Giovanni & Giuseppina
The names of my grandparents. Their given names when they were born in Sicily. Americanized, John and Josephine. I am my grandmother’s namesake. They came on boats through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, prior to being married. They arrived separately with their parents and siblings, but apparently the wedding had already been planned. My grandfather and his family arrived first and made their way to California by train. They settled in an Italian neighborhood in the East Bay. Pittsburg, California, to be exact. It was a bustling era with Italian immigrants arriving daily. My grandfather said it was impossible to know the exact day that my grandmother would be arriving so he would go down to the station to meet the train every day for weeks. He said if he wasn’t there when she arrived, another man would have stolen her. I have no idea if that was true, but it made for a good story.
My grandfather comes from a long line of fisherman. They chose the San Francisco Bay Area because of the fishing and Pittsburg had a river port. It was good back then. They fished the waters all around the Bay Area, Monterey Bay and Alaska. My grandfather supported his wife and eight children this way. My father was the youngest of those eight. The memories of my grandparents are some the sweetest I have as a child. We didn’t live far and family was very important. We were at their house almost every weekend. My grandparents never learned to speak English. They didn’t need to. If you walked around their neighborhood, everyone was Italian, especially as my father was growing up. All the neighbors were from Italy, including shopkeepers and business owners. My father translated for us. I wish he had only spoken Italian to me growing up, but they just didn’t do that back then.
There were two words that my grandmother spoke in English to me every time she saw me and those were, “too skinny,” and that would be followed by, “mangia, mangia,” and then food would be handed to me. Always food. Always good food. I learned to love figs, sour green apples and loquats at a very young age because those trees were in their garden. My grandmother canned fruit and vegetables and the jars were on shelves in my grandfather’s shed. I loved to go piddle around in the shed. It was immaculate and my grandfather had pictures of beautiful women from magazines plastered all over the walls. I would ask my dad, “Why does Nonno have those ladies on the walls?” He would laugh and say, “He likes the ladies.”
My grandfather always gave me and my brother dollar bills when we visited. Usually one or two dollars, but occasionally a five. I remember my mother always saying, “No, Papa,” but he would ignore her.
To be continued…