When we were kids, my brother Marc and I decided to torment our younger sister Janine by claiming that we could speak Romanian.
To bolster this claim, we produced a letter allegedly sent by the Romanian Language Division of local pop/radio station KLOK. Dated June 13, 1969, the letter informs me that Marc and I were among 23 listeners who had participated in the station’s broadcast of Romanian language lessons and that we had scored very highly on the final exam.
It could be said that I myself wrote that letter, although it was signed by one Nicholai Jansek. If that isn’t a Romanian-sounding name, I don’t know what is.
For some reason, not only did we claim to speak Romanian (which required that we utter complete gibberish to each other), but we also claimed to be able to sing in Romanian. The song we selected as proof was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feeling Groovy.” In Romanian, the last line of that song is apparently “Sah-bay ding-dong!”
My sister bought it.
Romanian is one of the five most common Romance languages (along with Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese). They all evolved from Latin, and they are the most beautiful languages in the world.
I bring this up because I was thinking about both romance and language the other day. I’ve been slowly going through my mother’s things since she passed away a few months ago, and when I was looking through her wedding album, a diary entry caught my eye. Although we all knew that Mom and Dad had eloped to Reno 64 years ago this month, I’m not sure that anyone knew they had been arrested along the way. At least, that’s what it says in my mother’s matter-of-fact entry:
“Saturday, May 10, 1952: We departed from San Leandro, California at 10 a.m. Arrested for speeding at 10:30 a.m. Arrived Reno, Nevada at 2:30 p.m. Car vapor-locked; delayed forty-five minutes. Married 5:20 p.m., county courthouse. Telegrams sent to parents, 6:00 p.m. Dinner at Riverside Hotel at 7 p.m. Gambling in the evening until 11:00 p.m. Bride won, groom lost.”
Gerald Raymond Bocciardi and Beverly Jane Steger met in the fall of 1951 at the University of California at Berkeley. Twenty-five-year-old Gerald was heading towards his Ph.D. in Romance Languages and was teaching Italian II. He had grown up in San Leandro, the first-generation son of Italian immigrants, and had started school without knowing a word of English. But he was soon proficiently bilingual, and by the time he was a couple of years into his stint at Berkeley, he was a multilingual scholar. For some reason, he had originally signed on as a pre-med student, but as my mother tells it, he would “faint at the sight of a bloodshot eye” and soon realized that his calling was elsewhere. He got his master’s degree but never finished his Ph.D. because, after getting all the way through the coursework and the oral exams, he couldn’t bring himself to write the dissertation. “It’s just nonsense,” he told me once. “I didn’t want to spend a year researching Petrarch’s pubic hairs.” The man had a way with words.
Beverly, born in Wisconsin and raised in southern California, escaped a fairly loveless household when she made her way to Berkeley. The Stegers had an unhappy marriage, and they were stoic and demanding parents who never hugged their two daughters or told them they loved them. Despite her environment, however, Beverly knew no better and would have stayed at home had she not gotten a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. She was a strong student and a professional-caliber athlete. But she was also quite provincial, and she was worried about moving to such a cosmopolitan city. Of course, as life goes, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.
That September day when Beverly sat down in Jerry’s classroom, he felt – for the first time ever – love’s mysterious and feverish joy. He was smitten with her beauty, her freckles, and her impeccable pronunciation of the Italian language. She seemed to be everything his unformed self had ever wished for. So he would gallantly light her cigarette in class (yes, it was the 1950s!). And he would frivolously call her up after class to discuss homework. But there was nothing more he could do; he was, after all, her teacher, and though there were no written rules about consorting with students, he was a man of ethics.
Until, that is, one day when another instructor had to depart suddenly for Italy to care for an ailing mother. The department’s teachers were hastily rearranged, and Jerry announced to the class on a Friday morning that he was being transferred out. That night, he called Beverly for a date. On Monday morning, Jerry was miraculously teaching Beverly’s class again. Somehow he had finagled a way to get back in. But he had already asked her out, so his ethics – however shaky – were intact.
On date 1, Jerry took Beverly to San Francisco to see An American in Paris and have dinner in North Beach. They got back to Bev’s Berkeley dorm at 7:45 p.m. – 15 minutes after curfew. Bev, who had to beat on the door and be let in by the “house lady,” was “campused” (grounded) for her transgression. Jerry was mortified and sent red roses to her every day for a week. Flowers lined the hall, filled the bathroom, and ended up in other girls’ rooms because the whole place began to look like a hothouse.
On date 2, Jerry took Beverly to the very fancy Sainte Claire Hotel in San Jose. Beverly, who had never had hard liquor in her life, made the mistake of ordering a Tom Collins. She drank only half of it before getting violently ill. Still, on the way back to Berkeley, Jerry cheerily announced that they would take a “little detour” to San Leandro so she could meet his parents. Beverly hung her head out the window of that little Nash Rambler all the way back. It took a while to make the trip in those days, on the slow backroads, and the bracing fall air must have cleared her head, because she ended up making a lovely impression on Gustavo and Ambrogia Bocciardi. When she returned to the dorm and mentioned the “little detour,” her friend Hjördis – from Sweden and eminently more sophisticated – issued a prescient warning: “Uh, oh. You’re stuck. When you meet the Italian parents, you are hooked for life.”
