A Lesson Learned in the Dark
Our shortest day reminds us to look and listen to the dark.
“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.”
― Og Mandino
I think of this quote on the shortest day of our year. There’s been waves of darkness in our lives, and in the absence of some activities once considered normal before the pandemic, there’s more quiet lapping at our shores. A reminder that the holiday season really exists in our hearts and not in our online shopping carts.
Last week, Mark and I attended a Christmas concert at St. Rose Catholic Church in the East End. With the heaviness of winter creeping over our shoulders and inkening the stained-glass windows of a church that once went up in flames, the lyrics to Let Love Be Heard stung. What else had not been heard, I wondered, as the inimitable conductor, Trevor Kroeger, reminded how we had not been in these spaces of splendor for close to two years?
The darkness. We have not listened enough to the darkness.
Two weeks ago, I learned Michele Alonzo died. He was the founder of Scuola Amici, an Italian language school based in Cincinnati and operating for over 30 years. Michele was not my first Italian instructor through the school. But when the pandemic forced us online, he became my only instructor. With wild anxiety and hot tea in hand, I checked email each morning for one that would proclaim good news, “Yes, classes would go on.” Prior to la pandemia (it’s a much more beautiful word in Italian, as is quarantina, and perhaps if we all would have spoken it in Italian, we might have experienced more compassion during these traumatic times), Michele managed a group of instructors who taught five levels of classes. But now, he charged himself with teaching four classes online, two on Wednesday evenings, two on Thursday evenings. Unbeknownst to me and probably others, he was in the throes of his illness. And it never showed.
After only one year, I recited imperfect past tense. We learned turns of phrases that made me blush. His laugh was infectious. Mostly, he offered us an oar to row amidst the Covid storm. He was the star in our darkness. Whenever he called or spoke my name, I heard my Grandfather Januzzi in that same rich, silvery accent. Annette, with its French origin, became A-nett-ah. I was called back in time.
All four of my grandparents were Italian. My maternal grandparents died before I was born and my paternal grandmother had lived in the states many years prior to my birth. Her English was near flawless. Only my Grandpa Januzzi still possessed a heavy accent forty years after his arrival to Lorain, Ohio. His was the only voice I remember. A voice that sounded like Michele.
It was this voice that called me after I learned Michele died. Despite not knowing many classmates, I attended his celebration of life. His days were well-lived, and his person well-loved. Students spoke animatedly and passionately about Michele’s animated and passionate teaching and his ability to instill a love for all things Italians in anyone he encountered. He wasn’t a cultural bore, but cultural beauty instead.
One of my Covid pastimes has been to gather my ancestors’ histories, though I refuse to take a DNA test. Trust me, I have the temper and the tastebuds to prove my worth. I have the tears cried when I first stepped in Italy with my parents, and they without theirs. And I have the tears I cried when I stepped in Italy after they were gone. Tears that rooted me to familial soil.
This fall, Michele had postponed classes. By then, many of us knew about his illness and understood there was a toll that had been paid. I scrambled to find other Italian language resources. In the age of Zoom, there were almost too many. But I bought the See Dick and Jane Run versions of short stories for Italian Beginners and took another online class which I loved. I returned to writing in the Italian language in my journals. And work on my mother’s recipe book continued
When news hit of Michele’s death, it was a blow, yet also a prompt to do more. A year ago, I attempted the application process for Italian (dual) citizenship but did not have enough information to make my application viable. I fell into despair. This beloved instructor’s death spurred me to return to my task, now armed with new documents and new channels to procure them, and a new motivation in the name of Michele to follow through.
I thank Michele for being the star that called to me during these the dark times.
On the shortest day of the year, may we remember the star or stars we have tracked across the skies. Because once the light grows, that star will dim unless we find a way to hold that brilliance in our hands, hearts, or, in this case, on the mother tongue.
An addendum: The universe smiles in stars. This morning, as I wrote this, I received an email containing additional information critical for my application, as well as an invitation to visit Italy through my new contact there.