Life is Precious, Summer Redux

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

It’s how one of my most popular posts starts – with a greeting to my Nonna,  from my Aunt Maria, as she barreled her frame through the front door of the house where I spent most of my childhood time.

(Exciting update: The above mentioned post made even more popular recently by being featured on the website for the Italian Sons & Daughters of America )

That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, not knowing or intending to disturb the slumber of a growing boy. Not that I should have slept through the sunshine streaming through the windows to begin with.

If the loud greetings or sunlight couldn’t wake me up, there was no doubt that the smell of the pan fried meatballs that were soon to follow would do the job.

Once downstairs from the bedroom, I would stand in the kitchen (in super hero pajamas, no doubt) and dutifully wait until the offering was made to indulge in a before breakfast snack. A great way to start a Saturday.

The decades have passed. But the memories linger. The song remains the same.

There are certain aspects of summer life from my past that I miss more than others. My grandmother and her sisters used to have picnics in the backyard of her house, both well planned and impromptu, under the shade of grape vines and large trees in that expansive yard.

If you’ve been anywhere near an Italian American family, you know that everyone was there – aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, select friends, maybe a familiar straggler from down the street – to eat and celebrate.

The generous inventory of food spilled over plates and serving bowls. Homemade wine flowed. The combination of broken English and regional Italian dialects echoed through the street and the alleyway, as the parties rolled on.picnic

I rarely hear the language anymore. The echoes have fallen silent.

There were reserved moments, as well. My grandfather and I, as a rule during the summer, would sip espresso on the patio, listening to Yankee games on an old transistor radio, propped into the screen of the kitchen window for easy listening.

The evening sunset would fade into night, with us still sitting there.

My grandfather was a quiet guy. Not too many words were exchanged. We just understood the importance of ritual, as it played out. I wish I knew, looking back, how rare and important those moments were.

My wife and I try our best to replicate what we can. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the impromptu party or gathering. And the majority of our coffee will be had on our back deck – even at times when the weather might be deemed miserably cold.

Our little way of keeping good things going.IMG_4293

After my grandmother passed away several years ago, we drove down the hill through the old neighborhood, on the way to her church services. We were stopped at a red light just across the street from the old brick two family where my grandparents once lived, where my father was a teenager.

As we sat at the traffic light, the Italian language version of the song Volare pumped through the car speakers. I turned to my wife, just as she was forming an expression on her face that said – “Are you kidding me??”

If you’re unfamiliar with the nuance of commercial radio, la versione italiana is not the popular rendition of that song. Not even close. English speaking Dean Martin had a hit record that was more preferred for the airwaves.

I believed then, and believe today, that it was Nonna’s little way of saying:

“Yes, I’m gone. But don’t you forget about me.”

“Life is precious” was one of her many sayings, and perhaps her most common. As if trying to impart the wisdom that each second that passed was one you were never getting back, and that the clock of your life kept ticking.

She would often group that one saying with nuggets like “It’s later than you think” and “Life is a-worth living.” She had a subtle way of keeping her theme consistent.

I would like to think I take her words to heart on a daily basis. Our time here, this one ticket that we have punched, is indeed limited and precious. So much of it gets wasted on what I’ve heard called “the 99% that doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is included in a small circle. Family, friends, and the labor and activities that make you feel alive.

Although dipping my toe into the ocean of tradition has been kind of my thing, there is always room for more: more impromptu gatherings with family and friends, more additional star lit nights on the deck with a coffee.

As Nonna said, life is precious. If I do my best to remember, maybe I won’t waste another minute.

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A Reverence for Life

This article was written and published originally by Francis Prezio – foot soldier of God, purveyor of peace, and lover of crunchy peanut butter. Written as a salute to Earth Day, but applicable to every other day as well.

“Reverence for life.”

Albert Schweitzer coined this phrase as he sailed down the Congo River in 1915, on his way to bring much needed supplies to the sick and needy. This became the motto for the rest of his life, and he considered everyone and everything sacred: from the largest creature, to the smallest blade of grass.

