Growing Up Italian

]I was born in America and have lived here all my life,  somehow, though, it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American.  Americans where people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic packages.  Me?  I was Italian.

Strangely, over the last few years I have embraced the peanut butter and jelly on white mushy bread that comes out of plastic packages.  Does this mean after 70 odd years I am now an American?

For most second and third generation Italian Americans in the 40’s and 50’s, there was a distinction drawn between US and THEM.  We were Italians and though as a child I could care less about my heritage, due in part  to an economic geographical division in the Northeast.  My grandparents, who lived with us in their two family house with an attic, spoke only Italian.  Dad was born and raised outside of Naples, Italy and Mom was second generation. Pop spoke Italian but only to my grandparents.  Mom learned Italian in school but hardly said more than a few words.  And as everyone around us where “MERICANI” I harbored no prejudices and played equally with German, Polish, Chinese and other mixed breeds. We were sure ours was the better way.  For instance, we had a bread man, a coal and ice man, a fruit and vegetable man, and a fish man, we even had a guy who  sharpened knives  and scissors who came right to our door. There were many peddlers who plied their trade and we knew them all and we knew the horse that pulled the carts. The “MERICANI” got to enjoy the services because we lived on the block.  I would wake up in the morning and find a freshly baked loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. Unfortunately all the neighbors did not find our method of shopping as satisfactory as  going to the King Kullen in town.  

It always amazed me that my American friends or classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving  or Christmas. Or rather, that they ONLY ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Now we Italians – we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce but only after we had finished the antipasti , soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever grandma thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday.  By the way, my Mother was a terrible cook and thank God grandma lived upstairs. Anyway, this turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind ( just in case someone walked in who didn’t like turkey) and was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and of course homemade cookies.  No holiday was complete without some home baking, none of that store-bought stuff for us.  This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 4 P.M.,  how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine.

Speaking of food, Sunday was truly the big day of the week! That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you laid in bed you could hear the hiss of the pomodori  being dropped in the pan and Grandpa’s radio playing the Italian radio station . Voices of singers like Carlo Buti and Enrico Caruso rang through or house and I couldn’t have cared less.  I was in the living room watching The Children s Hour on a 7 inch black and white Motorola.  Sunday we always had gravy (the MERICANI called in sauce) and macaroni (here again the MERICANI called in pasta)  Sunday wasn’t Sunday without going to Mass.  Of course you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before Communion.  But, the good part was we knew when we got home we’d find the meatballs frying; and nothing tastes better than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of gravy.Grandma always tried to feed the neighborhood and especially on Sundays I would take food to at least one or two neighbors for no good reason other than that was what we did. 

Our Catholic church was a big part of life while I was growing up but it wasn’t an Italian church like the ones on the south side of town.  Now that was where I would go with my gumbas  because they always had at least two or three feasts commemorating a one saint or another.  That’s where all the first and second generations congregated.  The older I got the more I found myself gravitating to our own.  I used to walk two or three miles every chance I got to visit the Italian American enclave in our town. I started to experience the differences between them and us more and more. I still couldn’t speak Italian but neither did any of my friends. I was entirely amazed at the ethnicity that slapped me in the face. The first thing you noticed as you approached the city blocks that held the Festa was the sound of music and the loud speakers that vibrated with Italian voices, with dialects that ranged from the northern part of Italy to the south. The over handing lights in green white and red and the hundreds of stalls and trucks, one after another selling all the Italian sausages and peppers on great loaves of Italian bread.  The spumoni and the gelati and all the tortoni. Odd, now that I think back, there were no drunks or assholes in that mix of humanity.

There was another difference between US and THEM.  We had gardens, not just for flowers, which I hardly ever saw, but gardens where we grew tomatoes and more tomatoes.  We ate them, cooked them, jarred them.  We also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Most everyone had a grape-vine and a fig tree and in the fall many made wine. These gardens thrived because we had something else.  It seemed our American friends didn’t seem to have.  We had a Grandfather!  It’s not that they didn’t live in the same house, or on the same block.  They visited their grandfathers. We ate with mine and God forbid we didn’t see him at least once a day. I remember him telling me how he came to America.  Not really the nitty-gritty but vague descriptions.  His family lived in the Marche section of Italy and he would tell me how he bicycled his way from his home to Rome, and there he got on a boat and ended up in the USA with his brother. . Grandma was the same, avoiding the actual passage details.  I only know that they met married and started a family.  They didn’t have it as rough as many of the immigrants who lived in tenements and struggled to make ends meet.

So, when they saved enough, and I could never figure out how he did it, he bought the house. I was an only child and after the war, my aunt married a GI from the Midwest and they moved into the attic apartment and I finally had two little cousins that I grew up with. My uncle didn’t have a trade other than farming, so grandpa taught him construction. They finally moved back to his home and I had my gumbas to take their place.  On holidays my father  would visit his family.  With 7 brothers and sisters there where a mess of cousins at the dinner table. Women in the kitchen, men in the living room and kids everywhere.  I must have had a million cousins,  first and second and some that weren’t even related, but what did it matter. When I got home there was grandma and grandpa always there and always loving. He would smoke his little guinea stinkers  and grandma would make me a sandwich and we would sit in front of the TV in the living room and watch wrestling.

As the years went by, and first grandma and then finally grandpa, visits to family and friends became less and less. Things started to change.  Slowly at first, but then uncles and aunts eventually began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer and fewer and something seemed to be missing.  Although when we did get together, usually at my aunt’s house.  I always had the feeling that grandma and grandpa were still around somewhere.  It was understandable of course.  Everyone now have families of their own and grandchildren of their own.  They visit once or twice a years.  Today we meet at weddings and wakes.

  1. Jean Shep

Lots of other things have changed too.  The old house my grandfather bought is now covered in aluminum siding. The garden is gone. The last of the homemade wine has been drunk and no one covers the fig tree in the fall anymore. Now we occasionally visit cemetery.  A lot of them are there, grandparents, my uncles and aunts, cousins and even my parents.

The holidays have changed too. The great quantities of food we once consumed without any ill effects is no good for us anymore.  Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories.  And nobody bothers to bake anymore. We’re too busy and it’s easier to buy now and besides  too much is no good for you. Unfortunately demand is down it’s getting harder than ever to buy the pastries we enjoyed. I can’t remember when the families got together last.  We are little groups who live too many miles from one another to make it convenient to visit.  Sometimes we don’t even get an email. My wife and I still have the seven fishes on Christmas eve with friends.  Over the last few years and based on Jean Shepherd’s Christmas Story, we have been eating Chinese on Christmas day.

The difference between US and THEM isn’t as easily defined anymore. I guess that’s good.  My grandparents were Italian Italians, my parents were a combination of Italian and American. My wife and I are Italian Americans. Oh, we are Americans alright and proud of it just as my grandparents would want us to be.  We are all Americans now. The Irish, Germans, Poles and Jews.  U.S. citizens all but somehow I still feel Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots, I’m not sure what it is.  All I do know is that the kids of today have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of the heritage. They only know about the Godfather and the Sopranos. Our story is so much more.