On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

As a nation, we’ve grown weary of the violence and chaos that often is a front page headline – just recently we can point to Sutherland Springs, massive carnage in Las Vegas, and another terror attack in New York City.

I’ve been immersed, in the last couple of years, in what author/podcaster Tim Ferriss coined the Low Information Diet – erasing the influence of national/ local news and other distractions from my life.

It’s not that I don’t want to stay informed – some believe it’s without question your duty as a citizen – but I would prefer to accelerate the aging process with child like wonder and curiosity rather than see my world with a perpetual black cloud over it. To believe the world may be a wonderful place – as it once was.

For those of us who want to turn back the clock, retreat into a previous time – well, if you’re an aficionado of the news headlines, you could hardly be blamed. I consider myself one of those people – for good reason.

Not so many years ago, my life was filled with the influence of Italian immigrants. Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants, to be precise. Men and women with grit, determination, and a love of their adopted country.

There’s been a lot of attention paid by the aforementioned news machine concerning the plight of the modern immigrant. However, it’s not just the current administration in the White House that has issue with select groups of immigrants. As columnist Rosario Iaconis stated:

February 19 marks the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. With the nation at war against the Axis powers — and still reeling from Pearl Harbor — FDR promulgated a directive that branded 600,000 Americans of Italian descent “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 on the West Coast were forced to relocate, and more than 250 were placed in internment camps in Georgia, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In an earlier historical misstep, president Calvin Coolidge stated he thought Italians to be “an inferior race,” notably southern Italians.

An unfortunate series of events. If only presidents past and present could embrace the power of the immigrant. There are so many in my own life that should be deemed worthy of a spotlight for what truly makes this country great. I’d like to introduce you to some.

IMG_3970Some of you have already read, on more than one occasion, a series of posts about my grandfather’s brother Dominick. He was a hero to his adopted country of America, being killed in action in World War II, right before the end of the war. His loss left a gaping chasm in my family at the time, and he is still a hero to us today.

My cousin and I recently had crafted a military banner in his name, with his image flying high and proud in the city where I live, where he lived as a proud American citizen. As long as our family is here, we will never forget.

But Dominick was far from the only member of his family that emigrated to our shores. His brothers came here as well, and they were special in their own right.

My grandfather himself (Sebastian, pictured below to the right) has long been a featured topic on this site, with several articles that remain my favorites. He was one of the toughest guys I knew, and this was just not my opinion – the other men he knew, whether family or friend, verified his relentless nature and resolve.

The image I love – one that stays with me like it happened yesterday – is of him during one of our tragically brutal winters, shoveling snow with a steel handled shovel and no gloves to protect his hands. Dressed in an overcoat and fedora.

Over coffee on a recent Sunday morning, my cousin Mary told me a story that I didn’t know about my grandfather – or “Pop,” as I would call him. My cousin said that a fire had started in their first floor flat, in a living room area that was quickly getting out of control. Like, within minutes, all was going to be lost.

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Instead of the fire department coming to the rescue, “your grandfather came flying down the stairs (my grandparents lived on the second floor) and put the fire out – with his bare hands.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I think he used a couple of small, wet towels. Or a blanket or something.”When I had thought I heard it all about my grandfather, I sat there holding my coffee cup, my mouth agape, mind in disbelief.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” was all that I could say.

IMG_3975Another brother was Antonio, who I referred to as “Uncle Tony.” As tough as my grandfather was, Antonio’s brute strength stood out. Capable of tilling huge gardens and planting trees and bushes with the most rudimentary tools, he was as powerful a man as they come. He personified his Calabrian roots with his farming ability, and was responsible, along with his brothers, for planting much of the food that we would later eat.

He would make a point, after his work was over, to rough house with whichever one of us kids was within striking distance. If he said, in his broken English, “come over and give me a kiss,” you did. And got your youthful face scraped by a bearded stubble that felt made of steel.

Mariano, who to us kids was “Uncle Mario,” always captivated with his infectious smile and hearty laugh. If my grandfather was the quiet one – which he was – Uncle Mario was the talker, coming to my grandparents’ house for frequent visits, sitting at the kitchen table for an hour or more to dole out life wisdom and stories from the old country.img_3366

He was the man who taught you how to correctly prune the grape vines in the yard. And when the grapes were down, he’d make a homemade wine that after a glass or two would put you on the couch.

Although he was polite, always well dressed, and soft spoken, turns out Mario was a warrior in a previous life. Fighting for the Italian army in World War II (he didn’t make his trip to America until the early ’60s), he wound up becoming a POW during the war – later escaping and trekking hundreds of miles to freedom.

Hearing that was another “holy shit moment.”

