Language, Love and Respect
This photo was waiting in the mailbox earlier this month, the day we returned home from a visit with my father and his wife in Florida—our first since having Emerson.
My mother had sent the photo, but it’s of me and my father’s parents, whom I called Grandma and Grandpa Maisto—a rather formal title it seems to me now, as we settle on names for the grandparents in Emmy’s life.
My mother is Grandma. Rich’s parents are Goong Goong and Po Po (pronounced paw-paw), which is not exactly their titles in Mandarin. The parents of a child’s father are Nai Nai and Ye Ye (the mother’s parents are Goong Goong and Po Po) but we got it backward early on and no one, funny enough not even Rich’s parents, felt like making the switch when our gaff was pointed out by a relative.
We call my father, as my sister and her kids do, Nono—the Italian designation—and originally we called his wife Grandma Marge, my thinking being that a Nona is a wrinkled, old 4-foot Italian woman, which his wife certainly is not, and that she might feel more comfortable with an American title.
During our visit, though, noticing no one else included the Grandma, Emmy also dropped it and a change of strategy was implemented.
"How about you call me Grammy?" Marge suggested, which is consistent with what her son’s son calls her.
Titles in Mandarin are specific—they’re not simply nameplates but explanations, making clear even whether a person is a blood relative. There isn’t “aunt” but “father’s younger sister,” not “uncle” but “father’s sister’s husband.”
The Chinese are interesting in this way, I’ve thought over the years, as certainly this says something about Chinese culture—something that can’t be said about Americans.
But seeing this photo of my very stern Grandpa Maisto, and considering how unthinkable it would have been for my parents to suggest we include his first name in addressing him, made we realize that there is something to be understood in the changing titles that Americans use. Something about us becoming, if not less respectful, at least a less formal society than we were then, or even a generation or two earlier, when Grandmother, and not Grandma, would have been more appropriately respectful.
That my mother had sent that photo, and when she did, also seemed meaningful since we’d talked about my grandfather on the trip and I’d learned things about him I hadn’t known—and that gave me some small insight into my father, with whom I, like my sisters, have had a complicated relationship.
My father can be very loving and fun—it startled and touched me during our visit when on two occasions, while my hands were busy with something, my father took my face in both his hands and gently kissed me on each cheek. It was the way one kisses a child—the way that I kiss my child—and it made me realize that he had kissed my sisters and me like this when we were girls, though I had 100 percent forgotten this. Never once, holding Emmy’s face and kissing her, had I realized I was repeating something that had been done to me, or imagined the sensation of having one’s face held. So when he did it, the feeling of his hands on my face—the feeling of being a child—surprised me each time no less than had he, as I stood there arranging cheese and crackers, thrown me into the air and caught me.
But my father can also be gruff and short-tempered, and through small stories my mother shared when I was young I understood that his father had been the same way, but more of the latter and more so. There was one story about my teenage father arriving a few minutes past his curfew and my hard-nosed grandfather locking the front door on the nose of midnight, so that my father had to spend the night riding the subway.
I knew that my Grandpa Maisto had left for America as a young man to find a job, and that he returned to Italy to marry my grandmother and then again each year after that—to visit her and grow the family by a child—before finally bringing them all back to Brooklyn with him when my father was 7.
What I hadn’t known was that when my grandfather had first left for America, with only his 18-year-old brother, he was just 12 years old. His parents had let go of him—had released him to become an adult—at 12. In the non-movie version of such a story, I can see how such an experience might harden a person. And how, with each generation more parented than the next—my mother left her parents’ house when she married at 21; at 21, I moved back into my mother’s house—we might all grow more soft.