Culture /

Becoming a Zio: a Lesson on Loving from Afar

“[…] they’re adults, but they aren’t like those other adults. These special zii are often seen as a category of their own…”

It sounded so alien to me. Even after I picked up the phone, gazed at her, smiled and responded, I was stuck on it. I felt blissfully paralyzed. The words “I want to introduce you to Zio Johnny” kept replaying in my head. Dumbstruck and stumbling to make a coherent sentence, I looked hopefully at the newest member of the family, just hours after she was born, with wide eyes and a heart full of love. Wondering who she would become and how I would impact her life as an uncle, I responded, “It’s so nice to finally meet you.” 

On one hand, I was joyful and relieved that the birth went well, and that the baby and my sister were both healthy and in good spirits. On the other, I felt removed being introduced via Facetime and not in person. I had become a Zio, an Uncle–a title, an honor and an extremely important responsibility. 

For the most part, Italian mothers and grandparents usually receive the highest praise as the pillars and north stars of an Italian family. But what about Zia Carmela or Zio Vincenzo? Where is the praise for them and their underrated, complex and unique roles within the family? They usually develop into multifaceted figures: some strictly as Godparents, others as confidants, and a few become key intermediaries between feuding family members. Yet all aunts and uncles will go to lengths to make their nieces and nephews smile, slipping an extra $20 when the parents aren’t looking or handing out an extra cookie even when it’s forbidden. As a kid, you recognize that they’re adults, but they aren’t like those other adults. These special zii are often seen as a category of their own–allies, friends, certainly not like the authorities of mom and dad.

Like several of my own zii, I do not live near my immediate family. I was like those zii that I had first met through the scratchy noises of an international call or only heard stories about. The ones that left Calabria on a whim of hope with two bags, a ticket and the expectation to find a better life in Brazil or Argentina as a tailor, laborer or homemaker. The ones I had heard about when a moment of nostalgia overpowered the room. The split second Nonna stopped what she was doing to purposely point out “Chistu è l’armadio di Zio Pasquale” (“This is the wardrobe of Zio Pasquale”) or the emotional sessions when she and other family members would show me old photo albums of those that left and never really returned home. Those moments when the room felt a little deflated after light-hearted jokes about years of travels and stories of family members who were caught trying to bring cured meats through customs. That nostalgic, awkward transition, when Zia Rachele gathered her thoughts, looked down yearnfully with an emotional half smile and slowly pointed at a slightly water-damaged photograph and said, “Chistu è nui in Brasile. Guarda Zio Ouido” (“This is us in Brazil. Look at Uncle Ouido”).

All of that felt daunting. All of it made me take a deep breath and remember what each and every zii did to impact my life, from kicking the ball outside as a child with Zio Marco to helping me make major life decisions like moving to New York City or studying in Rome. Every moment counted. It didn’t necessarily matter if these moments were in person or on the phone. What makes me smirk ironically is that no matter their impact on my life, they all lived equally in Nonna’s kitchen. Not physically, no: they all carried out their separate lives in other cities, towns and even countries. But underneath the ornate clock and above the 1970s fine china set in Nonna’s kitchen, there was an unassuming small tin can that, for the most part, went unnoticed. Besides being decorative, this green contadino-style can (which was intended to house herbs), held the names, addresses and phone numbers of family friends and relatives that my grandparents had known for the last six decades on runny ink- and coffee-stained assorted pieces of paper from an old pocketbook. Barely legible to us, these pieces of paper were lifelines to loved ones around the world. Like clockwork, my grandparents had a system for the “call”–the daily and weekly telephone check-ins with all the zii.

Each and every windy, foggy afternoon at Nonna’s, my sister, myself and our cousins would witness the call. The call always started with a summon downstairs for a hearty meal of pastina in brodo, accompanied by homemade Calabrese sausage, sauteed rapini with garlic and a taste or two of homemade wine for us kids. We’d abandon the Legos we were playing with in the TV room and walk down the creaky brown stairs to see Nonna or Nonno, reading glasses in hand, peering at their ink-stained pocketbook and stretching the phone cord as far as it could go while dialing the numbers of loved ones. 

Those calls meant two things: it was a pause in time and an opportunity to really catch up. To make plans and to be active in one another’s lives. To have an emblematic “caffè” together. I learned a lot about familial relationships during these calls. They formed my initial comprehension of how significant time with other human beings is (especially those who weren’t catering to my every need, like my parents and grandparents). I saw how my Nonni reacted to this connection, and I got the chance to develop different types of relationships with my zii, no matter how physically far away they were. 

That tin can housed a lifetime of relationships and showed me the intricate beauty of the role I was to step into. My position as a zio is different from those of the past, but also quite similar. It’s no longer 1970, and it’s much easier to travel, but not being present doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not present. We need to correct the misconception that those relatives who live in proximity and that you see on the regular are better than those who live further away. What is important is the love for one another–felt equally during rare visits to Sao Paulo to see Zio Guido and during weekly coffees at Zia Lina’s, just a couple minutes away by car. I think Italians, in particular, have exemplified the art of pausing and being in the moment. Maybe it comes naturally to a group of people that invented the art of “dolce far niente (the art of doing nothing), or maybe it’s because many Italians have the lived experience or generational understanding of the sadness of immigration and moving far from family. Whichever it may be, Italians never take the little things for granted: the simple care packages of fresh fruit; the re-used tubs of ricotta, full with leftover Fileja Calabrese; the beautiful letters or phone calls around Christmas; and the simple hugs or cheek pinches while walking around the piazza.

As a new zio, I have a huge role in the responsibility to shape my niece’s values, show her love and teach her the things that my zii got to teach me. I have the chance to pass down traditions like making wine or Christmas Crespelle Calabresi, but most importantly, to be there when she needs me as a confidant, friend and role model. I may not be able to see her everyday on a passeggiata, but I can guide her on her life path from afar. 

The days of the “call”, of weathered ink-stained pieces of paper in an unassuming tin can are long gone. Life is now fully digital. My kitchen does not even have a clock, let alone a tin can. The tin can has been replaced by my iPhone. Unlike the delicate simplicity of the can, my iPhone houses so much more: pictures and videos of her are always with me as a constant reminder of the role I play. Instinctively I know, no matter where either of us end up on the map, I’ll be there for her. I know now what some of my zii felt when thinking about the past and the preciousness of the future. I smile like Zia Rachele, but I’m more hopeful: the future seems bright. I cannot wait until my niece and I can sit, catch up and eat pastina in brodo on a cold afternoon together.