As a child, he was very sensitive to the feelings of animals, and could not bring himself to go fishing or hunting. Later, as a physician ministering in the jungle, he would put his hat over ants on the ground whenever he saw an anteater coming. Francis of Assisi (who lived in the 13th century) did the same thing, picking up worms from the ground so they would not be stepped on. Literally, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Here is the example of two men who had the correct view on the sacredness of life. As Schweitzer had once said:

“Good consists in preserving life, in supporting it, in seeking to carry it to its highest value. Evil consists in destroying life, injuring it, or thwarting its full flowering.”

As Christians, we are on the side of life. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, sketches out a whole plan to maintain this reverence for life. An eye-opening text, everyone on the planet should read it.

We hold in our hands this sacred trust, but how often do we see it violated. Pollution of air, water, and soil, destruction of habitat, over development, consumerism, the merchant mentality, wars, violence, etc. We see it everyday in our own communities, and all over the world – and many times seem helpless to prevent it.

Our local communities have fallen victim. Businesses come in with the promise of jobs and providing taxes, but before you know it you can’t drink the water, breathe the air, or dig into the soil. People are beginning to fight back – but in many cases it may be too little, too late, or will take a long time to restore the balance in Nature.

Long ago, one of my philosophy professors used to say, “God forgives, but Nature never does.” We should take to heart what Albert Schweitzer once said – to help life reach full development, the good person is friend of all living things. That may help us change our attitude.

To rediscover this reverence for life: read the Pope’s encyclical. Read the lives of St. Francis and Albert Schweitzer, and try to absorb their teachings and life lessons. The fate of our Earth and Nature may depend on it.

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In Praise of the Table Setters

As a guy at the age of 54, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the boundless, almost frenetic energy of my seventeen year old son. I use it to try to recapture a little youthful exuberance for myself, but there are limits.

YoungPopI see my son’s face etched into the decades old photographs of my grandfather, and I wonder how similar they are. I wonder what they share, and how they are different.

One thing’s for sure – their journeys at this age are radical in that difference. While my son readies for senior year and acting as captain of his golf team, his great grandfather was getting ready for, or taking, a trip that would change his life.

And ours.

Did he have that same youthful exuberance so many years ago, or was he the stoic and silent man I knew when I was growing up?

Why did his family leave their native southern Italy? Was it poverty? Crime? The remnants of a “unification” that was more aggression than unifying act?

Was he a scared teenager? Or did he share his family’s fire to seek a better life?

Did he have any lira in his pocket? Or was he poorer than poor? Was his dress tattered? Did he have warm clothes?

Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?

When the Statue of Liberty finally came into view, what was the emotion in his heart? Fear – or hope?

How much English could he speak? If any at all?

My father told me, years later, when he was young and driving my grandfather to pick up other relatives coming to America, he could guide my Dad down New York City side streets like he lived there forever – but he never drove a car.

How could he do that?

For me, it’s just not my curiosity – but an appreciation of the struggles and hardships of being a young immigrant to a country that was not exactly accepting.

You may not have heard about it before – but what an amazing life.

When you look at success, or how it’s defined now – such as our family’s success, that ranges between moderate and luxurious depending on the situation – you must give the credit where the credit is due.

To the table setters.

There is no such thing as a “self made man,” and we do not live in a vacuum. Our lives, and what we decide to make of them, were made possible by a table set so long ago. We are the sum of the struggles and the power of our recent past.

He had help from our entire extended family – but my grandfather’s relentless nature proved to be a godsend for all of us.

On a day that’s good for me – when I’m feeling healthy, have money in my pocket, with a future looking bright enough to don the sunglasses – I silently thank the table setters.

On an even better day, I’ll take a ride and stop by St. Mary’s cemetery. To say “thank you” in person. To those who made it all possible. Table setters.

