A Portrait of the Craft as an Essay

I started writing a collection of essays about what I was sure would be a very short recap of my grandmother’s life. Her immigration story was the only thing that seemed interesting to me about her; her forty years at JCPenny would not make for good writing material, I thought. And I already knew most of what there was to know of her life once she got here. The things I didn’t know fascinated me, almost as much as the reasons for why I didn’t know them. I set about trying to discover them years ago, and that research culminated in this project.

I started with the research, as I always do. I wrote a family history paper years ago, and a lot of the essays draw from that experience, of trying to pull answers out of my grandmother, who I now realize must have been traumatized to have her past dredged up in the mouth of a child who bore so much resemblance to her own father. Though I was relentless, my search yielded little beyond what my dad had already told me. I made up most of that family history project, but the story was far from over.

Many of the essays beat my travels to Italy over the reader’s head, and I like that they do, because that’s about what it felt like to keep going back there and mistaken for my grandmother on every street corner. I beat that into the reader too, and I feel no remorse. I first visited Italy when I was eight years old. I remember the plane ride. I remember feeling like I was in charge of protecting my little sister, who was four then and remembers nothing. I remember very little of the rest of the trip; a Christmas in my great-aunt’s fabulous apartment, meeting my cousins, including Nicolette (who is convinced I am named after her) and getting to know my cousin Davide. I remember meeting his girlfriend Gioia and thinking she was the most wonderful person on earth. After that, I remember nothing else; Italy receded into the distance, my far-flung ancestral homeland rather than my second home.

The second visit to Italy when I was sixteen was the most influential experience on this entire process. My grandmother came with me. I remember months before, while sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, I looked up to realize my dad had just asked me something. “Do you want to go study fashion design in Milan with your great-aunt?” he’d asked. I was too stunned to answer. Three months later, I was on a plane with my grandmother. She was 90 then, and had an unfortunate habit of thinking being 90 meant you could say anything to anyone. She was too shy to actually say anything to anyone, but she insisted that being 90 meant you could, if you wanted to. That trip, I explored Orsogna for the first time. My great-aunt Michaelina told me stories of my dad’s first visit when he was sixteen, all his wild antics and his favorite haunts. When I visited with him in May this year, he took me on a tour of his memories in the village. That fancy new nightclub used to be nothing more than a patch of dirt and a radio; that gelato place on the square is still the best in the Abruzzo, no matter what Guardiagrele might have. I spent long nights in the streets with my cousins when I was sixteen, exploring everything I could find. There wasn’t much––ruins and markets and houses and beautiful views of winding roads through the vineyards and olive groves, and two churches down the street from one another. But it was absolutely transformative. I was another person on those cobblestones. I was Vittoria, younger and brighter; I was my father, mischievous and reckless; I was my ancestors, wise and old as the remains of the Roman road just outside of town. I can’t say I was quite myself, because I didn’t know who I was yet. But now those streets run deep in my marrow, and when I go back, it’s like coming home.

That trip was also the first time my great-aunt Michaelina suggested that I write a comprehensive history of the village and all the families in it. It would not be the last, and it would not be in vain.

My third visit to Italy came roughly three years later, the Christmas of 2016, a year and a half or so after my grandmother died. I loved that visit; my whole family came except my older sister, who had to take care of her daughter. My brother, younger sister, and I all got to sleep in Davide and Gioia’s apartment. Christmas seemed to dawn again and again; I never wanted to leave that visit. 25 members of the family gathered in Davide and Gioia’s apartment for Christmas dinner. That brought back memories from the first visit; I remember being too picky to eat anything from that eight-hour feast. But this time, I sat through every course of regional food, eating bits of everything and talking in broken Italian with my cousins, translating for my siblings.

These three trips form the triangular base around which I wrote my essay collection. That last visit, in particular, showed me how my family sees me as my grandmother in reverse, and became the inspiration for the second piece, “Sei Vittoria,” and the last, “Topografia.” The first piece, however, was a late-bloomer.

