I was born the first great grandchild of an Italian immigrant family, the Bertocchinis, and I was named for my mother’s mother, Dina, who was the first child of my great grandparents, the first generation born on American soil. I come from orphans and dirt farmers, but I had a silver spoon and fork and a silver-plated cup with my name engraved upon it: Dina Renee. My middle name, Renee, means reborn.
I was raised in my grandmother’s household, my single mother more absent than present. Growing up, I never heard my grandmother called by any name but Dee, and I was nicknamed Dee Dee. I went by that nickname until I was twelve. At fourteen, my grandfather died, my mother fell deep into the bottle, and I was adrift in a world I didn’t understand: grief and the advent of adolescence. The summer after Grandpa died, Grandma took me with her to visit her siblings in the Midwest and on the East Coast, foreign countries to a small town girl from the Northwest. Of course I was excited, but between being fourteen and having no mother stable enough to rebel against, I was looking at Grandma like she really wasn’t all that. But that was about to change. For weeks, everywhere we went I heard “Auntie Dina!” ring out like a bell, and Grandma took on a whole new shine for me.
My grandmother remarried. It took us all by surprise, and none more me, for her new husband called her by her given name. For years, I had been the only Dina in the family, and now when I heard my name, a name absolutely no one in Oregon had, it wasn’t meant for me. Not long after my friend Jose’s death, Grandma also became gravely ill and we feared she might not make it. I was jobless and grieving, but I was still married and had a credit card, so when Grandma was well enough to travel, I accompanied her on a reprise trip to the Chicago neighborhood where she grew up. Twice I was the only child of my generation to meet all the cousins - and I had bunches of them! - twice I was given the gift of connection to the full depth of my roots.
In many ways, I was the only child of my generation to grow up fully aware of the particular joys of the immigrant experience. Jose and his family fled Nicaragua, and when I met Jose’s mother I was flooded with the familiar feeling of family: the Latin culture, the smells of food lovingly prepared by hand from recipes handed down through the generations.
Tonight I’m posting one my favorite poems, a poem I wrote for my grandmother at the request of my uncle. A poem I wrote after she died to be read at her funeral.
For Grandmother; For the Living
“Everyone can get together for a funeral, but not for the living.” Dina Winger, 1990
The last family reunion embraced brothers
and sisters seated at your mother’s September grave. Your
spring wedding would join only friends
and children, surprised
grandchildren. Who is this man calls you by your name?
I turn my head in your place, frustrated by an unfamiliar
who does not see you are someone else’s
mother, grandmother; he does not know you
taught me to tie my shoelaces, to sew doll’s clothing, to wash
my hands, be polite. He calls but cannot hear
I am your echo: Dee--
Dee Dee. Seated
at the old upright, I am still a child singing
hymns about the sparrow as it flies,
falls; learning to name robin, finch, meadow
lark, chickadee, cardinal.
From the car window we’re calling out
foxglove! lupine! Indian paintbrush! flying
past the landscape of my childhood
past days you were more mother
than grandmother, past the milepost of my
fourteenth year, my
mother’s scotch whiskey drift. Now
when I sit quietly, the names of the earth still ring
in my ears and it’s your voice I hear: scotch
broom, hollyhock, bluebell, buttercup. Each
autumn your voice grows softer. At seventy, the age
of your own mother when I breached the world, my gift
when you turned that silver leaf was a poem
about her, the grandmother before you. Easy
to canonize the dead.
Far simpler to cry to heaven
than to life. Listen,
I think I hear my
name, turn, the voice is calling