When one of my older family members launches into a story at the dinner table, the first reaction of the younger generations is usually to grit our teeth and take a deep breath. Occasionally someone mouths the exact words while the rest of us try to hide our laughter. We all have the family history memorized.
Luckily, my grandparents and great grandparents had fascinating lives. Even while hearing about it for the fortieth time, I can appreciate how impressive it was that my great grandfather, Victorio Tognozzi, stowed away on a ship bound for Ellis Island when he was 12 years old.
His sister was sick, and he paid for her medicine by pushing a vegetable-laden cart around Monsummano, Italy. As I understand it, (and knowing my family’s flair for the dramatic, there might be some exaggeration involved) he walked 50 miles to a port and snuck on board a ship.
In the United States, he eventually got a job digging coal, but found that he could utilize the mines much more profitably as a hiding place for his bootlegging business. He took advantage of Prohibition and made a small fortune, though he was arrested twice.
It’s inspiring to me that the three succeeding generations all went to college. The narrative can be summarized as the story of the American Dream interspersed with morally dubious and illegal activities. It’s full of weird, interesting, and possible made up facts.
One of the more intriguing things I’ve heard is that my great-great-grandfather, who was still living in Italy, shared a bunker with Benito Mussolini during World War I.
But equally interesting is the story of my grandfather’s pet crow, who could apparently talk. The bird followed him to school and sat on the roof, screeching his name and enraging his teacher.
Ultimately, the stories have created dynamic characters in my mind.
Victorio Tognozzi, a muddle of contradictions, stands out especially. He was angry and abusive, but my grandfather speaks with respect and gratitude about how his father treated him like a man, asking his advice and valuing his opinions. Victorio took night classes to get his high-school education, and he brought bags of food to poor neighborhoods during the Depression. He was a militant atheist and a passionate socialist.
I’ve never even seen a photo of him, but I can imagine him clearly.
I might sigh when I hear the beginning of one of the stories I can repeat word for word. But listening to them also gives me a sense that the oral tradition isn’t dead. My family likes to talk, and I hope the stories will continue to be passed down.
I’m glad I’ve heard them so many times that they bore me; despite the exhausting repetition, they’re worth remembering.