"E poi, Grandma?"

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Oct 21 17:13:01 UTC 2002

New York Times, October 21, 2002

Still Replying to Grandma's Persistent, 'And Then?'


    She was a thin woman without much fantasy. In her dress, I mean. Black
from head to toe, in the Sicilian manner. She was a Sicilian, in fact, and
she was my grandmother. She spoke little, and to my humiliation (I wanted
to be like the other American kids in the Bronx) in Sicilian. And then,
too, we were at the tail end of the war with Italy. So that in the street
and other public places I answered her in English to distance myself. Not
that my Sicilian was great. But at 8 or 9 I managed to tell her what she
wanted to know about my world at school and to conduct her from butcher to
grocer and order for her and to check the scales when she thought they
were tipping high. Unless we walked some distance to Arthur Avenue, where
she did not require my help because you could and probably still can spend
your life there speaking only Italian. But then we would have had to spend
the nickel bus fare to carry back the shopping all that distance home, so
we mostly stayed in the neighborhood, and I watched the scales.

She also thought, in the Sicilian fashion, never to ask directions of a
policeman because it was not wise to approach the law for whatever reason.
Just out of perversity, because we were greenhorns, he might point us the
wrong way. I also, and more importantly, served as her translator for the
American news on the radio, and for the American movies. There were plenty
of Italian-American shows on the radio, especially the soap operas that
she loved, but she did not trust the news, as reported in her language,
because she believed the wartime censorship was greater for the Italian

At the movies is where I shined best, interpreting for her most of the
dialogue she missed, which was most of the dialogue. Sometimes I myself
didn't understand what was happening on the screen, the love scenes
especially, when suddenly the couple stopped speaking, while the music
rose and the camera cut away to a train going through a tunnel or to a
horse rearing in its stable. "Che cosa successo?" What's happening? she'd
ask me in a whisper too loud for those about us. Or in English: "What he
say?" More humiliation for me. But at least it was suffered in the dark.

At those times when I lost the film's thread, I invented the story just to
keep her happy, hoping she would not notice the discrepancy between the
action on the screen and my childish interpretation. "He's tired, and he
wants to go to sleep," I explained, as the lead walked into his
girlfriend's bedroom. My mother was the first-born in America, and while
she could read and write, she had to help support the family and left high
school at 15, and she went to work in the Manhattan garment district. My
grandfather never learned to speak English. He died longing for Sicily,
where he could speak his language everywhere, even in the streets. My
mother was reared in an all-Italian-speaking household. And except when my
father whose family was in America before the Revolution on the
increasingly rare occasion came home, I was, too.

My mother read romances alone in the bedroom, and I read in the living
room I shared with my grandmother, a screen separating the two cots across
the room. My mother never told us about the novels she was reading, going
to her bed, book in hand, exhausted after dinner and after a long day at
work as a draper more than a hour and a half away in Manhattan. I was
fascinated by what she was reading, by what kept her so absorbed as to
keep her from me. Romances were her special fare: pirate and historical
novels with sizzling jackets, books she rented for pennies a day from the
stationery store near her subway station. Books I was yearning to read and
one day would. But for the moment, in that living room or at the kitchen
table, I was buried in my own books of the far away: "Kidnapped," "Ali
Baba and the 40 Thieves," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," the Hardy Boys
series, picture books of exotic travel into deserts and jungles and, maybe
when I was 10, H. Rider Haggard's "She," a travel adventure with its
mysterious story of a beautiful woman who stayed young a thousand years to
wait for her lover to return.

My grandmother did not read. She claimed she could not see the print
because of cataracts, which in those days and at her old age were
difficult to remove. But I suspect she was illiterate, never having gone
to school in Sicily, where she was married at 15 and where she bore four
children, two of whom died of measles. I read for her. Not in the
conventional way of translating word for word my childhood books, but by
telling, her with my own editing and inventions the stories in my reading.

>>From me she learned how an American boy and a slave fled home on a raft on
a river a thousand times bigger than the Bronx River running through the
Botanical Garden not far away from us, and how a man discovered the secret
word to opening a cave in Arabia where outlaws hid their "loot"  I used
the English word for that of gold and jewelry in huge barrels, like the
ones heaping with olives and dried sardines in the markets of Arthur
Avenue. I was a great storyteller, she said, emboldening me to further
inventions and reconstructions of these children's classics. My only
rivals for her entertainment, I believe, were her radio soaps and the
movies, where I also wielded some narrative power.

I knew one storytelling device that always worked. I would reach a crucial
point in my tale "He was in the outlaws' cave bathing himself in gold
coins, when he heard a loud noise behind him"  and then I would pause. "E
poi?" And then? she would invariably ask. The same "and then"  I later
read in E. M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel"  that is the fulcrum of all
fiction, going back to the earliest time our ancestors sat about the
communal fire spellbound by tales; the "and then" that moves the narrative
forward and, most of all, keeps the reader or the listener hooked on
yearning to know more of the story.

"And then, Grandma," I said, "he turned and saw the heavy cave door shut
behind him." That narrative device, that pause and withholding of
information, I had learned from her when she told me her own stories, no
less wonderful to me than the ones I had been reading and reinventing. Her
husband had been a policeman, one of the few carabiniere in her village,
where they had a home and a small vineyard in the hills. Rich grapes to
make golden muscatel.

"E poi?" I asked.

He went after some bandits in the mountains. They had been robbing people
in the village. The bandits sent word to leave them alone or they would
hurt his family. He went after them still. That was his stubborn way. "E
poi?" They burned the vineyard, and they said they would burn the house
next, and then they would kill the children.

"E poi, Grandma?"

"Then they burned the house. And then we left for America." We sat, we
two, in the Bronx, telling stories in a darkish room, safely away from the
frightening world outside the window, where the police gave misdirections
and the butcher tipped the scale. Stories. Like air, like food, like hope.
I read them, I told them, and later I wrote them, stories about men and
women seeking the far away in revolutions, in art and in the dreamy search
for love, but by that time she, Francesca, my first muse, was gone.

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