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.
Salvino had a relatively comfortable life, but the pension ended when he turned 45, and, anyway, he suspected that his relatives in America were living even better. Deciding to see for himself, he came to stay with Nonna in Queens. Her husband, my long-dead grandfather, had been a carpenter; Nonna was a seamstress with a knack for copying at steeply reduced prices the clothes she saw in magazines and on fact-finding expeditions to the big department stores in Manhattan, which she called “New York.” Salvino would wake up late, lie around for a while, eat a meal or two prepared for him by Nonna when he could get her away from her sewing machine, and then perhaps go for a walk to take the air and see the sights.
He had good food and drink, a woman to cook for him; life seemed pleasant. Because it was necessary in this barbarous country to at least appear to have a job, he put in a few easy hours now and then at a nearby gas station owned by a cousin, hanging about and shooting the breeze in Sicilian. But one day Nonna informed him he didn’t make enough at the gas station to pay his way, and if he wanted the bed and copious board to continue he would need a better job. Fortunately, she’d had the cousin with the gas station find him one, in a shmatte factory in the garment district.
Salvino went off for his first day of work in good spirits, but he came running back home to Nonna in the middle of day. Breathless and distraught, he managed to gasp out between sobs that he had not realized that one had to just stay there at the shmatte factory all the time, doing one thing after another. His fingers were pricked and sore, his back hurt, his shirt had been so badly wrinkled that he wasn’t sure Nonna would be able to make it presentable again no matter how diligently she ironed it. It was all more than a man who cultivated an extra-long pinkie fingernail could bear. Telling me the story as I sat at her table and ate her food, as Salvino had done before me and my grandfather, father, and uncle before Salvino, Nonna would put her gnarled fingers up to her face and trace the paths of Salvino’s tears with fluttering blood-red fingernails: “Piangendo, così” (Crying, like this).
When Nonna had calmed Salvino, no doubt with an espresso and a homemade S-cookie or two, she made a little speech: “In this country, you work. And that’s all.” Salvino went home to Sicily soon after. I see Nonna, rid of him at last, eating her solitary dinner at the table in the basement kitchen, the corners of her mouth turning down and her chin extending to indicate satisfaction as she contemplated her independence from the deadbeat relatives she left back in the Old Country.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’