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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Think you have work ethic? Are you 95 years old and growing a garden like this??

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The Last Sicilian, and the Gift of Tradition

She worked in a kitchen that was small by modern standards. To see it, you would think it was the size of a walk-in closet in some homes.

She worked her magic on a tiny stove that had very little room to waste. How she managed to squeeze coffee pots, saute’ pans, and giant sauce pots on it without a major catastrophe still remains a mystery.

Old school boxing trainer Angelo Dundee once said that heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali could train his body for a bout in a space the size of a phone booth. My great aunt, Nicolina Carucci, did the comparable with her masterwork in her kitchen.

My “Aunt Nicky,” as most of my family members called her, was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she was my godmother as well. She helped welcome me here by bathing my little infant head in holy water, and it was the start of a beautiful relationship.

She passed away a few years ago, like her sister living well into her 90’s. It’s still strange without either one of them here to boss me around.

I grew up in a world where consistency was the name of the game. The sound of the Italian language, the smells of food always cooking, the ritual of the coffee, and all the holiday and family traditions. Steady as they come. Always present.

That world is nearly gone. For our kids to be reminded of tradition and experience how I grew up, we have to take that ball and run with it. So traditions don’t disappear from view.

If my wife or myself don’t make those wonderful meatballs with onions and bacon that was Nicky’s recipe, or set a pot of simmering sauce on the stove on Sundays, disappear they will.

Aunt Nicky spent her last few months of life in a nursing home, and my father and I would visit on Sundays. We’d wheel her out to the cafeteria, and talk about the swill she was about to eat. I would joke with her, telling her it was time to get out of the chair and go to work on the homemade manicotti so we could all have a good meal.

I hope someday, somewhere, I can find something remotely close to that manicotti again.

I’d also joke with her about how she was “the last in line” or “the last Sicilian.” She was not the last Sicilian of course, but she was the last of a long line of very influential people on my grandmother’s side of the family. Influential to me. The men and women who are now part of my history book, traditions needing to be chronicled before my mind slips again, and I forget all details.

My great aunt and my grandmother were my mentors for almost five decades of my life. That is a lot of remembering to do.

My wife and I loved going to Aunt Nicky’s house just about every Friday for lunch. At times she would do just a cheese omelet with toast,  or a small pot roast on top of the stove. Or a stuffed meatloaf that she called “Italian Style.” A very simple meal, but one with great taste. The meal would always be accompanied by a glass of red wine in a tumbler glass. Or two.

She always fascinated my wife and I with stories of her younger days: living in the seaside town of Terracina in Italy, making it sound like the perfect vacation spot.  Of surviving bombing raids that were a little too close for comfort during World War II; and ducking German soldiers looking to loot through the properties that they had just destroyed.

Life wasn’t easy here in America, either. She did a lifetime of very physical work while she lived here, and she had more than her share of troubles and heartache. But like the rest of her family, she was a fighter that always moved forward and did what she could to live her best life possible.

My wife had thanked me on more than a couple of occasions for giving her the gift of a relationship with my godmother. I understand how she feels. She was a gift to me too.

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