Lessons From the Past: An Immigrant Work Ritual

hard work ethic
Manning the restaurant meat slicer during one of her chaotic mornings

Like many other young people of my generation, I was taught to go to work at an early age. My indoctrination to the world of work wasn’t really difficult: a very part time gig in my family’s restaurant, manning the dishwasher during a slower period in the mid afternoon.

Not being sure in the beginning as to why I was being put to work in the first place (I had school work to do, you know), I slowly got into a rhythm of what the business was like, even for just a few hours a week in the “back of the house.”

It was here that I learned respect for those that lived and breathed hospitality, and the nature of the chores they had to do. While many of the restaurant’s customers came in from their office jobs in pressed suits and ties, I more identified with the working style of my family, and the restaurant’s other employees: grinding out physical labor, at times on the run, for shifts of varying lengths.

It was an ordinary day for my father to spend 12 hours in a hot kitchen, on his feet, attempting to coordinate dozens of different entrees out to the dining room at the proper time.

Dad was a younger guy back then, and could easily handle the workload. The real respect was formed for my grandparents, especially my grandmother, who continued with this type of physical labor into their seventies and eighties.

Nonna’s schedule, at that age, bordered on the ridiculous. Her typical day went like this:

5:30 AM – awake time.

6:00 AM – hop into a cab, or take the bus (she never drove a car) to the restaurant to prepare for the day.

6:15 AM – fire up the ovens, stove top, grill, etc. When the oven was preheated, in would go a whole turkey. For the purpose of making turkey sandwiches, mostly. She did this just about every day.

6:30 AM – once the turkey was in, prep would start for various soups, sauces, salads. To the right of the stove was a steam table that would hold vats of soup that she prepared every day. Deli meats were readied on a meat slicer, and she would respond to calls from early morning vendors who knew she was there.

8:00 AM – time to unlock the front door, to receive her “fans” – mainly older, retired gentlemen who liked an early morning cocktail or two. Now, she would start tending bar for customers, pivoting back and forth from the bar to the kitchen to make sure all systems were go with the oven and stove.

There were times, when I was the restaurant’s main bartender, I would come in the morning to find an already full bar. I had mixed feelings about that, as now I had to juggle serving customers and prepping my space for the day. But my grandmother’s fan club was always a priority for her: so I had to keep my lip zipped.

11:00 AM – when I came in around 10 o’clock, she was free to focus on just her kitchen duties. The turkey was cooled and ready for slicing, soups just about done, grill clean and ready to go. Sandwich and salad area prepped and pristine, soon to be enveloped by the lunch hour chaos.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

At this point, I was to drive her home for job number two: prepping even more food for the restaurant at the house, as well as a different dish or two for dinner for my grandfather, when I dropped him off that night. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive visitors during the day, entertaining them while making a cauldron of lentil soup that I would pick up later on.

From the early morning hours to the evening, she was all about the work: interrupted only by the occasional prayer or counting of rosary beads. She embraced the simplicity of her life, and when all was said and done, the work – the feeding and nurturing of family and customer alike, with the adoration of the “fan club” (men I came to know, respect, and share a few laughs with myself) – was what made her happiest.

I can’t come close to matching the work ethic of these amazing people: but on days when I think of them and attempt to model their way of getting after it, it’s those days where I wind up feeling my best. I believe that, no matter the circumstance, they were proud of their family. Although they’ve departed, I’d like to think I’m doing all I can to make them proud still.

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Why I Love That Chip on Tom Brady’s Shoulder

Featured photo by amny.com

As a fan of the New York football Giants, my opinions of Tom Brady ran the gamut from mild distaste to unwavering suspicion (think: Deflategate).

Brady, even with his success, could be viewed (albeit rarely) as an unfortunate figure: with two crushing Super Bowl losses to New York, fueled by game saving Eli Manning passes that could be described as nothing less than miraculous (check out the freakishly accurate throw to Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI).

Even with those two unlikely defeats, last week Brady secured his seventh Super Bowl win in 10 attempts. To label him the greatest of all time is making an understatement.

With his successes comes my growing admiration: even as a Giants fan, I recognize Brady’s humility and praise of his team’s efforts to buoy that success. Even better, he knows he’s an older guy that needs to work even harder to sustain the levels he’s reached.

Photo: foxnews.com

At 43 years old, he is the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl game.

