When my great-grandmother died in 1978, I was heartbroken. Even at the age of 92, the woman I called Nanny had remained formidable, sharp as the proverbial tack—a character, people always said. I missed her and I had to face the fact that the more convenient “someday,” that day I’d planned to sit with her and learn all about the Italy of her childhood, would never come.
I went to visit her son—my great-uncle Frank—and asked him if he would tell me all he knew. He’d been born in New York yet I thought surely he knew about his mother’s origins. But he didn’t. He was apologetic. She’d talked about it, he said, but he’d never listened enough to remember. I’d heard her talk about it too, but I hadn’t listened enough either.
A couple of years later, Uncle Frank sent me a letter. Going through some of Nanny’s things, he’d found an envelope. The return address and the postmark contained a name he recognized. It was the town she’d said she’d come from. “She cared about it enough to save for twenty-seven years,” he said. “Maybe you can figure something out.”
That was going to be a little tricky since there was nothing inside the envelope, but at least I had the name of two people along with the name of the town. And it made sense: The town was Macchia Albanese and I had always known that, at least on my father’s side of the family, we were something called Albanese. The only other thing I knew was that they spoke a language that was not really Italian.
I grew up in Brooklyn. My father’s mother lived with us and her mother, Nanny, lived three blocks away. Nanny and my grandmother sometimes spoke to each other in that language. I used to play at imitating the sounds and cadence. Sometimes it sounded like the Italian my mother occasionally taught me but other times it sounded nothing like it at all. Eventually, my grandmother explained that we were Albanese, a kind of Italian that came with its own language. I learned later that she was using an older term for what is now called Arbëreshë.
More than once, my grandmother told me the story of riding on the trolley as a young women and sitting near two women of similar age. The women began speaking in the Arbëreshë language about how much they did not like my grandmother’s dress. She listened, fuming, as they moved on to her hair and shoes. When one of them started talking about what my grandmother called “some personal problems with her husband.” it started out pretty bland. But my grandmother listened with increasing interest as it got more and more “personal.” They finished and sat in silence; my grandmother looked straight ahead. Then, as her trolley stop approached, she stood, leaned over them and said, in the Arbëreshë language of course, “I hope your husband learns to behave himself.” She and Nanny never failed to laugh at that story and usually exchanged a few more Arbëreshë words for good measure.
Now, I was excited to see the envelope and that familiar word. I had visions of finding the town and writing or going there to discover scads of relatives. As you might have guessed, it didn’t go quite like that. Next time, I’ll talk about my first stabs at getting somewhere.
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