My husband is a 3rd generation American. His great-grandfather emigrated to America after World War 1 and started building a family here rather than in the old country. He never spoke English, as far as I’ve ever been told.
Non parlo italiano.
My husband’s grandfather was well-advanced into Alzheimer’s fog when I met him. He would stare at me across the dining table, trying to place my face, not remembering that we had only recently me. I’m sure he thought I was one of his grand-daughters come to visit, but didn’t know which one. He would murmur into his wife’s ear, unheard across the table, the noise disappearing into the shouting and overall clamor that accompanies a family of 10, the stereotypical ear-splitting Italian family meal rising in volume with every course. I could always hear her reply, giving him my name and relationship. Wife of, daughter in law, not granddaughter.
His decline was steep, but not precipitous. It was a few years before he was institutionalized, after which I didn’t see him again until just before he died. His regression was unsurprising; as his condition worsened, he lost his English, his second language. He would speak to my father-in-law in Italian, the former barely understanding much of what was being said, the latter forgetting his words as soon as they passed his lips. He passed while I was six months pregnant, never meeting his great-grandson.
What little Italian my father-in-law remembered from his childhood has pretty much drifted away with no one to speak to. His brothers who do speak a little live far away, and the family here shows no interest or inclination to pick it up. My husband and his siblings know some pidgin phrases and chirp little snippets of Italian at each other, but it’s rote memorization rather than true understanding. I wonder sometimes if they even know what they are saying, but to suggest the words have any meaning other than what they know is blasphemy. This is what grandfather said to them, and thus it is forever.
My mother in law took a cruise through the Mediterranean several years ago, dropping in on multiple cities through the peninsula. She sent us postcards back home, little drops of sunlight and summer warmth mirroring her experience. She brought home rosaries blessed in Rome and tales of being serenaded by swarthy young men (cynically wondering if they were paid to do so by the tour company). But she was a traveler, a guest in that country, not a returning child, not a native grown rusty with disuse of the mother tongue.
I watch the genealogy shows on television, famous personalities and everyday people tracking back their ancestors and original homelands. For as little as I know about my husband’s lineage, I know less about my own. American mutts, my father once told me. Your cousin put together a family tree in high school, maybe you should ask her? I remember my mother going to the library when I was young – maybe middle school, myself. We walked up the front stairs, the street entrance we never used, parking instead in the back lot where she didn’t have to worry about us getting into traffic. The second floor was the genealogy room, filled with local histories and microfilm and thick books tracing back the town’s founding fathers. I think she was looking up her own family tree, spurred on by my cousin’s investigations into my paternal tree. We’ve never discussed it since I became an adult – it’s not something she works on these days, and there is always something more pressing at hand than meandering conversation about where I come from. Her personal history I know more of – she speaks sometimes of the alcoholism and associated uprootedness that plagued her childhood, a warning to me about what runs in my blood more than a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Addiction is a shadow that passes over my mother’s family, a demon to be wary of, and I heed those warnings well.
I worry that my children won’t know their family story, much as I don’t know mine. My husband’s tale is still fresh, many bodies walking the earth that know bits and pieces of how their family came to be what it is. But how many will be left by the time my children, or their children start asking questions? Will I be able to answer, or to point them to people who have the stories still? This age of electronic knowledge sometimes feels like a blessing – the internet can put us in touch with long-lost relatives at the touch of a keyboard – and sometimes a curse – we have nothing, we hold nothing, we can touch nothing that physically connects us to those forgotten names. No letters, no certificates, no embroidery or paintings or poems. They are gone, detritus in the river of time. But how do I write that story, when I can barely write my own? Life life, or record it? Which is more important?