I had forgotten what it was like to be so unconditionally loved that just showing up was enough. I imagine when I was born this was so, but I don’t remember enough of the story to fully appreciate how my family here in America responded to my birth. Growing up in New York as a second-generation Italian-American, a strong sense of family identity was valued and encouraged above and beyond any call for individual praise. Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ were chock-full of food and love but at times we younger cousins got lost in the sauce as our mothers swapped children when organizing car rides, sleepovers and family outings. I was often traded for a couple of older boy cousins, which left me in the safety of a playpen while they romped around, unrestrained, in the back of my father’s station wagon. A few years ago, I stepped off a train in Castrocielo, the hometown of my Italian grandparents, and was greeted by a delightful chorus of “Brava”.After not having visited Italy for 25 years, we were met by a crowd of admirers who instantly cast me as their leading lady. This celebrity status should have come as no surprise since I was the first American cousin to make the trip in decades. We passed “Welcome Jeanne” signs on the train platform and throughout the town as we caravanned to the houses of my mother’s first cousins, Giovanni and Domenicantonia. Aunts, uncles and cousins showed up in twos and threes until our welcome band of 13 blossomed into 40 for a sit-down lunch. With my husband and me at the head of the dais and our three teenagers at the “kids table”, we made our way through seven courses, speaking only the language of love.
My Italian relatives sweetly pronounced my name “Jenny”, just as my grandparents did so many years ago. I was reminded of the patch of Italy they carved out for us in New York: my grandma’s bread oven in the back yard, my grandpa’s great garden, and the seemingly endless table that reached through hallways, the living room and practically out the back door to accommodate the growing numbers of us. There were pots of gravy simmering with so many types of meat that to this day I cannot pronounce the names. Fresh chunks of Parmesan cheese and sliced Italian bread were plopped generously atop checkered and flowered tablecloths. We busily passed macaroni and meatballs like an unruly game of Twister. By the time the salad arrived at the end of each meal we were off and running, skipping along the wall that my grandfather had laid stone by stone.
After a year of e-mail, gift and photo exchanges with my new/old family in Italy, for obvious reasons I returned. With our eldest daughter and some newly acquired Italian, I visited six houses to enjoy nine meals over three days. We picked grapes, almonds and pears, sampled homemade wine and tasted rabbit for the first time. We visited grottos, a World War II museum and cathedrals. We held hands, walked through ruins, cried at cemeteries, prayed at chapels, honored saints, lit candles and spoke of miracles. I began to understand some of the traditions that made their way through Ellis Island and into our kitchens so many generations later.
A beautifully shuttered window framed my first old-country sunrise and chickens circling Giovanni with his bucket of feed. “Buon Giorno”, I called out, as if no longer a stranger to the rhythm of my grandmother’s childhood days. Sipping coffee we gingerly moved along the branches of our family tree and created a diagram so complete that it could only be punctuated with a declaration of “Brava”. In this little Italian village, a reason to celebrate seemed like a hiding child who my relatives were eager to find. That they would find me, or I would find them, so consistently worthy of applause was fortunately beyond words since my grasp of Italian was so limited.
At the end of our day together, my nephew realized that they’d been mispronouncing my name, but I repeatedly refused their offers to relearn it. “No, please”, I urged, “then I would miss being ‘Jenny’ here with you.” And once again, for no apparent reason, these beautiful people opened their hearts and offered up another love-soaked, “Brava!”
We are truly loved when just showing up is enough. – ZipLine Lady

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