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 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 packages. Me? I was Italian.
For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian
American children who grew up in the 40s and 50s, there was a definite
distinction between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else –
the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish – they were the AMED-E-GONS. There
was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard
feelings, just – well – 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,
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 peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods.
We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive
sound. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to the store
for most of their food – what a waste.
Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure
of waking up every morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread
waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb
up on the back of the peddler’s truck a couple of times a week to hitch
a ride, most of my AMED–E–GON friends had to be satisfied with going
to the A & P. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my
American friends or classmates ate only turkey on Thanksgiving and
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 antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever mama thought
might be appropriate for that particular holiday. The turkey was usually
accompanied by a roast of something (just in case somebody 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 4:00 p.m., how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges
in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food.
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 lay in bed, you could hear the hiss as
tomatoes were dropped into a pan. Sunday we always had gravy (the AMED–E–GONS
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 good
part we knew was when we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying, and
nothing tastes better that newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped
into a pot of gravy.
There was 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, cooked them, 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 all
had something else it seemed our American friends didn’t seem to have.
We had a Grandfather.
It’s not that they didn’t have a grandfather, it’s just
that they didn’t live in the same house, or in the same block. They
visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours and God forbid if we didn’t
see him at least once a day. I can still remember my grandfather telling
us about how he came to America as a young man “on the boat”, how the
family lived in a rented tenement and took in boarders in order to
help ends meet, how he decided he didn’t want his children, five sons
and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of
course, was in his own version of Italian/English which I soon learned
to understand quite well.
So, when he saved enough, and I never figured 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. He would rather
sit on the back porch and watch his grandson 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 the relatives would gather at my grandfather’s house and there
would be tables of food and homemade wine and music. There were women
in the kitchen, men in the living room and kids, kids, and kids everywhere.
I must have a half million cousins, first and second and some who aren’t
even related, but what did it matter. And my grandfather, his pipe
in his mouth and his fine mustache trimmed, 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. One was a cop, one a fireman, one had his trade, and of course,
there was always the rogue. And the girls - they had all married well
and had fine husbands and healthy children and everyone knew respect.
He had achieved his goal of 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 Americans. When my grandfather died years ago at the age
of 76, things began to change. Slowly at first, but then uncles and
aunts eventually began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings
were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did
get together, usually at my grandmother’s house now, I always had the
feeling that he was there somehow. It was understandable, of course.
Everyone now had families of their own and grandchildren of their own.
Today they visit once or twice a year. Today we meet at weddings and
Lots of other things have changed too. The old house
my grandfather bought is now covered with aluminum siding, although
my uncle still lives there and of course my grandfather’s garden is
gone. The last of the homemade wine has long since been drunk and nobody
covers the fig tree in the fall anymore. For a while we would make
the rounds on the holidays, visiting family. Now we occasionally visit
the cemetery. A lot of them are there, grandparents, uncles, aunts,
and even my own father.
The holidays have changed too. The great quantity 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 – too busy and it’s easier to buy it now and
too much is no good for you. We meet at my house now, at least my family
does, but it’s not the same.
The differences between US and THEM aren’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 Italian
and my children are American Americans. Oh, I’m an American all right
and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are
all Americans now – the Irish, Germans, Poles and Jews. U.S. citizens
and all – but somehow I feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture,
call it tradition, call it roots, I’m really not sure what it is.
ALL I DO KNOW IS THAT MY CHILDREN HAVE BEEN CHEATED OUT OF A WONDERFUL
PIECE OF THE HERITAGE. THEY NEVER KNEW MY GRANDFATHER.