At 5:34 p.m. the day my daughter was born, my father wrote in an email:
Your parents have given you a lovely middle name and I wanted you to know a little bit about the wonderful woman you were named after.
Lucia D’Ianni, your great great grandmother, was born on November 27, 1889 in the small and remote mountain village of Frosolone, Italy. She was 19 when she married Donato (“Tony”) Scacciavillani (later changed to “Square”) in the beautiful Church of the Assumption in that little town on August 5, 1909. Within a few months, Tony and Lucy departed from the nearby seaport of Naples for America. They arrived at Ellis Island, outside New York City, a few weeks later and then traveled to Painesville, Ohio, where a number of other relatives had recently settled and where Tony had previously secured employment. Below [ed. note: above] is a picture of Tony and Lucy, taken shortly after their wedding and which served as their passport picture. Notice how they were gently holding on to each other. Tony and Lucy arrived with little education and even less money but built a successful and prosperous life. They lived the American dream.
Lucy was a kind, gentle and generous woman who always put the family first (“alla familia,” as she often said). Someday, when you are older, I will tell you many sweet memories I have of her when I was a little boy.
Below is a picture of my saying good bye to her as I was on my way to Vietnam in 1969.
With much love,
There is much to say about this transmission of family history. Some of it hinges upon the philological. Without drifting too far into the ether, I have, over the course of writing intensively for much of my life, discovered that language is one of the few ways to stop time. When I write about the past, and particularly those beloved deceased who belong to it, I am able for a moment to unstrap myself from the present. I find things lost. Sometimes these unearthings are only shadow and dust: there are details, for example, of my friend Elizabeth that have atrophied to the point of disintegration. I mourn those degradations intensely. I wish I had written them down when the grief was keener and the memory sharper. It is, I realize, a mad task, to believe that I might somehow resurrect her in her entirety through language. But it can sometimes feel that way, when I am sitting at my screen, and she appears on the page wearing my own words.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that it brings me peace to know that my daughter carries a small ledger of family history in her name. When she was born, I thought that it would be beautiful to celebrate, linguistically, this small part of my Italian-American heritage. It mattered to me that she inherited the full name — Lucia — rather than the Americanized Lucy: it is as though her middle name carries multiple generations. It defies time and cultural erosion. And Emory could do absolutely nothing to learn about her family history, and still she will be exercising it every time she signs her name, or spells it out for someone over the phone — “L as in Larry, u as in umbrella, c as in charlie…”
Perhaps even more meaningfully, each time she draws the loop of the cursive “L,” she will be blindly reflecting my adoration for my father, who had a particular devotion to his grandmother. Truthfully, her middle name is a modest honorarium to my father’s tender heart more than anything else. I knew it would bring him some small happiness to encounter his grandmother’s name with such unexpected routineness once my daughter was born, and I made it so.
I treasure these textual gestures, hidden and not. I love that she was named after a pioneering spirit: can you imagine sailing across the ocean to permanently live in a new country you’ve never before visited at the age of 19? I have long hoped for the same bravery in my daughter, who auspiciously shows early signs of a steely will. It takes little strain to make out the lineage.
Let me also dwell for a moment on the tremendous gift of this email, which I have now printed and placed in a binder of family history I am keeping to one day pass along to my children. In it, my father paints a couple of fine-tipped details of my great-grandparents lives that we would never otherwise possess. I have been poring over a slim leaflet of heavily-photocopied family history I inherited that passes along only the scantest of information. Of my great-great-grandparents, Felice and Maria, I read that “their marriage produced nine children; one probably died as an infant” and “Maria probably survived her husband.” The conditionals plague me. It is a gift, then, to know the name of the Church in which Lucia and Donato were married; perhaps one day I will visit. But even if not, its naming is a preservation that brings me — what is it? Calm. A sense of intactness. The ability to draw up in my imagination some loose sketch of the plucky, determined Italians who planted trees under whose shade I now sit.
The email is also a bestowing of family spirit. There is, of course, reverence for the American Dream, and for dedication to family, and even an implied pride in serving one’s country, but there is also my father’s instruction to “Notice how they were gently holding on to each other.” In this imploration, he not only communicates the tender-heartedness that I treasure in him but the importance of, well, noticing. My father has made a life of observing nuance. I see this orientation living out in my siblings and I, and now my children, too. Mary Oliver summarized the ethos aptly: “To enjoy, to question—never to assume, or trample. To observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly. So here I am, walking on down the sandy path, with my wild body, with the inherited devotions of curiosity and respect.” These words could have been written by, or about, my father. But they don’t need to be. I now find them encoded in transmissions like the email he sent to my daughter the day she was born, its very existence a reification. He could have saved the words for another day; he could have communicated them to me over coffee while newborn Emory was nestled in my arms. Instead, the day his granddaughter was born, he sat down at his desk, and he wrote these memories, and he scanned these pictures, and he took the time to pass on a bit of his own ethical will.
What I am saying is —
Write about your family.
When someone passes away, sit down at your desk and capture in precise language a memory. It doesn’t have to be profound, or moving, or dramatic. It could be a joke that made your aunt double over in laughter, or your cousin’s favorite turn-of-phrase, or the narrow and undecorated details of a trip to the shoe store with your grandma, or a conversation in the backyard with your next door neighbor.
Send these memories by hand to the bereaved, as though releasing paper boats into the water:
something slight and hand-formed that still, against all odds, floats.
+More on the notion of an ethical will.
+Oo la la — another great, dramatic black tie wedding guest dress option.
+The cowboy boot trend for under $50!
+Fabulous rattan-trim mirror at a good price.
+This shearling vest with the olive floral trim is amazing. Love.
+Classic navy cropped blazer on sale for $170 plus extra 40% off…run!
+Eyeing these bug-motif tumblers as a gift for my MIL.
+This $50 lounge set looks so chic.
+I’m already thinking about Thanksgiving — this dress would be perfect for mini.
+This tiny cord jumpsuit for babies!
+My favorite hairspray — holds but does not leave hair crispy. I use this on my children close to daily — the only thing that keeps my daughter’s flyaways and my son’s cowlick in check!