A Dream, a Job, and a Legacy of Chispa

13 Jul

Sometimes things fall into place in such a way that you are assured that your life is a jigsaw puzzle and you’ve just found a perfect connector piece that’s enabled you to join a whole big block of pieces. I recently started a new job, teaching English in a university here, and it felt exactly like that.

headed to the office! another day in my perfect job...

headed to the office! another day in my perfect job…

Lucia on my work computer.... happiness....

Lucia on my work computer…. happiness….

I started at nearly the end of the semester, with students who had been teacher-less for three weeks to boot. The day I started, I still wasn’t even sure if I would be starting or not. Less than an hour before class time, I grinned and sat down with the other new teacher, hammering out a lesson plan. I dove in to the planning for the rest of the semester, leapt haphazardly and joyfully into the classes, completely self-assured and confident. And I have my Nonna to thank for it.

“Oh my goodness, I’ve given birth to my mother,” my mama frequently declared throughout my youth, often with a shake of her head or an eye roll, whenever I said or did things that mirrored her mother. My Italian grandmother epitomized my favorite word, chispa, which literally means spark, but also means something like pizzaz, gusto. She did a ton of amazing things in her life, travelling the world, habitually donating her time and money to others, being nice to strangers. She climbed the Great Wall of China in her 60s. She volunteered alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta. When she came back, she convinced me to donate my allowance to sponsor a girl for school in India (along with convincing a bunch of adults to donate, too). She went on a pilgrimage in Spain with my Aunt Julia, walking and hitch-hiking along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. On one of her many trips to Mexico, my mom remembers her picking up a woman and her children with their just-washed laundry and giving them a ride home. The woman then invited them to stay for lunch, which was exactly the kind of connections my Nonna made everywhere she went. She enjoyed helping other people and wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help when she needed it, too; she could convince any young person around that it was their civic duty to go find her purse or to shovel some dirt in her yard, for example. If her car broke down she didn’t worry because she’d convince whoever came by to push it or tow it or take a look under the hood, “why don’t you?”

She also put her own spark into the most mundane things in life. If she asked how you were doing and you said, “fine,” she demanded an explanation. If she was making a salad, she’d tell you an old saying about the four people required to make good salad dressing (a generous person for the olive oil, a miser for the vinegar, a wise person for the salt, and a madman to stir it all up). When you went on walks with her, she’d tell you names of trees and flowers you passed along the way. If you asked what a word meant, she’d tell you about the root of it, or what it was in Latin or French or that, actually, it comes from the German, and she’d give you some other examples to boot. My Nonna knew that reading is vital to life, that it can transport you all over the world, and that even seemingly useless facts learned from some magazine or some mystery novel can salvage your crossword puzzle or enrich a conversation when you least expect it.

She always did what she thought was best, and didn’t care what people thought about it. She used her arm to signal turns instead of the car’s turn signal. She would ask for “three fingers more” diet coke (or wine) to finish off her cigarette, and forget about the health problems of smoking because she insisted she didn’t inhale. She made you question everything, even her; If you told her some “fact,” she’d say, “where’d you learn that?” and wouldn’t accept it as fact unless you had a good source. (Of course she quoted her sources as well.) She lived by herself in a secluded area, and slept with a gun under her pillow. She gambled with pennies when she played cards, and she’d tell you she funded her first solo trip back to Italy that way.

My Nonna was also the best storyteller I’ve ever met. She would arch an eyebrow in just the right moment, belt out a laugh even during the tragedies, lower her voice to a whisper or suddenly shout at full blast whenever it was called for. The way her eyes would light up, the way she’d grab your arm in suspenseful moments, her expressive and constant gesticulations are ingrained in my memory, in my being. She taught me enough Italian in high school for me to get by in Italy (and if I’d actually studied I probably would’ve become fluent!), but I don’t remember my Italian anymore. What I do remember is the way she’d get distracted by a word or phrase and tell me a story- about her life, about my Italian ancestors, particularly about my foremothers. The Italian language is beautiful, but those moments listening to her, reliving and relishing our family history, were much more beautiful and lasting for me.

My Nonna spoke perfect Italian, English, and Spanish, although it didn’t come easily to her like it is for my Lucia. She was born in the U.S., but went back to Italy very young, and when she came back again to the U.S., she’d forgotten all her English. She repeatedly got kicked out of school over it, and her parents repeatedly returned her, insisting it was the school’s job to teach her English. Eventually she did relearn it, with more pizzaz and more perfect grammar than most native speakers on the planet.

