The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. That’s perhaps very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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My Italian Grandfather, and 5 Ways I Observe the Magic of October

IMG_4197A favorite story of my grandmother’s that she used to tell me – which took place just after my grandfather and she were married – is the tale of how unrecognizable he was coming home from work, his face, hands, and arms stained black from the grime and soot of being underneath a locomotive as part of his job.

Like many Italian immigrants, he was tasked with employment of the most arduous physical labor, the only jobs that were made available to immigrants at that time.

As she recalled the story, we would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and she would make a face attempting to replicate how stunned she was at the time. Pure shock.

I’m sure he stunned her more than once, with his determination, grit, and drive. The smile on her face, once this version of the story ended, said it all. Years after he passed, she was comforted by this small memory as she finished the remnants of her cup, in the kitchen where I spent much time in my formative years.

What’s really stunning is he came to this country as a teen with his younger brother and father, (his passport photo is below) with his father returning to Italy shortly after. With limited grasp of the English language, equipped with the skills of only a teenager, America, even with its opportunity, was sure to be a rough ride for him. YoungPop

Reflecting on his beginnings and the life he lived, progress he made here, how he and other family members paved the way for my generation – it makes my grandfather one of my heroes.

He was human, but to me seemed infallible. When I look back at the persistence that was required of him to do what he did, I’ll shake my head in disbelief. He was part of an amazing tribe, that we may never see the likes of again.

October is a special month, not only because of the federal holiday that celebrates our heritage – which, for a lot of us, has extended from one day into an entire period of reflection and celebration – it’s also the month my grandfather was born.

I’m not the one to get into the Columbus controversy, numerous attempts to rewrite history, or how so many people protest “off the cuff” without knowing that history (“What?? I saw it on the internet…it must be true!”).

My wife and I stay happy in large part to avoiding rage inducing news programming, so I’m not your most reliable or updated source for the trendy, swirling “Columbus hate.”

Columbus Day can be seen as a segue to the more important Italian American Heritage Month – not as a celebration of an individual, no matter how storied or maligned – but to celebrate an entire cultural narrative, one that may have finally felt worthy of inclusion into America’s history with the induction of Columbus Day.

img_0906It’s a month to reflect, to think about grandparents, great aunts, and uncles who provided influence. In some cases, massive influence.

It’s a month to keep traditions alive, even for someone like me who thinks about breathing new life into them every day, October or not.

I didn’t attend a parade, paint my face with shades of red and green, or wave a flag, other than the one you see here that adorned the west side of my back deck. I can say that my participation in seeing this month as “our” month wasn’t noticeably different than my normal day in July or December.

Maybe you’re curious – if there was no parade attendance, or face paint, how exactly does one celebrate Columbus Day or, more extensively, the magic month of October?

img_0904Well, it’s about the food, of course – The morning of Columbus Day, after proudly displaying the flag on the deck, my wife went Italian with the breakfast selection making this frittata. Full of protein, fats, and (perhaps) garlic powder, it also featured delicious greens – spinach and kale, sauteed to perfection.

Reflection is key, as well – pictured here are my Nonna, img_0912and my great aunt. The initial inspiration for this very site, they are always top of mind, and we salute them repeatedly during this month. In this photo, I like to think they are planning a menu, or perhaps conspiring on chores and tasks for their grandsons.

Speaking of “saluting” – it’s not month specific, but my wife and I celebrate the good fortune in our life whenever we can. Life isn’t “social media perfect,” there are always challenges, whether imposed by the world or challenging ourselves. It’s always worth a toast when we can overcome those challenges and enjoy ourselves.

img_0902Express some gratitude – again, not specific to October, or even November, but always good to reflect on where you are, where you came from, and God willing, where you’re going to go. Articles here typically focus on the past – but I can be as future oriented as it gets. And with a bounty like what’s pictured at left (taken at my cousin’s house), how can you not at least feel a little grateful?

Just a little more reflecting – the couple pictured below, in my eyes, were damn near perfect. Married for well over 60 years,  my grandparents epitomized the immigrant success story, and became my singular focus when I decided to start writing for fun again. From the stories I’ve heard in the past, and continue to hear from relatives who knew them well, I ascertained I had a wealth of material to work with.

img_0995.jpgThey are reason enough to celebrate October with a dynamic fervor – and every other month as well.

