’d never done before and I didn’t know if I were up to the task. As a sort of a cherry on the top of my crumbling life, a few weeks later my husband of 23 years announced that he had secretly lost every penny of our money on an ill-conceived business venture and was leaving me to move in with his stripper girlfriend and her five children.
I felt as if a bomb had been dropped on my world, reducing everything I held dear to rubble. I wandered shell-shocked through the days that followed, sorting through the ashes for anything of value that remained. One afternoon I sat sobbing at mother’s hospital bedside, begging her not to leave us. I began recounting to her stories from my growing-up years, hoping my words would register with her at some level and pull her back to this world.
“Remember how you used to call me zingara? I asked, misty-eyed. “I know you think I wasn’t paying attention or that I was embarrassed, but I remember all those words, and my heritage is the core of who I am. I am so grateful to you and daddy for keeping it alive for me until I was old enough to appreciate it and own it.”
Moving in close to my mother, I whispered my deepest fear. “But, how will I ever find someone to trust again? Someone who understands the whole of who I am, the zingara in me. Will the right one ever come along?”
My mother just lay silent and still, so I wiped my tears and gathered my things to leave. It was time for me to teach my evening adult ESL class. Teaching during this tumultuous period of my life was my salvation. For six hours a day, my mind was occupied with matters other than my own troubles. That particular evening, my class was learning vocabulary about hair styles, and I told them about the stylist who once used the wrong color on my hair, turning it jet black instead of medium brown. It was a horrendous look on me, draining every hint of color from my face and leaving me looking like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
“So,” I explained to the class, laughing, “I put on lots of make-up and wore big earrings to take the focus off my hair, but that was even worse. I ending up looking like a, like a…”
“Zingara,” the Colombian man in the second row called out, finishing my sentence.
My jaw fell. “What did you say?” I asked, stunned. Surely, I had misheard, I thought.
“Una zingara,” he repeated, laughing good-naturedly. “It’s Italian for gypsy. Your family is Italian and you don’t know this word?” he teased.
It was as if a jolt of electricity shot through me. My cheeks flushed and my knees weakened. I felt a wave of emotion rising up from the depths of my soul, and my breath caught in my throat.
“Yes, yes, I know the word,” I stuttered. “But how do you know it?”
He explained that he’d spent time in Italy and had picked up a bit of the language. So there was a perfectly logical, down-to-earth explanation, but it felt like anything but down-to-earth to me. It felt like some kind of cosmic connection, a message from the heavenliest place.
I was so shaken that it was hard for me to concentrate the rest of the class. Finally, class ended and all the students left. I was making some final notes when the Colombian guy stuck his head back in the room and said, “Hey, zingara, ciao!”
Startled, I let out a small gasp. “Oh, it’s you. Ciao,” I replied, but he was already gone. I just sat staring into space, trying to determine the meaning of such a strange coincidence, until the janitor kicked me out.
That night was fourteen years ago and I still feel sparks of electricity when I think about it because it so happens that the zingara married the Italian-speaking Colombian four years later. And we just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary with a trip to—where else?—Italy. Grazie, Mom, and Dad, I got the message, loud and clear.
Originally published on The Huffington Post