Cursing in Italian

Nerves and blood vessels closer to the skin–that’s how I see Italians, compared to the WASPS who surrounded me in Charleston, South Carolina when I was a girl. (There were African-Americans, of course, but I did not go to school with them, nor know any families. Consequently, judging from street-talk, their range of expression rivaled my father’s. But since I had trouble penetrating their Carolina dialect, I never knew what they said, simple as that.)

Occasionally a ship coming into Charleston harbor would bring into town an Italian captain or steward. My father would get wind of this and invite these Genovese or Sicilians to dinner. Otherwise, an Italian-American student or two from the north, and my German-Swedish mother for contrast, constituted my only comparison to my father’s curses.

Fingers raised in an imprecating bouquet, my father, Leonardo, would let fly a stream of melodious but high-powered phrases: “Per de la madonna,” or “Specie di porcaccio.” Loosely translated for us underlings standing at his knees, this mean Daddy had once again misplaced his briefcase, or the dog had run between his legs, brushing his Citadel trousers (sacrosanct garb) with hair. By the time I learned how to read, I knew that these phrases meant “by the madonna” and simply put, in English, some kind of pig.

Though we were Protestant (thanks to my grandfather who converted after escaping a Neapolitan seminary and coming to America), the madonna still held court along with pigs in our kitchen. As far as I can remember, my mother never cursed. Her displeasure grabbed you with vocal barbs: “Margot” and I’d stop in my tracks, fearing a clopse, which if my father were around, she’d have him deliver. Was it simply that Germans and Swedish did not curse?

His expressions included “Mama mia,” familiar to almost all Americans, and “Oh, dio.” These when he was tired after a day of teaching, and sank down on the edge of the bed. Sometimes worried because he looked so dejected, I’d pat his knee: “It will be alright, Daddy,” I’d say. And he tweak my cheek with a little pizzichilli (pinch kiss), “Eh, porceluzza, don’t worry.” During our childhood, my sister and I were graced with every possible type of pig: porcaccio–dirty, disgusting pig; porceluzza–large but affectionate pig; and porcellina, sweet little pig.

Of course he talked with his hands. He didn’t seem capable of doing otherwise. My mother picked this habit up from him, though hers tended to flutter while his cut the air, drew it into bundles, smote the back of his neck, or kissed his lips. Now I know there’s a whole vocabulary of hand gestures which Italians, especially men, use to express what perhaps should otherwise remain unspoken in “polite” company. I didn’t learn to translate these until recently, but the general effect was that my father’s communications required not only a huge vocal range, but hand and facial expressions to boot.

Now, I’m heir to these. They don’t surface in normal American exchanges. I don’t teach with them. But they certainly have affected my child-rearing. Though in her entirely adult state, my daughter may insist the opposite, I content that when she was a teenager, and we were in conflict, I’d let fly American slang–“Up yours,” or “Over my dead body.” Or worse.

Here’s a interesting conundrum: though we survived a rather tempestuous teen-to-adulthood transition with what I like to think is considerable affection, now that I’m writing a memoir-novel about this slice of life, readers of the manuscript often object to our open display of displeasure. “But she’s your daughter,” my second husband, not her father, will complain. “I wouldn’t say ‘Up yours,’ to a child of mine. Are you sure you want readers to think of you this way?”

Hmmm, very curious. Sometimes I consider lowering readers with such nice notions into the hotbed of my childhood kitchen. It’s a weekday morning, and Daddy can’t find his briefcase again. Italian cries from mud to sky fly around like colorful birds. I’m not afraid, just spellbound, wondering what will happen until my mother locates it and Daddy rushes out the door, slamming the screen behind him. It could be a scene from an opera except there’s only the tenor lead. Where have all the women gone? They’ll surface years later as his daughters.

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