Whenever Gracie came to the nursing home to see her, the first thing Florentine would notice was her hair. The sun seemed to be perpetually radiating behind her granddaughter’s tresses, casting rays of light through the brunette locks. Her son, Desi had explained to her that both Gracie and Adina dyed their hair, perhaps some attempt to look more vibrant than they actually were. Florentine found the whole idea to be a bit preposterous; when she was Gracie’s age, the closest thing to hair dye her family could afford was the occasional box of bleach to dust on stained clothes. But Desi was telling her the times were changing.
Nowhere did Florentine see that more clearly than the way Gracie would treat her. No bounding up with outstretched arms, no “Ciao, nonna,” with a kiss on the cheek. Her nieces, nephews and all their children used to do that, just a few years ago (though Desi said it was 10) when everything was different. She and her sister, Lucretia, still lived in the family apartment in Bensonhurst, the family apartment that first saw the Lagana family set it’s new roots in America, back in 1916. She and Luci were all that remained of the immigrant generation, though the customs had been passed down to the next one—family get-togethers on Sundays and holidays, the aroma of bruchetti and meat sauce wafting out of open windows with the two sisters sitting atop the patio like queens of their Italian-American family. All up to when Luci died, and Florentine stopped remembering things. Then Desi took her upstate to this place, claiming she couldn’t live on her own, claiming she left a stove on for two days.
“If you want to move me out of Bensonhurst, you should let me live with you,” Florentine rasped in a thick Brooklyn accent. “You say you are a good son.”
Desi smiled broadly. “No, Mama, you say that and that’s why I’m brining you to Stella Maris. It’s time people waited on you, Ma, to kick your feet up, but Adina and I are always at work. You deserve better.”
“All this work we bought with your fancy education,” she grumbled, though that wasn’t what was bothering her. Hard work she was used to, even from her earliest memories while still living in Italy, when her father stumbled home from what he all the villagers referred to as “the plant”, his skin sunk into his bones in exhaustion. That was the main reason Maurizo Lagana packed up his family and moved them halfway across the world in the first place. But with the new generation in America, Florentine felt the rope tying them to Italy elongate, perhaps soon about to snap.
Whenever Desi pushed Gracie to hug Florentine, she’d pick up this distinctly American smell, something of bubble gum and cheap make up kits. Gracie would cringe her nose slightly too, leaving Florentine to wonder what she smelled like—flesh decaying off her bones? The sweet smell of metal on her hands, come from all the times she’d cradled the cross hanging on her neck, begging G-d to take her up to her family? All those years of pungent Italian meals and musty cloth from the seamstress shop? Florentine never had any answers and by the time she looked up again, Gracie would be back behind her father’s form, mumbling out a greeting.
And Adina? Adina was hardly ever there, which struck Florentine the most poignantly, the lack of communication between mother and daughter-in-law to see how the son/husband was being taken care of. Desi always described her as working—in a conference or at a meeting, in places ranging as near as Manhattan to as far as Japan. Another notion Florentine couldn’t get her mind around—the wife constantly saturated with work, a profession no less, while the husband was more often at home to cook and clean and take care of the child. Desi would just laugh at her, saying “Ma, you’re just more conservative than me. Life throws me a few surprises and I just take them in stride. Don’t know where I could have gotten that from, though.”
But now it would be Florentine’s turn to smile inwardly. How shocked Desi might be if he unearthed a few of her secrets.
Aside from the recollection of the plant slowly eating her father alive, the only real memory Florentine had from Italy was Desiderio, her son’s namesake. He and his family lived in the apartment above her and after church, the two would go rampaging around the village. Florentine (then Florentina) never had to worry about sharing him with any of her siblings; they were all five or more years older than her, and well integrated in their own social circles.
At the tender age of ten, when the 20th century was only 16 years past conception, the most either of them could do would be to sneak up to the oldest part of Monticelli, built in the 1500s, and deserted long ago, without catching their mothers’ disapproval. On the select few occasions when they actually escaped from under their mothers’ noses, Florentina would sit atop the toppled stones while Desiderio picked fought imaginary battles and sometimes picked wildflowers for her. One day, though, these happy expectations would be shattered.