That’s the reason I’m now fond of Brady: not much younger than myself, he lives and plays with a certain fire. Never satisfied, and still with a gigantic chip on his shoulder.

If you’re a man, in your 40s or 50s, and not inspired by Brady’s exploits, you should see your doctor and have your testosterone checked.

The chip on his shoulder, formed by being drafted out of college in the sixth round (even now, it sounds ridiculous), has never been worn down by the swells of his success. Even behind that smiling face and “aw, shucks” demeanor, you know his attitude looks to burn through the most competitive foe.

As someone that has experience with chip on shoulder syndrome, I can relate. The chip in me formed as a middle schooler, overweight and an easy target, and segued into a Stallone inspired workout regimen and steely resolve into fighting shape. That chip has never wavered, and into my late 50s, I still pursue the ideal of what will be the best physical shape of my life.

There is no other alternative than to go down fighting. With Brady, you can just sense his never quit mentality.

With as much as I hold my example close to heart, to be fair, it’s a small one. I have family, relatives who were crucial in setting the table of prosperity that we sit at now, to give the most credit.

Picture this: your father, a successful businessman, and your mother, a healer, pull you from your home because of outside criminal threats. Mayhem and violence.

You leave your home country, landing by boat to the bleak skies and bitter winds of New York City. We’re not in sunny Sicily anymore.

In your previous life, you had relative luxury – even with staff to help you keep house. In the new land, you are nothing: in some eyes, less than nothing. You now have nothing. The tables have turned. You are now the servants.

That’s how, as a child, my grandmother’s story started. The nucleus of my grandfather’s story isn’t vastly different. For them to survive – to hell with the concept of succeeding – they needed a chip the size of a boulder to plant on their already weary shoulders.

They had them. And they made it. Through sheer force of will, with the strength of their backs and resolve, they built lives, businesses, communities, and a deeply appreciative family.

To say my grandmother and grandfather were ferocious competitors in the game of life would be yet another understatement, on the same level of calling Brady a decent quarterback.

No matter what type of shit storm they had to persevere through – and there were plenty of them – they never stopped moving forward. They were, as I’ve often said, relentless.

Watching Brady meticulously call audibles and throw passes last Sunday, to keep a lightning fast Chiefs defense on its heels, I didn’t think of comparing future fortunes of two unrelated, underrated underdogs: whether a late blooming college player, or the immigrants that spent so many years working to shape our own destinations.

The conclusion I came to draw is undeniable: with the team I always had around me, I was set up to win big games my entire life.

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Just Who is “Nonna,” Anyway?

As the pace of this blog ebbs and flows, and more posts are added and shared via social, it’s heartening to note that new readers are coming aboard: in fact, there’s more than just a few of you here, enjoying these essays new and old.

With that, it’s justified that I reintroduce the central character in this decade long online story, especially for those of you that might not be intimately familiar.

That character is my grandmother, who my two kids grew up calling “Nonna.”

Rosina Tagliarini, who would eventually become Rosina DeGiorgio by marriage, emigrated to this country in the late 1920’s with her mother and her sisters from a small town in Sicily: Acquaviva Platani, in the province of Caltanisetta.

Escape From Oppression

Unlike many immigrants who came to America to escape poverty, my grandmother’s family had to leave to evade constant threats of organized crime. Her father was specifically targeted, not buckling to kickback and payoff requests: individuals that wanted their share of government warehouse reserves that he protected to ensure local residents were fed and nourished through the war years.

Me, with my Nonna, late 1960s

She came here with her mother, and sisters. Her mother Maria, my great grandmother, was who I called Nonna when I was really young. She held a special place in the home my grandparents had built here in the late ’60s, a modest brick ranch, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees spread out over almost an acre of land.

The family matriarch, she was an ordinary citizen here, but not so in Sicily. She ran an apothecary, known in her small town as a healer. In her later years, I would bring macaroni with butter and cheese to her, with my little six year old hands, as that was all she cared to eat.

My grandmother’s sisters also came here, two of them with notable influence on me, as well: Nicolina, who I dubbed the “Last Sicilian,” and Carmela, who watched after us youngsters with a caring but steady hand during lunch hours (we walked home from elementary school for lunch) and after school.

She also had two brothers, named Lillo and Franco. Fond memories of mine include “Uncle Frank,” who would visit from Italy occasionally, and was my first exposure to a man who I thought was a jet setting world traveler (People could come here from Italy so easily? Amazing!).

