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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My “Resolution” – Same As It Ever Was

Cape Cod: October 2020

Calm waves ripple against the sandy shores of Chapin Beach. I’m sitting on a patio chair on a second story deck, staring out into the Atlantic. With coffee in hand, I shield myself from the early autumn chill by zipping up my trusty Adidas windbreaker. The rest of my dress signals a refusal to let go of summer’s promise: running shorts and bare feet.

It’s a favorite pastime for me: looking out into the ocean’s horizon, watching birds dive bomb the waves, scanning that horizon for boats in the distance. My wife stirs in the kitchen of the beach front house where we’re staying, prepping a breakfast of a protein smoothie or pastry, depending on the mood.

It’s been said that listening to the ocean waves, along with the smell of the sea air, is a great tool for getting your head on straight, bringing you back to center when life may have thrown you off course. It’s a prescription I like to take a regular dose of, without fail.

After breakfast, we’ll take a 30 minute walk along the beach, barefoot in the sand, completing another perfect morning ritual.

A Year Like No Other

This pandemic has throttled most people’s lives into a tailspin, and although there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, it’s looking like we still have a few months to try to get through unscathed further. If you haven’t fallen ill because of the virus, chances are you’ve been impacted either financially or psychologically, or both.

There have been numerous bright spots. We’ve witnessed a great resolve and resilience from front line workers helping to solve this puzzle. On a personal level I’ve been able to fulfill a goal to work remotely, ditch my commute, and spend additional time with family.

With that last factor, I noted this: the more time I spent with my wife, the deeper into 2020 we got, I felt more confident that days would be better on the other side. Although she doesn’t always see herself in this light, her strength and ability to continue to keep us connected in isolation was a candle burning into the darkness of an unpalatable year.

Strong women have helped shape my life for a long time. She took the baton from the women in my family, notably my godmother and my grandmother, among others. Their influence was similar: in times of strife, their strength was displayed in subtle ways, such as nurturing in the kitchen, providing security, and peppering conversations with hints on how you used adverse situations to become a better person.

Life is precious” and “it’s later than you think” weren’t phrases just tossed around casually: words like that were my grandmother’s mission statement, tinged with life experience of many times of strife, adversity, loss.

The Sicilian immigrant factor is the reason why my one “resolution” at year’s beginning remains the same, and may always: to uphold the traditions of the family that I grew up with, and create new ones with the family I have now. To get better at them, pay homage to them more frequently, little by little.

Get Your Reps In

Throughout the year, my wife exemplified this. With every social connection, every meal prepared, every creative project to make our house an inviting home, we kept long standing tradition in mind, while planting the seeds of new ones to come.

Minestrone, our perfect example of “cucina povera” that my wife has mastered over hundreds of reps

To keep tradition from extinction, whether it be the ritual of forming and frying meatballs, leading your family in a dinner time prayer, or making the best damn coffee (words of a friend) your social group will ever sip; practice, and repetition, makes perfect.

As with anything in life, extending traditions, as well as creating new ones, requires “getting your reps in.” The way my Sicilians and southern Italians did, every day, without fail.

In his book Living With a SEAL, author Jesse Itzler recalled Navy SEAL and extreme endurance athlete David Goggins being asked by acquaintances about a resolution for the upcoming new year. Goggins statement was simple:

“I’m going to do the same shit I’ve always been doing. I’m just going to do it better.”

I couldn’t think of a better resolution myself. Happy New Year, friends.

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Taking Your Seat at the Table

As I pore over the 130 plus blog posts here, I noticed a bit of a trend: the table is a recurring theme, albeit as a metaphor for my life.

It started with tables at my grandparents’ house, eating sandwiches at one great aunt’s table in my elementary school days, and having yet another provide spectacularly simple lunches as I grew older.

Even when there was no food (a rare occurrence), there was always the ubiquitous cup of brewed coffee. A mainstay, and requirement if you were to be seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table for any length of time.

It was a trend, for sure: wherever I went, I was always provided a seat at the table.

In what seems a lifetime ago, my great aunt Nicolina, and her husband Aldo, always invited me as a Saturday afternoon dinner guest in their home. Seated next to my older cousins, and their children, it was always a treat to be invited to what was sure to be an extended period of great food and lively conversation.

Being a teenager, and then in my 20s, these scenes are now distant memories. But I take time to reflect on them often.

Crafting My Seat at the Table of Life

As that teenager, I can say I was a lot like the modern teens of today: at times filled with anxiety and angst, interrupted by periods of thinking I was headed in the right direction.

My relatives did their best to mold me into the man that could easily take a seat at any table, if he wanted to.

I learned many life lessons from my cousins Nancy and Mike at those Saturday dinner tables. They married young, and stayed married for life. They are one of the models on which my own marriage is built.

Mike’s father, Aldo, was an imposing figure, a well spoken Italian immigrant whose military like tendencies made him one of the sharpest individuals I’ve ever met. He provided lessons on how to speak, carry yourself, and dress like a gentleman: going so far as to bring me back expensive Italian dress shirts from his trips overseas.

My great aunt, Aldo’s wife, is well chronicled throughout this site: she was pure class, taught me manners (especially how a man should treat and respect a woman), and showed me the way to enjoying a good life, no matter how simple and basic the means.

Along with my grandmother, on those Saturdays I was the only person not named “Carucci” at that table. I was always made to feel like a special guest of honor, although I was family. In that amazing dining room, I knew I would always have a seat there, for as long as I wanted.

Withstanding the Storms

Fast forward to 2020, especially the last few months, many of us feel like we not only don’t have a chair: but the table, like a rug beneath it, has been pulled out from under us.

Millions of Americans, and people from around the world, feel the same way: my wife and I included. Between health, financial concerns, and fractured relationships, this year – which held much promise at the outset – feels like a Mike Tyson uppercut striking with laser accuracy at the point of our collective chins.

If you’re out there, and you’re frustrated, anxiety ridden, and more unsure of your future than ever before: you’ve got a friend here. I feel you. Like our former heavyweight champ, 2020 is a barrage that won’t stop coming.

But, if I know you – if we are friends, or blood – I also know this: your foundation is strong. Like my own foundation, built with care at dining room and kitchen tables with individuals that now inhabit my fondest memories, yours has resilience and character. The ability to withstand a storm, and punch back.

Decades ago, in an eerily silent Japanese stadium, a relatively unknown fighter withstood the fury of Tyson, absorbing blows raining from everywhere, wearing him down and waiting for his chance to win.

We can retake our seats at the nation’s table with the same approach: withstand the blows as best you can. Reshape your mental framework into one that believes in a brighter tomorrow, outside forces be damned.

Take the focus off of yourself, if possible, and help others who may be struggling even more mightily.

Talk to someone. Laugh with someone. Cook for somebody. Write an 800 word article to show that you care. 😉

Take your seat, because as a child of God, it is rightfully yours.

As my cherished relatives conveyed to a young man so many years ago: that seat will always be there for the taking.

Dedicated to Nancy Carucci (1955-2020)