Last week when I shared my blog with my parents about the Asian side of our family, I received a slight admonishment from my Dad, “What about the Italians?”
As you already know or may have guessed, my father, Rocco Sicurello, is Italian. As far as he’s concerned, that’s ALL he is, but time will tell. Almost twenty years ago and three days before his 64th birthday, on March 21, 1999, my Dad sent me a letter. It contained the following ~
Interestingly enough, the newspaper article was written by a man that I currently attend church with, Rick Brunson. Since my parents were living in New Jersey at the time, I have no idea how Dad got his hands on the Orlando Sentinel.
I also have no idea where Dad got “the Italian letter,” as he put it. But, Dad is a first generation Italian and in his own words, “it is very interesting and true.” I did NOT write this and have no idea who did; but, in order to give the Italians their due and to take an illuminating glimpse at the past, I present to you ~
“The Joy of Growing Up Italian”
(In order to give this justice, I am presenting it in ‘almost’ its entirety. I suggest you get a nice cup of coffee, sit back, relax and enjoy!)
I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of course, I had been born in America and had lived here all of my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic bags. Me? I was Italian.
For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian American children who grew up in the 40’s or 50’s, there was a definite distinction drawn between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else – the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish – they were “MED-E-GANS.” There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just…well, we were sure that ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal and ice man, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, and a fish man. We even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors who came right to our homes or at least right outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sounds. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to the stores for most of their food – what a waste. Truly, I pitied their loss…
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 as tomatoes were dropped into a pan. Sunday we always had gravy (the MED-E-GANS called it ‘sauce’) and macaroni (they called it ‘pasta’). 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. But the best part was knowing that when we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tastes better than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of gravy.
There is another difference between us and them. We had gardens, not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We ate them, we cooked them, we jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce, and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree and in the fall everybody made homemade wine, lots of it. Of course, those gardens thrived so because we also had something else it seemed our American friends didn’t have. We had a grandfather! It’s not that they didn’t have grandfathers, it’s just that they didn’t live in the same house or on the same block. They visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours…I can still remember my grandfather telling me about how he came to America as a young man “on the boat”. How the family all lived in a rented tenement and took in boarders in order to help make ends meet. How he decided he didn’t want his children to grow up in that environment. All of this in his own version of Italian/English which I soon learned to understand quite well.
When he’d saved enough money, I could never figure out how, he bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he hated to leave, would rather sit on the back porch and watch his garden grow, and when he did leave for some special occasion, he had to return as quickly as possible. After all, “nobody’s watching the house.” I also remember the holidays when all of the relatives would gather at my grandfather’s house and there’d be tables full of food and homemade wine and music. Women in the kitchen, men in the living room, and kids; kids everywhere. I must have a half million cousins, first, second, and some who aren’t even related. My grandfather, with his finely trimmed mustache, would sit in the middle of it all grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done.
He had achieved his goal in coming to America and to New Jersey and now his children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country because they were American.
My grandparents were Italian Italians, my parents were Italian Americans, I’m an American Italian, and my children are American Americans. Oh, I’m an American alright and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are all Americans now – the Irish, Germans, Polish, Jewish. United States citizens all – but somehow I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots. I’m not really sure what it is. All I do know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of their heritage. They never knew my grandfather…
I never knew mine either…I think it would have been a very big deal.