I dabble in my family’s history. On my wife’s side, her aunt Connie Burkart was the expert family historian. If you needed to know something, you asked Connie. I will miss her praise, and words of love and encouragement whenever I posted here. This one’s for you, Connie.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Who were your table setters? Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

 

More Than a 3-Day Weekend – Remembering a Soldier’s Story

In upstate New York, our summer season is greatly anticipated – if only to erase the meteorological memories of bitter winters and wet, cool springs. Traditionally, our official kick off is Memorial Day.

This year, our family will follow a familiar route – driving up I-87, also known as the Northway, into the heart of the scenic Adirondack park. Specifically Bolton Landing in the Lake George region.

0A01C300-B963-432A-91F3-B26D2175D0E7Although it looks as if this rainy spring will hang on at least one more weekend, with uncooperative showers and chilly winds, the party will go on for all of us. In the past, we’ve consumed enough clams to warrant renaming the weekend Clam-a-palooza.

Everyone will have their fun, including our small group in this small town. But we call it Memorial Day for a reason. It’s more than a three day weekend – the meaning can run much, much deeper.

Years ago, a friend of mine put it succinctly in a social media post:

“Happy Memorial Day”. That statement doesn’t make sense to me at all. Today is a day of reflection for selfless sacrifice both past and present. I am not celebrating. I am remembering.

We have a special soldier in my immediate family – PFC, and former member of the 105th Infantry, Dominick DeGiorgio.  He was my grandfather’s brother. After surviving the brutal fire fights in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he was later killed in action in Germany in World War II, still a young man. As far as I know, he is my family’s only recipient of the Purple Heart.

Another brother, my great uncle Mariano, fought for the Italian Army during European campaigns. It seems incomprehensible now, but there was true potential in that war for brother v. brother, each fighting, shedding blood, for their country.

Even though Dominick was killed well before I was born, I felt I knew him through countless stories from my grandmother. While my grandfather Sebastian was a man of few words, his brother had a huge personality despite his small stature.

IMG_4397A good looking guy who was always laughing and in good humor, he was, as my Nonna would state, very popular with the ladies. So much so that he would draw big crowds of them at the ice cream shop where he worked before going off to war.

I still wonder what it would have been like to have him here, and the impact he could have had on our lives. His bright and cheerful persona as counterpoint to my own grandfather, the “strong, silent” type. What fun we could have had with that.

The great war ensured we would never know. As for many other families, the battle for freedoms takes away as it gives, and erases what could have been.

He gave it all, fighting for the next generations of Americans with, as my friend said, “selfless sacrifice.” I’m sure there were plenty of disappointed girls at the ice cream window at Manory’s store.

The battles are faded history. Many have forgotten.IMG_3581

I’m happy I’ll have the opportunity to sit on a porch on  what may be a stormy May afternoon, to reflect and wonder about a man whose brief  life and unending potential were taken away far too soon.

Dominick DeGiorgio took part in the D-Day invasion of France, and earned a bronze arrowhead for his campaign ribbon. He also participated in Operation Market Garden, where he was KIA on September 17th, 1944. For his service on the continent of Europe, he earned the following decorations:

Combat infantryman badge, bronze star medal, Purple Heart medal, European – African – Middle Eastern campaign medal with bronze arrowhead and two bronze service stars, WWII Victory Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Cross (and Star).

The Secret to Marriage “Success?” – It’s Old School

My wife and I have an outdoor ritual that takes place predominately in the spring and summer months. Most mornings, between seeing our son off to school and leaving for work, we’ll have a chat and a cup of stove perked coffee on our back deck.

We’ve even made the attempt to keep the tradition going  as the weather gets a little crappier – drinking the coffee in our deck chairs as the temperature hovered near thirty degrees.

It’s hard to let go of something that works so well.

This time spent – and the communication that transpires because of it – are one of the reasons the two of us have been able to enter our twenty fourth year of marriage.

Twenty four. In today’s modern world, it sounds like a freakishly long time to sustain a relationship. And for many people, no doubt it is.

Eyes will go wide with curiosity when you tell folks you’ve been married for more than twenty years.

