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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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.

Fantastic Voyage

As I walked through the sand, hand in hand with my wife, I noticed my feet turning black – like I had stepped through piles of ash after remnants of a roaring wild fire.

The sand itself was unlike those of other Caribbean beaches that I had walked, the color and texture being somewhat strange.

img_0067Looking to my left while walking, rock formations jutted out, in front of the hill side where our hotel resort was perched. The rocks looked blacker than the sand: as I learned later, the result of thousands of years of volcanic ash and lava covering the rocks and forever changing their appearance.

Some of the names are Poas, Irazu, Turrialba, Rincon de la Vieja, and lastly, Arenal – widely known as one of the most beautiful volcano sites on earth.

Costa Rica is much more than volcanoes, though. Its topography includes lakes, mountain ranges, jungle terrain, tranquil bays, and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily for us, five star resorts are plentiful as well.

My wife and I were lucky enough to walk this stunning beach, in its bay encased setting with an appropriately hot sun, through a Diamond Club incentive sponsored by the company that I work for.

I say lucky – but more than a couple of people that would say that luck is secondary to the hard work and dedication that it takes to become a Diamond Club winner.

We’re lucky because the two of us absolutely love to travel, and the company gives us ample opportunity to do it on their dime. We would travel anyway, even without the multiple wins that I have – for example, taking the kids on a family vacation last year to the Dominican Republic that was just as sun drenched and breathtaking.

It wouldn’t be hard to refer to all our trips – whether a pedestrian ride up the Northway to Lake George, summer drive to our favorite ocean setting in Cape Cod, or once in a lifetime flight to the west coast of Mexico – as our “fantastic voyages.”

The label not only gives a nod to my sci-fi movie loving past, but reminds me how lucky (there’s that word again) we are to live the life that we do, mostly when we want to do it. I called it luck as I don’t believe any of what we experience is possible without the fantastic voyage that came before us.

Previous readers of articles here know where I’m coming from. Our trips, no matter how exceptionally amazing and satisfying, can’t compare to the importance of that one trip that my family made to come to America – my grandfather’s side coming from Calabria in Southern Italy, my grandmother’s traveling from a small town in Sicily.

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My grandmother, right, on her wedding day in 1936 with my godmother

While our accommodations were five star with great food, wine, and swimming pools complete with spa appointments, my immigrant family enjoyed no such luxuries. Traveling on cramped ships in steerage class with brutal and abhorrent conditions, they came to this country believing what their fellow countrymen believed: America’s streets were paved with gold.

The truth revealed itself to be less than a fairy tale. Most immigrants, Italian or otherwise, spent their time in cramped housing, fighting poverty, and working only the dangerous or repetitive manual labor jobs they were qualified for – if they weren’t the targets of racism or discrimination that shut them out of honest work.

The luck factor for my family was different than mine – they worked and toiled in factory jobs long and hard enough to realize they had buried within them an entrepreneurial spirit, and developed it into successful restaurants: a legacy that allowed us “kids” to work, setting up our own idea of making it happen here.

Looking back, the rewards and accolades of my working life aren’t remotely possible without the complete, complex concept of la famiglia – the luck I experienced having a family that cared so much, to take the time to mold and set the path for their next generation, and subsequent generations to follow.

For that, and our ability to travel so easily as a result, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Leaving for the airport to look forward to nearly a full day of travel home is a bittersweet experience. We’re eager to walk through our back door once again, to see family and friends – but we’re hopeful to bring back some of the sunshine and warmth with us, that we don’t leave it completely behind.

One of our stops on the flight home was to be in Charlotte, once back in the states. The turnaround, only a half hour to begin with, was threatened with a weather forecast filled with thunderstorms. Our good fortune on this trip included a family connection that works for American Airlines, who offered to help re-book our destination to fly home from Miami to LaGuardia in New York.

Once we boarded, a first class flight attendant glided to our economy seats to deliver two glasses of champagne – in celebration of my mid-50s birthday which would be spent in the air, in terminals, in New York City traffic.

Toasting my birthday with the free bubbly would have been more than appropriate – as would have toasting another international trip, or a family member who dedicated himself to getting us home safe, and on time.

The perfect toast, in my mind, now sounds totally different. A glass raised to the end of another voyage, feeling an ultimate gratitude for that very first fantastic voyage.

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25 Years of Love, Luck, and Faith

What was I going to do? Toss him the keys? Or let him fend for himself?

I had my car keys in my hand – my vehicle, parked in a lot, was free of obstruction. My father wasn’t so lucky. His station wagon was blocked in by another car, probably parked there by an overzealous college student who needed his first – or last – drink of the night.

My friend Bruce, who would share bar tending duties with me on Friday nights in my family’s restaurant, was standing next to me. He waited patiently for the decision that seemed mundane, but in retrospect set my life on a wildly different trajectory.

It was late, after midnight, and it was a long day. But the decision was easy. I exchanged keys with my dad, and he drove away minutes later. With my ride home still blocked in, Bruce and I ventured across the street to a local watering hole, where one of his friends would walk through the door moments later.

IMG_5015His friend was an attractive blond, with grey eyes and cutting an impressive figure in a white shirt, blue jeans, and dark blazer. I was smitten immediately.

Our modern sensibilities give us reasons to not believe in fate, or books of life to be written. Many believe everything is random, and that life follows no pattern or, at times, makes no sense.

Being brought up in an Italian American family with a strong Roman Catholic faith and belief, I was taught that very little is random. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s all related – no matter the opinions of the masses.

Although meeting my future wife on that April night seemed a random stroke of luck, we look back at other details of our lives and are convinced that a master plan was in place. Higher being? Who knows. I believe, but convincing others of your beliefs these days is dangerous territory.

Before that night, we were forever in the same place, at the same time, without ever meeting. She would be watching the neighbor’s kids (my parent’s next door neighbors) just a backyard away. We would be in attendance at the same rock shows – at the Palace, SPAC, SUNY Ballroom – more than likely just a few rows from each other, but never meeting. She worked in an Albany nightclub that I frequented, but we never crossed paths.

It took a mutual acquaintance to get us together, in a late night dive bar, where people meet for nothing but salacious and intoxicating reasons.

It was the type of beginning as improbable as being in the same area multiple times, but never, ever meeting.

All these years later, I think about that college student parking his/her car. What nerve. What an annoyance. What a godsend. Whether you believe in such things or not.

A week before Christmas, my wife and I raised wine glasses to toast our twenty fifth wedding anniversary. To be sure, it’s recognized universally as achievement of a milestone – but as I’ve written before, it seems we may just be getting started. IMG_4979

A long time to be married in our families is forty, fifty, and even sixty plus years – our 25th is a drop in the bucket, a warm up routine in the game of marriage that we both hope to be playing for many more anniversaries to come.

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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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