Rita Watson’s Italian Kisses: Grandma tried to avoid unkind words
By Rita Watson Special to The Journal Posted Apr. 14, 2016 @ 9:00 pm
Grandma believed in clichés, euphemisms and kind words. “Bless instead of curse, because curses come home,” was a favorite saying.
Grandma may not have seen the world through rose-colored glasses, but she spoke as if she did, even though her body language sometimes betrayed her. Our philandering great uncle was never called a “Casanova.” Instead, Grandma talked about his “tendency,” shrugging her shoulders, lifting her hands upward and raising her eyes to heaven. Yet today, despite the golden rules from the “Baltimore Catechism” we learned preparing for our First Communion, it is her words that resonate.
My 94-year-old Aunt Rose recently explained: “Uncle was tall and handsome with thick, black, wavy hair. The twinkle in his blue eyes was his downfall. The girls were all in love with him. And he had the tendency to please. He didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Once he married, Aunt Georgia straightened him out, although the tendency sometimes returned.”
As family lore goes, one day Uncle entered the family pastry shop hugging a young, giggling bank teller. It seems that Aunt Georgia was helping in the back kitchen that day. When she heard his voice, she gasped, “the tendency.” Zia, the pastry shop matron, dashed from the kitchen waving her rolling pin. The young lady fled and, after that experience, Uncle began taking trips to Italy with his brothers. He claimed his doctors said that exercising in the old country was good for his heart.
Another uncle had what Grandma dubbed “the condition” — Grandma never used the word alcoholism. She said he developed “a condition” after his wife died. “It broke his heart,” Grandma would say, “and blackberry brandy is a healer.”
Apparently tendencies and conditions were not unique to our family. A colleague from a large Italian family remembers an older cousin, “Tony, the painter,” who missed family gatherings for three years. Whenever anyone asked “Where’s Tony?” the matriarch answered, “He’s painting a house.” No one dared mention that he was “doing time.”
Another euphemism we often heard was quietly spoken when a man jilted a relative, either by choice or because a father deemed that he was not suitable for his daughter. We never heard, “He stood her up.” The words used were “È scomparso,” meaning, “He disappeared.” Today we call that “ghosting.”
Although some relatives whispered, “She’s better off without him,” or “She deserves better,” no unkind words were spoken in our house.
“Watch your words,” Grandma warned. “What if he comes back again, the family reconciles, and the two want to marry? If you speak unkind words, and it gets back to the family, you won’t be invited to the wedding.” With that threat, everyone made the zip sign across their lips.
Rita Esposito Watson (ritawatson.com) is a Journal columnist writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”