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Dear Minnesota - Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan shares his experiences growing up in Northern Minnesota while navigating Italian and English language barriers with his family

By Michael Sullivan

A couple standing on grass in formal clothes
Maternal Grandparents Silvio & Ersilia Fiorini - 1939

The ultimate generation gap has to be what my mother went through. She was 1st-generation born in what Italian's coming over from Italy called, "the land of the free." When the old folks settled with their litter in Northern Minnesota, they bunched together with other Italians to create a comfort zone of small communities. Of course, they brought the "old ways" to the "new world" which meant that everyone spoke Italian.

I'm a product of the 50's and 60's and we all went to school to learn how to read, write and speak English. I had no problem communicating with my mom at all, that is, until my teenage years, since she and her siblings went to the 1 room schoolhouse where they learned to read, write and speak English. Obviously, the difference for my mom was that her folks clung to the old ways and spoke Italian for the rest of their lives. It had to be difficult for my mom to come home and explain to her mom about the crush she had on a cute boy in class. I, on the other hand, had no such problem, I never even had a crush on a girl. I always thought it was pretty cool that my mom and her siblings could speak fluently in 2 languages.

My cousins and I were not taught Italian, but we were around the older generation enough to pick up the dialect and sentence structure almost on a daily basis. Of course, most of the words we learned at first were cuss words, which came in handy when we would get in arguments with school bullies. It worked fine until our 3rd-grade teacher, Sister Vencentia, was transferred over to our school from the Vatican. Ended up doing a week of hard labor over a few words that we may have even mispronounced.

 I remember bringing the note home from school to give to my folks. It was in Italian, so I figured I'm going to get it now. School wasn't the only place that handed out punishment. To my surprise, my mom didn't say a word. Needless to say though, Italian as a 2nd language languished pretty much after that. My poor mom sure had a rough time with her folks though as she tried to explain to them that we kids, for the most part, could not understand what the old folks are trying to tell us. Frustration would take over and they would sling out words we never heard before but thought best to ignore them. We pretty much learned our lesson with that week of hard labor. It was at that time, the old folks were really starting to need a lot of attention. It was decided to move them out of their home and have them stay for 2 weeks at a time amongst my mom and her sisters. My mom had 5 sisters, so the old folks had 6 changes of scenery every 12 weeks. Those 2 weeks with us were a hoot though. Of course, my mom didn't think so.

You see, in those days, we were raised by stay-at-home moms. I have no idea how she managed to get through those 2 weeks with her sanity intact. Saturdays were exchange days and my brother and I would stay at a friend's house overnight so she could get a short break. She probably slept for 24 hours. After a few round the horn trips like that, they decided to get them into a permanent place. We didn't get to see much of them after that. It was rather sad though that in all those years, on account of the language barrier, we grandchildren never had a heart to heart with Gramma and Grampa.

Four children seated on a couch smiling
Grandchildren, Mickey Sullivan, Jerry Grafing, Danny LaVigne, Jimmy Sullivan - circa 1956
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