I believe that she learned Spanish in college, and liked it so much she decided to teach it. She used to say that French is the language of lovers, Italian is the language of family, and Spanish is the language to talk to God. She was certainly a woman who felt she could commune with God, and I wonder if she really did feel more of a connection in Spanish. I wonder if she fell in love with it for all the other places it could take her, all the other people it could connect her to, the same way it happened for me in college. It is too late to ask her now.

Another amazing accomplishment of my Nonna’s was being a teacher who left an impression on her students. She taught Middle and High School Spanish for 25 years. Her students, the ones who didn’t dislike her for her high standards, appreciated her style, the way she talked to each person, no matter how young, as if they and their opinions truly mattered. They’d run into her in the grocery store and tell her, half-ashamed but smiling, that no, they didn’t remember any Spanish, but they really enjoyed her class, and where was she teaching now? Although she’d been retired for many years when she passed away, some old students of hers came to the funeral home, gifting us with stories of what a special teacher she was and how she affected their lives.

It’s too late to ask her now, but I imagine she had a teaching and living philosophy similar to mine, which is basically that life is fascinating. I think that her (and my) voraciousness for life come from a natural curiosity for everything, a desire to learn that is innate and insatiable like the oxygenated molecules pumping through my veins. I love to teach because I love to learn. I believe that everybody brings knowledge to the table, and that everyone can learn.

When I started my first job teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees, working in community centers in Louisville, Kentucky, I had no idea what I was doing. The experienced teacher who was helping me on my first day stood back and watched while I gesticulated wildly, repeated and rephrased and slowed and smiled and pointed some more, trying to get three women from Myanmar registered for the class. They had the least understanding of the registration process than anyone else in the class, but it was a challenge I jumped into heartily, believing in their right to education, and of course, wanting to do things well from the get-go. “You’ll be fine,” the old-hand teacher told me afterwards, nodding her head, maybe more to herself than to me. “Just keep that open attitude and you’ll learn,” she assured me. Granted, it took a lot of reading and studying and talking to other teachings and lots and lots of trial and error (a bit more than just a positive attitude) to learn how to teach English in that context. But I did, and I keep learning, and meanwhile my students and I have a damn good time doing it, because while it may not be the only thing in life, you can’t underestimate the importance of chispa.

But I digress, yet again. Really I wanted to tell you about a dream, about the real reason I walked into my new teaching job with zero self-doubt. A couple months after my Nonna died, when I was happily teaching English in Louisville, I dreamt that I suddenly landed a job teaching English in a university in another country. But it was the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t made a syllabus. The perfectionist in me revolted, declaring total failure. I turned red in the face in class and tried to assure the students I’d have their syllabus the next day. I made it through class, only to get home and realize I had no idea how to write a good syllabus. It was just too much for me and I wasn’t cut out for the job, obviously. My panic destroyed all my efforts and I went to bed defeated. Meanwhile, my Nonna came along, in that special way of dreams, where I didn’t see her or hear her precisely, but felt her, clearly and strongly. She said something like, “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’re not the first to do it. I’ve done this before you, and it’s not as hard as you think. You’re gonna be just fine,” (and she might’ve nudged me gently in the ribs, or maybe I added that later). She left me a syllabus on her kitchen table, a fabulous outline that I just had to adapt slightly for my purposes.

The sensation of her presence and the strength of her confidence in me have stuck with me since that dream. Although perhaps it was something sown and watered and tended in me long before that. My mama might be exaggerating about giving birth to her mother (and I’m pretty sure I’m not that awesome- yet), but I have no doubts about the strength of our bond, which even death can’t destroy. I am so sure of it that when I started this job, thrown into it with no time to plan, with no experience in a university, I laughed and jumped in, sure of my place, knowing my Nonna and my chispa would carry me through.

6 Responses to “A Dream, a Job, and a Legacy of Chispa”

  1. Julia Inman July 13, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    You made me laugh and cry – and really captured Mom’s spirit. I miss her everyday and so appreciate the incredible gifts she gave me. Mom was so proud of you – and loves you so much. You are such a part of her; or she a part of you, that it fills my heart.

    • exiletomexico July 14, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      Oh, good- I was gonna send you this- glad you saw it already. I thought of you and my mama a lot as I was writing it, too. Love you.

  2. Linda Satterlee-mcfadin July 13, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    Even though I didn’t know Your Nona all that well, your description of her words and actions sound just like my memories of her. She was a fascinating person and I know she is very proud of you.

  3. Bryan Olson July 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    That is an awesome story Julia and Congratulations on your new job!!! Iam sure you will do great. I hope the best for you and the family say hi to Conan for me miss you all. We will get down there one of these days!!!!

    • exiletomexico July 15, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      Thanks, Bryan! I’ll tell Conan! Hugs to you and your family.

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