And that’s just the men. The ladies in our family from that generation were even more influential. Working outside the home, but creating the ultimate space for us to grow up in – spending much time making sure the atmosphere was filled with love, warmth, security, and a sense of community. It was an amazing time.

“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past” – Tom Petty

Italian American Podcast co-founder Dolores Alfieri said something while interviewing a guest that immediately hit me like a ton of bricks, stating her feeling about being raised Italian American:  “It was almost like I had a superpower.” 

As much as I would have to disagree with the Tom Petty lyric quoted above (I get a kick out of frequently visiting the past), I agree with Dolores without hesitation. It was a super power. You were safe, secure, surrounded by strength, integrity, passion, and values. You were loved.

It was a feeling, at times, of invincibility. You were bulletproof.

You can tell me that’s in the past. Those days are over.

For the most part, you would be right. The past is gone.

But those super powers remain. Ready to be summoned at any time, to serve you and those around you as well. It may not be like mine – being raised as an Italian American by a family whose best interests were your interests – but you have your own. You just have to call on it. Or discover it, if you have not yet.

In this time of violence, vitriol, and what some may call “a graceless age” – it would be great for all to believe – friends, family, children, the people that mean the most to you.

It’s especially for my kids. I want my son and daughter to know they have it as well. Although they’re both at an age where self doubt can creep in like an insidious force, they can call on their superpower. Like Superman type strength, or Flash like speed, they have it.

It’s the Sicilian in them, the Calabrian. It courses through their veins.

You can, in the finest moments, feel invincible. Unstoppable.

I know you can because I still feel it myself. In my heart, mind, and best of all, my memory of the past.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. What’s your “superpower?” Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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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. The official kick off is what we refer to as 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.

A 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.

Letters From The Front, And A Hero’s Remembrance

dominick wwiiWhen my grandmother passed away four years ago, she left behind many possessions that my father had to take into his house, and keep in storage. Some of those most prized possessions are documents and letters written by Dominick DeGiorgio, from his time served in World War II.

Dominick was my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother, and the “life of the party” within my immediate family. While he was in training camps here and in combat overseas, he wrote many letters to let the family know he was doing well, and send his love and regards.

Many of the letters are in his native Italian, but a select few were written in English, showing off a skill with a language that was not his first. The letters are poignant,  and at times funny. The one I’ll share with you within this post was postmarked a week prior to his being killed in action.

He survived the D-Day invasion that took place 70 years ago today, but could not stave off the inevitable fate that some will say was God’s plan. War was Hell, and it extinguished a bright life from our family.

This letter in particular was addressed to my grandmother. At the time, I don’t think my grandfather could read English very well.

Words Of A Soldier

Dear Rosa:

A few lines to let you know I’m in the best of health. I hope this finds you, my brother, and Joey the same. I’m sorry for not being able to write more often, but we have been moving fast, and on the go all the time.

I guess you have been reading the papers how we are beating the Germans here in France. Well, this paper that I am writing on is German paper they have left behind while running away from our tanks. You would be surprised if you could see with your own eyes and the things they have left behind so that they could run faster towards Germany.

We have been doing a lot of walking, and some days are very hot, but at night it cools off so much that you need two or more blankets to keep warm. Of course, we don’t sleep much, and when we do, it’s usually without blankets.

Rosa, in your next letter let me know if you received any more mail from my family. I really miss everyone, and wish that I could be more near all of you.

I hope that this war soon ends, and then we can all start over again, just as if there had been no war at all.

The people that we free here in the cities are very happy. Did you see the newsreel of the parade of Paris?

It’s getting dark now, so I am closing by sending my regards to all who ask of me. Hello to Tony and family. Regards to your mother. Love and kisses to you, my brother, and Joey, as always.

Dominick

No War At All

As I go through life, I feel an immense gratitude for all that I have. Like many other people, I feel that family is a big part of that. To read these words again from the razor thin German paper they were written on, to be able to type them here and share the thoughts of a man who has been gone for 70 years, boggles my mind.

The old-school man in me can’t take for granted the technology that allows this. As I see his words on a page, I imagine Dominick with his pen in hand, still in his sweat and mud stained uniform, with artillery shelled city blocks surrounding him and his brothers in arms. Fearful of his fate, with the hope it’s all just a nightmare. As if there had been no war at all.

Like many others, he would pay the biggest price there is. His fear would be realized, and he would become a war time statistic. The battles are faded history. Many of us have forgotten.

Seventy years later, as the anniversary of D-Day looms, I’ll think of Dominick. The family man. The life of the party. The fighter. The patriot.

Hero.

 

An Epic Life

World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents
World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents

 

A photo can tell incredible, complex, wonderful stories.