Florentina had an excitement brewing up within her for months, consuming her every thought and emotion, but wasn’t allowed to talk about it until her father came home from the post office one Saturday with five boat tickets in his pocket. The next day, after Mass, she nearly pummeled Desiderio over in excitement.
“Guess what?” she gushed, the villagers streaming past them like the parting of the Red Sea. “My papa—he’s quitting his job at the plant soon. He’s taking Antonio, Vincenzo, Luigi and Elena to live in America!”
She’d expected his face to light up, perhaps to split in two at the notion of taking this idealized, faraway place, the disillusioned workers dream, and make it a reality. “I have an uncle in America,” he said instead, quietly, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. “He doesn’t like it there. He’s thinking of coming back to Italy.”
Florentina’s jaw dropped. “Why?”
Desiderio shrugged. “He says it’s… different there.”
“Well of course it’s different there,” Florentina scoffed, unwittingly lapsing into one of her father’s favorite speeches. “America is the land of opportunity. There’s lots of work there, and money to be made. America is the land of the future.”
“My zio, he hasn’t held a job for over six months a time,” Desiderio said. “He says it’s hard for Italians there. Americans, they don’t like Italians.”
Florentina frowned at this foreign thought, about to question it, when Desiderio pressed on. “I’ll miss you.”
Puzzled, the girl looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Soon, you’ll be in America too.”
“No,” Florentina said, fighting down a surge of emotion. “It’s only Papa and the oldest—they’ll send the money back to us— ”
“And if your father likes what he sees, he’ll send for the rest of you to join him.” Desiderio said sadly. “And I won’t ever see you again.”
“No,” Florentina said desperately, all her former thoughts of elation turned to despair. “Maybe if you could convince your father—”
“He says he’ll never leave Monticelli,” Desiderio said ruefully. “Especially not for that place.”
“How can he be sure it’s so bad?” Florentina asked hotly.
“Because of what my zio says,” Desiderio said simply, then brightened. “But maybe your father will think the same thing and come back!”
Florentina stared at him blankly. Not wanting to go to America was a new concept to her. For the first time in her ten years, she had to look beyond the immediate to what work her father and siblings would find in this distant land, to if she indeed would be forced to live there, to whether or not she would like it, if she’d ever be able to reclaim the life she knew so well again. “I’ve… got to go help Mama with supper,” she faltered, and fled.
At home for the first time, she really studied his parents’ behavior, the way her father would jitter in excitement over his plans, the way her mother sighed while wiping down the supper table, mumbling about how things weren’t really so bad here. It’s like the world was ripping in two over the words “go” and “stay”, but Papa was the head of the household, and once he ordered them to pack their bags, they could never go back.
Over the coming months, when Papa would write ecstatic letters about Elena being employed in a seamstress shop and the boys working with him at an Italian grocer’s, Florentina allowed some of that old excitement to creep back into her thoughts. Such a variety of jobs were in this New York and he was certainly sending more money back than he’d made while working at the plant. So when the day came that he sent five more boat tickets, Florentina did not allow herself to become nostalgic.
“We’ll write letters,” she told Desiderio firmly. “And some day, you’ll visit me in America.”
She remembered his hug, hands quaking slightly, eyes turned downward. “Ciao, Florentina,” she whispered, and kissed her cheeks.
The boat rocked like Desiderio’s hands, shoving the passengers into queasy companionship for nearly a week. Florentina spent almost all of that time in bed with her sisters, looking up at the darkened, wooden ceiling, wondering when she’d see the grand city of America. But when she finally did set eyes on New York, all she remembered was the dirty air, smell of smoke, and buildings jutting out of the earth like shattered rock. It was a mechanical city, built by robots, whereas Monticelli was rustic, favoring clear skies, sparse technology, and a graspable link to the past. As the years changed, she slowly learned to reverse the images in her mind—as to what was her life and what was the dream.
Some things would never change though. Her mother, Agostina, hurried deftly through housework, always speaking in Italian, a true disciple of the title for which she was named. Though Maurizo had insisted on the children adapting to more American names, Mama insisted on addressing them with their given ones with gusto—Antonio, Elena, Luigi, Enrico, Frederico, Ilaria, Lucrezia, and Florentina. But the girl grew to enjoy the feeling of being able to shirk off her Italian name—the name mispronounced in strange accents by the Irish Americans, coloreds, Jews, or plain “natives” who lived in Bensonhurst.
