My Nana: “Cento per Cento” Siciliana Grandmother

As an Italian-American living in New York, I’ve come to find that; though I may not be “right off the boat”, I still have deep-rooted Italian traditions that serve as a basis for my everyday life. In actuality, I’m completely Sicilian and not Italian at all (that I know of). However, if you know your history, then you know that the Kingdom of Sicily is ruled by Italy, so I guess you could call me Italian. I don’t mind it, though some Sicilians do.

However, we all have one thing in common: we’re all very proud of our heritage. One thing that sets the Sicilians/Italians apart from other nationalities is the pride we take in our history and the traditions that we live by every day. We are very family oriented people, which I will soon explain further. There are many themes in our lives, such as (but not limited to); food (that’s a big one, any Italian worth their weight in pasta will tell you the same), family, business (for some, not for all; but it is very common for Italians to open their own local businesses, usually family run, and usually in a Little Italy type section of town), storytelling (we love to reminisce). There are many other themes, I guess it depends on where you are from, and how traditional your family is.

For mine, I find that there are key figures that play pivotal roles. These figures are my mother (if you have an Italian mother, you better believe you’ll be raised Italian), and my grandparents. Whereas it’s common notion to believe that a man (in my case, my Papa), to be head of the household; it is also true that behind every great man is a great woman. And that woman is my grandmother – my Nana. Whereas my Papa is mild-mannered and non-confrontational, my Nana will just as soon cook you veal cutlets as she will break a wooden spoon over your head. I should know, I’ve experienced it… as my two older brothers laughed and laughed. Until she grabbed a meat tenderizer that is (she never hit them with it, but then again she never did catch them). But yes, my Nana is an extremely powerful figure in my family. At five-foot-nothing, she towers over everyone else. My Papa knows to keep his mouth shut, or he’s in a world of hurt. Don’t get me wrong; she’s sweet as sugar. But she’s also tough as nails. The other day, she told my oldest brother that she would blow off his big toe if he didn’t pay her the money he owed her. As I laughed, she whispered to me, “I really wouldn’t, I’d just break it.” Apparently, she’d spent the day prior to that watching both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II…

My family is my life, which makes this an easy article to write. There are many stories involving my Nana; like the time I told her that her teeth were fake and she bit me (turned out they were real), or when she gets mad when I bring up the fact that she used to own goats (“You and you’re damned goats!” she’ll say). Every moment with her brings me true joy, but her real forte is cooking. She is a virtuoso in the kitchen. The woman could cook up something she found on the ground outside, and you better believe that I would eat it, knowing real well that it would taste delicious. There was one instance that I spent all day in over a hundred degree weather, stripping the paint off of her garage and then repainting it with two coats; just so that she’d cook for me. It was well worth it. Every Sunday and Thursday she cooks her spaghetti (homemade sauce of course; anything from a can or jar is complete taboo), and so if I call her on those days, she knows exactly what I want. My relationship with her involves a lot of non-verbal language, because we’re so accustomed to one another. Herself and my Papa practically raised me. I remember when my girlfriend of three years (who was Native American), first heard the way I would talk with my Nana (which, to untrained ears, sounds like bickering), she slapped me and told me I shouldn’t talk to my grandmother that way. She soon learned how that was our way of speaking with each other. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Family is definitely the largest part of any self-respecting Italian’s life. In the chain of priorities (whatever they may be), it always starts with the Familia. Though, like any other people, there are times when family members have their differences with one another, they will always be there for each other. One thing that I will always remember my mother saying as I was growing up is, “If you lose everything else; you’ll still have your family.”