His sister showed how thrilled she was by his visits, rolling out her version of a red carpet. A prolific cook already, my grandmother went full throttle when company was coming. A visit from Franco assured a large number of arancini (riceballs, see photo), a Sicilian street food and family favorite. I’m salivating now, just writing this.

Married With Children

A few years after arriving, she married my grandfather Sebastian DeGiorgio. Their marriage was an ongoing success story, lasting 64 years until his passing in 2000. They had two sons, my father Joe (yup, I’m a junior) and his younger brother Anthony, who died tragically as a teenager months after I was born.

Parents never get over such a life changing event, but Rosina’s strength and resolve to carry on through her grief to provide support to her family was undeniable. It’s one of her traits that I remain in awe of, to this day.

After stints of factory work, what she called “piece work,” she took over sister Carmela’s restaurant in the late 1950s. Known as Jack’s, that was a successful venture for my family for 10 years, until acquiring another restaurant, this time with my dad: the Trojan Tap Room, where I spent 25 years of my working career myself.

Aside from her prowess in a professional kitchen, she was an accomplished home cook as well. For family, friends, acquaintances that dropped by – there would always be an offer of something off the stove, if you were to sit at her table. If nothing else, a cup of coffee and sweet treat was required to have.

Bound to a strong family unit, she had a tight knit group of friends – Mary Marino, Flora DeCurtis, and Maria Commis come to mind immediately. She shared faith centric friendships with these ladies, as practicing her Roman Catholic faith was of utmost importance, in line with the dedication to her family and her life’s work.

She lived a full 96 years, most them robust and energetic. Constant movement was her calling card, at first as survival mechanism (as an immigrant, you’d better have hauled ass), then subsequently as a path to success: expending every shred of energy in support of family.

A recent statement by Pope Francis (who I’m sure she would have loved) summarized it beautifully, and inspired me here:

“It is striking that the Lord spent most of his time on Earth living an ordinary life, without standing out. It is a beautiful message that reveals the greatness of daily life, the importance in God’s eyes of every gesture and every moment of life, even the most simple.

That was her, in a nutshell. Simple life, with every day well spent. Diminutive in stature (under five feet), but with an outsized personality. Her influence is still felt, every day.

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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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8 Happiness Rules (That You Can Use) From My Italian Grandmother

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

In case you lived under a rock during the late 80’s, the song by that name became the first a cappella tune to reach number one status on the old school Hot 100 chart in this country. Performed by artist Bobby McFerrin, it flooded American airwaves, and by chance, the old transistor radio in my grandmother’s kitchen.

To say that she liked the song would be an understatement, singing along with every opportunity when it played, and often repeating the mantra when it didn’t. Don’t worry. Be happy.

IMG_4303Even before the song became a common listen, she seemed to have it as a life rule that she followed without question. “Nonna” didn’t discover the concept of being happy first (before looking for stuff to make you happy), but no one exemplified this rule more than my grandmother.

In a life lived as an immigrant where “Don’t worry, be happy” was a creed, she taught us many examples of how to get it done ourselves:

“Everything you need to be happy is within you today, right now” – Mark Manson

Create the life you want with hard work – It’s pretty official: from conversations, both online and off, that I’ve had or overheard with other Italian Americans, the consensus is in – we can all learn from the unreal work ethic of the generation(s) before us.

Truth be told, I’m a touch embarrassed by the way I work these days in my little office cubicle – it’s nothing like the schedules from the past, where I would put in a punishing number of hours just to keep up with my parents, or my grandparents.

I’m still astonished by the hours they kept, to provide for themselves and their family. They worked. They didn’t need to be entertained. And they would make many sacrifices of their own time to help those who needed it.

IMG_4771The present moment? It’s all that you’ve got – One of her favorite quotes was, “It’s later than you think.” I’d like to think it was her way of saying the future is coming, but it’s length and quality is an unknown. The past is nice to visit, but don’t dwell on it. This is a talent that seems to be lost in our modern days, as we all make our big plans in the coming months, or years – rather than focus on being happy right now, in the present moment. Is there really any guarantee of the future?

As I’ve heard many times in my past, “It’s later than you think.”

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”  – St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Be relentless – The default option for most people is to sit back, waiting for life to happen to them. Instead of  learning and improving themselves, they keep plodding along, wondering why things never change.

I’ve written here before about my grandfather’s relentless nature, comparing him to the champion boxer who always moved forward with constant action, throwing punches, never relenting – always on the offense.

