The Italian Geriatric League Weekend

March 15, 2016

I know that getting old is not really funny. Neither are visits to Nursing Homes or Funeral Homes. Yet, last weekend, while experiencing all of the above, we found humor, love, sadness and camaraderie. What does this have to do with being Italian or traveling to Italy, you ask? It has Everything to do with it.

My father, Pasquale Patrick Ricci, will be 92 in July. He is physically very healthy but dementia is at war with his memories and his life. It is a difficult thing for us to watch.  What I enjoy the most is the fact that Papa’ remembers his past much better than what happened today.  He can talk about growing up Italian, all his friends who were Italian, La Famiglia and the Italian neighborhood. And sometimes, when his forgetfulness is winning, it can still be fun and funny.

Part 1. Saturday

In St. Paul, Minnesota, we have 32 Ricci first cousins. Numero uno, Jackie Ricci, is 75 years old and has a permanent back injury. Now he is in a nursing home because he falls too much and his back is too fragile.  My dad wanted to visit him Saturday.

Jackie was very happy to see us.  He has hearing aids and talks quickly. My dad has hearing aids and talks softly.  And they both talk over each other.  I hear it all (headache!). Jackie told us at least a dozen times how he wishes he could have a drink. He wants some booze. He used to drink a lot but he can’t drink with the medications.  

I finally asked him, “Jackie, how long has it been since you had a drink?”

“30 years ago, Marilyn. I can’t drink with the drugs I am on!” I had to laugh.  This was a discussion for half the time we were there.

My dad kept asking Jackie if Cindy, his friend, still lived in the old neighborhood which has taken a bad turn.  Jack told him repeatedly that she did.  

Dad would say “She needs to get the hell out of there before something happens.”

Jackie would respond, “Oh she will get out when she retires in November.”

Dad would say, “You need to tell her to get out of there Jack.” He would say he did tell her that.

Two minutes later: “Does Cindy still live in the old neighborhood?”  And the round robin would go again.  I began to smile—fighting actual giggles.  Neither one of them remembered the topics being repeated.  They were enjoying their discussions.

After about 40 minutes, I had to change the subject or burst out laughing. I asked Jack what he remembered about Grandpa Ricci from when he was young.  Jackie told me that he was born in their home and his family lived in a little room upstairs.  My dad then chimed in with how they were all still home at that time and Jackie plus his parents basically lived in what was a bigger kitchen and bath! My dad slept on the second floor too, and so did most of the 12 kids raised together.  They would walk into the kitchen to play with and comfort little Jackie.  

Wow.  I did not know that.  We then talked about Grandpa and Nonna and all the people who lived in that tiny little house on Fred St.  They had very few material things. They had each other. Jackie’s dad, Frank, played the guitar and Grandpa play the accordion.  They danced, they laughed, they fought and they shared.

After saying goodbye to Jackie, my father helped us find his friend, Joe Tuccitto, who has been living in this same nursing home for years.  He is now in the memory care ward. My dad told me about Joe as we went downstairs.  Joe was an all- city football champion from Johnson High School in 1943. After graduating, my dad and Joe went into the Navy together. They were sent to different ships after boot camp. They both survived and have been friends forever.

Joe was wheeled into the main room and when he saw my father his eyes lit up. “Paaattt!” He shouted and held out his arms.  My father stood and hugged his friend and got a bit teary eyed. Then everything took an odd turn.  Joe started speaking in Italian, only in Italian.  My dad was shocked and kept saying, “Joe, speak English. Non capisco Italiano! Talk to her (pointing at me). She speaks Italian.” This was the conversation for the next hour.

Joe also asked who I was. My dad said “my daughter” but Joe asked if I was the new wife.  Dad looked at me anxiously and said, “How do I say daughter in Italian?” I said “Figlia, dad. Mia Figlia.”  This round robin was in Italian.

Com’e stai Pat?”

Bene, Joe but non capisco Italiano. Speak English Joe.”

“Chi e’? La nuova moglie?”

No, Mi figlia Joe, my daughter. Talk to her. She speaks Italian.”

Joe looks at me. “Fra la levee. Non mi piace.” From the Levee (another old Italian neighborhood in St. Paul). I don’t like.

“No Joe. Pat e’ mio Papa’.”

“Pat, ti ricordo 7th St. and Payne Avenue? Sicuro? Vivo li.” Pat you remember 7th …For sure? I live there.

My dad would then try to tell him he didn’t live there. The Damiani store was there. He lived on Edgerton. Joe would raise his voice and scold my dad for being wrong and his bad Italian.  

Suddenly he spoke perfect English.  I was so tuned into Italian that I couldn’t respond.

This was another hour of holding back giggles.  And calming my father—this spooked him a bit. His friend had never spoken Italian to him.  But, surprisingly, my father remembered more than he thought and could understand quite a bit of what was said.

When we parted it was sad. My father was disappointed in his friend’s change.  He also felt sorry for the others in memory care and talked with them too.  We talked about Joe all the way home.

My father will visit these people again. Jackie is Family and Joe is a paisano, a friend from the neighborhood—an Italian friend.  This is what family does.  This is what friends do. This is how Italians act.

Want to hear about Sunday? Want to understand how this helps me help you find your Italian Soul while traveling in Italy? Watch for our next blog.

Ciao for now!

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