The other thing that didn’t change during that next decade and a half was her communication with Desiderio. As he recounted their life back “home,” Florentine wrote ecstatically about the marvels of America, all the different types of people, working in Elena’s seamstress shop, no abject poverty. It wasn’t so much that she believed all this as she was ever perceptive that Desderio, as with her father, was growing disillusioned with working at the plant.
“You should consider coming to America and working a temp job for at least a few months,” she finally had the courage to write him in 1930, 14 years after her arrival. “You might like it.” She bit her lip at that, thinking in fact how she might like it, how seeing him again might bridge the gap between Italy and America. Soon, all of her siblings would have spouses too, and her mother would start grabbing her cheeks, demanding, “Why aren’t you married yet?”
Amazingly, Desiderio replied excitedly that that was a great idea—not only would he like to come, but he had already bought his boat ticket and had a place to stay. “My uncle never did leave America, so perhaps you were right all along,” he penned. Florentine could only suck in her breath and finger her cross to pray that they both were right.
When she first saw him, getting out of a cab in front of her apartment, her senses nearly fled her. Gone was the childhood friend she hadn’t seen in 14 years—in his place was a tall, dapper young man with slick hair and olive skin, radiating so much of the Old Country that any Italian girl’s heart could melt. Luci, her sibling closest in age and only other one still unmarried, whispered, “this is the fish you don’t want to throw back!”
Desiderio and his uncle lived in the Bronx but Florentine still made it over to see him a few times a month. She watched the emotions play across his face—slack at absorbing this world of so much light and sound, exalted over his new job, elated over his paycheck, surprised at the different types of people around him, hurt at the Italian slurs that some of them threw. When it came to her, though, Florentine liked to think that Desiderio possessed only one emotion—happiness.
“I dreamed about this,” he told her that last time, walking back from the grocer’s. “I’ve thought about you every day since you’ve gone. My worldly childhood friend living in America.”
“And now you’re here,” Florentine said, “now you get to be worldly too.”
Desiderio nodded, but Florentine didn’t miss the wary glance he shot at the bulky automobiles, trundling through the muddy streets. “My zio says he’s learned to live with it,” he said, “the noise, the smells, the strange people, the English… I suppose that’s easy enough to pick up with time.”
“Oh, it is,” Florentine said teasingly, purposely switching languages. “English is the language of the future.”
Desiderio was not lifted by her spirits; instead he continued to stare dully into the streets. “They hate us here.” Gaining sudden emotion, he turned to her. “Near everyday, some Irishman or something calls me a dirty greaseball or wop—or worse.”
Florentine felt a chill go through her at the recollection of all the derogatory terms hurled at her at grammar school—even if they were mostly aimed at her brothers and other male students. She’d learned to quiet that fear in her heart, ignore their taunts, force some logic into her head. She spoke it to Desiderio now. “But they do that to everyone,” she said earnestly. “Chinese are chinks, coloreds are spooks, Irish are micks—”
“Well, I just can’t stand it!” Desiderio pounded a fist on his thigh, sounding like he was hitting metal. “I don’t have to put up with this mindless prejudice. Not when everything makes sense at home!”
Home. Florentine’s heartstrings strained at the memory of Monticelli, the clear sound of the mass bell, the smells of garlic and tomato sauce coming out of every open window, the ringing greeting of “arevederci” gay on the evening air. “But you hated it there—hated the plant!” she said desperately, not knowing if she addressed herself or him.
“I don’t hate Monticelli; you know that,” he said, coming to stand by her. “I only had to leave to find better work, but I could do that in an Italian city—Napoli or Roma.” He grasped her hand and Florentine could feel the furtiveness through his skin. “I- I can make a home for you too,” he stammered. “We could go back together. If- if you marry me.”
The world crashed in on Florentine, accentuated by the shoving pedestrians on the New York streets. Luci’s voice came back to her—“don’t let this one get away.” Florentine—Florentina Lagana—could step into her own fairy tale.
