My father is second generation Italian-American. My grandmother lived with us for all of my growing up years until I left home at age 20. This missive was sent to me by my father. It made me laugh because so much of it was true even for me, a third generation Italian-American. I wish my children could have grown up in the culture that I did. I tried to engender a loyalty and love of their Italian heritage. I think I succeeded because my daughter tells everyone she is Italian which receives many astonished stares and “You are not!” because she is blonde and blue eyed. We get a lot of laughter mileage out of that! Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.
The Italians ~
I am sure for most second generation Italian American children who grew up in the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s there was a definite distinction between us and them. We were Italians, everybody else, the Irish, the Germans, the Polish, they were Americans.
I was well into adulthood before I realized I was an American. I had been born American and lived here all my life, but Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on mushy white bread. I had no animosity towards them, it’s just I thought ours was the better way with our bread man, egg man, vegetable man, the chicken man, to name a few of the peddlers who came to our neighborhoods. We knew them, they knew us. [Our egg man’s name was Larry. When I fell off the curb in front of my house on the way to school, he stopped the truck, picked me up and carried me to the front door – along with the egg delivery.]
Americans went to the A&P. It amazed me that some friends and classmates on Thanksgiving and Christmas ate only turkey with stuffing, potatoes, and cranberry sauce. We had turkey, but only after antipasti, soup, lasagna, meatballs, and salad!
In case someone came in who didn’t like turkey, we also had a roast of beef. Soon after we were eating fruits, nuts, pastries and homemade cookies sprinkled with little colored things. This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and four PM, how to handle hot chestnuts and put peaches in wine. Italians live a romance with food. Sundays we would wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. We always had macaroni and sauce (gravy).
Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. We knew when we got home we’d find meatballs frying, and nothing tasted better than newly cooked meatballs with crisp bread dipped into a pot of hot gravy (sauce). [One could always hear Grandmom lamenting under her breath in her broken English when I swiped one more piece of bread with tomato gravy, “Youa no gonna eata youa dinna if you eata the bread and gravy!”]
Another difference between them and us was we had gardens. Not just with flowers, but tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce and ‘cucuzza’. Everybody had a grapevine and fig tree. In the fall we drank homemade wine arguing over who made the best. Those gardens thrived because we had something our American friends didn’t seem to have. We had Grandparents. [Grandmom would bury the garbage under the tomato plants because it made good fertilizer. And, Kyrie Elesion, when she used fresh cow manure in spring the inside of the house smelled awful – even with the windows closed!]
It’s not that they didn’t have grandparents. It’s just they didn’t live in the same house or street. We ate with our grandparents, and God forbid we didn’t visit them 3 times a week. I can still remember my grandfather telling us how he came to America when he was young, on the ‘boat.’ [Sadly, I did not know my grandfather Nick. However, I did know my Uncle Tommy who was just as good. His scratchy beard and wet kisses were the familiar greeting. I hated them when I was a kid. But remember them fondly now.]
I’ll never forget the holidays when the relatives would gather at my grandparents’ house, the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room, the kids everywhere. I must have fifty cousins. My grandfather sat in the middle of it all drinking his wine. He was so proud of his family and how well they had done.
When my grandparents died, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. Although we did get together, usually at my mother’s house, I always had the feeling grandma and grandpa were there.
It’s understandable things change. We all have families of our own and grandchildren of our own. Today we visit once in a while or meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes. There was no one to cover the fig tree, so it died. [My father told me a story once that grandmom would wrap the fig tree in old coats from the thrift store in the winter in order to keep it from the frost so it would bloom in the spring. I wish I had a picture of that.]
The holidays have changed. We still make family ’rounds,’ but somehow things have become more formal. The great quantities of food we consumed, without any ill effects, are not good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories in the pastries. The difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ isn’t so easily defined anymore, and I guess that’s good.
My grandparents were Italian-Italians; my parents were Italian-Americans. I’m an American and proud of it, just as my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Americans now…the Irish, Germans, Polish, all U.S. citizens. But somehow I still feel the warmth and love of being raised with the Italians. Call it culture…call it roots…I’m not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of our heritage.
[I try to continue the traditions of the family with scrippelles at Christmas and homemade pizzelles, escarole soup (Italian wedding soup to the Americans) and homemade tomato gravy (never from a jar!). I only wish I could have learned to make a roast chicken like my grandmother did! Oh my – the crispy skin was delicious.]