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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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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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 atrophy of the mind takes over.

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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