I was the third grandchild of Mea, as everyone called my grandmother, and Grandpa Salvatore, who both emigrated from Italy. My grandmother was born in Rome and Grandpa in Sicily. They both came from large families and were married very young: my grandmother was fifteen and Grandpa twenty when they became husband and wife. By the time Grandma was twenty, she had four children, and she and Grandpa went on to have eight more; four died from childhood illnesses, and instead of mourning them, Grandma and Grandpa adopted four more children and gave them a loving home.
I loved going to my grandparents’ house. Grandma made me feel like a princess, and Grandpa sat me on his lap and taught me Italian songs, even though Dad did not like us to speak Italian in the house. He’d served in the United States Army and often said, “After all, we are Americans. Not foreigners.” But Grandpa and Grandma spoke fluent Italian and Grandpa was hell-bent on teaching me Italian through song.
The day after Sister Anne and Mom spanked me, my family went to my grandparents’ house for dinner. The house always smelled like spaghetti sauce and meatballs and Grandma’s famous coffee-can bread. Right away, Grandpa picked me up and sat me on his lap. He kissed my cheek and gave me his magical bear hug, whispering in my ear, “What song do we sing?”
I smiled. “‘Marina,’ Grandpa!”
Mom had gone into the kitchen and came back with plates in her hands to set the table. Dad was sitting across from Grandpa, showing my little brother a deck of cards and teaching him the card game War. Adam was laughing as he watched Dad shuffle the deck.
Grandpa counted, “Uno, due, tre,” and we sang the song from his part of Italy. “Ah, Marina, Marina, Mari—ne, ti voglio al piu presto sposar!” He was smiling as we sang, and we swayed back and forth in the chair. When I sang with my grandpa, the house was filled with magic.
“Marina, Marina, Mari—na, ti voglio al piu presto sposar!” I sang with joy and laughter in my voice.
“O mia bella mora, no non mi lsciare, non mi devi rovinare, oh, no, no, no, no, no!” he wailed.
“Oh, no, no, no, no!” I wailed back, and he hugged me with all his might as he counted down with his fingers. “Uno, due, tre,” and together we shouted, “Oh, no, no, no, no—no!”
Grandma came from the kitchen, leaned on a chair holding her wooden spoon, and conducted the two of us in song. Then she joined her voice with ours as we sang, “O mia bella mora, no non mi lsciare, non mi devi rovinare, oh, no, no, no, no, no!”
Grandpa gave me a great big wet kiss and put me down. I bowed like a star, and he applauded while Dad laughed his head off. The laughter was contagious as my brother chimed in, and the actress in me shone through as I could not help but sing again, “Oh, no no!”
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Grandpa rose from his chair and picked me up, wrapping me in his arms and dancing me around in a circle. The room spun before Grandpa sat down with me again in his chair at the head of the table. I began to slip from Grandpa’s lap, and he grabbed my leg to secure me. That was when my red dress rolled up my leg and Grandpa saw the black and blue belt mark stretching across my thigh.
He looked at the welt and at me, and I put my head down in shame. The magic was gone from our singing, and I thought I was in trouble. He smiled, but it was a smile of pity, and he shook his head back and forth. He looked at my father, who had still been playing cards with Adam across the table. Dad was quiet, just as he always was when he was trying to figure things out. Mom came near the two of us, putting a plate setting in front of Grandpa, and I flinched. Grandpa held me close, as though he were protecting me from Mom. He coughed and had one word to say, which he yelled toward my mother: “Disgrazia!”
When Mom left the room, silently, Grandpa called Dad over to look at the bruise. I wanted to cry but was afraid Mom would hit me again, so I kept quiet in Grandpa’s protection. Dad told his father that this was the first time he had seen the wound, which was the truth. But if I expected him to do anything about it, I would be disappointed. His gig was avoidance, as I would slowly learn.