But could she leave this place she’d called home for most of her life? Would her father give permission? And if he did—if she went—would she be a stranger among her own people? “I… I don’t know if I could ever go back to Italy.”
Desiderio’s eyes widened in shock, as if she’d renounced the Pope. “Why not?”
“I… I don’t know if I’m Italian anymore,” she said, blushing. “I hardly remember it. I’m… I’m Italian American now. And I don’t think I could desert my family.”
“Florentina…” he said desperately, “we could be a family!”
“And you could stay here!” she retorted. “But you can’t. And I can’t.” She turned away from him, hand dropping from his, her mind on those days in old Monticelli, the smell of his wildflowers in her hair. “I’m sorry it worked out this way.”
He stared at her a moment more, bringing her back to the day when she’d told him her family was leaving Italy, the people rushing home from Mass rather than from store to store, the smell in the air from Sunday supper rather than smoke gathering above them. And she realized, perhaps for the first time, how much her father had forced her to give up, how that world she hadn’t seen for nearly a decade and a half still felt like the right world, a world where everything made sense, where things were calm and rustic, where she wasn’t an outsider. And here, Desiderio was giving her the chance to go back. But something felt wrong, perhaps something imbedded in the 14 years she spent in this strange country, more used to the noise and the stereotypes than any semblance of an old-style Italian life. She wondered at how her own perception of the world had changed from childhood to adulthood, what this meant her children and grandchildren would see.
Desiderio was talking, his voice carried to her by a far-off wind. “I’m going to get a ticket back,” he was saying. “Then you… won’t ever see me again.”
Florentine stared at him dumbly. “You said that in Monticelli,” she reminded him. “And we built a friendship on letters. Nothing has to change.”
“You say that while living here,” he snapped irritably. “Well, things must change for me too. You know, back home, all of my friends are married! Some of them with children! My parents have been nagging me about it and… I came here…”
Florentine lowered her head, ashamed.
Desiderio signed, and tears glistened on his face. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Italia is a vibrant peninsula, flowing with opportunity. I know now I can’t stay here. I know who I am. But you… Florentina. You rejected me so readily; do you know who you are? Or have you lost it in this melting pot called America?”
Florentine lifted her head to speak, but he was already stalking off into the sunset. It was only when she could no longer see his face in the crowd that she realized she had no idea how to answer.
And that was the last she’d seen of him, she reflected now with a crestfallen face. He refused to acknowledge any of her following house calls, his uncle explaining as gently as he could, how bruising it was for a man’s offer of marriage to be rejected. Within a month, he was back on a boat to Italy. Their letters, which they’d written so religiously in youth, tapered off like a dying wind. She glanced at her son, now in the nursing home. Desi was all that remained of that relationship.
She smiled to think that he—along with his father—believed himself just to be named for an old, family friend. Poor Gino; she could never bring herself to tell him that his was not the frst marriage proposal she’d received. She met him, just a few years after Desiderio’s departure—a muscular, ripply man with almond eyes who crashed her sister, Luci’s wedding.
“Giovanni Rocca,” he’d introduced himself as a distant cousin of the groom. “My friends call me Gino. It’s very nice to meet you… Florentina.”
Florentine giggled, then quickly covered her mouth, not wanting to seem too frivolous. The red wine had lifted her spirits and it had been years since any man outside of her family took a special interest in her.
That was the way it started—a childish prank and flirtatious interest, beginning nearly forty years of marriage. With time, Florentine forgot that as she moved with him to his apartment in Brooklyn, only seeing her family once a week, cooking and cleaning as her mother taught her to do, but never getting pregnant. By this time, everyone from her oldest brother, Anthony, to Luci were sprouting out babies as if growing a garden of Italian progeny. They came together for Christmas and Easter—a mingling of blood and interconnections, everyone taught to know each other intimately, and Florentine felt a pang of longing as she saw her nieces and nephews gathered around a sibling. “You don’t think she’s barren or something?” she heard her sister-in-laws whispering once, spitting it out as if it were the worst of curses. “No, not our Florentine—sometimes the problem lies with the man.”
