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Episode Forty Six April 2002

My Grandmother's Basil Plant and the Tragedies of Homework

Italian American cultural artifacts (this category includes books) may be divided into two kinds, the innocent and the experienced.


The Innocent, or My Grandmother's Basil Plant. The day an artist or a writer wakes up to the reality of being Italian American is a romantic day. She is sitting at the computer. She has just finished a PowerPoint presentation for a sales meeting. The sun is shining. She looks out the window and sees a leafy plant with drops of water on it. It is not a basil plant, but it looks like one. Suddenly the world is full of light. She can smell the basil in the bubbling tomatoes of her nonna's kitchen. To that imagined aroma, she attaches the whole world of the immigrants. Their gardens, their food, their songs, their customs, their dialect, their embroidery, and their tragic histories. This is my heritage, she thinks.


Or else, he is leafing through a magazine in the proctologis's waiting-room. The beautiful color photographs are all a little wrinkled and oily. The pages lie weary and limp. The damp hands of too many worried readers have softened them. He turns to an article on the museums of Rome. There is a string of brilliant photographs of the Palazzo Barberini, its amazing collections, the trompe loeil ceiling in its grand salone, Berninis monumental staircase. He leans back in the waiting-room chair, not even noticing how it creaks under the pressure. He draws a deep breath that swells his chest. Leonardo, he sighs, Dante, Marconi, Puccini. This is my heritage, he thinks.


These are the golden moments of innocence, when a person, deeply immersed in the ordinariness of daily life in the United States, turns and unexpectedly discovers, like a treasure chest in the upstairs closet under the old neckties, some powerful piece of Italy or some radioactive relic of old Little Italy.


Such an object ? it might be a dusty bottle of Brioschi or a painted plaster cast of San Rocco with his dog ? is emotionally radiant. It opens a door to the sacred moments of childhood when one does not believe in God so much as see God in the grandmother or the glass of yellow Galliano. It gives a person strength to deal with the tiresome and the diminishing realities of adult life in the so-called real world.


The feelings are so powerful, the throb of divine grace is so palpable, that one is tempted, sometimes irresistibly, to take action. These are the moments when poems and cultural societies and seven-volume autobiographies are conceived. Some of these beginnings produce wonderful achievements. Others not. It is hard to write a work of epic scope based entirely upon one's feelings. The things one remembers from childhood do not, all by themselves, constitute an effective heritage. Those who persist in trying to realize their inspirations come to realize that innocence is not enough. To claim a heritage, one requires not only feelings but knowledge as well.

The Experienced, or the Tragedies of Homework. In Italian America, an Italian heritage can mean a family, a neighborhood, a dialect. It cannot mean a civilization. Italy and things Italian lead a qualified existence here. A person who lays hand on heart and claims to be the heir of Raffaelo or Giuseppe Verdi is, often enough, an importer of shoes or macaroni. To claim an Italian heritage in the United States means to outlive and abandon one's innocent raptures. It means to accept the tragic necessity of homework. To claim an Italian American heritage calls forth the same necessity.

We cannot inherit Italian anything, but we can claim it, if we like, if we allow our passion to become the subject of our studies. If we wish to speak of the migration, then we will not merely remember our grandparents, but we will also learn something about other people's grandparents, Italians and others alike. We may wish to study the mystery of the Risorgimento, the revolution that led to so much misery and migration. If we presume to speak about Italian history, then we will want to know the names of Italys principal cities and regions, of its heroes and villains in politics and in folklore. The main crops, exports, imports, and industries all matter. If we presume to speak about Italian American history, then we will want to know the economic and political pressures that have formed it through the years, we will want to know the aims and actions of Italian immigrants, of their organizations, of their leaders, of their encounters with other peoples in the Americas. The lesson of experience is that a person who claims a cultural heritage had better know a good deal about that heritage. Otherwise, there is a great danger of error and of empty bloviation.


What are the tragedies of homework? There are three. First, we must put aside our raging impulse to speak until we have spent some hard weeks and years mastering some aspects of the endless archive of Italian history and culture. This may mean long spells at the library table. It can also help to learn the language, a task that alone can take some little while. Second, we must come to realize that whatever our grandmother's basil plant has given us does not, all by itself, constitute a heritage. We must make that heritage our own. This need not mean reading history or learning Italian. It may mean learning to grow our own basil or do our own embroidery. It may mean acquiring a familiarity with the paintings or operas of which we would like to boast. Third, we must come to realize that whatever we learn will only amount to a very small portion of a heritage that we can come to call our own simply because experience has taught us that we can never own it at all. This is the paradox that all study teaches us, sooner or later. Those who believe that they love their Italian heritage will learn to give it the respect of patience and humility. That is the lesson of experience.


IAWA suggests that Italian Americans particularly honor writers who have taken this approach to their literary inheritance.