Writing “Come sua nonna”

“Come sua nonna” was the result of a conversation I had with my dad late in the project, really close to the rough draft deadline. Much as I loved the idea of beginning with “Rolling up the gravel drive,” of “Sei Vittoria,” I thought this conversation framed the entire project, which had by then become more about my discovery of my grandmother’s story than the story itself. And it gave me a chance to showcase our relationship and her personality as I knew her; a fierce, shy little woman who loved mischief and laughter, forever clinging to the arm of her younger doppelganger. The conversation with my dad flowed from me easily, but the scene in the retirement home was blurrier, murkier, and took some time to suss out memory from dream. In the end, I like to think it made a suitable entrance into what had become a very dramatic tale of tragedy and family secrecy.


Writing “Sei Vittoria”

This is the second piece in the collection, and it was the first piece I wrote. I was adamant that early on, the reader would have this image of entering a gravel drive in an idyllic Italian countryside, and entering a low-ceilinged, deceptively large house full of family. The scene in the house is taken directly from an experience I had while visiting my family in May, and this experience directly led to my decision to write about my grandmother for my senior seminar. In light of that meaning, perhaps I should have started with this piece after all; but I think the reader needed some kind of context, to understand what being confused for my grandmother meant to me. And I liked having the sort of bookended parallelism in one of the later pieces, when my great-aunt Maria takes my face in her hands and says, “Sei Vittoria,” to me for the first time. It was one thing for virtual strangers to confuse me for a younger version of my grandmother; it was wholly other, completely gutting, to hear it from her sister, her dearest friend. So I needed that idea to be right at the front, but I couldn’t have my great-aunt come out and say it just yet; I needed more buildup, more emotional tension before I could have her sister call me by her name. Then the reader could say, “Oh, that hurts.” Because that’s exactly how it felt for me. So having this piece introduce my Italian heritage, my life abroad, my relationship with my dad, and my resemblance to my grandmother all in one was the perfect way to lead the reader in, towards my grandmother’s story. I wanted the picture of her at the end, because I think it’s the only one that actually looks like me, and I think it captures her spirit perfectly; I considered using it for the title page, but I chose the other, more recognizable picture of her, as an homage to the original picture, which was a gift from her to me.

Writing “La ricetta di nonna”

My grandmother’s funeral was one of the easiest pieces to write, and it was among the earliest. I wanted something a little lighter towards the front to assure the reader that it wouldn’t be 56 pages of gloom. But I had to talk about her funeral, because it was just so surreal. It was like attending my own funeral with all these people who kept calling me by her name and telling me about our resemblance. I could’ve written about my nervous breakdown or how weird it was for everyone except her to be in her own house or how my uncle rented a huge, lavish two-story condo on a golf course for us to stay in during the week of her funeral and how we enjoyed staying in that condo a little too much for the occasion. But instead, I focused on what was, to me, the most obviously urgent thing I had to write about: the mafia story. This was a real conversation; so much of these essays is truth. It was a hilarious story, for sure, and one I can tell at parties and among friends to obfuscate my grief. But truly, it was another moment of pure tragedy; all I could think while writing it was exactly what I was thinking in that moment: had I ever even known her at all? Writing that had a very Harry-Potter-post-Dumbledore’s-death feeling to it that I like to think added a touch of tragedy to the humor. If I’m honest, I hated having to edit the ending to include some version of Ragù so the reader would know that I’m talking about the brand and not the Italian word; I liked the punchline of a one-word ending. But it had to be done.

Writing “Un consiglio”

This was a real conversation I had with my grandmother; it came together easily because so much of it was drawn from things we had really said. But what I liked so much about this piece was the way it, and the other pieces like it, centers around the pizzelle-maker. Making pizzelles was a sacred ritual to me; I’m sure nobody else in the family cared all that much except that it yielded delicious desserts. But for me, sitting with my grandmother or my father while they made pizzelles was the closest I could get to Italy without getting on a plane. I wrote a lot of unintentional parallels in my essays, and one of my favorites is the way the sacredness of the pizzelle making with my grandmother mirrors sitting in church with my father. I like to think both of those scenes have the same hushed smiles about them, and I like to think they work well together to show how connected my father, grandmother, and I all were. And just to underline both my father’s and my grandmother’s advice, I had to follow this piece with a picture of my grandmother on her wedding day; plus this picture makes a perfect transition into the next piece.

