“Ralph, come back in here!” my Nonna yelled into the kitchen. “We’ll stop talking about this, just come back in here.”
My dad stayed put. Quietly washing dishes and carefully avoiding the nuclear warhead that was our family dinner conversation, he had removed himself from the equation entirely. I wished I had thought of it first. Instead I had to sit there, blood boiling as we discussed the Zimmerman trial across pasta in fresh tomato sauce, boiled vegetables, and a few too many glasses of wine. The generational divide stark, as my cousins and I built up our wall of logic and peered over at our Italian grandparents.
I knew this would happen. Every time we visit this side of the family it ends in a discussion of either politics or religion that we all wish it hadn’t. This is why I turned out so stubborn, I thought, as I listened to the cacophony of voices echoing off the thick walls of the dining room. That’s what I get from my Nonno and Nonna.
My youngest cousin raised a point that brought the whole dining room to a roar, fingers pointing accusingly across the table, my sister slid into her chair and quietly raised her hand, waiting her turn to speak–it had devolved to that.
Just the night before we had such a pleasant dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant called, Terra Nostra (“our dirt” by my dad’s translation). At least, the restaurant was quiet until we came in. But instead of the violent clashes of logic and passion battering each other to a pulp in the dining room, the air here was filled with warm laughter and the hum of good conversation. At the end of the table I could see Nonna, her cheeks rosy and eyes smiling at the waitress. Reaching for her hands she made a joke I couldn’t understand.
When we first stepped into the restaurant I looked over at her intensely listening to a pregnant woman who looked ready to pop at any moment. She had smiled at her and asked about the baby: when she was due, whether it was a boy or a girl and wished her luck before following the rest of us to the table.
It was like a flip had switched since that night and instead of the cheery-eyed, soft-spoken, rosy-cheeked grandmother she was now a combination of Joan of Arc and Sarah Palin: eyes full of drive, voice biting and cheeks red with frustration.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
My Nonno reappeared at the table with his golden captain’s bell.
“I want to tell you all a story,” he began. There was a tangible release in the room as if everyone had been holding their breath up until this point.
And in that exhalation as Nonno told his story, I realized it wasn’t my stubbornness I got from my grandparents–at least not entirely. Taking his time to select his words and let them fully resonate on our ears before continuing on, I figured it out. Nonno didn’t give me his unyielding will, he gave me his love of sharing stories.
And as my Nonna silently fumed next to him, I realized it was from her that I got my curiosity. I’ve always been the first to wander off and strike up a conversation with a shop owner or little kid on a bus, just like my Nonna asking about due dates and baby clothes.
Sure, they make my blood boil sometimes–we’re Italian we like to boil things after all–but without them I wouldn’t be the stranger-approaching, story-writing lady I am.