You are looking at one of my favorites. The man on the left gave everything. His life for his country. He was a soldier who knew great fear in the heat of battle. He wrote letters home, talking of the smell of death. He dreamed of a world where there was no war, no conflict.

The man on the right never had to run from the bullets of enemy attack. He had to make a living in the country that was home, but not his place of origin.

He didn’t die young in a war, like his brother. He lived 92 years, a physically challenging life that would include work, until he no longer could. Until his body said “no more”.

Brothers in arms, in blood, in life. Their images are powerful, majestic. They proved their mettle time and again, building the cornerstone of our family. Their influence is felt every day. Long gone from this earth, but always in the hearts of those that were close.

These are the makings of an epic life.

There is the cornerstone, and there is the mortar. The woman in the middle of the photo is my grandmother. The family may have been built by the men, but it was kept together by the women. The women held the vast influence.

Our generation was shaped, formed, and molded by the women. They taught us our truth, our ethics, our way of life.

My grandmother, and her sisters, represented generations of tradition. As our incessantly frenetic modern lives attempt to strip away any semblance of tradition, values, and common sense, we must fight back in their name.

Fight to keep traditions, values, and a vision of the world as a kind and decent place. Because that’s the environment we grew up in.

I write what I write because of a sense of duty. I can’t let them be forgotten. They can’t fade into the recesses of history, eventually without anyone knowing of their existence.

Legacies left behind should be handled with care.

Working class, immigrant, depression era lives. Lives that were truly epic. You and I would be at a loss to describe their stories.

Epic because of the ashes they rose from.

Epic in the tragedy they endured.

Epic in their relentless nature.

Epic with the love and comfort they created.

No, we don’t know the meaning of the word. Its definition is far different today.

At the time of this writing, it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my grandmother, the former Rosa Tagliarini. Who took the name DeGiorgio from her love Sebastiano, that handsome devil to the right in the photo. The date of her birth, December 21st, will be like every other day.

Her influence will hover. Her presence will be felt.

To celebrate one hundred, my wife and I will raise our wine glasses in a birthday toast. In remembrance, and thanks.

With gratitude. For the path she helped pave, to our unquestionable abundance, by living her epic life.

Promise And Pain: The Year Of The Unforgettable

Image - Wikipedia
Image – Wikipedia

When John F. Kennedy made his now iconic address to the nation concerning the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, two young boys sat side by side, taking it all in. It was dramatic prime time viewing, in which nervous Americans were informed of missile sites primed to attack our shores just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

My cousin (Little) Anthony along with my uncle (Big) Anthony watched transfixed as the President told them of “a clear and present danger”, and then spoke of initiated steps for the defense of our security from the Russian and Cuban threat.

My uncle’s response to the telecast?

“Well, there goes Christmas!”

My uncle was just a boy, knowing nothing of political strife, or wars between countries, or the madness of men seeking to rule the world.

He cared about his family, and about how this new situation with the President would ruin the holidays.

Their paths would converge again, in 1963, as darkness would fall and the world, and its history, would change in a profound way.

Nothing But The Pain

I was born in the middle of a ferocious snowstorm in March of that year, a new member of a family that was growing and becoming more prosperous. My parents hadn’t been married a year yet, and here I was already making my appearance.

The first child and grandson, I was new royalty, and these were happy times. The American Dream was being formed right in our household. An occasion to celebrate.

It was a time of celebration that was short lived. My uncle passed away only months after I was born, leaving a gaping hole in our family, and my grandparents wracked with grief and despair.

They had nothing now but the pain, and their adopted country soon followed suit. The year got no easier with America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam, escalation of racial tension in the south, and the final blow – the assassination of the President.

In the working class neighborhood where my family lived, the same shock was felt everywhere when hearing of the nature of Kennedy’s death. They had heard it on radio, read it in a special afternoon edition of the hometown newspaper.

If you were able to afford a television, you watched as Walter Cronkite gave you the timeline of events, wiping his eyes because he knew a promising young life had been cut short. The axis of history had been moved.

The Promise

Today, fifty years later, I find it hard to believe that my grandparents gave the President’s killing more than a brief thought. A life they held close, their Anthony, had already been cut short. There was no grief left to offer the Kennedys, or our country. They couldn’t have cared.

As my cousin said to me in a phone conversation, “It took them a really long time to get over it”. If they did at all.

1963 was my year, my beginning.

The year that began with much promise on a winter’s night took a turn down a wrong highway and could not turn back.

Our nation, with that promise of hopes and dreams to be fulfilled, became a bleak and bitter landscape. In Washington. In Dallas. On the edge of my town, in a house on a corner lot where my grandparents lived, there was sadness.

Fifty years later, there is remembrance. Our country was changed, our lives were altered. The promise was taken away, and we can never know what might have been.

We can only remember.