The Crying Game
Isabel Bearman Bucher
© Copyright 1998 by Isabel Bearman Bucher
Italians cry. They cry for everything. They laugh when they cry, and cry when they laugh. They boo-hoo, roller coastering into someone's open arms for the kissy-kissy. They cry if you go, and if you come, or, if you don't come, or go. They cry for opera, music, even if it's Irish, especially if it's about mothers. They cry for un bel'vino roso, or a squisito minestra. That's wine and soup. And, they think that anybody who can't cry has some basic genetic flaw. The statement, "I'm going to cry," is like some magnificent offering, some very great thing. At least that's the way it was in my family. People always said the northern Italians were more reserved. Snotty about everybody who lives south of them, yes. But reserved? I don't think so.
My grandparents came from the old country in 1914. Nonna cried the whole crossing because she was homesick and seasick. Nonno dragged her topside, shoved an American flag in her hand, while he cried, and pointed to the Statue of Liberty. She promptly threw up over the railing, while my mother and uncle cried, because they didn't know why their parents were crying. Inside Nonno's shirt were grape vine cuttings, wrapped in wet handkerchiefs.
It took them three years to get out of the tenements of Brooklyn - Little Italy, where my mother and uncle slept in trunks, and water froze in glasses. Nonno did common labor; Nonna did the shirt factories, taught oil painting and Italian to rich people. She was a college educated artist and she spoke four languages. They saved, padded their small kitty. Nonno kept the vines alive; his symbol of hope Eventually, they moved north with the kids, vines and kitty to Branford, Connecticut and bought five acres. Nonno built three houses; one for us, one for them, and one for his brother. He planted his vines, got Uncle Victor over, and the family settled down.
My brother and I were born into all this twenty five years later. It was the forties, small town USA, a meshwork of ethnic smells, rich cultures, strong opinions, flag waving, and tight families. The Italians lived on one side of the street, the Swedes and Norwegians, on the other; a few WASPS were scattered on both sides.
"The women smoke pipes up there," Nonna whispered out of the side of her mouth, gesturing across the street to the attics, with one squinched-up eye. "And, day-don't-a-cry."
Neither did the WASPS, alias "Connecticut Yankees." They were reserved, quiet. They had Jello salads with canned fruit and just a drop of mayo on the exact top. Neat. Everything was neat. The rocks that lined their yards were painted white, and were neat. They didn't have bird baths, or chicken coops, and they didn't blame the Gypsies for everything. Their lack of emotion, and habit of cutting the crusts off their white sliced bread made them the object of supper conversation.
"They cut-a-da-best-a-part," stated Nonna certainly.
I learned early, the best-a-part was usually something disgusting, like boiled chicken feet.
"You could make a Michelangelo sculpture out of that white bread," quipped my dad. "and go back ten years later and it would still be soft."
Everybody laughed until they cried. I didn't. I wanted to eat it.
Just walking to town meant tears. Those were the war years. Stars hung in everybody's windows that represented serving sons - blue for serving, silver for dead. Everybody knew to buck-up and keep a stiff upper lip. Churchill and the Yanks did it - not my family. Every time we got to the house with the four silver stars, I started plugging my ears, because all the women would start. Then, they'd get to talking about the old country, and there I'd be, stuck in the middle of the Branford Italian American Women's Crying League and the bucked-up rest, who'd be looking out their windows because of the noise.
"Ooooo! Crocodile tears! " they'd hoot at my brother. "Cry for something, not nothing!" They had such a nerve to make fun of him constantly!
Somewhere between the Italian soaps, that sounded like our chicken coop, and the family Sunday supper, I decided crying was giving in, weak minded, too emotional. Italian. I hated it when I did it. I wanted to be a skinny, bucked-up, stiff-upper lipped pale person, who ate Jello, not endive and dandelion salads. Even then, I knew that being small, dark, Italian, and ... emotional, was not good. UnAmerican. First generation kids are like that, so I learned, years later in sociology classes. They want to fit in. Secretly disgusted, I made up my mind to stop crying, which was just about as hard as when somebody told a funny story and the women grasped the sink, squeezed their legs, while laughing and crying, to keep from peeing. I studied crying styles like some sort of possessed scientist.
My mother had a way of biting her index finger knuckle, pushing her chin to her chest, gritting her teeth, and wo-wooing like a small windstorm. Nonna copied the Michelangelo paintings of female saints, and holy mothers. She was an artist. She placed her right hand over her heart, middle fingers together, and end ones slightly spread. Then, the left would go over the right, both wrists arched. She'd crank her head sideways right, rolling suffering eyes up to heaven. "Deo," would be next, then tears. "Aahh-ah-ahya-ya-ya," would wander up and down like an arpeggio scale, until she ran out of breath. Then she'd repeat the first measure. My Aunt Mimi, married to Crazy Uncle Dee, my mom's brother, would make her mouth round and suck in air, while tears came out. Then, something like a high-pitched porpoise whistle would precede hiccups. My Aunt Irma, married to Uncle Victor, would puff like a steam engine, and then let it all out with one big woo-blast.
