Frustrated beyond belief by a headache at work a couple weeks back, I pushed away from my desk and bellowed: MADONNA SANTA GIUSEPP’!!! Which doesn’t happen all that often. At least not at work. Not that loudly, anyway. And not within earshot of colleagues, who jointly turned in their seats to see who had issued the vociferous Mediterranean appeal to the Holy Mother and Saint Joseph.
My father issued this same noisy petition quite a lot during my childhood, and it’s ALMOST the only bit of Neapolitan I ever learned. ALMOST. I also know how to say “Shut up and start eating” AND “You are a tough, dry turd that someone had a hard time voiding,” although I’m happy to report that I have never uttered either in the Times Union newsroom. (And for the record, my father never uttered either to me.)
My dad was Eye-Talian. That’s how bigots of yore pronounced the word in polite company, or at any rate when they wanted to express distrust or disgust without resorting to “guinea” or “wop.” Eye. Talian. Always with a beat between the syllables. As a kid I found this odd, since no one I knew called the country of origin Eye-Taly, and I also found it odd that my American-born Daddy would take any heat from anyone for being, I dunno, FOREIGN. Yes, he was eccentric. And huuuuuugely expressive and impassioned and never exactly quiet. But alien? Not to me.
True, he’d grown up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and yes, his first language was Neapolitan, but he passionately loved his country of birth and came to embody its dream. He worked hard, went to college, attended grad school, became a music critic, wrote books, studied etymology and linguistics, translated “The Divine Comedy” (though I suppose that’s about as Eye-Talian as literature gets) and befriended the likes of Eugene Ormandy. He was a good citizen! He voted in every election! He ate yogurt! He had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore!
He also tore his calf rushing to rescue a neighbor from a fire, and years later, he rescued a little girl from drowning. He once talked two men out of a knife fight on the subway (“brothers! brothers!”), once talked a mugger out of stealing his watch (“My late mother gave me that! Are you sure you want to take it? Won’t you feel terrible afterward?”) and, during World War II, got into an argument with a fascist barber while the man held a straight-edge to his neck. That’s the sort of Eye-Talian he was. One who saved lives, opposed violence — he gave up boxing after his buddy went punch drunk — and hated Mussolini.
Daddy died 23 years ago, but the gifts he gave me still endure: love of music, love of language, love of peace. I got those from him. Those, and the reflexive Southern-Italian blurt-outs invoking the Holy Family, which, okay, are just a tad blasphemous, especially when Jesus gets tossed into the mix (MADONNA SANTA GIUSEPP’ GESU!!).
If only I’d learned a little more of my father’s native tongue. Madonn’, I wish I had.