My grandfather, Nicola Raimondo, came from a little town called Torre di Ruggiero, at the tip of the Italian boot.  It was a poor place then, and it looks to be even poorer today, from what I can tell, with half the place for sale and the other half in ruins.  He was 15 years old when his boat landed on American shores—something I didn’t know until a few minutes ago.  That makes what I have to say even more astonishing, and that is that I don’t believe he ever learned English, and certainly never thought in English for a single moment of his long life.  Oh, he knew enough to get by: After all, he worked as a stone mason and bricklayer, and later as a building contractor.  He had some hand in building the family home in White Plains, New York, laying the bricks of that three-story two-family structure on Battle Hill—scene of a famous Revolutionary War battle—with his own two hands, as he had for many homes in the area.

We lived in that house, with its dark, polished floors and winding Art Nouveau staircases, for the first five or six years of my life.  What I remember most vividly is the library, because since that time I’ve rarely seen a library in a private home—only a few scattered bookshelves with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books placed end to end.  My grandfather’s library was a window into another time, where I was left to play by myself on many occasions.  I grew up surrounded by the complete works of John Roy Carlson, Benito Mussolini, and Cardinal Spellman.  Everything about that room was inexplicably foreign, and therefore fascinating to me: my grandfather’s chair, a wicker contraption that looked nothing like any furniture I ever saw in an American home, but more like something out of one of the illustrated magazines on the nearby coffee table: Abyssinia said the title in Art Deco letters above a photo of the Emperor Haile Selassie seated on a wicker throne.

Ah, that library!  It had the smell of secrets well hidden between the cream-colored pages of lavish volumes bound in heavy leather and no doubt unread by the owner of that house, whom I never heard speak any English whatsoever.  He would sit there chewing on a cigar amid the dusty ferns and the caged parrot, who shrieked with rage whenever we got too close and steadfastly refused to respond to endless repetitions of “Pollywannacracka?”

In the evenings a glass of wine stood unsteadily on the rattan table next to him.  I imagine the smell of it evoked memories of vineyards thousands of miles distant and yet just a few brainwaves away from the gruff old man sitting in the gathering darkness.  Yes, there was a fireplace, a vaguely Art Nouveauish collection of curlicues that looked like stylized waves with the visage of a lesser sea god peeking out from underneath.  The fireplace was never used: My grandmother didn’t allow it on account of the ashes getting on her white lace curtains and the tablecloth brought all the way from her mother’s house in Italy.

He had come to a strange country very unlike his own at the age of 15, and—as far as I can determine—alone.  Starting in 1940, I believe, he was hired on as the gardener in a convent, where he worked until his retirement.  He died in 1980, at the age of 96.

I remember his voice most of all: raspy, with a Corleone-like lilt to it, and always speaking Italian.  He read Corriere della Serra, which you could get delivered in those days right to your door.  He would sit in his chair holding this salmon-colored thing that didn’t look anything like any newspaper I’d ever seen—and no comics!  I would sit in his lap while he read, and he would look down at me occasionally and smile, saying something—in Italian, of course—that sounded vaguely reassuring and even funny, so I would laugh, and he would laugh back at me.  His was a soft, gentle laughter, a Mediterranean breeze in the wintry world of Upstate New York.

Whenever I think of him I conjure the memory of a foreigner.  He never was “Americanized,” if such a process is really possible, and never showed the least interest in pretending otherwise.  I don’t remember hearing a single word of English ever passing his lips; he avoided it, just as he avoided reading the English-speaking media.

When our grandmother passed away he took to cooking his own meals downstairs in the basement, where he had an old black-and-white turn-of-the-century gas stove rigged up, and all kinds of aromatic stuff hanging from the ceiling.  Pasta, tomatoes from the garden, great slabs of Parmesan, some strong-smelling herbs, and that stringy tobacco he used to roll his cigarettes—all these mingled in the coolness of the cellar with the mint growing by the door and the sauce cooking on the stove.

He might just as well have been in Italy: Indeed, he never left the old country, at least in his mind, and who, after all, can blame him for that?  He had left a veritable paradise—where the weather was California-like, the food excellent, and the government too hopelessly incompetent to pose any tangible threat—and emigrated to New York, of all places, a state known for its inclement weather, tasteless cuisine, and political corruption.  Why not pretend to be somewhere else?

I don’t hold it against immigrants if they resist “Americanization.”  Think of what that means today.  It means refusing to be assimilated into a mass “culture” of prefabricated mental pabulum, fast food, and soulless “hook-ups,” where a thought that can’t be tweeted is beyond comprehension.  I’ve never understood this critique of immigrants—“Why don’t they want to assimilate?”—coming from ostensible conservatives.  If modern American culture is rotten and corrupting, as traditionalists aver, then why shouldn’t recent arrivals stand apart from it?

We’re all supposed to be up in arms because “Emperor Obama,” as FOX News is calling him, is opening the floodgates by executive order, and we’re about to be subjected to the plot line of The Camp of the Saints.  To arms! To arms!  But wasn’t that battle lost long ago?  Those floodgates have been open a good while—how else did Nicola Raimondo get here?

I don’t recall immigration being a major concern of conservatives until well into the 1990’s—long after the problem became insoluble within the context of a liberal democracy.  Pat Buchanan was the only major politician to raise the alarm, and now that his direst warnings are our daily reality the nativists are suddenly up in arms.  Yet Obama’s diktat merely underscores the demographic reality: Millions of noncitizens have been living here among us.  Their children go to the same schools as ours, they visit the same emergency rooms, they play on the same basketball teams.  If there’s anyone out there with a plan for deporting a good 25 percent of the population of California, I’d like him to please keep it to himself.  It isn’t going to happen, and shouldn’t happen.

My grandfather, the foreigner who never assimilated, lived in a world apart from his son, who understood Italian but didn’t speak it.  In my father the conquest of the Old World by the New was completed in a single generation.  We never thought of ourselves as Italian, really, except maybe on Columbus Day, or whenever we went out to eat, which was invariably at an Italian restaurant.  We weren’t Italians, or even Italian-Americans: We thought of ourselves as Americans, plain and simple.

History has so far shown the American design is resistant to the waves of immigration that roll onto our shores.  Let us pray that design is imprinted on the blessed soil and cannot be washed away by the tides of men.