Maria Mazziotti Gillan

    How I Learned What It Means To Be Italian

My parents were immigrants from the province of Salerno, Cilento, in southern Italy. They came from two different small villages at the top of a mountain, San Mauro and Galdo. My father arrived in Paterson, NJ when he was sixteen and went back to Italy to find a wife when he was thirty. Paterson was a haven for Italian immigrants and the Riverside sec-tion attracted many people from Cilento. They recreated their villages and network of friends in this city where many people spoke the same dialect. My family spoke this dialect at home, so for me, the inside of the house was southern Italy. Outside was America.

When I went to school at PS 18, I did not speak English and I was often afraid that I’d use an Italian word by mistake. As a consequence, I became very shy. I tried to be invisible, but I found a way to connect with the world through books and writing. In my writing, I could say all the things I was afraid to say aloud. It was through my work that I came to understand how my parents’ Italian values had shaped my view of my personal place in America and in the universe. My father believed it was important to help others, to be generous and open-minded. He believed that trying to make a difference in the world was a moral obligation and he taught us to believe the same thing. My mother worked in a factory sewing the lining in coats by hand, but her real focus was on the family. She wanted to keep us close and to make sure that we would remain close to one another even after she and my father were gone. We were barely holding on economically; my parents had low-level jobs, but I did not feel poor, although that’s what we were. In that cold-water tenement, sit-ting around our oilcloth-covered kitchen table, what I remember is friends and family gathered together to laugh and tell stories and talk politics. My father was gregarious and outgoing, and he loved these gatherings. The children sat quietly, listening, hearing the stories and recognizing in these people, their ability to be grateful and happy even with very few material goods. My mother always was a brilliant cook and there was always room for one more at her table.

I call my parents attitudes and values “Italian” because around my friends’ parents, I did not experience that same openness and joy and laughter. That is not to say that when I went out into America, I did not feel embarrassed at being foreign or by my parents’ difficulties with Eng-lish. I spent many years trying to erase my foreign appearance. When I met my husband, I know now that I loved him because he was blond and blue-eyed and American, because he came from an upper middle-class family and lived in a white colonial house in an affluent town. I wanted desperately to scrub away everything that made me different, that marked me as not American enough. I was often ashamed and in some of my ear-lier poems I deal with this shame and my attempt at rejecting everything that I was. Later, I realized that my background, my parents’ ideas and values, had made me the person that I grew into. My ‘Italian-ness’ pro-foundly altered my writing, and I will always be grateful for the lessons that I learned about how to live a full and satisfying life while sitting at that oilcloth-covered table in Paterson, NJ.

As a consequence, I have tried to dedicate my life to creating safe spaces for other people in which to publish and write and share their writ-ing with others. I have tried to honor other poets and writers through cre-ating the Poetry Center and editing the Paterson Literary Review, through editing anthologies with my daughter, Jennifer Gillan, like Unsettling America and Growing Up Ethnic in America, through setting up book awards and contests, through teaching poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY. I have tried to bring attention to those writers whose voices were often excluded from the literary canon. I know what it means to be an outsider and I want to give other people a chance to explore their identity in their writing, so they can build a bridge between themselves and oth-ers.

Since 1978, I have taken many trips to Italy, and I have read my work in Florence, Genoa, Milan, Padua, and Assisi. I’ve done repeated read-ings in Rome and Sicily. I also have published three books in Italian and English. The most important readings I’ve given in Italy, however, were in San Mauro, Cilento, my mother’s hometown. I saw my mother’s and father’s generosity and joy in the people I met there, in my instant con-nection with them, and my instinct that even though I had never met them before, I knew them. I was comfortable and happy in their company. They taught me once again to celebrate how essential my Italian heritage is to everything I am and everything that I’ve accomplished in my life.

    My Appetite for Words is Boundless

I can never get enough of them,
words shaped into poems or stories
that sing in my head,

words that I carry in my pocket
to comfort me when I am most alone,

words in poems I have memorized
though I have a terrible memory
and I often can’t remember a line,

words in poems by Dylan Thomas
or T. S. Elliot or e.e. cummings
that lift the sorrow that sometimes
sits heavy on my shoulders,

words that comfort me
when I thought nothing could,

words that bring my lost loves
back to me,
every time I say them aloud to myself
in my silent kitchen,

words, words. Praise you.

    The Sky in San Mauro

The sky in San Mauro turns mauve
over the Mediterranean, visible
at the base of the mountain
on which I stand
and the air rushes past gnarled fig trees
and graceful ones bent like dancers
under the weight of large lemons,
the air fragrant with the scent of dark, rich earth,
the tang of rosemary and lavender.

Standing here looking out over so much open space,
I feel buoyant as if my feet
were no longer bound to the earth. I think

of my ordinary life,
my appointment book so full it is difficult to read,
no time for this incredible stillness,
which I wrap around me now in San Mauro
like a silk shawl,

of my every day, a list of things I must do
until I too am bent, under the weight
of so many people who need me,

of my desk covered in books to be reviewed,
letters to be answered, programs to plan,
so this moment, this blessed moment
when I can breathe in the clean mountain air,
this moment, a salve on burned skin,
this moment, a treasure I will carry with me
to remind me how fortunate I am,
just to pause, to breathe this glorious air.

    What My Father Taught Me

Why is it only now
so many years after you died that I realize
how much you taught me by the way you lived your life,
how you reached out to others,
how you always offered to help,
how you always let cars go ahead of you
when you were waiting to turn onto a busy road.

How many times did I mock you?
How impatient and rude I was,
annoyed by your wide smile,
your crooked teeth, that powerless leg
you dragged wherever you went.

Now, with my own legs failing me,
I can see you struggling to keep on doing everything you could.
Outgoing, joyous, fun-loving, you were secretary of the Società Cilento
in Paterson, NJ for 52 years,
kept their books, minutes of each meeting.
So often you drove people to the Italian consulate
to sign papers to bring their families to America.
Every day you visited your friends for a few hours,
cards and conversation until age 86, when you
could no longer drive.
Even when you were in a wheelchair,
nothing could still your curious mind, your love of politics and history,
your mathematical intelligence.

We were so alike you and I,
both loving people,
loving being there for others and hearing their stories,
both ready to reach out to the world and to others.
I wish I could tell you what I should have told you
when you were still alive,
how much you taught me about courage and never giving up.
Forgive me for all I didn’t understand.

Praise for all you taught me
About generosity and grace.
Praise to you for never forgetting how to laugh.
Praise for always opening your arms and welcoming us in.

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