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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In Praise of the Table Setters

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

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

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

And ours.

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

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

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

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

Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?

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

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

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

How could he do that?

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

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

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

To the table setters.

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

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

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

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

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

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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. Traditionally, our official kick off is Memorial Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battles are faded history. Many have forgotten.IMG_3581

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

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

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

Stop Trying to Make It Easy

hard work ethic
My hard working, never say stop Grandmother with one of her favorite tools – the meat slicer

Back in the summer months of 2014, I decided to break one of my financial commandments – no spending money on a gym membership. I started to be bored working out at home, in the very sparse and dungeon-like confines of the basement, where I keep my heavy bag, jump rope, and a variety of weights. No longer inspired to exercise by myself, I needed a change of scenery.

Although it was hard to commit to the monthly payment at first (my frugal grandmother would have thought this a very frivolous expense), I jumped in and was quickly happy with the decision. My gym is clean, the staff is friendly, and there is more than enough variety of equipment to get in any type of workout that you choose. And the fact that it is extremely close to my house makes it all the more appealing.

On the surface, total win.

The only issue so far? The months of January and February. After the New Years cocktails are a fleeting memory to most people, stampeding crowds of fitness wannabees descend on gyms and fitness centers, with dreams of getting in better shape, taking every parking spot in the lot and leaving not a treadmill open.

It’s enough to make me look forward to the “dungeon” again.

The sad part, or perhaps not so sad, is that by mid March at the latest, the massive crowds will have fizzled out. Hopes and dreams for the quick fix will have been dashed. The monthly payments will be still taken from their bank accounts, even if they never show up again.

In time, I’ll be able to park anywhere I want, and every dumbbell and elliptical will be there for the taking.

New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned, and there will be clear sailing for the rest of us until next January.

Quitting is the easiest option when you realize the quick fix and the short cut will not work. They will never work. Leaves me wondering why everybody wants it so easy.

Stop trying to make it easy.

The image for this post is a favorite of mine. I have plenty of pictures of my grandparents that remind me of how they got where they needed to be. By working their asses off. By continually grinding.

Once they had their minds set on becoming responsible, productive American citizens who would eventually employ fellow citizens, they became unstoppable.

They never looked for the easy way to do anything. With my grandparents, the very thought of “the easy way out” or less than maximum effort would have been laughable.

I don’t even need to bring to detail their early years, the years of the factory jobs and building their own businesses from practically nothing. I can just use an example of when they were in their 70s and 80s, working every day. Rosina, in a restaurant kitchen for half of her day, then in her private kitchen for the other half. Twelve hours. Without consideration of “making things easy.”

I had prime role models growing up.

With their help and guidance, it’s now easy for me to get through the months of January and February at the gym, sailing right through the spring. It’s easy to feel privileged and blessed with abundance when money is tight for some, because of the way they taught me to spend and save.

In car crazy America, I have no problem driving less because they never drove at all. I’m inspired to keep my small mortgage instead of “moving up”, as they never needed a bank to give them one in the first place.

My route to the gym passes on the road to the cemetery where my grandparents are now. Done purposefully or not, I don’t know. I do know I can’t pass by without a signal that the hard work is about to commence.

As I drive by, I remind myself to try and embody the lifestyle that they embraced. Go hard. Be fast. Don’t stop.

And for Heaven’s sake, stop trying to make it easy.

How to Stay Hungry While Riding in the Lap of Luxury

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” (Feel free as you sing along to insert the visual of falling snowflakes, gray skies, and biting winds if that will help you ‘get in the spirit’.)

I’m not even going to rant (yet) about the Black Friday ads polluting the media. What I will comment about is the sudden shift in the weather, to bitter cold temps that have signified the change of seasons.

Hi Dad - any food getting dropped on the floor?
Hi Dad – any food getting dropped on the floor?

Cooper, my crazy canine companion, and I typically take long morning walks through the neighborhood so he can get his business done. Even that will soon be coming to a close.

