Friday, December 30, 2016

A Happy Sound in the Grotto

Left: My grandfather and grandmother just prior to departing for Italy in 1973. Center: A stash of letters written by grandfather in 1946. Right: Blue Grotto.
My grandfather and grandmother just prior to departing for Italy in 1973.A stash of letters written by grandfather in 1946. Blue Grotto.

My grandfather sang in the Blue Grotto and he was extremely happy. Everyone applauded when he finished. The story has been with me since I was a kid. I wasn't there, but I can construct the details easily, part imagination and part borrowed imagery from a postcard my grandmother sent. Two dozen people in a boat, slowly being rowed through the cerulean water, and my grandfather stands and sings with the captain. The walls and roof of the immense cavern amplify his sweet baritone voice. People in other boats stop and listen, and are jealous that he isn't in their boat. That was in 1973.

Reading an old travel diary resurfaced this story and others about my grandfather. The diary, kept by my grandmother, describes their time in Italy, and the time they went to the Blue Grotto. My grandmother in her typical economical prose wrote: "Dad and the rower started singing and it was a happy sound in the Grotto. So very blue!"

~The diary~

My grandparents visited Switzerland and Italy in 1973, and Italy in 1979. My grandmother kept a diary of these trips in a small brown notebook that recently came into my possession. The diary took a convoluted path through our family to end up in my hands. After my grandmother's death, a family squabble ensued forming a rift between two sides. The diary was taken by an uncle on the side of the rift that I wasn't on. (Not that I chose a side, but in family matters, neutral is not an option.) Eventually, the rift closed, my uncle died, and the diary passed to my mother who gave it to me.

I give my grandmother credit for diligently keeping the diary during their long exhausting days of travel. I can imagine that she had a head full of impressions and ideas that she needed to empty into the diary, much like I've had with my time in Italy. Her diary entries provide a peek into what caught here attention, what fascinated her, and what annoyed her. For example, she:


  • Tracked the cost of things.
    • Pompeii: "We arrived at Pompeii. Took a Fiat limousine to Pompeii 4.000 lira (we knew we had been taken) but were too tired to do anything about it."
    • Venice: "We had a coffee each. (Couldn't believe it when it cost 1.200 Lira ea. $2.00 a cup!) That's when we decided to leave." [I can't help but love that she hightailed it out of Venice over the price of coffee.]
  • Pondered why women weren't shaving under their arms.
    • Rome: "An interesting note about Italian women. In the 6 years since we've here they've come a long way. Almost every girl, even women paint their nails, but for the life of me, I can't understand why they can't shave underarms. It's appalling to me. I've checked and observed, even the most fastidious + up to date modern Roman girl. Yet when she holds the strap on the bus, I can't believe it! "
  • Lamented how hard the bed was at a relative's house. After arriving there she wrote:
    • Ceprano: "Then, hit the sack and that's just what that bed is - one hi and one low mattress put together."
  • Noted food and customs.
    • Palermo: "All they do is eat, talk, laugh, eat again. Nice friendly people, but tiresome, repetitious and always ready to eat." [What's wrong with that Grams?]
    • Italy in general: "Good thing I brought Maxwell instant and Cremora. We can't stand their black coffee in the morning." [Grams: am I really related to you?]
    • Of Palermo on her second visit: "And of course the whole of Palermo has gone downhill. Now more than ever the people nave no scruples about throwing their garbage around. Everywhere one looks, there are piles of garbage in the streets. Their parks are dirty and dusty. Everyone eats and throws their remains on the grounds wherever they are. It's appalling to see how inconsiderate they are of cleanliness. Even with their dense population (they claim that's the reason for the messiness), it would seem if they were taught to observe clean habits, Palermo would indeed be a better place to live in, and visit."

The niggling, slightly cranky tone of her writing is my grandmother's "voice". I agree with on some points and disagree with her on others. Maybe she wrote these never expecting them to be published. Furthermore, I can't claim that my travel diaries rise to any better level.

When I spent time as a kid with my grandparents, I remember my grandmother more because she did most of the talking. Throughout the years, my grandmother send me cards and letters such that I remember her in words as much as I do in person. In those cards and letters, her tone was similar to the diary: full of chit-chat, sometimes slightly irritable, and with few mentions of my grandfather. The travel diary was interesting for its few glimpses into what my grandfather liked and when he was happy. To be honest, my grandmother wrote and talked more all those years because my grandfather was barely literate.

~~Like a sardine~~

The literacy of my grandfather wasn't something I thought about until along with the arrival of the diary there also came a small stash of letters. The letters were written by my grandfather and are the only thing I have ever seen written by him. In 1946, age 34, he had hernia surgery, and stayed in the hospital from August 30th to September 7th. The stash I received are the letters he wrote every day to my grandmother.

