Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world. ~ George Bernard Shaw   

My beautiful Italian Grandmother would sit with me by the large picture window in the family room and talk about her life.

Perhaps that is why I have always loved large windows where ever I live.

Spurred by hard economic times in Italy and the irresistible allure of a life without limitations in America, my grandparents and great-grandparents on all branches of this Cascinai family migrated to the United States during the heyday of Italian immigration from 1880 to 1910.

By 1924, over four million Italians had made the voyage to the United States.

They boarded ships mostly in Palermo, Sardinia, and Naples, and spent weeks at sea before arriving in various ports in the United States.

Many Italians that came over from the old country settled in California, New York and New Orleans.

I am compelled to envision what the hardships of those voyages must have been like.

This internal coding that “things will work out” is a deeply engrained element of Italian culture—don’t sweat the small stuff. Just give us the opportunity, and we’ll make something of it. My grandparents surely did make something of their lives.

Nothing brings more joy in an Italian home than traditional food influenced by the old country. In fact, who could argue that Italian food is not the most popular food and to many people the most delicious cuisine today?

Italian recipes are proudly handed down through generations, and cookbooks from Italian matriarchs are some of the most strongly contested items upon the death of an Italian grandmother.

My Grandpa Mario and Grandma Carrie were Italian citizens at the time of their son’s birth. The still had very heavy Italian accents throughout their lives and they kept the Italian culture alive in their home.

My grandmother made the absolute best Italian spaghetti sauce of which I still use as one of my favorite recipes. She could certainly cook!

In the middle of the day, Grandma would stand over a pot while gazing out the kitchen window, stirring her pasta fagioli, the classic Italian soup made with cannellini beans, for that evening’s dinner.

She was considered the cook in the family.

Cooking was just one way Italian-American grandparents bring their grandchildren close in a culture, and they truly did want to do their very best for George and I.

With each new generation, a family’s distinct ethnic identity and ties to the old country may grow more tenuous. Family has always been at the center of Italian-American life. My grandparents had a wonderful partnership.

My grandfather was the strong one. My grandmother was more loving and moderate.

She let her husband do the talking and yet she still worked things around to her way.

They were a great combination.

They had a great sense of discipline, respect, and responsibility. These Grandparents had the courage to leave their homeland and come to a foreign country with no knowledge of the language.

They worked with immense pride. I forget at times how they taught me that valuable lesson.

In just a few weeks George and I would be leaving their home. I started grieving another change. My grandparents were human beings with human challenges, the biggest one being this complicated and emotional young girl and her brother were dropped into their laps at a time when most people are getting ready to retire. I was enough to give anyone a headache. I used to have a laundry list of complaints about living with them.

I even resented the brand new clothes so clean and so nice that I actually stuck out like a sore thumb among the elementary school children at the school I attended.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth doesn’t even begin to describe it. All I could think about were my feelings of isolation, my pain over not having friends…even though retrospect goes to show that I brought most of my social conflicts on myself.

Like the time that I came home crying because a group of girls surrounded me and started lambasting me with cruel taunts, and my grandmother retorted, “Well, what did you do to them?”

This is just one of the many things I used to hold against them—the perceived lack of empathy that was really just a call for self-reflection and personal accountability. “Tough love” is a strange concept. To this day, I do still advocate for the following principle: “Be encouraging—the world has enough critics.” A girl as volatile as I was needed a proverbial slap in the face to get out of her own head sometimes.

And oh, proverbial slaps in the face I was given.

Without going so far as to criticize or blame them, I’m not going to pretend they ever put on kid gloves when it came to the exhausting job of raising me and my brother.

Along with that tough love came goodnight kisses and trips to the bookstore and the toy store and many hours in front of the big picture window listening to stories.

Now that the mini-memoir is out-of-the-way, here are some things I learned from living with my Grandma Carrie and Grandpa Mario.

I wrote this as I sat in front of a big open window watching a thunder-storm this evening, and thinking of them with heartfelt love:

  1. First and foremost, my grandparents taught me the value in a good sense of humor. The only downside to life is that there will be tough moments, and no amount of planning or luck can impede them forever. In every family, there will be health scares, surgeries, and late night trips to the ER.
  2. Be patient. Good things take time. Better things take more time. Patience is a virtue that is taught at a very young age, along with the alphabet and counting to one hundred.
  3. Every time I sat in front of the big picture window or at the kitchen table, they showed me the importance of storytelling. We live in a fast-paced age when nearly every moment is photographed, documented, and stored away on our Facebook timelines, waiting to be dug up later. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, however I got to see the value in a good old-fashioned story told straight from memory.
  4. Have a kind heart. You never know what another person may be going through, so it is very important to always exhibit kindness. Everyone deserves to be happy, everyone deserves to feel loved, special, important. My grandma taught me that often times, even one kind action can have and enormous ripple effect.
  5. I especially loved the warmth in my grandpa’s eyes when he smiled. I also love how my grandma’s laugh could carry through all floors of a house.
  6. Instead of fancy new toys we had Etch-A-Sketch and Lite Brite. Along with a whole toy box full of other playthings. Very, very cool, and probably worth a mint on eBay now.
  7. Money does not equal happiness. This lesson is especially golden. My grandparents always stressed to me that money can never be your source of happiness. Happiness comes from surrounding yourself with people, places, and things you love. Your passion will always give you more than a paycheck ever could.
  8. The phone is for conveying brief messages, not for long-winded conversations. This was before cellphones, and we paid by the minute!
  9. There are “school clothes” and “play clothes.” You change into the latter from the former at 3pm before “going out to play.” It doesn’t matter that other children do not do this. This is what is done.
  10. You are patient with other people’s bad days. Chronic pain and other health problems are inevitable as we age, and when you grow up around that, you learn not to take a sharp word personally when it stems from a pounding migraine—it’s not about you.
  11. You won’t get away with squat. Your dad already tried all the tricks in the book and was caught. There’s no pulling anything over on them.

I had a very difficult childhood. I was surrounded by people who had both parents, which made me feel different. Having a bit of a rougher existence early on, it made me appreciate the work ethic that my grandparents instilled in me. ~ George Lopez

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What will I know about you a year from today?