On date 3, Jerry took Beverly to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and then to an observation point in the Oakland hills, where he finally got up the nerve to kiss her. He then immediately asked her to marry him.
Beverly laughed out loud at the insanity of it and initially turned him down. But they would be married within a few months.
They were making plans for the wedding one day, and drawing up the guest list, when Beverly started to cry. With the Italians, you know, you have to invite Uncle Lorenzo’s barber and the next-door neighbor’s live-in boarder, and the list was growing and the Stegers were refusing to pay (they wanted cake and punch for 12 people, not anitipasti and ravioli and lamb for 212), and the Bocciardis had no money, and the Italians were complaining about the wedding being in southern California because none of them had been on an airplane before and God forbid they get in cars and drive, and the whole thing was getting to be a fiasco. So Jerry suggested they elope to Reno and have a tiny little church wedding later, and Beverly breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
They jumped in the car as soon as the weekend came because they just could not wait a moment longer. It was a different time. There is no doubt in my mind that they were both virgins. They were both good, chaste Catholics. But they also loved and fervently desired each other, and I’m sure those tires left skid marks peeling out of San Leandro that Saturday morning. Hence the “arrest” for speeding just half an hour into the trip.
My mother and father had an absolutely storybook marriage. In their early days, they lived on and off with Gustavo and Ambrogia in their tiny house in San Leandro. “Groom’s room remodeled by bride,” Beverly wrote in that wedding album. “Improvement is indescribable.” Beverly shadowed Ambrogia, learned about olive oil, prosciutto, parmesan, and chianti, and laughed all day with my grandmother over stories about the Old Country. My favorite was about an Italian relative who named her child Ultima (“last”) because she didn’t want any more children; she then proceeded to have three more, and when she finally pilgrimaged to Lourdes to pray that her fertile days would end, she got pregnant while she was there!
Jerry spent his days at Berkeley earning his secondary teaching credential, his weekends working side by side with Bev at his father’s poultry business, and his evenings on the porch, writing poetry for his new wife and chewing the fat with every Italian and Portuguese neighbor who passed by.
Those were the days of wine and roses.
I was thinking about what makes marriages work. Some people say that it’s best not to get married young; after all, people can change dramatically, and it’s hard to know, at age 19, who you really are.
But in my parents’ case, their youth was a gift. When they looked at each other, they were exhilarated.
None of us really knows, when we first settle in with a friend or lover, how well our hearts will mesh through the years. I actually believe that the key to a successful marriage is a lot of luck. My father could not have known, when he met my mother, that she was his perfect complement. He was a brilliant man, but there were few practical things he could do outside of teaching. My mother was the household engineer; she knew what to do with a plumber’s wrench and how to fix a carburetor. She hand-made all of our clothes, handled the finances, whipped up delicious multi-course meals when my father brought school administrators home on the spur of the moment. She went shotgun-shooting with Dad and learned how to fish. And she immersed herself completely in the culture of his family.
And Mom certainly could not have known that Dad would lead her gently away from her lonely childhood and bring her into an Italian family that shouted their love of each other to the rooftops. They were loud, funny, embracing, hungry. It must have been like a dream for her – all that adoration and attention. One of my father’s favorite memories that he told me repeatedly – even in the throes of the Alzheimer’s that would eventually claim him – was that one time his mother was rolling out some pastry dough, and she looked up and said to him, “See this dough, Jerry? If I were to try to make, with my own hands, someone who would be the most perfect wife for you, I could not even dream up someone as wonderful as Beverly.”
(Or, as she pronounced it, “Bebboli.”)
And throughout his entire life, my father demonstrated to my mother what devotion and romance really are. When we were kids, he used to write poems about her upper arms. Sometimes they were in English and sometimes they were in Italian. He would write them on the spur of the moment on a tiny piece of paper that he would fold up and ask one of us to deliver to her. I used to wonder if maybe “upper arms” was a euphemism for . . . well, you know. But no, he just thought her upper arms were magnificent. She saved all of those poems. We found them when we cleaned out their house.
In 2004, when I was still working for the Administrative Office of the Courts, I did an interview with Judge Al Delucchi, who had been assigned to preside over the Scott Peterson capital trial. As I began to ask my first question, the judge stopped me and said that he first needed to know one thing. “Is your father by any chance Professor Gerald Bocciardi, who taught at UC Berkeley?” When I said yes, he said that he had been one of Dad’s students. “And my guess is that your mother was in that class, too,” he added with a chuckle. He was remembering back 53 years. That was the impression my parents made.
My beautiful, beautiful parents.