Upon reading the letters, I was struck by the child-like quality of his writing. He wrote English like I write and speak Italian: choppy, and not quite right. The letters reveal that he had a very limited understanding of how to write in English.

In the letters, my grandfather wrote about mostly how he wanted to be out of the hospital and how much he missed my grandmother. It's clear from the letters that the separation from my grandmother was very hard for him. My grandmother was able to come every few days to visit him. And in one visit, she brought some pasta that all the other patients said was the best they ever tasted – my grandfather recounts to her in one letter. In another letter, he tells my grandmother to keep her head high in some family squabble that is only obliquely referred to in the letter. He says: "They are all a bunch of no good Lous[es], they all stink, I believe it."

Two other interesting aspects of the letters are his terms of endearment and his fish analogies. His terms of endearment toward my grandmother and their two kids at the time are conveyed in very physical terms like "…my baby’s Joe-Marie are they fresh if they are just tell them I be home in a short while to beat them up with the strap." and "I could beat you to death, And Hug you to death I love you Deeply in my Heart."

Then there are the fish analogies. Perhaps my grandfather really resonated with the ocean. Perhaps he liked to eat fish and it was on his mind. Or, more likely, perhaps these were the few idiomatic expressions he knew how to use in English to express how he felt trapped in the hospital, in his bed, hopeless and far from home. His fish metaphors:


  • "I just feel like a dead fish I feel that I am in another world"
  • "I felt so blue when I look through the windows was a beautiful morning here I am in bed like a dead fish its 6 days honey"
  • "I felt like a herring in bed when you went home I did know what to do you look very pretty to me But don’t get Swell Head"
  • "My dear beautiful wife, Today is 7 day 3 more to go or 2 more or 1 more I feel fine but I am still blue Holiday pass and I am still in bed like a sardine."


My grandfather's parents were born in Sicily and my grandfather was born in Brooklyn. He lived the first third of his life surrounded by other Italians, speaking Italian. He probably didn't finish high school explaining why he wrote at a basic level. As I remember it, his spoken English was basic, but serviceable. As a kid, I didn't judge language abilities as I might today as an adult.

The diary. Left: Cover. Center: Page listing family met. Right: Last page and overview of the trip.
My grandmother's travel diaryMy grandmother's travel diaryMy grandmother's travel diary

~~~A pipe for Dad~~~

In the travel diary of 1973 my grandfather, Sal, is also referred to as "Dad". He is alluded only a few times, all positive. His life was always filtered through my grandmother's actions and words in her role as the main bread-winner, decision-maker, and spokesperson of the family.

A typical entry in the diary about my grandfather can be boiled down to this: "Sal was happy". His happiness was in simple things: touching the tomb of a saint in Padova, seeing the holy reliquaries in Orvieto, or sleeping with church bells. (My grandmother couldn't sleep at all in Orvieto because of the bells, but my grandfather slept soundly and peacefully.)

Excerpts from the diary include:

  • Padua, at St. Anthony Chapel
    • "Then we walked around and saw and touched the tomb of the Saint. This made Dad very happy."
  • Bologna
    • "We had coffee, bought cards and pipe for Dad." [He loved his pipes.]
  • Florence
    • "We stopped to eat. Dad had tripe and mussels, ugh!!" [Go Gramps!]
  • Orvieto
    • "Then we went back to hotel. I washed some things and wrote cards. But then try to sleep. The bells ring every 15 min! And they are right next door. Sal doesn't mind. He loves bells."
    • "Famous for its of relics of the "Miracle of Bolsena". We happened to be right there in the little side chapel when they had their yearly showing of the 'cloth' and we went up the ladder to see it and I took a picture! Sal very happy to have been here at just this time!"
  • Capri, Blue Grotto
    • "it was a happy sound in the grotto."

My grandparents visited the Blue Grotto in 1973 as part of their first of their two trips. In that trip, they drove from Zurich to Rome stopping at Bergamo, Padova, Bologna, Florence, and Orvieto. Their itinerary seemed to be on-the-fly, something I could never do, but maybe should try. They had places they wanted to end up, but seemed content to stop here or there, or just as easily, leave a place if it didn't appeal to them. After dropping their rental car off in Rome, they continued further south eventually ending in Palermo. In the southern segment of their trip, they took public transportation, of which my Grandmother kept detailed notes of prices and quality of service, and more importantly, vented when she felt they got ripped off.

My grandmother's family was from outside of Rome, Ceprano. My grandfather's family was from Palermo. Ceprano had the sack-of-a-bed. Palermo had the eat-talk-laugh-eat-again people. Oh, to have been able to travel with them! My grandmother with her impossibly large handbags filled everything plus a sandwich or two, her constantly sore feet, and her shrieks of "Oh, Sal!"

