The old saying, “The apple never falls far from the tree,” is accurate in my case. To know anything about me, you have to get to know a little bit about the women who came before me. You need to know their stories.
First, my grandma Rosa. She’s only 5 feet tall, but don’t be fooled. This feisty Italian woman has no problem saying — or shouting — what’s on her mind. Rosa emigrated from the small town of Toritto, in the southern part of Italy, to Long Island when she was only 16. With little money, a baby on the way and zero knowledge of the English language, she was scared to move halfway across the world. I believe it was at this vulnerable time in her life when she found strength, resilience and courage.
After meeting the right people and settling in, Rosa started her life in America. She gave birth to a girl — my mother — and over the years taught her how to work hard, how to stay humble and, of course, how to prepare authentic Italian recipes. But the biggest lesson that Rosa passed down was to tell the truth always. In her book, a liar was considered nothing short of a criminal.
My mother, in turn, instilled these values in me, and they have molded the person I’ve become. Every Sunday night, after meatballs and espresso, I continue to teach my now 67-year-old grandmother proper English (to the best of my ability), and in return she tutors me in Italian. Mom was always listening in the background, nibbling on prosciutto and helping with phrases.
I credit my other grandmother, Dorothy, with helping me develop a love of writing. She earned a doctorate in literature and English studies from NYU, and dedicated her life to teaching. Every Christmas I would receive classics by Hemingway, Bronte, Dickens, Hardy or Woolf. With every novel, I became more fascinated by words, and I turned into a book junkie. You could often find me deep in the stacks at the back of the library, engrossed in the anatomy of bugs, or spread out on my bedroom floor with an autobiography of George Washington. No matter the subject, if a book was in front of me, I was reading it.
If Dorothy had had it her way, I would have become an English teacher. In her book, there was nothing nobler. But as it turned out, my love of books was topped only by my interest in people. Combine that with writing and you’ve got my dream career: journalist.
Language can save you when you’re scared and in a new environment, like Rosa was. It deepens your appreciation for the classics, and how writers before us perceived the world. Before breast cancer took her life over two decades ago, Dorothy helped me understand this. In a way, my grandmothers also learned a lot from each other. Although one was a foreigner and one had had a comfortable American upbringing, they had no trouble finding common ground. They were, after all, two strong, independent, take-no-crap women.
I’ve read that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, sketched the outline of the first of her mega-hits on a diner napkin because she couldn’t afford a notebook — and that a number of publishers initially rejected her queries. That information has stayed with me for a long time. It takes a truly determined and persistent individual to fracture barriers before breaking through — just like my grandmothers.
I like to think that every one of us has all the material we need for a book of our own. We write paragraphs every single day, even if only in our minds, and do lots of erasing as well. Some of us have picture books; some of us scribble only a few words on a page. As for me, I have a scrapbook. Some of my pages are colored by Rosa, and others by Dorothy. The pages are stamped with love, and the best thing about this book is that it never ends. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start it on a napkin, and finish it on an elegantly printed page.
Wantagh native Rebecca Anderson reports for the Seaford and Wantagh Herald Citizens and attends Columbia University's graduate journalism program. Comments about this column? Randerson@liherald.com.