The writer recalls two different moments when she and her grandparents connected, despite a large cultural and linguistic gap
The door to my grandparents’ house in Queens greets me, worn and grayed. Inside, the familiar setting smells faintly of fruit, maybe the Asian pears my Nainai always sends us home with. The left opens to the kitchen and dining table, with its fruit-print tablecloth, overhung by a huge old fan. Right leads to the dimly lit living room, with its leather couch. Creepy-looking dolls and framed pictures line the windowsill.
I mirror what my brother and dad do, leaving my shoes on the mat by the door, handing my coat to my dad to hang. A simple routine, same as ever. I give my Gonggong a hug, his face just as I remember, never aging, thin black hair, dimples and crinkling eyes. He wears his usual, old jeans and a soft, ribbed sweater.
Then, I turn to hug my Nainai, meeting her deep-set eyes under thin eyebrows and dark curls. The only words I manage are, “Hi, how are you?” even though I know I won’t get a reply, and even if I did, it wouldn’t carry on for more than a few words. And oh, this is so awkward, the scratchy knit of her sweater rubbing my cheek, and I’m only ten years old, but I have to lean down slightly because we’re almost the same height, silent because I have no idea of what else to say. She pats my back, a gesture that could have some semblance of comfort but feels awkward and stiff. At least she tried. When I pull away, the unfamiliar words of a language I can’t understand fill my ears. I move behind my mom, turning invisible, the only one they can’t talk to.
Once we’ve gotten settled, greetings, updates on life, all that, we all sit at the dining table, padded wooden chairs squeaking and screeching against the floor. Then comes a seemingly endless supply of dishes: soup, meat, vegetables. You name it, it’s there. I reach out gingerly with my chopsticks, my hands shaking. I’ve only just learned how to use them, and I should probably just get a fork, but I don’t.
Again, I mirror whatever my brother does and eats, and he rolls his eyes at me. “You don’t have to do everything I do,” he whispers.
“I’m not!” I whisper back. I always speak quietly here for some reason, like my hand will get slapped with a ruler if I talk out of turn.
We eat until we can’t eat anymore, until the dishes are half empty and we’ve exhausted all topics of conversation. My mom taps my shoulder. “Hao chi,” she says, her eyes urging me to follow her lead. By now, I know what these two words mean: “The food is very good.” So simple and yet impossible to say. My face burns. I can’t, I think. Yes, I can. I can do this. It can’t be that hard. It’s just two syllables. These two syllables are impossibly difficult to articulate. I open my mouth to repeat after my mom, but the only words I can manage are: “Thank you.”
I look down as Nainai nods, a small smile on her face. I feel bad for not trying, but what if I had messed the words up, or my voice had cracked, or I’d stuttered? I would’ve made such a fool of myself. So, like so many times before, I stand and help clear the table, piling dishes and cups by the sink before moving to stand behind my dad, using him as a shield.
I sit tight until she returns, perched stiffly, a little scared that if I move, I’ll ruin it all.
We travel to the living room, where I settle on the couch, escaping into my book. A little while later, I hear shuffling and look up to see Nainai holding a plate of fruit. I look to my mom for help, and she shrugs. Help, help! Please help me. Do something— translate, distract her, anything! Nainai gestures to the slices of peach, pushing the plate at me. I take one, saying a quiet “Thank you,” before eating it in three bites. It’s sweet and crunchy and perfect, and I nod to her eager face.
“Good?” she asks.
“Very good. Thank you!” I respond, hesitant, but trying to stay steady.
She hands me slice after slice, completely silent, and I take more, even though I’ve just eaten lunch. Once I’ve finished, she gives me a pleased smile, puts the plate down on the little glass coffee table, and turns around, walking up the stairs. I’m a little confused, but I go with it because, honestly, what else am I supposed to do? I sit tight until she returns, perched stiffly, a little scared that if I move, I’ll ruin it all. She returns holding two bright-green sweaters. She says something to my mom but holds my eyes the whole time.