But she brooded over this problem for nearly 20 years. Agostina tried to brush it off whenever Florentine would come to her, though deep down, Florentine knew she blamed Gino, blamed her daughter’s choice to settle for this Americanized man when she’d been given the chance to go back to the paradise, Italia. “Back home, they say the youngest is supposed to devote her time to the parents anyway,” Agostina would say instead.
“Yeah, Mama, the youngest son,” Florentine would scoff. “And he already has three children.”
She thought about Desiderio and if she’d taken up his offer—would she be living in Italy now, with children surrounding her like wildflowers, the Italian matron in her prime? She forced herself to forget her own age then, not feeling vibrant again until 1955, when Desi was born.
From the onset, she knew he would be very much the American. She’d witnessed her nieces and nephews, how some would follow in the patterns of their immigrant parents—going into the family trade or learning to cook authentic, Italian meals—while others talked of new things, foreign things, like going off to college and brining home outsiders. By the time Desi was born, most of his cousins were nearing the age of marriage, and he was left on his own.
It still brought tears to her eyes (and Desi’s too now) to remember how vehemently he shirked off his father’s advances. “Let me teach you Italian,” Gino pleaded, (Florentine started to regret their household switch to English, future language or not,) “and take you into the shop one day. You can learn how to sew—be a tailor—like me.”
But Desi’s dreams, much like his namesake’s, could not be contained by the world he lived in. In time, Florentine and Gino consented that perhaps the best way to set him free was to send him to his first choice college—all the way in Boston. “This will be better,” Gino told Florentine firmly. All of the laughter lines in his skin had been hardened into his face through the long years of realization that the world was tough on the lower-class man trying to support his family. “He’ll get a good job. Maybe he’ll take care of us for a change.”
But Desi never got the chance to take care of Gino. During the middle of his senior year of college, his father suffered a severe stroke and died shortly before graduation. Desi stood resolute at the funeral, like a black pillar supporting his mother. “All he ever wanted me to do was to learn Italian, Ma,” he said quietly. “And I shunned him at every turn.” He steered Florentine away from the coffin and she looked up into his eyes, realizing for the first time how adult he was—22, nearly the same age she was the last time she’d seen Desiderio. “But I’m going to do it now,” Desi was saying resolutely. “I’ll make him proud, Mama, I’ll be the good Italian son.”
He wiped the tears from her face and she leaned up to kiss his cheeks. “Ah, Desi… you were always the good son.”
He worked in Boston for the next few years, taking on a job as a consultant of something or other that Florentine could never understand, while taking Italian language and culture classes in the evening. When he finally moved back to New York, (Arlington, though, not “the city,”) he brought back with him a fiancé, and after all his talk of becoming more Italian, she was openly shocked at the introduction of Adina.
A Jewish girl with high cheekbones, cat’s eyes, frizzy hair and a defined nose. Florentine remembered her youth in Bensonhurst, when many of her friends took on Jewish husbands. “He’s funny,” they’d say, jokingly, or “he’s good with accounting.” But all of those boys lived in their own section of the neighborhood, so close to her that she could hear them singing their Sabbath rites as she passed their apartments on the way home from the store. Adina, however, was from Boston, her family rooted here even longer than Gino’s, and besides for making an occasional reference to a holy service, hardly seemed to be Jewish at all. Once again, Florentine held her tongue—at least she could make sure that her grandchildren were raised in the Italian way.
But looking at Gracie now, 11 years old in 1994, she wasn’t even sure that that had happened. Desi had tried, she knew; he kept bugging her for Italian recipes to cook for “his girls” and trinkets from Italy to show to his daughter. The girl had even been christened Grazia in the Roman Catholic church. But Gracie lived in a different world than Monticelli or immigrant New York—Florentine could tell by her sparkling clothes, bedecked with words like “Gap” and “Guess”, that America had truly claimed her.
A few weeks later, Gracie came to see her again, carting along a little, blonde girl with butterfly barrettes in her hair matching her granddaughter’s. The girls stood together in one clump, whispering and staring at her with round eyes. Florentine had a sudden recollection—a memory rushing forth like a tidal wave—of her brother, Freddie, taking her, Luci and their sister Ilaria, (known as “Hilary” in America) to the Bronx Zoo. She’d stared, glassy eyed, at the cages containing the exotic birds, wondering from which far-off land they originated.
