Fact. During World War II, when metal became a rare, precious resource in Italy, Italians were asked by the government to donate anything they had. Gold. Jewelry. Silver frames. Copper pots and pans. My grandmother Gisa gave her wedding ring. In return, she got a cheap band made of steel, a war ring. Years later, my grandmother eventually bought a new wedding ring, and the war ring went missing, as if it never existed. No one claimed it, until it came to life again, from my grandmother’s bag. That is the ring I am wearing today, 85 years later.
«Are you married? » she asks.
It is the first time I meet the girl, and she acts as if she is my new best friend. She offers me a cup of tea. She is so kind that I feel like I should have brought her a gift. That is so American, I think. Everything looks nice, everything is made simple. Slices of peeled oranges are being sold at grocery stores. As Americans don’t waste their time cutting fruit, they probably do not even want to spend more time than necessary building up a relationship. The girl and I had a brief email exchange over the summer, so that makes us buddies. Americanness. Human relationships run so fast, here, and I haven’t established any type of relationship, yet. I wonder if I ever had. If I ever will. I am slow. Slow to learn, slow to love, slow to live my life.
«No, I am not married.» I answer, «Why do you ask? »
The girl points at my right hand.
«The ring» she says.
«It belonged to my grandmother Gisa. Actually, it is a wedding ring. »
It’s just not mine. It’s not my wedding. Not my ring. I am the anti-bride. I will never wear the white dress. I am the eternal student, and I never grow old. I am a vagabond tree. My roots are dislocated. I am miss independent, the only woman in my family whose list of boyfriends does not stop at one single name. It seems like everyone but me was able to find their soulmate on the first attempt; when it was my turn, I just picked the wrong person. Then, I deliberately added two additional names. Two more losers. I am not exactly proud of my boyfriends’ list. Maybe I am the loser. By wearing this ring, I borrow my grandmother’s story and a small piece of Italian history, pretending it is mine, and it makes sense now that I am away from home, and the only memory I can recall is that which stays hidden behind the objects. If I wipe the lamp, if I play with my ring, if I make it roll on the table, maybe my granny’s voice will sing to my ears again. «Bimba,» she used to call me.
Nonna Gisa was a junk dealer, a professional collector of valueless objects that she kept secret until the day she died. Per family tradition, seven days after Gisa’s funeral, her two daughters and nieces gathered to clean her bedroom, her wardrobe, and open all of her drawers, cabinets, and boxes. Gisa did not possess jewelry. For what I can remember, she used to wear the same kind of floral apron over long shapeless skirts and heavy sweaters. A survivor of two world wars, she was the kind of woman who did not need anything but her family by her side and a warm bed to lie on at the end of a long day.
Gisa did not need anything, but she collected everything. In her crossbody bag, I found a number of old lotto game’s receipts, a rusty nail bound to a red ribbon, a good-luck nut and a chestnut, and a string laced like a bracelet, with a small watch made of plastic and a ring as pendants. The ring. It was lying there, abandoned, as it had no value. I asked if I could keep it. A memory of nonna was the only thing I really wanted and the only thing I got, along with that old nail wrapped in a red ribbon. A cheap ring and a nail. The fetish of a time in which you did not have the privilege of making lists. Eat, work, and sleep. The one you chose was the one you got. An irreversible lifetime contract. Gisa married Vittorio after a two-months engagement. One day, my grandfather was offered to play a role in a neorealist film. It was the 1940s; Vittorio had one of those rusty, black-and-white faces. He declined. He was married with children. He had nothing to do with the cinematografari. My grandparents were peasants. Both had tons of white hair. They worked all their lives without saving one single lira, so strict and honest. Ancestors of la mia famiglia, Italian way.
I do not remember my grandfather Vittorio, I was two when he died, but I have memories of my grandmother Gisa. She used to soak hard bread in her moka coffee. She used to cook for me. She rarely kissed me. She would buy cloths and she would sew them to build my future dowry: cotton bed sheets, wool blankets, linen towels, dressing gowns, nightgowns. Every single piece was hand embroidered. My dowry is hibernated somewhere at home, in Italy. American sizes are different from the Italian ones, and a lenzuolo matrimoniale does not fit a queen size bed. There is no standard dress for an immigrant life. You can’t just adapt the size of your old life to the new one. You have to tailor your new clothes, find a size that fits, reshape your figure, learn to navigate your new identity as a second skin. When you are a transnational subject, you live across, you move forward and look back, you weigh in your own emotions and thoughts, translate them into a language you do not fully understand. You travel around between origin and destination, losing ground and finding ground, cherishing memories, creating yourself a one-bedroom place in the in-betweenness.
My grandmother Gisa wanted me to have a dowry, and now I have one. My dowry is her wedding ring, a cheap piece of metal from the past, a footnote in my family history, and yet the only thing that still fits, the one thing that binds me to home.
Gisa would collect everything. I collect memories. I am a writer. I am the keeper.
Francesca Borrione is assistant professor, general faculty in Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Rhode Island. Her academic work focuses on true crime, Italian American literature and film, and Kosovar cinema. She is the author of three novels and several short stories. Her first nonfiction piece “Accentricity” appeared in Ovunque Siamo New Italian American Writing in 2020.