I’ve failed my children.
I thought I was doing everything a good mother should. Fed them, clothed them, loved them, sat in uncomfortable chairs for hours of band concerts and sporting events, and dished out just enough guilt to keep them humble, but not enough to stunt their ambition.
But I was wrong. I realize now that while I provided the tangible necessities, I neglected to impart a substantial knowledge of their family history.
Worst of all, they don’t possess even the smallest sense of ethnic identity.
When I was a kid, my world was defined by my Italian-American heritage. (I was also proud of my Irish ancestry, thanks to my beloved maternal grandmother, but most of my day to day life was filled with Italian-American words and traditions.) During family gatherings we lifted our glasses to toast the occasion while everyone shouted Salut! If someone engaged in behavior that showed poor judgment, they were accused of being stunad, and if you ate too many meatballs you would give yourself a bad case of agita. Other Italian-American slang words were muttered in frustration or anger – words that we kids were told in no uncertain terms not to repeat. (We used them all time when no adults were around.)
We communicated with our hands as much (or more) as with our words, gesturing wildly to drive our opinions home. Our voices rose in volume the longer we spoke, and everyone spoke at the same time. The cacophony was beautiful to my ears — the music of family, together — even if my non-Italian friends thought we were shouting at each other all the time. I told them they didn’t know what real shouting sounded like.
My paternal grandmother (my Mom-Mom) was fond of rattling off proverbs in Italian, but the English translations she later provided never seemed to make sense to me, odd phrases like “The mind is like an onion – when the skin slips, forget about it!” or “Eggs have no business dancing with the stones.” If you asked her to explain the meaning behind these cryptic phrases her answer was always the same: “It’s better in the Italian.”
Every family gathering happened around a large bowl of spaghetti, or homemade ravioli, or my favorite — gnocci. (Or all three. There really was no such thing as serving too much food.) The sauce (or gravy, as we called it) was always – ALWAYS — homemade, the result of hours of loving care, the type you would expect from a young mother fussing over her newborn babe. Salad was never served at the beginning of a meal – instead, every supper of my childhood ended with tossed lettuce, celery, and tomatoes, lightly dressed with a homemade recipe of oil, vinegar, and oregano. I was reminded to eat it before leaving the table, as it as it “washed the teeth.”
At Christmas we fired up the pizzelle iron to make the lacy anise cookies I loved so much. On Christmas Eve my mother made a traditional meal of oyster stew and fried smelts, although I usually filled up on homemade Italian cookies covered with drizzles of confectioner’s sugar icing instead. Then I was treated to a small sip of Amaretto or Anisette before being sent to bed in anxious anticipation of Santa’s visit.
As a young child I lived in close proximity to most of my extended family, so I never lacked for playmates. In addition to my two sisters, I had an endless supply of cousins from both sides of the family. In summer we would descend on my maternal grandparents’ house all at once, devouring large bowls of Grandpop’s home-made peach ice cream, and catching hell if we trampled his tomato plants. Grandmom’s refrigerator was always full. At lunchtime we ate delicious sandwiches made on fresh rolls from the bakery, and piled high with choice cuts and stinky provolone cheese from the neighborhood Italian deli.
My own children don’t have these memories. I make plenty of spaghetti, but I’m embarrassed to admit I often use sauce from a jar. I don’t own a pizzelle iron, and I’m sure my children would prefer a Hostess Cupcake over an almond biscotti. Our salad dressing comes from a bottle, and we don’t live near a single member of my large Italian family. If you use Italian-American slang around them, they won’t understand a word.
They aren’t Italian-American kids.
They’re white bread, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese American kids. And while some would say there is nothing wrong with that, I can’t help but feel I’ve cheated of them something. The story of their life seems blander to me, dull in its similarity to everyone else around them.
I suppose it’s too late to do anything about it now. As that old Italian saying goes, “It’s by the head that the cow gives the milk.”
It’s better in the Italian.