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Immigrant Influence: The Trickle Down Effect of Work Ethic

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My great uncle Mariano – gardener extraordinaire

As I stood in the kitchen, awaiting my instructions, the elderly cook ambled over. A gentleman named Frank, he had worked in restaurants for a long time. His chore now was to help me, an out of shape 12 year old, showing up for his “first shift.”

“That dish rack is kind of heavy, let me help you with that.”

The dishwasher, obviously of the industrial variety, had racks that were just as heavy duty. Frank lifted it gently, probably thinking that this kid with the soft body wasn’t going to handle it.

And so began my work life. At the age of 12. Very part time to be sure, but physical work nonetheless. Helping out in my family’s restaurant just wasn’t a job for me to do – it was time for me to be indoctrinated into the work ethic of my family, my community.

School work, and hanging out with my friends,  was going to be the focus for me at that age. But in an Italian American family, that didn’t mean you couldn’t supplement it with little jobs here and there – or helping out with the family business.

My family never pushed me to adopt a work ethic… but I had plenty of examples of watching them work jobs or run businesses, then go back to the well for more toil, including:

My great uncle Tony, tilling the soil of a large garden after finishing his day at his city job (he was a beast – with forearms of titanium and even stronger grip).

My grandfather, going to tend bar at the family restaurant after a shift at the factory.

img_0702His brother, Mariano, trimming and pruning grape vines and branches until his white tee shirt was soaked with sweat (photo at left).

My grandmother, cooking for her family after hours spent prepping meals for hundreds of restaurant customers.

For years, I attempted to follow in the footsteps of my role models with unbridled enthusiasm – working double shifts at the family restaurant, years later spending 60-70 hours a week in sales as a road warrior, and during one period having two or three gigs just to cover ridiculous health insurance costs right before my son was born in a local hospital.

I was always tired, but I was satisfied. No one could question my capability for work. I proved to have the same stamina as the immigrants that paved our way.

“Success is my only…option, failure is not!” – Eminem

If it’s a theory that some kids may lack work ethic today, doing nothing but constantly immersing themselves via Netflix, social media, or other forms of entertainment.

Don’t blame the children for this, as adult role models are hard to find. If their parent(s) aren’t themselves relying on constant entertainment or wasting time scrolling and swiping through their (“smart”) phones, they could still be tagged with letting their children get away with not developing a work ethic.

Which, in the long run, helps no one.

Our kids knew (if not on their first day, shortly thereafter) that kind of thing would not fly. That taking the easy way out was not an acceptable option. Whether it was doing the work to excel in their classes, picking up after themselves, or doing chores/ holding jobs to earn their own money, they got the message that their work was going to matter.

We were, and are, teaching them the same work habits as we were taught by parents, grandparents, and extended family – who I assume would be happy with the acceptance of their way of the working life.

Italian American Podcast founder Anthony Fasano wrote in an article: “I am confident our ancestors would never tell us to let up on our aggressive and passionate approach to life,” as well as:

“Our ancestors had to hustle to survive.  They worked themselves to the bone every day; their families depended on it.  We are here because of their hustle, and now that same forceful work ethic is ingrained within us.”

Don’t like the word “hustle?” No problem – a lot of people don’t. For those that think the word’s been overused, feel free to use success, grit, determination, diligent, persevering, relentless.

I’m comfortable with them all – for my Sicilians and Southern Italians embodied the words.

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A Portrait of Relentless

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During the countless cups of coffee and morning chats on our back deck, it seemed that my wife and I always had company. It was rarely our kids, who were either in school or sleeping (if the weekend), but a boy named Cooper.

Cooper, at his best fighting weight, was anywhere from 36 to 40 pounds of pure muscle covered with a coat of black fur. A terrier mix, he was a pup that my daughter (with my wife) rescued from our local Humane Society.

My daughter, who was 11 years old when she picked Cooper out of a line up of dogs waiting for a home, selected him because he stood at attention, wagging his tail with his head cocked while looking at her.

“Look at him, Mom – he’s such a good boy,” she would say that day. It was to be the first of many Oscar caliber performances from our new pet.

We Called Him “Houdini”

He was our best friend, but at times his own worst enemy. At his weight, he was a small canine, but with the heart of a lion. Relentless, a savage protector of his family and property. If you came within 500 feet of my house, you heard the warnings.

