By Richard A. DiLiberto Jr.
At this “time of the rolling year” as Charles Dickens called it in “A Christmas Carol,” we reflect upon our childhoods, and our ancestors.
One holiday season, when I was about 12 years old, I was visiting my grandmother in her simple senior citizen home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. I always admired my grandmother as one of the smartest people I knew. Though she spoke in what we called “broken English,” she knew exactly how to get her point across, very directly. I remember she always dressed in black, even decades after her husband (my grandfather) died. That was the tradition of mourning for a spouse in those days.
On this particular afternoon, someone rang the doorbell, and my grandmother hobbled to the door, with the aid of her cane, and opened the door, with me close behind her. A serious- faced but pleasant deliveryman in a crisply pressed dark brown uniform stood in the doorway with a package. This was well before the days of Amazon and Instacart, so a personal delivery at the door was a “big deal.” The deliveryman wore a festive, red, jaunty scarf. His seemed to be in a hurry with all the holiday deliveries, and his hyperventilated breath caused the icy air to fog in little puffs in front of his lips.
Being 12, I thought, “It must be a present for me!” As I reached for it, the deliveryman announced, very officially, that he first required my grandmother to sign a receipt to accept the package. The deliveryman ceremoniously handed my grandmother a clipboard with a long document, in triplicate, clipped to it, and a black pen. I nimbly maneuvered to each side of her to peek up through the crooks in her elbows to try to figure out what it was. Despite her arthritis, she twisted and turned like Chubby Checker several times seemingly hiding the document and clipboard from me as she slowly moved her pen on the receipt. She handed the clipboard back to the deliveryman, and as he was leaving, he dropped his arms to his sides and turned the clipboard and document toward me, allowing me a clear view of the bottom where my grandmother had just moved the pen.
And then, I realized what she had been hiding. She had not signed her name, but had marked the receipt only with a scrawled, big, black, and crooked “X.” She knew I saw it, and it seemed as if she was about to cry.
She closed the door, put the package on the table, and sat on the sofa, head in hands. She quietly repeated several times, “Ricky, you work hard in school …”
A recording artist, Jim Croce, had a popular song about that time, titled “I’ve Got a Name.” Jim sang: “Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road, I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name. Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad, I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name. And I carry it with me like my daddy did, but I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid …”
Whenever I heard that song on the radio, I wondered how my grandmother was so proud of her name, but could not even write it.
I remembered that day through high school, college, law school, 35 years of law practice and 10 years in the state legislature. I remembered that day when I wrote complex legal briefs to the Delaware Supreme Court, and bills and Constitutional Amendments to the Delaware House of Representatives. I remembered that day when I wrote articles for national publications. I remembered that day when I hand-wrote weekly postcards and letters to our daughters when they were away at college. I remember it as I write this article today.
And, it’s an American miracle that today, I humbly tell you this story, the grandson of a woman who could not write her name, and through these inadequate but heartfelt remarks, try to express how much I value our common and sacred bond as children and grandchildren of immigrants … the guardians of our ancestors’ honor and sacrifice.
Rick DiLiberto, Esq. is Chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture, and a lawyer with the personal injury section in the law firm Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Wilmington, DE. He served in the Delaware House of Representatives from 1992-2002.