ITALIAN MEMES – POSTCARDS FROM ITALY
Being a mother is a struggle. Most of the time I feel like I’m drowning. Once in a while I get my head above the water. No sooner than I manage to take a breath when another tidal wave comes straight at me. When my son was a baby, everyone would tell me that life would get easier as he aged. After all, he would sleep through the night and go potty in the bathroom. That’s all true. My son still gets up at night once in a while but it’s nothing like that first year.
What they forget to add is that the actual parenting gets harder. Now, at 6, he’s finding his voice–and using it against me. He wants to watch videos of kids playing with toys he will never have or already has. I say, “No!” He says, “I hate you.” He would rather play with his cousin Alex after school than do his homework. I say, “No!” He says, “I wish you weren’t my mom.” Even though I know these words are merely growing pains, they still break my heart just a little bit every time.
My boy is growing up. He is testing me, trying to figure out his limits and mine. Mostly, he’s trying to gain some independence. I’ll admit I’m loathe to give it to him. I find such comfort in holding him close and keeping him little. Everything is still new to him. His eyes glisten. And those dimples turn up with every ear-to-ear smile. While the world outside is unjust and darkness is closing in on us, he brings in the sunshine. Our place is filled with light. This love I hold for my baby in my heart is my salvation. He is literally my everything.
Therefore, when he dishes up an “I like papa better than mamma,” line, I lose my temper. I yell or cry or both. Sometimes, I put myself in time out behind the locked bathroom door. Or I take a walk in the garden. In these quiet moments away from my child, I think about the long arc of justice. I too must have made my mother cry. It is only now that I recognize how deeply and profoundly she loved me. Now, I realize how much I took for granted those moments with her from childhood. And I see how mean I might have been. Surely, I told her I hated her. I always took it back. But once the words escape your mouth, your mother knows what is lurking in your mind. She knows the raw emotion. There’s no turning back really. My only option is to roast myself in my own guilt about how I treated my own mom, about how things are going with my son. For the moment, I hate myself.
In the silence, I hear my heart. I take a deep breath. Then, I envelope myself in the nostalgia of having a newborn, who needs you for everything. I relish the memories that dance in my mind – my son breathing, deep in sleep on my chest. Or what about that first smile? How about when he finally began to speak to us? He had delayed speech and didn’t start talking until he was about 4. Should I even be allowed to get angry at a child with delayed speech who is verbally attacking me? Probably not. This is all my fault, I think. I convince myself I’m too hard on him. Why can’t I be the one handing out chocolate Kinder eggs and playing Mario Kart with him? Why does my husband get that job? Guilt continues to wash over me like muslin rolling over a body in a coffin.
Before long, I miss my boy. It’s only been a few minutes, yet I feel like we are so far apart. The distance weighs on me like a hot iron pressing on my chest. What the hell am I going to do when he’s off to college? Now, I can’t resist.
So, I return to him. Tears are rolling down his cheeks. He is red in the face. “I want you mamma. I didn’t mean it,” he says. And I can’t help myself. I can’t stay angry or even sad. “You’re the love of my life,” I say as I lift him up to me. As I rub my cheek against his, my stomach settles, the world stops. For that second, everything is truly all right. I wish to the depths of my soul that I could hold this pose forever.
The truth is my son and I will be repeating this pattern of give and take, war and peace for years to come. Our arguments will evolve. As my grandmother used to say, “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems; married kids, impossible problems.” My boy will have to seize his independence. And I’ll have to give it to him, even if reluctantly. Guilt and nostalgia will come and go, but they can’t stop me from raising him to be a good person. Still, they will torture me along the way. That is motherhood. That is for what I’ve signed up, for what every mother has signed up. Our reward is a full heart and a light spirit despite a heavy mind.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She also has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.
Thanks to MTV’s Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, the world does not know the true value of Italian America.
Mine are the peasant people, who came to the United States in search of a better life. They broke their backs – literally – to become truly American. They laid pavement and built bridges, literally and metaphorically. Some of them picked crops or drove busses. Others cut hair or sewed clothes. Many of them still landscape lawns or construct some of the country’s nicest homes and buildings. A great number of them Americanized nonna’s recipes and served up their home cooking with love. They earned degrees and learned English. They didn’t even let their children speak Italian.
A few of them captured the hearts of Americans with their talents. Think Frank Sinatra and Jon Bon Jovi. In sport, there was Joe Di Maggio, Vince Lombardi, Mario Andretti, and Rocky Marciano to name a few. But it is the leaders in business and government, who really stand out for their contributions. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman speaker of the house. Fiorello Laguardia was the 99th mayor of New York City and a legend among Italian immigrants, who often turned to him for help. Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, who captivated the public with the story of his immigrant family. His children carry on his legacy with son Andrew also serving as governor of New York. Amadeo Giannini launched what became Bank of America, which is now the largest bank in the United States.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when The Sopranos aired on HBO, I quarreled with Italian American organizations. They protested the airing of the show. Some tried to keep the Italian American actors from the show from participating in various events. But The Sopranos, I argued, was art. It was fiction. While the show was realistic and shared the ugly underbelly of Italian America, it was not real. James Gandolfini was an accomplished actor, who had great achievements and talent worth recognizing. So, I did not go along with the protest. In fact, I was a fan of the show.
The problem with Jersey Shore is it is billed as reality. Now, I don’t doubt that some of the antics are planned out and either fabricated or exaggerated to make the show more dramatic. But people really believe this is an accurate depiction of Italian America. I don’t begrudge the cast members, who are obviously laughing all the way to the bank. Frankly, they have usurped the term, “guido,” which was once considered a pejorative term. What did they have to do to afford lovely homes and inordinate amounts of plastic surgery (some of them look like different people)? Well, they simply had to act as hedonists on the constant hunt for a tan and a piece of a–.
This debauchery and disrespect was bad enough when these guys were in their twenties in the first incarnation of the show. But now that they are nearing 40 with spouses and kids, the show is difficult to watch. Who wants their mom to pass out drunk in the middle of the street? Or their mom to have someone else’s privates rubbed on her face for the world to see? What if your dad cheated on your pregnant mom on television? It’s actually tragic. I was hoping the new version of the show would have the cast members knowing better and turning into my guilty pleasure. Instead, it made me sick for their kids, who will eventually see this if they haven’t already.
Now, there are moments of truth about Italian America embedded into the show. A few of the authentically Italian American people have had moments to which I can relate. In many episodes, the cast breaks bread in the fashion my people do on Sundays. There’s pasta sauce and people cleaning their plate with bread. Of this I know.
Incidentally, Vinny is the reason I wanted my son to be Enzo and not Vincenzo, which would have made him Vinny from Jersey. Nevertheless, Vinny from Jersey Shore is the genuine article. His family clearly is stuck in its Italian roots. The proof is in his mother, who lives down the street, does his laundry, and worries that his butt is getting too skinny. These are my people. I enjoy them and their family dinners, of which we get a glimpse.
In fact, the entire premise that the cast members have grown to be chosen family is typical of Italians in southern Italy and Italian Americans. That is heartwarming. Their protection of one another in the midst of fame is applaudable. Recently, Ronnie had a well-publicized argument with the mother of his newborn daughter. When the hosts of ABC’s The View asked his fellow cast members what happened, Pauly D respectfully announced they all support one another and would not stick their nose in his business. Pauly’s desire to keep Ronnie from cheating and Snooki and the girls from fighting showed some signs of maturity, too.
Also, revelations about Jenny’s miscarriage move me. I too experienced a miscarriage, and I think women are too silent about them. Then, when it happens to you, it’s like a sucker punch to the stomach because no one ever tells you this is how pregnancy can end. It puts you into a darkness that is hard to overcome. I feel for her. While I can appreciate those moments of humanity, I find it hard to juxtaposition them with casual sex, foul language, and a whole lot of superficiality.
What are we saying about Italian America in this depiction? What does it say about our morals and what we think of ourselves if we allow this to be how we’re seen? We have elevated the cast members and given them opportunities of which others can only dream. Take a look at the homes in which they live. Remember, they were all sent to Italy for a long vacation. Now, they were given the chance to vacation in Miami in a luxurious home replete with pool and furniture I could sell to send my kid to one semester of college. For what did they get this? For being irresponsible screw ups on TV.