He was a master escape artist – hence the nickname – somehow squeezing through closing doors and slipping off leashes. Swift, cunning, bold and misbehaving. We’ve never seen a pet quite like him.

He was an anxiety ridden, aggressive alpha male who let you know he was in charge, whether in the house or yard.

img_1545His stories of misbehavior and destruction will entertain us for years to come. The infamous Christmas Eve rampage, where he ate an entire tray of baked cookies while shredding a barricade of wrapped gifts (all of which were on a dining room table) is deserving of its own special holiday post.

Although he created his own special brand of trouble, nothing but unconditional love spilled from that massive heart for his large network of family and friends.

Relentless Until the End

Cooper’s life was a never ending search for food, looking for trouble, and chasing bunnies. We had hoped that the end of his story would be like a movie script ending – he would lay on his bed space one last time at night, and not wake up with the morning sun.

But that wasn’t Cooper, he was too relentless to just lay down and quit. If he was finally going to lose a fight, he was going down swinging.

For years, Cooper roamed and ran through our large back yard. He played with our kids img_1382as they grew, tirelessly pursued lightning quick rabbits, and ran to my wife when she called him, sprinting through the grass and up the deck stairs to get the treat she had for him.

On his last day, before the final trip to the vet, I carried him to the back yard for one more roam. Nearly blind, his walk was a stagger now, his sessions of sprinting a memory. As I allowed him a few minutes on the land that was the kingdom that he ruled, a large rabbit stood nearby, standing guard.

The rabbit didn’t move, or flinch. There was no running. I looked at him with curiosity. It was as if he could tell that Cooper couldn’t see him, couldn’t initiate the chase – the chase that our friend ran with ferocious passion for 16 years.

I imagined that the rabbit stood stationary as a silent salute to a foe who could no longer compete. A salute of job well done. Life well lived. A race well run.

This was Cooper.

Cooper was born May 2003 with the original name, ironically enough, of Moxie. After unsuccessful stints in two previous homes, he was adopted with love by my daughter Gabrielle on May 12th, 2007. Her Mom paid the adoption fee. From that day, he continued to keep us on our toes until his peaceful passing on April 5th of this year.

We will never be the same.

The System was Rigged Against Them – But it Didn’t Matter

The system was rigged against them – but it didn’t matter.

The system only accepted immigrants physically – as they drifted into Ellis Island, New Orleans, San Francisco – but, the acceptance ended there.

Your skin tone, your faith, your language was not accepted.

Even the President of the United States scoffed as immigrants made their way to these shores.

Once here, the system was surely rigged against those that didn’t speak, or struggled with, English.

For those with a rudimentary education, the system was, without a doubt, rigged. They hadn’t a chance in the world.

Immigrants that possessed basic skills that would have them take the most dangerous work for menial pay were sitting ducks for this rigged system. Many would fall ill, suffer serious and debilitating injuries, and death.

The system was rigged if you had no one in America that came here previously, to gain early knowledge about the system. Your edge, your advantage, equaled less than zero.

The system was rigged with prejudice, bigotry, and savagery that few remember, but many experienced. In their declining years, many immigrants still felt the sting of undeserved hatred.

As author Ed Falco states:

“The decades go by, they turn into centuries, and we forget. We’ve forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America.”

Yes, the system was surely rigged. But it didn’t matter.

As we go about our work-a-day worlds in this modern age, everyone faces obstacles, many of them self created. The mundane tasks we share threaten us, challenge us, and for the entitled among us, hurt our feelings.

We, for the most part, do not have to scrape by. To face the challenge of not understanding a language. To face unyielding bigotry on a daily basis. To not be accepted by a system that you willingly left your home for to be part of.

When challenges come up in your life or mine, we should remember what we don’t have to face in our day to day. We should remember that no matter the obstacle or challenge, we basically wake up into the lap of luxury every morning.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Absolutely. Many suffer in this country, in this world. We should always remember that.

IMG_4916But I can’t think of myself in any other way but privileged, as my immigrant family set it up that way for me – looking “the system” square in the eye, and after decades of unwavering persistence, the system backed down.

Like a dog, running down a grimy city street, tail tucked between its legs.

The system was no match for the gritty, determined immigrants that inhabited our past, and now color our dreams.

The system was rigged against them. It didn’t matter.

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