~~~~Parlare~~~~

Both of my grandparents spoke Italian and my grandmother could write it. I learned to speak Italian and be able to distinguish dialects long after they died. Their "Italian" voices are too faint in my head to be sure, but based on their family histories, my grandmother likely spoke like someone who grew up familiar with the Romanesco dialect and my grandfather with a cross between the Neapolitan and Sicilian languages.

As a kid at Sunday dinner at my grandparent's house - naturally at the kid's table in the kitchen, separate from the adults - my grandfather would come in and make sure we all had our coca cola with a touch of wine added. As he poured he would mutter phrases of endearment or scolding. His phrases pop into my mind every now and then, teasing me, daring me to decipher them. Once in a while, one of his phrases does map to something I've heard in Italian. For example, his term of endearment: scungillo or scunciglio or sconciglio I believe maps to a common name for whelk (cf: ref and ref). Or maybe, he could have been saying scugnizzo - street urchin, which would make more sense in how he used it.

~~~~~The Blue Grotto~~~~~

I was 8 when my grandparents went to Italy for the first time in 1973. They were first-generation Italian Americans from New York, and the trip was very important for them and the family they visited. We received postcards ever few days, including one of the Blue Grotto. The postcards were dispatches from the unknown for me.

My grandmother was always good about sending postcards. In fact, in 1973, the night after arriving in Zurich she wrote in her diary: "Wrote a few cards (we bought cards and stamps at airport)." Now that's efficient. Having just landed and bought postcards is not something I would ever do.

The postcards my grandmother sent were addressed to the whole family, but they always ended up with me. I hogged them and poured over them, looking for revealing details about their trip. I saved those cards for 30 years. One postcard from the 1973 trip was of a big St. Bernard dog on an impossibly steep mountain slope. The dog stared out from a field of yellow and red flowers. It was somewhere in Switzerland and I can still see that dog's blank face. I guess my love of travel started with those postcards and I owe many thanks to my grandmother for sending them.

On the other hand, I am a little peeved at my grandmother for the lack of interesting details about my grandfather and the Blue Grotto. They visited the Blue Grotto on a day trip from Naples and there is a lot of information about how they came and went and who they met, like this passage: "We got up early, breakfasted downstairs in restaurant. There we met a mother and daughter, Mary Ann and Donna, from Hollywood, Calif. We talked them into the tour of Capri with us and off we went." While I'm sure Mary Ann and Donna from Hollywood were nice, I'd love to know more about the Blue Grotto and my grandfather. What song did he sing? How long did he sing? Did people ask for his autograph? What did my grandfather feel like later that day? Did he talk about the experience? Did he want to return to the grotto?

Instead, my grandmother wrote only this: "Then we were rowed back to the other boat and then shore. There a canopied mini bus awaited and we were brought up to Ana Capri."

~~~~~~Memory diary~~~~~~

My grandfather lived his life in the shadow of my grandmother. She dominated their relationship, out of character and necessity. The hospital letters left me with the impression of my grandfather as a child-man. And in some ways he was. The travel diary left me with the impression of my grandfather as a secondary character in a play, a character that never gets fleshed out fully. Singing in the grotto was his brief scene. Who that man was singing in the grotto and why was he so happy? The playwright leaves us hanging.

I spent many summers with my grandparents. With my grandfather, it was mostly time together without words. We just did things. Maybe I need to judge him on his actions and be happy with that. So what if he didn't write well or much.

Thinking about our wordless time together, I can recover many things about my grandfather. He loved: wine - he was always sneaking it; pipes - I remember the wonderful tobacco smell; gardening - I remember helping him and enjoying it; going to church - boy did he nag me every Sunday morning to go with him. My grandfather didn't like pasta or conflicts. He wanted everyone to get along. He liked playing the lottery (he won $10,000 once) and he never had more than 2 or 3 dollars in his wallet. All facets of my grandfather locked in my internal travel diary called memory.

I remember his thick white hair, his smell, and the way he smiled. I remember his murmur: it was sort of cross between a low hum and rattle. He did it when driving, gardening, and when tending the fire on cold winter nights. I remember it well because I would sleep on the sofa near the fireplace. He moved slowly in the dark with only the glow of the fireplace for light, in pajamas and slippers, murmuring. He would tend the fire and then head back to bed. Sometimes, my grandmother, would kick him out of bed for snoring and he'd end up on the couch with me, his feet in my face. I remember those feet.

2 comments:

  1. So, I'm on the verge of kicking Scott out of bed for snoring too. I guess kicking spouses out of bed runs in the family! This was a very nice read. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete