On Pandemic Fatigue, and the Power of Ritual

On Palm Sunday morning, I did what I’ve done most Sundays during the past year: sat in front of a television, watching a Roman Catholic mass, drinking coffee. The pandemic, having shut down churches previously, now allowed for limited seating if you wanted to attend in person, but I hadn’t taken the leap yet.

I wondered whether my attempt at community contribution (protecting others from an improbable but possible COVID infection) had turned into inaction, based in fear.

Others, some much older than myself, had no problem with live attendance. I still sat in my living room.

Not a good look at all for someone that likes to preach “go for it!”

Pandemic weariness, for me, had reached its peak. With cases in New York, especially upstate, on a steady decline I decided enough was enough. On Easter Sunday, I would make the short drive downtown and set foot in St. Anthony’s Church for the first time in over a year.

Media has beat the drum ad nauseum on pandemic fatigue, and its effect on you psychologically. My fatigue was slightly different. I told my wife early last year I had no problem going into “monk mode” for six months, if necessary. We adapted well to enjoying just spending time with each other with very limited outside interaction.

Much had changed in the past year: my wife was no longer working, I transitioned to working from home, and worked in an office space that I now shared with my son. College campuses were off limits, and Zoom became his lifeline.

Although new rituals were born after March 2020 to preserve sanity for many of us (running outdoors was my lifeline), we were able to maintain some of the ones we loved most.

No, there was no live music. No trips to baseball stadiums. No trips, or travel, period (and in early 2020, we had our bags packed before canceling).

It was a “back to basics” scenario, no question. But having being brought up the way I was, with frequent reminders to enjoy life as it came, I was taught to embrace the simple pleasures.

Although I’m “American made” in the purest sense, my roots run deep in Sicily, and southern Italy. The simple things, the fundamentals, stay with me always and were strengthened during the past year.

Faith, tradition, food & wine, community, gratitude: not necessarily in that order.

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

We thought we had nailed the gratitude thing long before COVID-19. But the realization set in that we had new things to be happy about. No more commutes or compressed schedules, more time together.

Our coffee ritual just got better with the increased time. The grinding of the beans, scooping of the grounds into the espresso pot (no Keurig here, kids), the anticipation of the boiling sound, preceded by that steamy hiss. To be poured out, cup with cream and cinnamon, and enjoyed on the back deck even in slightly frigid early spring temperatures.

Yes, I’m very grateful for coffee.

As you might expect, we cooked at home more than ever before. Although I perceive myself as some kind of meatball wizard (nod to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” here), my wife is the true kitchen maven in this house, seemingly becoming more creative with each passing week.

As before, she is the true glue that holds this family together.

The majority of our meals came from our kitchen. Small businesses, especially restaurants, suffered mightily during this craziness and are just starting now to mount a furious comeback (labor shortage not withstanding). We hope we did enough to support some of our local small businesses even if we couldn’t, or chose not to, sit in their dining rooms.

Related reading: A Former Bartender’s Ask of You

With the three of us in our household choosing to vaccinate, we have sat in those dining rooms recently. Our experiences from these dedicated food service workers were nothing less than extraordinary. Attendance at Easter mass led to more of the same, leading to small dinner parties, to reuniting with my cousins at my favorite coffee hangout on the Sundays after mass.

I hadn’t seen some of them in over a year. I was thankful to have another opportunity.

In the end, I had the feeling we made a narrow escape: coming out the other side with health, life, and the important things within fairly intact. This life is brief, however, so I want more, of course.

I look forward to a concert hall guitar solo, the swelling roar of a baseball stadium, or crossing the Atlantic on a jet plane when those opportunities happen.

It’s the same for all of us: this life ain’t no dress rehearsal.

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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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Up With the Birds: Nature Appreciation, and My Growing Sicilian Tendencies

When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.

You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.

Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.

When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.

I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.

Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).

When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.

The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”

Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom

That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.

I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.

Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.

Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.

When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.

The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.

Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.

Nowhere to Be But Home

Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.

My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.

The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.

And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.

My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.

Just like any good Italian grandmother.

It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:

“Want some coffee?”

“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”

You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”

You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.

The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.

My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.

Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

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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)

The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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