When I left for college in 1986, it wasn’t easy for Gussie. His mother had just died, his father and his second wife had decided to move to Florida, and all the change at once had hit him hard.
He pulled me aside after he and my mother moved me in to my dorm room and said “Listen. You’re on your own now. There are no rules like at home and nobody is looking after you. It’s going to be different and maybe rough, so remember three things: who you are, where you come from and where you’re going.” (A few months later I had a brain fart and forgot the third one and asked him to tell me again. He chuckled and said “I’m glad my advice left such an impression on you that you forgot already.” I told him that if it hadn’t meant so much to me I wouldn’t have asked him to repeat it.)
The “who I am” part was easy. I was my father’s daughter. I defy adversity, just like he did. He drove over the bumps in the road and kept going, even if he got a little roughed up from them. I’ve learned from my father’s mistakes, even though it took a long time and I had to repeat the same ones he made in order to learn my lesson.
My father’s unwavering faith defined him. It was important to him that I not abandon my religion, so after my first time at Mass on campus I became active in the Catholic Campus Ministry, served on the executive board for three years, made very good friends and ran some important programs for children. Gussie’s lesson paid off– it was because of my religion that I stayed at that university. The first week of classes had been rough. Homesick, I wanted to transfer and I put the ball in motion to leave after the first semester. Within a few weeks, though, I had made friends with the same values and beliefs as I, I didn’t feel alone, and most importantly, I had remained active in my faith.
I remember the second miserable night I was there… I was at a loss for something to do..With no extracurricular activities, not having joined the campus ministry yet, I sat in my room by myself, missing home. I didn’t know how I would make friends or occupy what seemed to be a huge amount of free time after classes and schoolwork. Everything in which I had participated in high school was over. I called my parents to check in and told my father I was homesick, bored, and lonely. My roommate, who I never met, had dropped out of school just before classes started and I was alone. My father told me to go do the same things I did in high school. I remember telling him nobody was going to let a freshman write or draw for the newspaper or edit a yearbook– my two favorite school activities. Not out of impatience but perhaps frustration at me imposing limitations on myself, he simply said “‘Go do it.”
So, I did. The next day I was assigned a story to cover and write for the university newspaper and about two weeks later I was made an editor of the yearbook. It happened because I knew who I was and what I was capable of doing- I had just forgotten. But more importantly, my dad had not.
It’s impossible for me to forget where I come from but my father didn’t mean logistically. He meant my roots, my people, his people. My father was a proud Italian-American- first generation. The struggle and resilience, along with the culture, language and traditions, were fresh for him. They became a bit diluted by the time I was born but not for his lack of effort. He always said he voted based first on pro-life, then Italian, then Republican. He always believed we should patronize Italian-owned establishments if possible, maintain the traditions and he was happy when I dazzled him with my four semesters of broken Italian. He would comfort me when I was teased for my dark skin and when I was called “dago,” and used those opportunities to teach me to be proud of my heritage. Our holiday traditions were as much about family as they were about being Italian-American. I try to keep almost all of the same traditions of my parents, though I see no reason to wait until March to eat a St. Joseph cake. That’s just unreasonable.
The “where I’m going” part was the toughest. Gussie knew that. He didn’t baby me. Nobody had babied him. High school to military– no college for him. He learned how to be a man by being a man. When I realized I no longer wanted to pursue, or had the talent for, commercial art, I dreaded the phone call home. I had decided to major in Spanish, which I loved, but not to teach, which I did not love. My mother told me not to worry and come home and work for the Acme grocery store. My father was less than pleased. “What are you going to do with… SPANISH?” he roared. “I, I, uh want to be a translator?” I didn’t even know. I was still 18- I didn’t know anything except I sucked at art and excelled at Spanish. My father tried to convince me to be a teacher for a year after that, and I rejected the idea each time. “It’s an honorable and respectable career,” he told me. I was being guided and given direction and fought it tooth and nail. That’s more than Gussie had been given, but since hard-headedness runs in the family, it was no surprise to him that I remained adamant.
Three months into my senior year, after realizing that translation jobs were sparse in my area (this was 1990) and interpretation was really hard, I decided I’d like to give teaching a try. So I graduated, then went right back for my teaching certificate. As I did my field work in schools and worked with kids, shared my love for Spanish and my excitement for learning it, I was convinced this was my path. It seemed natural for me. Why hadn’t I thought about it before?
It was so strange…I didn’t know where I was going for four years. I was clueless.
And then suddenly, I wasn’t.