If we’re financing this with our fandom, what does that say about us? It’s hard to look in the mirror and accept this. A real Italian mamma would shut off the TV. Then, she would give those cast members a hug and tell them that they should look within for redemption and ask God for forgiveness. If they truly loved themselves, they wouldn’t act like this. Then, she’d serve them some lasagna or a few meatballs and send them back to their families. Before they left, she would warn them that she’d kick their skinny a– if they keep up the bad behavior. She’d be watching. Oh, she’d be watching.
Meatballs comfort me in my darkest hours. It’s not that I like them so much. I wouldn’t call them my favorite food. But their symbolism is powerful. They are round like a warm bear hug. They require a loved one to mold them with their own two hands. Each chef has his own way of making them. Of course, in Italian families they are a Sunday Funday staple.
In our house, Nonno is the meatball maker. My son does not each much – especially related to our Italian cuisine – but he eats meatballs. My nephew eats them so joyfully that I wonder if he will turn into a meatball. And my niece will eat one, along with her sauceless spaghetti, every Sunday. The meatball unites generations. It’s a little ball of love with potent powers. It stops tears. It ends wars – at least in our house. A tray of meatballs is the sign of peace.
1/2 to 1 lb. Ground pork and/or beef
2 to 3 Eggs
2 tsp Oregano
1 tsp Parsley flakes
1 tsp each Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup Parmigiano cheese
Nonno’s Sunday Sauce Or Simple Tomato Sauce
What does freedom mean to you? As the child of immigrants, some of whom fled southern Italy in the wake and aftermath of fascism, it has always meant much to me. Still, I took it for granted in many ways. But in the last week as we bid farewell to my 88-year-old maternal grandmother Rosaria Concetta Di Costanzo, I could not help but realize that she never experienced the freedom America promised our family.
Born in New York to Italian immigrant parents, Grandma (as we called her) or Connie (as the world called her) was American for all intensive purposes. Because of her roots, however, she always had one foot in the Boot regardless of whether she wanted it there.
No one sacrificed more than she did, and she was quick to remind us of what she had given up whenever the opportunity arose. Her five sons often say she liked to complain. Often, I was the one charged with listening. Over time, I came to realize she was not complaining so much as she was regretting. In fact, it may have even been wishing out loud for different circumstances.
Hers was a life predetermined by men. She was able to go to work in her father’s store because her father allowed it. Those were good times for her, she told me. But they were short lived. Her world changed when Grandpa Rocco’s mother wrote Connie’s father asking for one of his two daughters to marry her son for an American green card. Connie was the only choice because her sister already had a steady boyfriend. It didn’t matter that Connie was falling for the neighbor boy or that she might not have wanted an Italian husband, and certainly not one she had never met.
Together, her father and she set out for Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy that is home of our ancestors. There, Connie met Rocco and his family. They were all gathered around a long table with a big pot of pasta at the center. My great grandmother turned to Connie and said, “Well, are you going to marry my son or not?” And Connie often told me how embarrassed she was to say no. So, she said yes. Within a few days, they married despite knowing literally nothing about the other besides family lineage.
The local nuns made Connie’s dress. My own father was 2 at the time and was probably sitting on the altar with the other kids in the town of Buonopane, Ischia. Back then, of course, my grandparents never could have imagined having a daughter, let alone my father as a son-in-law. That future was far too distant.
Connie’s own family – brothers, sister, mother – were all back home in the States. There it was; these were the first pangs of regret. She was always sad to have missed out on having an American wedding with her own people. Nostalgic for the life that was, she was disappointed she would no longer work. There was no denying that the thought of “what if” crossed her mind – what if she had said no to my great grandmother, what if she insisted on an American wedding back home, what if things had gone a different way.
Her honeymoon was even more absurd by traditional American standards. She went to Venice with her father, a girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s father. They both had married boys from Ischia, who had to wait to come through Canada and the United States to get the green card squared away. Still, she had fond memories of that trip. It was her last hurrah.
In those first years of marriage, Connie had more sacrifices to make. She knew her new husband was in love with another woman back home in Italy. Yet, she had to help him become American. So, she did. She helped him learn English. Together they hit the pavement seeking a job for him. They kept a home and built it up. And she got pregnant with my mom, the first and only daughter. Grandpa Rocco was devastated to have had a daughter, my mother Regina. He was hoping for a son, and everyone knew of his disappointment. He would eventually get over it and loved my mother, and they had five sons after her. But Grandpa’s initial reaction drew Grandma ever closer to their only girl.
