A family member has a large collection of old family audio recordings on magnetic tape. The recordings have been stored away for at least 25 years and the tapes have decayed to the point that they will be gone forever if the material isn't digitized soon.
He's been sharing some of the files with me over the past few days. We've had lots of laughs, but some of the recordings are quite moving. There is one recording of an audio letter never sent by a then 11-year-old sibling speaking candidly about some serious challenges in his life. He spoke with an equanimity that was almost too accepting of troubles that a little boy should not have to face. He also seemed much more vulnerable than the child I remember. Listening to his voice over the soft hiss of degraded magnetic tape made hearing him all the more poignant.
My grandmother grew up in the dire poverty of early 20th century southern Italy, in a tiny town beneath an 11th century castle on a hill. She wanted to be a school teacher, but only made it to the 8th grade. That was enough education for a girl. She could read and write basic Italian, but the only book she owned after she came to America was a little Catholic prayer missal given to her on the occasion of her First Communion in Italy. For as long as I knew her, she spent about an hour of every day reading from that book, silently mouthing the prayers. She must have known all the prayers by heart because it was the only thing I ever saw her read.
Besides the clothes on her back, I imagine that missal, a rosary and a photo I have were among the few items she carried with her to America. Her parents and several of her siblings never immigrated. She left home at 22 and never saw them again.
I'm sure some people judged her harshly for failing to learn English--thought she was stupid, lazy or insufficiently appreciative of her adoptive home. None of that was true. Her life was difficult--much more difficult than the lives of many people who think their lives are hard. I've always found it odd that people could criticize immigrants for their poor English, having no idea about how long they've been in America, the circumstances of their lives, or how hard but unsuccessfully they might be trying to learn the new language and acculturate.
It's a peculiar challenge--trying to become like people who openly talk about you like you're dirt.
My grandmother never applied for naturalization because she didn't believe that she could ever learn to speak English well enough to pass the citizenship test. For years, she registered annually as a permanent resident alien.
But when she was 80-years-old, she became an American citizen. I haven't the foggiest idea how my family pulled that one off. There were some political connections from an earlier time when my family was involved in Republican politics, but it was Jimmy Carter who personally arranged for my grandmother to be made a citizen. It might appall some people, and I have no understanding of the legal aspects of it--an executive order maybe--but on her 80th birthday she was presented with American citizenship papers along with a personal letter of recognition and congratulations from the President of the United States. I have the papers. It was the first time anyone outside our family recognized the enormous contributions of a humble woman who worked so hard to make a life for her children and grandchildren in America. I hope she felt proud for once in her life.
She made her first and only trip back to Italy after her naturalization. She was able to do so because her new American passport allowed her to travel abroad secure in the knowledge that there would be no problems with reenentering the US at the end of her trip. The fear of being barred from reentry for some unexpected reason kept her from traveling abroad until then.
Her Italian family of origin was gone, but there were nieces, nephews and cousins who welcomed her with open arms. When my grandmother returned from her trip, she told us with great amusement that her Italian family teased her, in a good-natured way, because she spoke Italian with an American accent. She had no idea.