“She says these are for you. She got them in China. She says you shouldn’t wear so much black. The green will suit you.”
My heart swells. She bought me a present. She saw something, thought of me, and decided to buy it. And I nod, ignoring the comment about how I dress, and take the brighter of the two sweaters, with its scratchy fabric and blinding color, and slip it over my head, awkwardly pulling it over my black shirt. I give her what I hope is a smile, and she smiles back.
“Wow. Nice, right?” she says enthusiastically.
“Yup. Thank you so much! I like it!” I reply with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Am I really that excited about these itchy, green, mock-neck sweaters? No. Am I going to lie so as to not hurt her feelings? Absolutely. She bought me a gift, and now it’s my turn to show her that I appreciate it.
Anyway, it’s the thought that counts. I begin to understand that this is how we communicate. I think back to similar moments from when I was little, when she used to braid my hair for what felt like hours, feed me unfamiliar foods and bring me hand-me-downs from my cousins. Then, I didn’t get it. Now, I do. We can’t exactly hold a conversation, but somehow, we can still communicate.
* * *
Halfway across the world, on summer break, I carefully step into the cabin of my Nonno, my mother’s father. The Italian mountain air is fresh and cool, but his house smells slightly stale from being closed up for too long. It’s tiny, I think. Minuscule. The kitchenette has a minifridge and a propane burner, a wood-burning stove and a small table with wooden crates tucked underneath and benches on either side. I set my things on the flatbed under the stairs and read, waiting for Nonno to say something.
A few hours later, he decides to give me a tour of his little domain: the house surrounded by rolling hills, trees that wave in the wind, thick clumps of flowers and berry bushes. Through a few words and lots of hand gestures, he tells me a story about the cabin and its surroundings. When he first decided to live in a casetta (little house), my Nonna said it would be too dangerous to be so far in the woods. The mud would slide off the mountain and crush his house. The lightning would strike and start a fire. Trees would fall on him.
He tells me that when he’d arrived, he spoke to Nature and said that he needed his little cabin to be a safe space, that he needed to be protected. He says that in response, the trees turned the other way and leaned over his house, their long, arm-like branches forming a wall to protect him from the rain, snow, mud, and hot sun. He uses his arms to show the trees leaning, wiggling his fingers to make rain, and then making a knobby, long-nosed Pinocchio face with his hands to represent Nonna.
He says everything has a spirit, you just have to listen and learn for them to help you. He smiles wide telling this story, eyes wild, forehead wrinkling, bushy eyebrows rising and falling comically.
That night, we light candles before sitting down to eat. After we shovel down mouthfuls of steaming minestrone, he tells me more about the wood spirits, and then passes his finger through the tiny candle flame—without burning himself! The fire is kind to him, he says, and doesn’t want to hurt him. Delighted, I clap and cheer. He shows me things he’s gotten in return for his offerings to the spirits, the porcelain figure of a little baby in the fruit basket on his table, or a piece of shimmering green sea glass. We boil almond flour pasta as a gift for the woods and set it by the window, then stay up late, feeding chopped wood to the bright, dancing fire in the stove and making hot cocoa, two mugs for us and one for the forest.
In the morning, he ushers me to the window, a clay blue-grey bird statue pinched between his rough fingers. He smiles wide, and I grin back. We check the mug of cocoa and the bowl of pasta and find them empty. He says the spirits have given us a gift in exchange for food, and we laugh while setting our little bird on the shelf.
Looking back now, I realize that he was just trying his best to entertain his American granddaughter, who could barely speak any Italian. But part of me still wonders, did the forest spirits really give us a bird? How did the trees form a canopy over the casetta? Who ate the pasta and drank the cocoa? We found a new understanding of each other through these tall tales and tiny objects. I still managed to understand his stories, even translated through hand gestures and a jumbled mix of English and Italian.
Somehow, these memories from different sides of my family, in different languages on separate continents, feel similar. My grandparents and I, so different, yet so similar, finding ways to communicate hardly using words at all. These moments are crisp and clear in my mind, never lost in translation.