June 26, 2018
Here I am, spending time with my Italian-American family, la mia Famiglia, in the USAand wondering what has happened to our lives. Family, especially and Italian-American family, is held together by the thread of our history, our food, our vino, our coloration, and our habits.
Our grandparents, upon arriving in Minnesota from Italy, settled in Swede Hollow, a gully with a stream running through it, no electricity, gas or running water. But it was home.
They moved up the hill to form a community in the lower Payne Avenue area before we were born. That is where the story of my generation began.
Our childhood was like that scene from the Godfather, playing tag amidst the tall tomato plants in Grandpa Ricci’s back yard.
If not that, we were across the street playing ball across the street in the play area of Lincoln School. Nearly all of the 32 cousins were together every single Sunday after mass at Nonna and Papa’s house. We’re Italians. We teethed on the crusts of Italian bread. We ate pasta nearly every day. We were taught to dress well and respect all our elders. They were the bosses. Take orders from them all or pay the consequences.
That was 40 years ago. That was in East St. Paul, MN, the east side neighborhood of Italian Immigrants from all over Italy who now shared their Calabrese traditions with the Abruzzese and the Tuscani. They also shared their pride in their regions, fighting over who was the best, the truest Italiano.
The Ricci family was Beneventani while my mother’s family was Abruzzese. Both carried their immigrant traditions from 1900 over with them and often fought over which cuisine was better.
We learned from our parents to be proud of our heritage. Our people in Italy conquered the world, were great artists, writers and scientists, created the best cuisine, and don’t forget the cars! Wow!
In America our people were the best actors, singers, lovers, boxers and baseball players. Being Italian was the center of our lives.
Today, we no longer see those cousins every week. We are sometimes lucky to see them once a year. Our careers and life choices have taken us all over the world. I live in Italy. One cousin lives in Aruba, another lives half time in California and half in Switzerland. Others are scattered all over the US and Canada. The unity and collective memory of our family has splintered. Yet, when we do see one another, there is love among the cousins. The joint experiences both positive and negative can be left unsaid while still gluing us together.
Our newest meeting place is at the assisted living and memory care facility of 3 of the 4 remaining Ricci siblings. I am seeing a great deal of the Donovan clan.
And the Baregi family.
The two in the middle are Gina and Janet Baregi.
And some of my family I see when visiting my father.
What is holding us together once again is family. Only this time it’s a melancholy experience. We sit with our parents as their memory fades, little by little.
Only my father Patrick, his sisters, Annie, Bena and Roro remain from this photo above. The core of our family passes with them. There are no more stories from Grandpa about the “old country.” Uncle Dan, who had a memory like an elephant and was an in-law, recalled many of the stories from when this photo was taken. We lost him only months ago. It is now up to us to remember. It is up to us to pass down to our children the stories of their struggles when they approached the Statue of Liberty and arrived on Ellis Island. It is up to us to instill in our family the difficulties faced by Italians in America. We were greasy, garlic smelling animals, not to be accepted into the society of 1900. We were lazy and crooked and we had too many children. Our skin color was almost brown, not white. We didn’t speak English and we simply were different.
Our families for the most part were poor. We as children did not really notice. After all we had spaghetti to eat all the time. But our parents, during the Depression, had nothing at all. They ate tea and dunked dried homemade Italian bread crusts in it for breakfast. The DID put newspaper in the holes of their shoes. The did stand in food lines and were forced to accept government aid to feed their children. And they were still darker than their Scandinavian and Irish neighbors.
My father has told stories of going the Johnson High School. He and the other Italians had to sit on one side of the lunchroom. If they tried to date a WHITE girl, a Scandinavian girl, there were fights.
This is a part of our heritage that adds character to who we are. Eventually thanks to Italian ball players, singers and actors, Italian-Americans gained acceptance. Eventually everyone in the entire country fell in love with our cuisine, especially PIZZA. Now, we are cool, and we are considered white.
In our family, the all-time equalizer is at work. If not death itself, dementia is taking our elders. It doesn’t care if we are Eye-talian or E-talian, white or black. It is taking the remainder of our Ricci elders away.
Last night at my father’s house, we looked for his hair dryer for ½ hour. He wondered if the cleaning lady took it. We looked in every closet, every drawer, every room. Finally, I called my brother who told me Dad did not have a hair dryer. I wanted to cry my eyes out. But I didn’t. We talked about it and I told him that maybe, when he moved here, he did not take it with him. After all, with that pompadour hairdo, did he really need a hair dryer?
I changed the subject and asked him about when he was in the Navy. We talked about him being so sea-sick on the troop carrier that the Navy put him on shore in New Zealand in the hospital area for 6 weeks recovery. He wasn’t too ill. He met a girl to go roller-skating with him. He even walked her home and kissed her while on her sofa. Then, when her father came home, he introduced himself and said goodbye before his quick exit. I asked, “dad, weren’t you engaged to mom at the time?”. He said, “What’s a sailor to do?” My dad was a bit of a playboy I guess.
And now his playboy times are ending. And our time to learn about his past, his family, his siblings and his parents is nearly gone.
I should be writing about sunsets, travel in Italy, adventures in the Bel Paese. Instead, I am writing about my family, my once immigrant family who left their incredibly complex and beautiful country to make money for their family and start a new life in the new land.
These people are a major portion of why I live in Italy. My family instilled in me the love of all things Italian. And now, I am exploring Italy while holding onto their souls as I discover my own. I am glad that I am in the USA at this time in the lives of my father and his siblings. I crave those little tidbits about their past life lessons. I want to spend time with Bena, Roro and Annie if I can. I want to incorporate it all into my soul and share it with the next generation. And maybe, just maybe, it will help as they forget more.
We Italians are emotional, complicated people. Thanks for walking this path with me. I promise there will be more about traveling Italy next week.
Ciao for now!
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Ciao for Now!
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