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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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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