Everybody looks for the “secret to success,” that one magical short cut that will skip the tough stuff, and retain the romantic ideal of the wedding ceremony. In our impatient, always connected sound byte society, the short cut is what’s deemed as acceptable.

“How have you made it so long?”

The answer I might give – “How the hell should I know?”

I don’t know. Realistically, twenty four years of marriage as a measurement of time is a drop in the bucket. Before my grandfather’s death in the year 2000, he and my grandmother were married for sixty-six years.

Did you catch that number? Sixty-six years.

In case you think that’s a fluke or an outlier, my grandfather’s brother Mariano was married to his wife even longer.

In my head, I still think my wife and I are in our honeymoon phase and, although our youngest kid is a teenager, just starting out. When you look at the standard that’s been set in our family, we really are just starting out.

There are a myriad of ways you can work to improve a relationship, whether in or outside of a marriage.

As you might expect, there are no secrets. Great relationships are simple – but they’re not easy.

The Ego Is Your Enemy

Unless you prefer a life of misery, it’s a smart idea to put your ego on the shelf. Everyone has one – giant, massive egos. Myself included.

OK, maybe Mother Teresa didn’t have an ego. Maybe the Buddha, or Trappist monks don’t have egos. They’re the exception, not the rule.

We all have friends in various  stages of relationship duress. And the stories are consistent – about how their lives are affected, how they’ve been wronged, how nothing goes their way, et cetera.

The consistent theme here?  – “Me. Me. Me. And more me.”

Again, there are always exceptions – but I guarantee that if egos on either side were shelved, in the interest of empathy, an attitude of service, and the idea of meeting halfway – compromising – for the greater good of both parties, you could save and improve any relationship.

But that takes work. And it’s a helluva lot easier just to think of yourself than to do the actual work, because work takes commitment. Speaking of which…

Commit

For a lot of us, commitment is a bit of a dirty word. Whether it concerns eating habits, relationships, jobs, exercise – the idea of commitment isn’t always a palatable one.

That means I have bad news to share – without commitment, there is no success. Especially in the realm of marriage.

With commitment, you go all in. There are no options, no plan B. You burn the bridges behind you.

Over the period of sixty-six years of marriage between Sebastian DeGiorgio and his wife Rosina, there was massive commitment. Ups, downs, highs, lows, through prosperous times and tragedy. In a life that was made more difficult in the beginning because of immigrant status – they remained committed until the end.

That’s my model for commitment. The model of today includes large diamonds, opulent receptions, destination weddings. Once that’s over, marriage success is a roll of the dice. If only the same effort that was put into wedding planning was part of the relationship building as well.

Prepare For What It Is – Work

“Successful people never accept good enough; they are always pushing themselves more than others would ever dare.” – Grant Cardone

The morning after our December wedding, crews had to de-ice the wings of the jet airliner that was to start us off on this new journey. We were prepared for a week of fun and sun on the beaches of Mexico – but were we ready for what was to follow?

The building of a sustained relationship requires work. You have a role of spouse. Parent. Provider. Protector. In each role, you can never be “good enough.” To make a marriage a success, improving it every day should be your goal. And that takes continuous effort.

img_2716Almost twenty four years later, my wife and I still stand close to each other at parties. We finish the other’s sentences, laugh at the jokes. We flirt, and more often than not we’re thinking of the exact same thing at the same time.

All of that is the result of many years of effort to keep our relationship like new, making little adjustments every day to make each other happy. There have been (mainly financial) struggles, but struggles can be overcome with – work. The work can help you weather any storm.

Most marriage issues (ours included) stem from problems that the modern era hoists upon us. But I’m here to tell you – modern marriage should be easy.

None of us had to board ships to complete an arduous journey. We never had to leave our home country. Most of us don’t have to spend our lives in physical toil, or deal with the prejudice and backlash that comes with being an immigrant. Or fight to put food on the table, or stay alive.

Our families of yesterday were shining examples of work, commitment, and humility. You want a better relationship? That’s how it’s done.