11 July 2011

Io Chiamo Giuseppe (sul patrimonio)

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.


34 comments:

Young Fogey said...

Poseur!

;-)

Thanks for the great story. There's nothing like family, and you do great honor to yours.

Roger said...

You write memoir with the best of them Guiseppi. I can almost see it all as I read along.

Silk Regimental said...

Wonderful story Giuseppe - La Familia!

My wife's family is Italian, and you story is very similar to theirs.

Buona fortuna!

matthew said...

my gosh, what an awesome story! thank you for sharing that. what an awesome thing to actively live out and continue your family's history every day. THAT'S the kind of story that makes America what it is.
awesome, G.
thank you

Prinz Ulrich von Boffke said...

What a lovely story. You are a very lucky guy.

Best Regards

JoeTheMiddleYears said...

What a wonderful story! There are so many variations of that tale; immigrants coming to America, Canada, Australia to make a better life, but still sharing their culture (and food!) with their children and grandchildren. There are many in a more mobile society that don't have those inter-generational experiences and don't have an understanding of their family history. Too bad.

Ian Gilmoure said...

Fantastic post, even sitting here in my study, I can smell the food being prepared and feel a pang of hunger for fresh pasta.

Regards

Ian Gilmoure
followthecreativepath.blogspot.com

Brohammas said...

1976 was a great year for newborn sons. I'm not biased at all.

notesandbeats said...

Giuseppe, I love this story, but I don't follow the math. If you grandfather was 19 when he came to the States in '34 and your grandmother was ten years older than him, then in 1950, he was 35 and your grandmother was 45! Could that be right? Amazing that she could give birth at that age.

David V said...

Change the grandparents from maternal to paternal. Move the generation form you to your mothers.
Change the ethnicity from Italian to Czech. The city from Boston to Chicago. And it sounds like my story.
Baba made her own noodles too! While the food was very good and substantial, It's the bakery that I remember best.

Bafe said...

Great story! If I may ask, what are you meaning with "Io chiamo Giuseppe"' Chiamo as in "I'm calling Giuseppe" or as in "My name is Giuseppe"?
In the latter case, the complete version would be "Io mi chiamo Giuseppe".
Forgive me, I'm really pedantic.

davidsl said...

lovely essay. i have a similar family history, though it was my great grandfather who came here from sicily and i was only able to spend a month or so a year with him in his house where my grandparents also lived. but, i totally "get" what you're saying and have similar types of memories. it is who we are.

old said...

Thanks for sharing the wondeful story of you and your family that parallels those of millions of Americans of diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

America has alwasys been and will hopefully remain an everchanging experiment.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

gentleman mac said...

Now I have this great image of you running home from school in that red plaid sports coat you're wearing in the profile picture to see what they have been up to all day. Excellent story, G!

Main Line Sportsman said...

wonderful post...thanks for the look inside....

Rake said...

What a wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing.

Urban Adventurer said...

Great Story! My grandparents also came over as immigrants, but from Poland. Stories like these really make us appreciate where we came from! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Che bella storia, Beppino! E così evidente che il sangue tira. Adesso tocca a te trasmettere le tradizioni e l'amore per il bel paese ai tuoi figli.

Complimenti!

Alessandro

Unclelooney said...

Very Nice

3button Max said...

well done joe!

Michael said...

Not to be a horrible scold, but it's really "Mi chiamo Giuseppe" and not "Io chiamo..."

The verb chiamare is reflexive when you're talking about your own name: chiamarse. So in effect, you're saying "I call myself Giuseppe."

Allora, mi chiamo Michele, e mi piace molto il tuo blog.

james at 10engines said...

the true meaning of 4G. great stuff.

Giuseppe said...

Yikes, my apologies on the grammar flub in the title.

As for running home in the plaid jacket...I wore uniforms to school, but you've got the overall vibe right.

David M. said...

Hey, that was a good story. You and your family remind me of a big family I knew growing up. I grew up in Roslindale and there was very extended Italian family in the neighborhood. One family lived on my street and I was friends with three brothers, three families lived on the next street over, and other families a few blocks away. A few of them lived in double-deckers and the Grandparents lived would live in one of the apartments. I could go on and on but you get the gist of it. I'll just say that even though I'm not Italian, I get it.

Brian E. said...

Wonderful post Giuseppe (Joe). My grandmother (91 and still sharp as a nail) regales me with stories of her mother cooking fresh bread in the brick oven my great-grandfather, a bricklayer, built in their backyard in Western PA. Seems like a lot of Italian immigrants were employed in masonry/bricklaying.

Mike said...

Beautiful story, sir. Lovingly written.

Yankee-Whisky-Papa said...

Smoked and cured meats hanging from the porch makes me hungry. Well said, and I give a thoughtful nod to Nonna.

Scale Worm said...

Very nicely written Sir. Thank you for Sharing with us on your history. You have a great and truthful way of crafting your posts, showing us your earnestness and respect for others.

Anonymous said...

Mia Nonna was an Elvira as well. Bless them.

Salud/Cheers!

The Red Velvet Shoe said...

It is equally as important to remember where you come from as much as where you would like to go...and much more romantic in my book! This post pays homage to the importance of family, eating together, strong work ethics and duty~~all so desperately needed in family & society today. Bravo to you and your family for knowing what is important and speaking up for it. This was a treat to read, and now I'm hungry...

Rebecca said...

Ditto to all the other comments. Expand this a bit & it's a best seller - maybe even movie material--Adriana Trigiani style.

This is fine, honorable and substantial subject matter - unlike much that is out there today!

Anonymous said...

Guiseppi: You might be entertained by my wife's description of the Italian woman in the casket at:http://gingersnapsandblacklicorice.blogspot.com/

My wife is the mother of Andy of The Cordial Churchman bowtie company.

BTW, great post of yours! Sounds so much like my wife's early recollections of her Italian grandparents.

Nicola Imbracsio said...

Thanks for sharing. This is pretty much the same story as my own family (I was also born in 19676 to first-generation Italian-American parents). I grew up in Revere. Do you remember your Nonna drying the ravioli on the bed? That's what mine did. :)

I think it's wonderful that you still get to live in the same house with your own family. Unfortunately, my old house was sold years ago as my parents decided to move to the suburbs.

Thanks again for sharing such great and familiar memories!