Because my immigrant parents were serious about learning English, the only time they spoke Sicilian was behind their bedroom door or when they gathered with family and friends from their old mountain village in Sicily.
Papa worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where learning the new language from “the Americans” came much more easily than it did Mama who was a homemaker, or as Papa called her, “a house maker,” something we kids never could figure out.
Mama tried so hard, bless her heart! But English was difficult. It followed rules, yes; however, it seemed to her most rules had exceptions and, unlike Italian, not a single word was pronounced the way the letters were arranged. She’d begin a sentence in English, then break into Sicilian for those English words she did not know. Or she’d say something in Sicilian and complete the sentence in English or an almost-English. For example, once a water pipe below the kitchen sink sprang a leak and Mama told my older sister Anna, “Chiami lu plumb’!” Go call the plumber! Or the time I hadn’t yet thrown out the overflowing garbage bag and Mama for perhaps the third time yelled to me, “T’row outa la munizza!”
During my childhood years in Brooklyn, New York, I seemed to live two lives: that of the American kid at Most Holy Trinity School and the other as the Sicilian boy whose mother talked like a foreigner just off the ship, so un-American that I kept my school chums at a distance, never invited them to our second-floor tenement cold-water flat, and rarely spoke of my home life where English was butchered and Sicilian was some secret language my parents jabbered away in bed late at night.
One Saturday I answered a knock on our door. There stood Al Cimino, Vinnie Accardi, and Joe Murray, classmates from fourth grade, classmates who had suddenly invaded my territory where I had managed for a couple of years to hide my mother from the jeers of “the Americans.”
“Allo, boyza,” said Mama. I cringed. In my head I was praying this was all a nightmare from which I’d awake, take a deep breath, and go on with my life. Quickly I hustled my friends into the parlor where we flipped baseball cards and then watched a kids’ show on a tiny-screened Philco TV.
From the corner of my eye I saw Mama approaching. In her hands was a large plate stacked high with cookies she had baked while we played. She set the plate down on an empty chair, returned to the kitchen to bring us four glasses of milk. As we all helped ourselves to the cookies and drank our milk, Mama talked to my friends. “Itsa so gooda meeta you boyza, Sal’sa frans.” Then, “You like a la scuola, de school?” And my friends nodded, but we all knew they were lying just to please my mother who fed them the cookies.
When the ordeal was over, I headed down the flight of stairs with them. I just couldn’t take the chance, once outside, one or more or all of them would burst out laughing, say cruel things about my mother, how she could hardly get her words right, maybe even call her a foreigner, so I blurted it out first, “My mother talks funny, don’t she?” But Alfred said, “So what! She makes delicious oatmeal cookies.” And Joe laughed, not at Mama but at me. “You’re lucky. My mom never got any time for me. Always busy and not with baking like your mom either!” I unclenched my fists, smiled feebly, and remember saying something like, “You should taste her meatballs!”
Over the years Mama did improve her English. She read the daily newspaper from cover to cover. She read books and then would write on the inside cover, “I finish,“ then date it. She even asked me while I was in high school to teach her English, which I did for a week or two and then I got distracted and the lessons ended.
How ironic that Mama and Papa as well, both who struggled with English would be the two people who encouraged me to become a writer one day. I was nine and gung-ho about playing stickball on the street, but one or the other would ask me to sit at the kitchen table and write a poem or a story, then have me read it at suppertime (to the dismay of my sisters who could not leave the table until I was done reading it).
On her deathbed at Hackensack Medical Center, her final words were addressed to me and my wife Sharon. We had made the ten-hour road trip to visit with her, not expecting to find her condition so critical. “Ma, we’re here and we love you.” Mama’s eyes flickered open long enough for her to answer back in what I will always remember as without accent at all, “And I love you too!”