For reasons that have to do with my family’s immigrant history, the Fourth of July always reminds of my Sicilian grandmother, my Nonna. I used to sit at the table in the basement kitchen of her house in Queens, eating seconds and thirds of her pasta and sausage while the neighborhood cats looked down at us through the windows set high in the wall, checking on whether there would be leftovers. She would cut spaghetti into cat-size bites before putting it out for them in their own chipped bowl.
While I ate, she would tell stories. One was about a cousin — let’s call him Salvino — who received payments from the government of Italy because his father, a policeman in the family’s Sicilian hometown, had been killed in the line of duty during the war. This death was less glorious than it might sound. While the Allied navy was shelling the town, Salvino’s father had taken it into his head to leave the shelter of the hills, where everybody with any sense was lying low out of harm’s way, and report for duty in town, where he had been blasted into eternity. I picture him storming off down the dusty road to meet his doom wearing his sash of office.