Archive for September, 2013

My Grandfather, Tom Torchia

September 1st, 2013 5 comments

Every kid deserves at least one grandparent that dished out unconditional love. Amidst all the squalor of my parents’ divorce, he was the one person who was like the calm in the center of the storm. My grandfather always had a lap for us kids, always had a smile.

My grandfather left Italy right before World War I, a boy of 16, fleeing a town where it seemed there was no hope; there were no jobs, there seemed to be no future for an ambitious young man. He settled in Newark, NJ; and found work. There were factories everywhere and they were hiring. It wasn’t long before he got a promotion in the doll clothes factory where he worked. As a supervisor, he had more freedom so that he was able to watch and court that pretty young Sicilian girl that they recently hired. That was my grandmother, Maddalena.

So what was special about my grandfather? He was humble, he was kind, he had a great sense of humor. Humility seems to be a hard quality to find particularly in Italian men. He knew how to cook. Now that’s a good quality in a man, for certain.

In high school, I started taking Italian because I wanted that common ground with my grandparents. I remember visiting my grandparents during my first year of college (where I continued my Italian language studies) I was asked to say something in Italian. Sadly, not the best of students, I really hadn’t learned to say anything in Italian. I learned how to conjugate verbs. So I uttered something with a terrible American accent. My grandfather’s reaction was a total surprise; he, dismayed, responded to me with “That’s not Italian!” With that encouragement, I never said another word to him in Italian. However, as I moved away from New Jersey that very summer, we began a correspondence in Italian that continued until the end of his life. When you write a letter you have lots of time to look words up and get it right; so I did. I saved all his letters which, I later discovered were also my grandmother’s letters! They were always signed the same way, with both of their names.

The last time I saw my grandfather, he gave me a most precious gift. He gave me the address of his sister’s grand-daughter. It seems that he and his sister had been writing letters back and forth for over 70 years. This was the first I’d heard that there was even someone ALIVE over there that we were related to. Thus began my relationship with my Italian cousins. Those first years were tough, my cousin knew no English, and my Italian was rudimentary at best. It spurred me on to actually learn the language, so I could understand her letters. During my first trip to Italy in 1989, shortly after my grandfather’s death, I discovered just how important it was to learn that language. My conversations with people on that trip consisted of telling them I was tired. Inspired by all the friendly faces in Sersale, the town my grandfather left 100 years ago, I pursued my Italian education and acquired fluency in that language.

The only one of my grandparents that I ever was able to speak Italian to was my grandmother Lucy (Melino) Fressola, who had sadly lost the ability to speak before I could actually converse myself.

In 1981, I was able to give back to my grandfather in the only way I knew; I named my second son after him. I think he liked that.

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