I have read several blog posts and Facebook status updates this weekend about Independence Day and the United States of America. I started thinking about what being an American means to me and realized my maternal grandmother, Josephine, an immigrant from Italy, taught me a great deal about what it means to be an American.
Josephine Spadaro came to the United States from Sicily in the mid-1920’s, the young wife of Joseph and mother to Mary. Like many immigrants, she did not know the language. My grandparents were seeking opportunity and a better life. They settled in the small town of Norwich, New York, where Joseph had a job working on the O&W Railroad. They had six more children, three additional daughters and then three sons.
My grandparents became United States citizens before World War II. My mother describes her parents as being very patriotic towards their new country. They voted regularly and proudly flew an American flag. When my mother took me to register to vote, and talked about the importance of political engagement she gave me the same advice her father told her. “Register Republican. Vote Democrat.” I asked her why he said that, and she said his answer was “Democrats always create wars.” I don’t know how my Noni voted, but I know she was proud of the ability to have a voice in politics.
Noni worked for a time in the local knitting mill. She was a wonderful seamstress and sewed for all of her seven children. When I learned to sew and wore one of my original creations to her house, she would inspect my hems and offer advice about what to try next time. “Always try your best, even if it’s just a pair of shorts,” she told me once when I had rushed to finish a pair. Noni made my mother’s wedding gown, which my sister Caroline also wore for her wedding. I remember Noni standing next to Caroline, fingering the hem of the lace sleeve, remarking, “I didn’t do a bad job here.”
By necessity, Noni was a strong woman. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to say good-bye to my family at the age of twenty two, and move to a foreign country with a toddler. She endured prejudism when her adopted country went to war against her home country. She lost a son to the polio epidemic and outlived her husband by thirty years.
Throughout her life, my Noni was a religous woman, guided by her beliefs. She was active in her church community, cooking for spaghetti suppers and volunteering with the Altar Rosary Society. Sometimes we would stop at her house on our way home from my neurological appointments. After hearing updates from my mom, Noni would close her eyes and, in her thickly Italian accent, say, “Thanks-a be to God.” Noni often expressed her gratitude this way.
Today my family will gather for the annual Spadaro reunion. We will laugh at old photos, share stories and catch up with cousins we haven’t seen since the last reunion or longer. We will eat a tremendous amount of great food starting with breakfast and lasting throughout the day. We will marvel at how much the younger children have grown since the last year and ooh and aah over the new babies. My cousins Jim, Bernadette, Jacky and sister Sandy will try to set their cameras on a cooler and coordinate their timers so they can all race back for the group photo.
And we will raise a glass in memory and gratitude to Josephine, saying, “Thanks-a be to God!” in appreciation for all the love bestowed upon us, and the sacrifices she made to grant all of her legacy a better life.