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“That Not Lollobrigida!”

Sunday nights meant only one thing when I was a child: a drive to Lorain, Ohio, with my mother and father, to visit my Sicilian grandmother.

Grandma Monia, my mother’s mother, was a widow who lived in the family home with the youngest of her four children, my unmarried Aunt Helen. Grandma spoke very little English; she had arrived at Ellis Island, as did so many immigrants, early in the 20th century.

An only child, I was the youngest of my cousins. By the time I came along, my grandmother was so hobbled by arthritis and osteoporosis that she was confined to the house, and walked, doubled over, with the help of a cane on wheels. Because of this, her world was small. It contained a window, though: the flickering light of the black-and-white console television that my aunt had bought with her secretarial salary.

Grandma’s two favorite television programs were broadcast on Sunday evening—the Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan shows. She rarely commented during these broadcasts (and, truth be told, she could not understand much of the dialogue), but we knew which guests and segments held her interest. She would smile in approval at the harmonizing Lennon Sisters, for example. She would clap with delight at Topo Gigio’s antics; she certainly knew that he was an Italian mouse, and if she couldn’t quite make out what he was saying to Ed Sullivan, she was nevertheless charmed by his sweetness, especially when Mr. Sullivan “keesed” him goodnight.

Acts that were, in her view, less wholesome (dancers gyrating to the Twist, say, or a tad too much cleavage in a female performer’s costume) would elicit a frown or a shake of her head. She might be at a loss for English, but she was still a critic.

One such evening in her living room, with my parents engaged in conversation with my aunt and me preoccupied with my Barbie doll, we were startled by a most unexpected reaction from her. Ed Sullivan was announcing his guests for the evening, and one name filled her with excitement.

“Lollobrigida! Lollobrigida gonna be on!” she exclaimed.

Now you have to understand something about my grandmother. Italy, and all things Italian, reigned supreme in her estimation, and were surpassed only by the Pope, who was, in those days, Italian, too. All of the food that she prepared was Italian, including the bread that she baked twice each week, despite her arthritis; she regularly mailed dollar bills to an Italian orphanage; she loved Perry Como.  She was so biased in favor of her language that she stubbornly refused to learn English, even when her children would beg her: “Ma, please. In English! Say it in English!”

The thought, then, of my grandmother welcoming into her living room the great Gina Lollobrigida, an actress who had brought pride and acclaim to Italy (despite her frequent décolletage, which, for some reason, my grandmother conveniently overlooked), was beyond thrilling. If there had been time, she would have asked Aunt Helen to place an overseas call to the relatives in Palermo, so that she could inform them of the great thing about to happen in America.

So focused were we on Grandma and her reaction that we hardly paid attention to what the estimable host was saying about his guest. We were now, with her, poised for the advent of the glamorous Lollobrigida.

The moment my grandmother had been waiting for had arrived. Ed Sullivan stepped to the microphone and announced:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome my next guest with a warm round of applause—the exciting star of Sea Hunt, Lloyd Bridges.”

And out walked a man in a scuba suit, legs splayed, flippers flapping across the stage.

My grandmother, crestfallen and confused, could only exclaim:

That not Lollobrigida!”

— Marci Rich

Marci Rich blogs at The Midlife Second Wife and The Huffington Post. She won a BlogHer Voices of the Year award in 2012, the same year The Midlife Second Wife was named one of the top seven blogs for women 50-plus by The Huffington Post. This essay was one of five winners on a Facebook contest sponsored by Marlo Thomas. Read about that here.

Reflections of Erma