The men were quieter, at first. But when they let go ... Nonno would grit his perfect thumbnail-sized teeth, like he was going to knock somebody's lights out, and tears would roll down his rosy cheeks. He'd "Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha," loud, out of one side of his mouth, suck up, swallow, and show teeth again, while pushing a wadded hanky to his beak of a nose. Whatever he was smoking never dropped. Uncle Victor would blow his nose with continuous blasts that would have shattered glass, muffling tsch's and bottom teeth whistles, while engaging in abdominal crunches and shoulder hunches. My Father's eyes would fill, get red, and he would "Woof-ha, ha, ha, ahahaaaa, cough, cough, cough, then big blow." He was the only intermarriage, which caused a few tears on both sides.
"He's un bel'Italiano!" Nonna proclaimed, tearing up the first time Dad corked off .
Well, my German Grandmother socked him, thinking he'd gone totally mad.
The crying game approached exquisite perfection on Saturday, when the opera was heard live from the New York Met. The NBC gong and Milton Cross signaled my death knell. There was nothing to do. Nobody would pay any attention to you. Even if you stated you were going to wander around in the family dump, or feed garlic to Mrs. Spencer's dairy cows, they just yelled, "Go!" Any Puccini was a guaranteed squirter, but La Bohemme? That was the grand squirt of the world. Everybody gathered around the red-eyed Philco in Nonna's livingroom. Necessary paraphernalia included crooked cigars, china cups filled with espresso for the ladies, jelly glasses of homemade red wine, or the okay thing for women to drink; sweet vermouth aperitif. The house smelled of Romano cheese, Nonna's oil paints, saffron, rosemary, garlic, underarms and smoke. If Mimi was dying, or Pagliacco's heart was breaking, courtesy of Caruso, forget it! The whole place broke into woos, wa-wa's, snorts, sucks, howls, Deos, coughs, blasts, wails and hiccups.
"Phooey!" Uncle Dee would yell into the dripping pot and pan symphony, from a safe distance.
The entire family would rise, shaking their fists, yelling back, "Silenzio! Bruto! Tedesco!" That meant "German." That was a big insult. Then they'd all turn to Dad and say "Escuso, George. " Uncle Dee would just throw his hands, laugh and pretend to sneak out.
Sometimes, I'd wander into empty dining room and mimic everybody's crying game before the mirror. One day, I looked back over my shoulder, and my Aunt Mimi was staring at me from the doorway.
"You sick?" she quizzed.
"Who? Me?" I returned, stretching my mouth like rubberman.
Another time, I took our big, chewed-up yellow tom into the closet. I howled up and down the scale. Fists hit the wall so hard and so fast, I peed my pants and choked the cat. For a long time after, whenever he innocently wandered through the livingroom, somebody would stick his nose in the closet and whomp him.
The years went by. The family got scattered to the four winds. The old ones passed on, the rest of us lost contact. I got married, had two girls, became a widow, and remarried Who I was got buried and forgotten under thirty-five years, even though it came into vogue to be "ethnic." I never listened to opera. Crying got a token shot now and again, but it never worked. It all stayed inside, like the rest of who I was.
It was the smells began to bring me back - saffron, olive oil, anise. The unconscious putting of red wine into meats and soups. The preference for grated Romano, knowing exactly how to use a chef's knife to chop parsley, pound a clove of garlic and meld them with salt pork for the basis of minestrone. I don't know when I realized that I only wanted to drink robusto red wine. It was a shock when my grown daughters took to the preference too. We also took to very strong coffee. Then came the use of the hands, unconsciously. Index fingers and thumbs made round circles, NEVER middle, index and thumb pinched together gesturing upside down. "Non gentile," I'd think, not even knowing why. I found myself listening to the opera on Saturday errands, in the car. Out of my mouth would come fragments of songs, in Italian. There came a day when my youngest went to the piano. She'd gotten into the university music school and mostly practiced and lived there. She sat down, began to play and sing a Puccini aria. I sat on the couch, dumbstruck. "O Mio Babbino Caro," I knew every word, every note. I felt my entire life, and everything that I was, was being passed on in that beautiful, lyrical voice, and this child, who was singing like an angel, dressed in black frizzy hair and combat boots.
I bit my knuckle. I sucked in air. My eyes filled to over flowing. I clasped my hands over my heart and whispered "Deo." I put my hands over my mouth to try to keep it in. I did abdominal crunches, and shoulder hunches, and let go with a porpoise whistle, then such a woo- blast, that needed a sucking-in of air. I wandered up the scale, while the tears rolled down and splashed all over my lap, and on the table, where they glistened and puddled. I blew my beak of a nose, hiccups followed naturally, and that day ... I let-er rip for 35 years, for Nonno, for Nonna, for Mom and Dad; I said "phooey" for Uncle Dee, and did a bit more for Mimi and Aunt Irma and Uncle Vic. Bless them all. And my singing daughter? She never missed a note, as if her crying mother was the most natural thing in the world.
I cry for everything now, not for nothing, because I have everything. I cry when my daughters say I was a good mamma, for a beautiful soup, sunsets and sunrises - for flowing and dulcet arias. I fly into the arms of my longtime friends for the kissy-kissy, and tear up watching my healthy husband, sleeping softly on the couch, even before the ten o'clock news.
And the crying winds back through the time corridors, whispering through the generations - all of us -whose hearts were full to breaking because of pride and beauty and feeling.
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