Let's all forget about clothing and other superficialities for a while;
I may be a full blooded American, but I grew up in a house with people who barely spoke English, people who lived a culture from a far away land, a mystical place most often referred to as "the old country". My grandparents (Nonna e Nonno), and indeed many of the other old folks in the neighborhood from the generations preceding my parents, were Italian, as in they came from Italy. Growing up in a house with two working parents, attending Catholic school, these old folks played a large part in raising me, my brother, and many of my oldest friends. It's the reason why we tend to consider ourselves, rightly so, to be, in some distant way, Italian.
Nonno & Nonna
Giuseppe & Elvira, Italy, late 1940s
These are my mothers parents. Growing up, we lived in the second floor apartment of a two family house, they lived downstairs. Coming home from the local Catholic elementary school around 2:30 in the afternoon, while both my parents were out working, my kid brother and I spent as much time downstairs with them as we did upstairs with our parents. Their story is one for the ages.
Giuseppe (my namesake) grew up in a single room stone house on the side of a steep hill, a small farm with a few sheep, chickens, and a patch of vegetables.He could read, write, and do simple math, but had little formal education past the age of eight. At the age of 19, in 1934, he came to the United States, settled in East Boston, then a largely Italian enclave ("the old neighborhood", or, "Easta Bost" as he tended to call it). He quickly made some friends, learned the trade of concrete masonry, and played a lot of bocce. Trust me, the man was a force in bocce. I only wish he had lived long enough for me to beat him, just once.
After "the war", he returned to Italy to visit his parents, and was stricken with appendicitis. He was soon laid up in the hospital in Sulmona (incidentally, the home of Ovid, Publius Ovidius Naso, or simply Naso as he's known to the locals. I read him in Latin, in Latin class). His mother and father, being poor farmers, simply could not afford to visit him. Enter Elvira.
Elvira was the youngest of ten children, her father the mayor of Sulmona, a wealthy man. She grew up attending the opera, frequenting wild parties in the late 1920s, wearing the finest clothes, and generally living the high life. During World War II, the Nazis sent her family to live in the basement of their house, the grandest one in town, so they could house the upper rank officers there. They lost much of their money in those years, but none of their class. Nonna was well educated, she could read both Latin and Greek, and was fluent in French and English, as well as Italian. This was in the 1930s, when French was the language of diplomacy and English had yet to become an international necessity.
Elvira's sister was laid up in the same hospital at the same time as Giuseppe (Peppino to her and all his Italian friends, Joe to the folks he met in America). Elvira visited her sister daily, and began to notice that no one came to see this poor (handsome) fellow across the hall, and she became smitten. She started to stop by and check in on him, they talked and laughed and became quite fond of one another. She was nearly ten years his senior, bit it didn't matter. They fell in love, married, perhaps to Elvira's fathers chagrin, and came to Boston.
Eventually, they took up in a rented apartment. Nonno worked concrete masonry, early morning hours. He was never a hard line boozer, but rumor has it that in the colder months, with a days work outdoors ahead of him, he would take a shot of Seagram's VO with a raw egg in it before heading out the door at 5:00 a.m. Nonna, aristocratic as ever but never too proud to pull her own weight, took up as a seamstress in a local clothing factory, back when there were actually clothing factories in the city of Boston.
After numerous attempts, pregnancies and, unfortunately, miscarriages, my mother is born to them in 1950. Elvira was 39 years old. I can still remember being a kid, and saying my grandmother was 80, when all the other kids grandmothers were 65.
In 1964, they bought a house, and moved in with my 14 year old mother. In 1972, my mother married my father, and they moved into the other apartment in that house. I was born in 1976, my brother in 1979. We lived upstairs, Nonna & Nonno downstairs. She hardly left the kitchen. By then, she lived to cook for and feed others. She took real joy in that, you could taste it in the food. He was retired by then, a proud member of the Union. His vegetable garden, behind the house, was his pride and joy, bursting and abundant with all manner of herbs and vegetables.
Nonno & Nonna
Giuseppe & Elvira, Italy, early 1980s
Here they are as I knew them. Peppino, rugged and bald, Elvira, brash and full of color, yet sincere and wiser than anyone.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time downstairs in their apartment. Every Sunday, after Church, we would come home to a princely spread, the sort of meal that took hours to consume, all of it her cooking, all of it from scratch and made with more love that there is in the world. In the Fall, she would hang sausages to cure from the ceiling of our enclosed back porch. Most of the pasta she prepared was made by hand. Ravioli were cut by hand with tailors pinking shears, and as big as bed pillows. We had a peach tree in the front yard when I was a boy, it was his pride. And the tomatoes.... garden fresh, and then canned in the house each year for use all Winter in making sauce, or "gravy" as Italians in America tend to call it. Cripes, we even cured our own prosciutto in the cellar.
These days, my parents still live in the upstairs apartment, while I live downstairs with my wife and children. My kids represent the fourth generation of my family to live in that house. I wouldn't have it any other way.
So, "heritage" and "Italian" are two things I dig, deep down to the guts. All this could explain my infatuation with "oldness" and "truth", no?
12 July 2011, Corrections: the title should read "Io mi chiamo Giuseppe. Thanks to those of you who pointed that out. Also, she was four years his senior, not ten.