He doesn’t like being banished to the back yard, but he’ll manage. Even Cooper is not fond of temperatures in the 20s, and colder wind chills.

For man and beast, the northeast winter is not easy to bear. To warm myself up, I like to reflect on the summer just passed, and how for the majority of the year my family and I take our seats in what is commonly referred to as “the lap of luxury.”

The main component of this luxury for us are the multiple times spent on Lake George during the summer, passengers in my in-laws boat traveling to our favorite bays on the lake. The boat, a 24 foot Cobalt, is the perfect hang out spot as we sun ourselves, indulge in cocktails, have lunch, and frolic about in a variety of water activities.

When we tire of the hours spent on the Lake, we get back to the marina and take a two minute drive to the house where we spend many summer weekends. Recently updated, the house sits in the middle of a nice wooded area, just a minute or so walk from town.

When we’re not staying at the “summer place,” the other component of our luxury filled summer is usually a trip to Cape Cod. This year the family upgraded to an ocean front room, with the beach just a few steps down from our door. The trip is filled with dinners out, ice cream, mini golf, and lazy walks across private beaches, admiring the Atlantic.

To get to the Cape, we pile the kids and our travel bags into my wife’s 2008 VW Jetta. You may think such a pedestrian vehicle is anything but luxury, but with it’s leather seating and Bose sound system, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.

After packing the car, we’ll pull out of our driveway and away from our house, with it’s 1200 square feet of living space and location in an older city neighborhood.

“Finally,” I can hear you say. “Now we have something a little modest here.”

Wrong!!

Although I’m sure 1200 square feet sounds to the modern American like we’re living on top of each other, for three of the year’s four seasons that is far from true. Our house features a spacious front porch, large deck out back, with a yard behind it expansive enough to serve as a baseball diamond or soccer pitch.

tomatoesWithin the house, we do our cooking in a newer, luxurious kitchen. We use high end items like San Marzano tomatoes, letting them bubble and simmer away on a stainless steel stove top. I prefer our meals to have the companionship of a deep red wine from the Central Coast of California.

Make no mistake. Despite the “middle class” designation, and the location of our house in a working class neighborhood, this family moves in style. Yes, you may call it the lap of luxury.

Here’s the amusing part. Although you still hear rumblings of hard times, high gas prices, and the cost of living being harder to manage, it still looks to me like most people live this way. But they call it necessity instead of calling it by it’s true name – luxury.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican. Whether you were happy with the latest election results, or dissatisfied. Whether you’re waiting in a line for the latest iGadget, trampling through stores for a Black Friday flat screen, or using said flat screen to receive the siren call of endless Madison Avenue advertisement – like me, you live in the lap of luxury.

But I’m not entirely comfortable lingering in luxury. If I do it too long, I may start to think that I’m entitled to it. That would be a problem for me – joining the ranks of those whose sense of entitlement runs rampant in their attitudes.

As you may expect, I believe I am entitled to nothing. While I may occasionally bask in the sunlight and sip the champagne of American privilege, I still hear the echoes of common sense barreling down the hallways of memory. I’ve got the spirit of more than a couple of Italian immigrants telling me to tighten things up when I’m ready to go too “soft.”

That spirit is a sense of chasing the dream without being concerned about the trappings of luxury. When the truth is told, most of us have more than enough access to the luxury lifestyle. The previous generation that survived the war years, and paved your way, really didn’t.

Nonna-PopIIMy grandparents, and their immediate family and friends, appreciated the lifestyle they had, rarely complained about what they didn’t have, and lived by a different standard.

In the words of Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), they were humble. They stayed hungry. And they were always the hardest worker in the room.

Whether I’m lounging on the lake or in a beach front room, you can be very sure I always remember the old Italians, and the example they showed me throughout their inspiring, and often difficult, lives. Many of us win the lottery of life just by being born into families that love us.

They paved the way for us to enjoy what we have, and we should recognize that here, in the month of gratitude.

Humble and hungry. The definition of true luxury.