February 22, 2017'Grandpa,' the title of the poem reads. And it goes as follows:
Offered us juicy sticks of gum
bartering for a kiss;
Or a climb upon his blanketed lap
for shots of Anisette at Christmas.
We couldn't understand him well,
his English broken, Italian-style,
yet we understood his love,
which shone simply from his smile.'
That little gem appeared in the July 23, 1983 edition of The Detroit News, and it was written by yours truly. The editor changed the title I'd given it—'Nonno'—to 'Granpa,' perhaps to make it more universally relatable. I get it now that I'm on the other side of the desk.
I wrote the piece about my maternal grandfather, Nonno Rossi. Umberto Rossi. 'Umm-bear' as my grandma called him. He died when I was a little girl, so I only knew him for a short time. The poem reflects my recollections of Nonno, a man who was eager to greet us every Sunday when we came to visit, a kind man with a gentle nature and ready smile.
In my hazy memory, I remember him as wheelchair bound, though I'm not sure if he really was in a wheelchair or he was always seated. As I write this I think I've got to ask my mom, who continues to surprise me with tidbits about her dad, a man I barely knew but fiercely love.
In the one photo I've seen of Nonno Rossi in his youth, I'm stricken by his blonde hair and fair skin. That blonde hair would change into an enviable, sage-like pure white, thick crown of glory on his head until his dying day. As a grownup I learn I shouldn't be surprised by his coloring and complexion. The surname 'Rossi' is derived from the Italian word 'Rosso,' which means 'red.' Considered the most common surname in Italy—like Smith or Jones here—the name 'Rossi' was originally a nickname given to a person with red hair or a reddish complexion. A glance at my mom confirms that Nonno Rossi comes from a family that earned the nickname. I now understand why people always asked me if I was Irish when I was a kid; why my art teacher queried if I'd "gotten a suntan through a screen door" because of my freckles.
No. It's because Umberto Rossi is my 'Grandpa;' my Nonno.
Umberto Rossi was 18 years older than his bride, Virgilia Leopardi, when they married. They raised three children—my mom Anna, her sister Lena and my Uncle Rino. According to my dad, Umberto was a kind and gentle soul who "didn't have a mean bone in his body." Ironically, way back in the day I'm told Umberto used to go rabbit hunting in Livonia—the bedroom community where I grew up. Livonia was once considered "the sticks" to a Detroiter, where Virgilia and Umberto made their home here in the U.S. in the early 1930s.
Though I knew him to speak Italian only, his English limited to simple greetings and a smile, the other day I learn that Nonno spoke German, too. I find this out while listening to a harpist play 'Oh, Susannah!' on a beautiful, portable, French-made instrument. Out of the blue my mom tells me her dad used to sing that song to her in German because that's where he was stationed during the first World War.
Again, I am astounded by what I don't know about my family. With most relatives still in the 'old country,' as Virgilia called it, and the times and circumstances being such that living into "old age" was an anomaly, it's no wonder there are some blank spaces there. I'm fortunate for what little information I have, and am always hungry for more.
One thing's for sure—I know who I am. My roots may not be deep in this U.S. soil, but they are strong and they make sense to me. And I know I was born under a lucky star to be amongst this constellation.
Email Catherine at email@example.com.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.