Q & A

Sylvia Savinelli

Q: What was a defining incident in your life?


I spent most of my early years living with my immigrant grandparents because both of my parents were often busy working.


There was only one photograph in my grandparents’ living room. It was displayed prominently on an end table: a black-and-white glamour shot in a fancy frame. The serious-faced woman in the photo looked like a movie star. It seemed out of place amidst the sparse old-fashioned furniture and dreary wallpaper. I had no idea who it was, although I suspected this was one of those many things I was supposed to know. Only much later did I figure it out. She was my always laughing, always clowning and joking aunt Mary, a born comedian and storyteller, who liked to greet me by covering my face with lavish kisses and slipping money into one of my pockets—a practiced she continued well into my adulthood.


It was a time when my aunts and uncles and their spouses lived nearby and would meet for Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house—a boisterous affair, with everyone crowded around the dining-room table and booming conversations in English and Italian. Pasta was the main event, and that required my uncles to remove their shirts to avoid being inadvertently splashed with sauce. When a roast chicken was served, everyone called dibs on their favorite part. It was a revelation that grownups could act like kids. After dinner, there was coffee and dessert, along with reminiscing and storytelling about a time from an inconceivable past when they too had been children. Eventually, as my aunts and uncles moved away, the Sunday dinners ceased and something irreplaceable seemed to have slipped out of my life.


I didn’t understand my grandmother. She spoke only a few words of English, seldom smiled and spent most of her time sitting quietly in a chair in the living room, as if lost in time and place. Sometimes there would be music playing on the radio. Once, hoping to get her to pay attention to me, I began to dance to the music. A smile broke out on her face. I danced faster and more exuberantly. More, bigger smiles. She clapped her hands. I kept on dancing. Her eyes brightened. Laughter. Then she held out her arms. “Vieni qui,” she said, calling me by the Italian pet name she had for me. I went to her and was gathered in, her head descending toward mine and covering my face with the same kind of lavish kisses that my aunt Mary would give me, an affection so absolute and encompassing that I feel it still today.