My parents both grew up during the Depression era. Everything they did was about making life better for their children. Our family moved to Elmont, a suburb of Long Island in New York, when I was 2 years old. We spent five years there before settling into the picture-perfect enclave of Garden City.
My father's parents were Italian immigrants to America. His father died when my dad was only 15 years old. His mother remarried, although I don't believe my dad was terribly close to his stepfather. When my brother and I were younger, my father occasionally took us to visit them, usually without my mother. I didn't understand at the time why she never came with us, but years later I would learn that my Italian grandmother didn't approve of my father's decision to marry a non-Italian girl.
My Italian grandmother only spoke a few words of English. When we'd visit, she'd smile, grab me by both cheeks, and pinch—hard. She showered me with lots of hugs and kisses, but we barely ever spoke. She always offered me a glass of milk—as "milk" was one of the few words she could say that I understood. Oftentimes, my father's other relatives, including brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, would be at his mother's home when we visited. They'd all sit around the living room telling big and boisterous stories, speaking only in Italian, gesturing with their hands, waving their arms and laughing out loud. I didn't understand a word they said, but I always knew that whatever it was, it was hysterically funny. While they talked, I wandered around the apartment, exploring the knickknacks and family memorabilia my grandmother kept. I especially liked going into her bedroom, which was very dark except for the glow of the candles she'd keep lit for the Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus. My Italian grandmother was a devout Roman Catholic.
As a little girl, I remember thinking her home was very mysterious because I had never seen anything like it. I wasn't scared so much as intrigued by what it all meant. I had great curiosity about her bedroom in particular. Going to my Italian grandmother's home was all about mystery because I never knew what she and the rest of my relatives were talking about, yet I knew I liked the sounds I heard and the enthusiasm they had when they spoke. I believe in mystery. I am drawn to it and am very comfortable being surrounded by it. Maybe that is part of why I chose to keep an air of mystery over my own life as I stepped into the limelight years later. Maybe.
My father was one of 13 children. Although his older siblings were all born in Italy, my dad was a first-generation Italian American who wanted a better life for his children than he was given as a child. My father enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. He was a real patriot who considered it an honor to serve his country. Education was everything to him. He believed that there were no limits to what you could do in life with a good, strong foundation. Although he didn't finish college, he was able to put himself through school with help from his local steelworkers' union and the GI Bill. He eventually formed a partnership in a construction business, which primarily helped build the steel infrastructures for high-rise buildings in New York City. My father's business allowed us to live a good but modest life. He worked very hard to provide all of the necessities—and then some—to our family. People often assume that because I have Italian features and have an Italian last name, I grew up in a large Italian family, but I really didn't. My father's family was my only touchstone to that heritage.