“Mama,” Desi said excitedly, bending down to kiss her, “we have some news. Gracie—” turned away in a swishing motion. “Why don’t you tell nonna our news?”
Gracie unhooked herself from her friend and tentatively stepped toward her grandmother. “We’re going to Italy this summer,” she said quietly, looking at Florentine’s hands. “I’ve… never been there.”
Florentine slowly cupped her granddaughter’s hands in her own. “Do you know what they have in Italia?” she rasped softly. “Ruins from the great Roman Empire. Museums and cathedrals older than this whole country.”
“Really?” Gracie’s head bobbed up, and for the first time, she looked interested in what her grandmother had to say. “Did you ever go to them?”
Florentine lowered her head, ashamed even amidst elation at her granddaughter’s interest. “No,” she said softly. “We never made it to Roma or Firenze before coming to America. I just know my… village.”
“What’s that like nonna?”
Florentine closed her eyes, trying to recall playing in the ruins with Desiderio but instead, a much more recent memory flowed to the top of her thoughts. In the summer of 1964, when Desi was 9, Gino and Florentine decided it was time for him to see Italy. Florentine was bursting with excitement again—the prospect of staying at her aunt, Gabriela’s, and seeing old friends—and then she remembered Desiderio. Her heart plummeted like a rock. What would he say when she walked into their childhood village with a new husband and son? What would he think when he heard Desi’s name? What possible lives she could have taken would she be brushing up against?
But when she got to Monticelli and breathed in the mountain air, tinged with the spice of olive oil, she immediately sensed his absence. When she approached his parents, she was told he’d been living in Roma for these past 30 years—living out his dream with a good job, devoted wife, and six healthy children, one with a baby of his own. Florentine smiled frozenly, wondering, not for the first time, at the gaps in their lives—the gap between their two countries, the gap between the ages of their children, the gap between childhood and middle age.
That night, she took Desi up to one of the ruined houses, sat him on a fallen stone, and gathered wildflowers to put in his hair.
“The village doesn’t change,” she found herself saying now, “the people, the people are the ones who change. Some go to America, others stay. Some love it and others hate it. But when they come to Monticelli, it’s like going… back.”
Gracie’s eyes had shifted from exalted to puzzled, and she started to pull away. Desperately, Florentine grabbed at her. “Grazia, listen,” she wheezed. “When you go to Monticelli, go to the old village. Sit on the rocks. Then you’ll see that we—we not be so different.”
“We’ve got to go, nonna,” Gracie shrieked. “Daddy promised—if we came to visit you—he’d take Lisa and me to the mall.”
Florentine blew out her breath as if exhaling her life. “Grazia—thank you—for coming.”
She watched Gracie and her friend race out of the room before she felt her son’s hand on her arm. “Ma, are you OK?” Desi asked, concerned. “You’ve been taking your meds, right?”
Florentine looked up at him and saw Desiderio—and Gino, and her brothers and her father—all staring out from Italy and New York, 1916, 1930, 1955, 1964, and all the long spaces in between. “I’ve seen too much,” she sighed now, grasping her cross. “I’m an old woman now. The world’s changed without me.” She smiled listlessly. “I always realized it would.”
Desi chuckled, grasping her shoulder. “You’re not old, Ma,” he said, “and even if the world’s changed, you’ll always have me—and Alfredo, Cristina, Angelo, Gloria, all your nieces and nephews—and Gracie.”
Florentine hazily remembered her granddaughter staring with her friend, with her sun kissed brown hair, bubble gum smell, sparkly clothes and butterfly barrettes, as if it had happened a long time ago. “I can’t stand it,” Desiderio had said, “not when everything makes sense at home.” “We’re going to Italy,” Gracie said. “Then you’ll see that we—we not so different,” Florentine responded.
In her mind’s eye, she slowly transformed her Americanized granddaughter—replacing bubble gum scent with garlic, shiny clothes with a worn dress, and butterfly barrettes with a wreath of flowers. If she squinted just hard enough, she could see this third generation of the Lagana family as an authentic Italian.