Writing “La sposa”

This, for me, was one of my less-beloved pieces. It was necessary to remind the reader of my grandmother’s inaccurate story-telling, our relationship, and more importantly, how our relationship differed from her relationship to everyone else. Notice how we are doing most of the talking; this piece, like the others, was based on a real conversation that I had with my sisters, my mother, and my grandmother after my sister’s dress came back from the tailor. When my grandmother and I were both in the room, we were always either the most talkative or the quietest. Something had to show that, and what better way to follow the previous piece with my grandmother’s dating life than a piece about marriage?

Writing “Brief Outline of the War in Orsogna Italy 1944”

This was a simple cut and paste job; I needed something to show the timeline of the war, and to remind the reader that my grandmother lived in safety in America while all of that was going on in her hometown. I hoped to instill in the reader a sense of dread of what was to come, of tragedy and doubt whether my grandmother knew what was happening. I wanted it to be like a recurring nightmare: you know what’s about to happen and you are powerless to stop it, or to warn anyone else in your nightmare or to save anyone, least of all yourself.

Writing “Profughi”

“Profughi,” means “refugee,” in Italian. This piece came later; as I thought more about our conversations over pizzelle-making, I came to this one, where she told me about living under Mussolini. I had been thinking about what she said throughout the project, but I didn’t know how to include it, and I didn’t want it to just be a sidepiece. So I combined it with my very real conversation during an SGA meeting concerning the refugee ban. And hopefully, it wove an image of the present replicating the past, and how I felt caught between the two. And of course, I had to have the picture of my grandmother coming off the boat, because it was just too perfect not to include. However, I did not include the picture of her Italian passport, so I’ve included it in the gallery.

Writing “Lo regalo”

This piece was one of the very first ones I wrote, but in the edits, it got shuffled closer to the bottom. I wanted to create a sense of history around my grandmother’s house, because it was such a rallying point for my cousins. We didn’t see each other often, but when we did, it was inevitably in my grandmother’s basement, her weird full kitchen and her closet of secrets. So including this house was important, and so, of course, was the ring. Among my memories, this particular scene stands out as being one in which I felt extremely close to my grandmother, and I could tell my dad sensed it too. I had to include the image of the Italian civilians picking through their belongings because it was just too apropos (it might have even been a little on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself).

Writing “Uno ricordo lasciare indietro”

This piece, for me, is when we really start to get to the meat of my grandmother’s story. I would have preferred this to have come sooner, but I needed more context, more buildup of my grandmother’s relationship with me, so the reader could understand how strange it was for her to be so reticent around me. I needed the reader to understand the depth of the discovery for me; to think, you had this sweet, shy, fierce little person in your life and you had no idea what she was like at all, who she was, where she had been, what she had seen. I wanted the reader to understand what that was like, the tragedy of not knowing someone until it’s too late. The drama.

Writing “La chiamata di cassa”

This piece is the last one I wrote; in fact, as I write this craft essay, it is still in the works. While moving my parents in over the weekend, I finally began to ask questions about the heavy trunks in our possession, trunks I had never given much thought but now seemed ridiculous not to have noticed before. They are massive, absurd in their proportions. How anyone could have traveled with them is a mystery, but even more of a mystery is how I didn’t know before to whom they belonged. We have a trunk that my great-grandmother came over with, and I found the passenger list from 1912 with her name on it (in the gallery). This piece had to show the reader that I’m still discovering things all the time, that my family does not tell these stories without needing someone to prompt them, to pull it out of them. So the significance of my mother telling me that I have to be the family historian comes into full force when you realize, none of these people really know how to talk about what’s happened. The reader will see it in the next few pieces, the way the Italians won’t talk about the war.

Writing “Andante al Stati Uniti”

This piece is the answer and echo to the last; what happened to my family in Italy during the war? We don’t know. But this piece tries to answer that in the best way it can. I didn’t care for writing historical fiction; putting words in the mouth of my great-grandfather seems wrong, feels more like puppeteering than writing. But it had to be done; I had to include the family myth of the German friend who warned my great-grandfather of the German occupation. I had to include the family drama to which the war was a backdrop. I had to make sure the reader understood the full extent of the tragedy of this story: my grandmother was chosen, out of all her siblings, to go. Whether the rest were meant to follow, we would never know. In reality, my grandmother was the oldest child and therefore the obvious candidate to send; but why wouldn’t one of her parents go, or one of her other myriad family members, to set up a foothold in America? It still seems odd, that out of all the uncles and aunts and cousins and siblings, Vittoria alone was chosen. The strangeness of that choice makes me think Nicolò meant to follow, which makes me even sadder, that she was expecting him and he never came. I hope the reader understood the force of that, of leaving your home and your family for a new country and expecting to see them soon, and then being unable to contact them for eleven years. And then coming home to that picture, of the destroyed home in Orsogna.

