Nonno e nipote

by Sal DiFalco

French author Victor Hugo once surmised that, “There are fathers who do not love their children; (but) there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson.”

While the universality of Hugo’s conclusion may be questioned—one would hope that most grandfathers treasure all of their grandchildren—it holds particularly true in Italian culture, where the relationship between nonno andnipote has traditionally occupied a cherished place. The reasons for this may be complex, and certainly not restricted to Italians, but families expecting strong relationships between generations are more likely to have them.

Toronto native Carmin Cappabianca, a franchise finance manager, admits that he and his nonno “have always been stuck at the hip, even when I was growing up.” He stresses that despite his nonno’s advancing age, the bond between them endures, and goes so far as to say, “He’s my best friend. We still go everywhere together.”

The 25-year-old’s unabashed affection for his namesake Nonno Carmine—his parents dropped the ‘e’ from his name to obviate embarrassing mispronunciations—sounds almost quaint in these mercurial and technologically driven times.That his nonno and nonna lived with him and his family proved determining factors for their closeness. “He took care of the garden and pressed the grapes for the wine,” Cappabianca recalls. “He was a constant presence in my life.”

The elder Carmine, who came to Canada in 1984 from Pietrapertosa, Basilicata, worked as a labourer for LIUNA Local 183 and never shied away from giving his grandson guidance. “He can speak English,” Cappabianca says, “but we’ve always communicated in Italian. My relationship with my father was different, more adversarial. But nonno kept me grounded, and when I failed to apply myself in school, he laid down the law and encouraged me to finish.”

Indeed that encouragement materialized in the form of $10,000 scholarships that Cappabianca and his two sisters won in competitions staged by LIUNA. He used that money to attend the Schulich School of Business and spearhead his career. “Naturally, he was very proud,” Cappabianca attests. “That all three grandchildren won the scholarships was beyond his wildest dreams.”

Dr. Antonio Di Cintio, 28, a Family Medicine Resident in Ottawa, grew up in Montreal’s Rivière-des-Prairies neighbourhood surrounded by Italians, but he did not fully embrace his Italian heritage and thus never bonded with his nonno. “For most of my childhood,” he says, “it was difficult to communicate with my grandparents because, unlike many third-generation Italian kids, I didn’t speak a word of Italian.”

Back then, communication with his nonno—who had immigrated to Canada from Larino, Campobasso in 1959—consisted of a few French words. “That was the extent of our conversations,” Di Cintio admits. “It wasn’t until university, when a friend observed how disconnected I was from my cultural roots, that I opted for a change. I signed up for a beginner’s Italian summer class. Then I took a minor in Italian Studies. Once I was fluent in Italian, I booked my first trip to Campobasso. That trip triggered a positive change in my life and in my relationship with my nonno.”

Far from the reticent man he’d known as a child, Di Cintio discovered that the elder Antonio had a compelling story and personality. “Our exchanges in Italian,” he says, “gave depth to our relationship. We talked about everything—life and death, philosophy, medicine and morality. Though he had little formal education, he had taught himself French, Spanish and a bit of Russian.”

The two not only shared a thirst for knowledge, but a spirit of independence. “Like many before him,” Di Cintio says, “he came to Montreal with nothing and worked in construction before saving enough to start his own real estate business.”

Di Cintio sadly allows that his 78-year-old nonno’s health has been failing. “He’s not well,” he says with resignation. “But I always keep in mind what he said to me when I finished medical school, ‘Adesso, devi andare avanti e non guardare mai indietro.’”