He, and his wife of 66 years, were an inspiration on this front. They consistently pursued, over decades, what they wanted – success and inclusion for their family in this new country, their new home.

They captured a true secret of happiness, or purpose: know what you want, and never cease in your journey to achieve it.

Create meaningful, memorable moments –  A particular trait in the Italian American household is creating traditions from what other folks may consider mundane – taking every day moments and making them unforgettable.

My grandmother was a master of taking a pedestrian (for her) chore of making meatballs and turning it into an event to be remembered years later. The eating of the food she cooked made the moments even more transcendent: and it’s not just me – other family members, old and younger, can recall vivid details of visits in the kitchen, and the setting of a Sunday dinner table.

The little family picnics, cups of coffee at the table, the unexpected “drop in” (everybody loved the drop in back then) of a family member or close friend – they were all memorable moments made so by the enthusiasm for life that I was brought up with.

Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses –  Jealousy and envy are incompatible with happiness, so if you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it’s time to stop.

Everyone’s experience is different. What looks to be all shiny and bright to the outside world could have been riddled with bumps, bruises, and obstacles along the way. No matter what type of success you see or perceive, you can be sure of that.

The immigrants from my past rarely spoke in envious tones. If they were jealous of someone else’s possessions, it was probably the fact that the other party had more food (or god forbid, better food) in a celebratory spread. Or perhaps, nicer linens on a dinner table.

My grandmother would make 90 to 100 meatballs at a clip, just to make sure she wasn’t outdone by a friend or neighbor.IMG_2307

They were hard working people who had little time to concern themselves with what others had – even if they were at all interested. My grandmother thrived on living a simple life, with few extravagances but many relationships to keep cultivating. Her one luxury was a fur coat she would proudly wear to Sunday Mass during the chillier weather.

We’d all be a little happier if we avoided the comparison trap. It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve been taught.

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

Stay positive in a negative world – I really don’t know how they did it. Their lives were physically challenging and, at times, emotionally apocalyptic with deaths of family members well before their time.

I rarely saw my grandmother in a sad, melancholy mood. Especially in the kitchen. Smiling, singing, dancing, stirring, tending the oven – she seemed to be uplifted all of time. I have no doubt her faith in God was part of this.

If you had negativity or troubles in your life – well, that steaming cup of coffee and a table side chat when you visited would soon be the focus, and the remedy.

Don’t get distracted  – I recently attended the funeral service of the mother of a dear friend of mine. While giving a eulogy at her graveside, my friend implored those standing in the cemetery to be more connected – but in a more human, dare I say old fashioned, way of ditching constant social media and showing up with a phone call or visit.

Look, we’re all guilty of the zombie-like obsession with our phones and devices – myself included. And I think the social is a fantastic way to communicate and keep up with family and friends (as long as you refrain from diving into the deep end of negativity).

My trick is to supplement that, getting a kick out of sneaking in a phone call or text in addition to Facebook comments. It’s way more fun to talk to Uncle Tony or cousin Frankie than it is to just click the “like” button. We all need more of that – again, myself included.

Get yourself out there, and socialize

My grandmother knew the secret – if she was happy (or at least acted happy), everyone around her couldn’t but help to be happy as well. Her attitude was infectious.

She was the life of the party wherever she went, loving to socialize whenever she had the time. You have to remember, her work schedule, whether for family or her restaurants, didn’t allow for much leisure time – but when she had it, made good use of it.

The impromptu party or picnic was frequently on her radar – and her grandson has picked up on this as well.

I wasn’t what you would call “super sociable” by any stretch back in the day, being just as comfortable with alone time as I was hanging with friends.

This was solved by getting married to the (perfect) woman I’ve nicknamed Suzie Satellite for her uncanny ability to throw the perfect party or turn complete strangers into friends within the hour. Now it’s rubbed off on me, as I’m more likely to approach new faces as easily as lurking around the outskirts of a room, just observing.

You need time with me? You’ll have to talk to Suzie – otherwise known as my cruise director or booking agent.

Don’t Worry – Be Happy

In the end, one little Sicilian immigrant knew the secret to be, and be happy: to believe that everything works itself out. To not take yourself (or others) so seriously. To know how to laugh, situation appropriate or not. To avoid really negative chatter, and to lighten up the world and those around you at every opportunity. And to have faith that you have a special offering, regardless of the inner voices or outside forces.

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