Writing “La famiglia Facciabbella”

This piece is, of course, the legend I love to tell the most about my family. My great-grandfather’s legendary beauty and our family’s inherited nickname make for an amazing story. I had already written this story once or twice at least, so tightening it up and adding a little fiction in there from my great-grandfather’s perspective was no trouble. And of course, we have the parallel of my great-aunt telling me that I am Vittoria. It’s not my favorite piece, but it’s up there. Writing that Christmas experience was a lot of fun, even after having done it before. It was a great day of fun, food, and family, and I hope the reader could see the legacy my grandmother left.

Writing “Sedici Anni”

This piece was another late-bloomer, and about as easy to write as trying to keep smoke in a jar. I hated recreating my grandmother’s and my father’s experiences; as much as I love reading historical fiction, I had no idea how like fingernails on a piece of paper it is to write. I had to recreate these moments; in my grandmother’s case, I had the names of the little girls that were on the boat with her thanks to the records I pulled (in the gallery). From my dad, I got a lot of vague reminisces about how there was nothing there, just nothing in the ‘70s. He and my zia Michaelina had recounted to me some of his escapades while I visited in May, and it was on these stories that I based his section of the essay. But my own experience was a little easier, if shorter and less enlightening; the exchange with my grandmother has churned in my mind over the years until I can’t quite remember exactly what it is she said. But the meaning is the same, and I hope the reader understood the connection across generations: that we all shared the experience of traveling to another country, largely alone, and that in this piece I truly become my grandmother in the reverse.

Writing “La memoria”

This was another late-blooming piece, and still largely in the works, alongside “La chiamata di cassa.” I wanted to capture all of the inaccuracies in my grandmother’s story and lay them bare. We’ve seen her in the ruins of her home, in the comfort of American prosperity, in the tragedy of leaving her family; now we needed to see everything she didn’t show me, and all the little details the reader has yet to piece together. I really wanted to hammer home that feeling of betrayal, to discover all of these things about someone from a different source, and after it’s too late to discuss any of it with them. This is the second to last piece, and I wrote it that way on purpose; I wanted to take that sense of betrayal and tragedy into the final piece, to finally have a climax of realization, of the revelation of truth at last.

Writing “Topografia”

I could write about writing this piece all day but I’ll keep this brief. After I read what felt like the entire archive of reports on the assault of my grandmother’s village, I went straight to bed, where I had a dream that I was watching the bombing from Guardiagrele with my dad, who kept repeating, “The Allies bombed the shit out of this place.” I woke up the next day and wrote without stopping for probably an hour. This piece flowed from a place that I have been trying to reach for a long time, since before I started writing this project. I don’t think I edited it that much; I couldn’t bear to tear it to pieces the way I had allowed the others to be. The images of the phoenix, the repetition of the honeysuckle, the manipulation of time and place––they all combined to form a work that I am proud to have written. I loved every image, every line, every paragraph worked to my purpose. It’s not perfect, but it is perfect for me, the perfect homage to my grandmother’s village, to her memory, and to my family. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my project, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want it; I have never been proud of a piece of writing the way I have been proud of this piece.

Writing “A Portrait of the Author as Her Grandmother”

This project was mammoth and took everything out of me. It led me to new discoveries about who I am and where I’m from. It changed my life, I’m sure of that, regardless of the grade I receive or the feedback I get, positive or negative. I can’t go back from knowing what I’ve discovered. As hard and heartbreaking and emotional this journey was, I can’t think of anything else more worthy of recording than my grandmother’s story. This project transformed the way I think about my grandmother, my heritage, and my family. I hope my writing reflected that; God knows I tried.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. How do I share with Michelina?

    Like

  2. How do I share with Michelina? Just copy and paste?

    Like

    1. Nicolette says:

      Share the craft essay or the project? The project isn’t done yet but to share the essay you can just send her a link

      Like

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