After Tony retired in 1966, his doctor made him give up cigars and whiskey. All he had left was beer. He consumed only two cans a day. At around 11 a.m., he got his Schlitz from under the kitchen sink and guzzled them one after the other, I guess because it generated a light buzz.
This was fine for a long time, but eventually we noticed that Tony was getting a little wobbly on his feet. My father was worried he’d fall and break a hip.
We put our heads together. We had to find a solution because beer was one of Tony’s last pleasures left in his life. We decided to try non-alcoholic beer. I went down to the C-Town supermarket and came back with two six packs of Moussy, a non-alcoholic brew made in Switzerland. I put them under the sink and said nothing.
When my father came to visit several days later, he rushed to the sink to see if the ersatz beer had been consumed. Had Tony discovered the switch, he would have raised hell. My father let out a sigh of relief when he saw a six-pack gone. He went down to C-Town to do the week’s marketing and returned with a case of Moussy.
As he unloaded the groceries, Tony shuffled into the kitchen for his 11 a.m. beer. He took two cans and set them on the counter. He pried open the tops with a butter knife. With a hand on his hip, he took a long slug. He pulled the can away from his face and studied it. My father, shelving pasta and olive oil, watched him nervously out of the corner of his eye. Tony finished the beer and studied the can again. He crushed and dropped it in a garbage bag.
He picked up the second can and pondered. My father’s heart was pounding. He was sure the jig was up. Tony was going to call his bluff.
Tony drank again. He turned to my father and said, in English, “Son, this beer’s no fucking good.”
“Well, Papa, I . . .”
“What has happened to beer in this country?!” Tony continued. “We used to have such good beer, now it’s nothing but junk! The Germans know how to make beer! Where have the Germans gone? The best beer I ever had was in Austria, when I was a soldier in 1918. It was a hot day and that beer went down . . .”
The spiel went on for a few minutes. Finally, Tony tossed back the second can and said, with resignation, “Well, whatya gonna do?”
He shrugged and shuffled out.
Desolina did not bother to apply for U.S. citizenship because she believed she would return to Italy after my grandfather had made his fortune. However, during World War II, Italian aliens in New York had to report regularly to an immigration government office so their movements could be watched, and Desolina grew tired of this routine. Moreover, it didn’t look like she would be returning to Italy to live high on the hog anytime soon—not with Tony making $45 per week. She decided it was time to become a U.S. citizen.
She dispatched my father down to the immigration office to get an application. Among the papers he brought back was a booklet with sample questions that might be asked during the exam. Desolina’s English was poor because she rarely ventured out of the neighborhood and, in her interactions with the outside world, she was assisted by family and friends. Now she would have to stand before an examiner alone.
My father tried to get her to study, but she didn’t take it seriously.
“Who makes the laws of the United States government?” he asked, sitting at the kitchen table while she cooked.
“Ai-bo! Ugh! What do you mean who makes the laws? The politicians make the laws, and they make them in their own self- interest,” Desolina said.
“How many years does a U.S. Supreme Court Justice serve?”
“Too many,” she said, throwing breadcrumbs in a mixing bowl. “Ai-bo!”
My father shook his head; Tony smirked behind his newspaper.
On the big day, my father accompanied his mother to the exam. He stood next to her as the examiner began the questions.
“Who freed the slaves?” he asked. 29
Desolina looked over at my father and asked, “Cos la dit? What did he say?”
My father responded to her in Italian, “He wants to know who freed the . . .”
“Hey! Hey! Who are you?!” yelled the examiner, pointing an accusing finger at my father.
“I’m her son,” he replied. “She doesn’t understand English very well, so I thought I would translate . . .”
“You’ll keep your mouth shut,” said the man. “I am the one who asks questions here. Understood?”
My father nodded.
The examiner had an Italian name, though it was clear from his diction and demeanor that neither he nor his parents were just off the boat.
He shuffled some papers. He spoke in broken Italian: “Signora Vescovi, today I ask you question so you become American citizen, OK?”
Desolina nodded obediently.
“Allora, e vero che Abraham Lincoln ha liberato I schiavi?” (“Is it true that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves?”)
Desolina hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
“Brava!” said the judge. “Brava, Signora Vescovi. Allora, numero due: E vero che George Washington era il primo presidente degli Stati Uniti?”
“Yes,” said Desolina, now with a dash more confidence.
“Molto bene, Signora!” said the judge. “Numero tre: E anche vero, Signora, che un senatore sta in uffocio per sei anni? “(Is it also true that a senator’s term in office is six years?”)
“Ma si!” said my grandmother, “but of course!”And so Desolina passed with flying colors.On the day she, with a few hundred other newly-minted U.S.
citizens, took the oath of allegiance she was again accompanied by my father. A judge asked the candidates to raise their right hand and then, in English spiced by a dozen accents, the crowd took the oath more or less in unison.
My father was watching his mother. It was clear she didn’t know any of the words. She moved her mouth up and down, like a Charlie McCarthy doll. Half way through, she turned around to him and winked.