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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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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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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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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