Of course, Connie also loved her sons immensely. Truly, she loved all her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with utter devotion. In more recent years, she told me I was her favorite grandchild. She told my uncle he was the favorite child. She told my niece she was her favorite great grandchild. My husband believed he had a special bond with her because she stayed at our house for a couple of extended periods. My sister-in-law believed she held a special place in Grandma’s heart because the first time they met they spent an entire day baking together. We all believed we were No. 1 in her heart of hearts. But at one time or another everyone had been bestowed the title of favorite. The truth is we were all her favorites. We were her best friends. We were the best consolation prizes she ever could have received after giving up the life for which she wished.
Now, we girls have a burden to bear. We – Connie’s daughter and four granddaughters and two great granddaughters – must seize our freedom in her honor. She never was able to fulfill her potential at a job outside the home. We can. She was never able to choose whether she wanted to marry or be single. We can. She never had the chance to pursue or experience romantic love. We can. She was never free to decide for herself. We can. Thanks to her, we will. No regrets for us.
That’s the thing about life. Sure, Connie’s path was never quite what she wanted. But, in the end, she would not have had it any other way. Sometimes, what we have not planned or dreamed or wished is the best thing to ever happen to us. Grandma would have said the way things went were God’s plan for her.
Three years ago, I stood with Grandma over my grandfather’s lifeless body. He had just taken his last breath surrounded by his eldest children – Uncle Gino and my mother – and my grandmother, cousin Morgan, and me. Grandma confided that in those days before he passed, when he was lucid, he would say, “Concetta, we made a nice family, a really nice family.” Indeed, they had. And they loved each other in their own way, in a way that endured. Their family was Grandma’s happiness. We were her everything.
While it’s true that pieces of us are now gone from this world, they remain in our hearts. Grandma always prayed hard for us. Perhaps, no one on Earth held as many Rosary beads as she. From now on, in every kind deed and warm embrace, we will live out her legacy. And I have no doubt that she will carry on as our guardian angel. A saint, who undoubtedly went straight to Heaven, she will look out for all her favorites. Always.
Few people do love – and therefore Valentine’s Day – as well as the Italians. They are passionate and romantic. As a result, the holiday is the perfect match. On this day in Italy, lovers go on dates. They get dolled up. They eat a special meal (and really all the meals in Italy are special). This year, most of them will be avoiding meat because Valentine’s Day coincides with the Catholic holy day, Ash Wednesday. The men will dole out bouquets of flowers to their beloved. The women will offer little gifts to the man in their life. In other words, Italians are just like everyone else on V-Day.
Still, Italians celebrate the holiday while being Italian. They have a reputation for being great at love. A story I wrote about Italian men and why women find them so appealing is still the most popular article I have ever written. You know why? The truth is people are find Italians to be wildly attractive. Many Italians are driven by the bella figura, which means making a good impression and having your outside appearance reflect your inner being. So, they often take great care with their looks and clothing.
In addition, they have a way of flirting that makes the other person feel as though no one else exists. It’s embedded in the culture. Courtship still exists in Italy in a way that it no longer does in other parts of the world, including the United States. Men still pay for women’s meals and entertainment (even if they are not romantically linked to them). They are taught to woo each other with playful texts and extraordinary compliments. If you’re with an Italian, you feel the love. You feel as though you’re the only person in the room and the most beautiful ever. That rush is hard to get over. That’s why people are always seeking out Italian lovers. There’s no better time to recognize this way with love than on Valentine’s Day.
Wherever you go in Orlando, you can’t escape the spectacle of the Magic Kingdom fireworks.
As you drive around the city on any given evening, you see bursts of colorful light shooting up into the air. Then, they quickly cascade as though electrified streamers are raining down on passers by. Finally, the sparks disappear into the darkness as if they were never there. Those flashes of hope bring me back to central Florida again and again.
Even if Disney is too expensive, too commercial, and too corporatist (and it is indeed all those things), it brings me back to my childhood. A visit to the theme parks or one of the resorts reminds me of my wonder. My father, an Italian immigrant, was a workaholic. He never missed a day’s work, not for illness, not for anything. But when the season turned to winter and his landscaping company was on leave, he would take us to Disney World. The first stop would be Peter Pan’s Flight. The second stop would be the fireworks. He considered them awe-inspiring. They reminded him of the elaborate fireworks he would see from Buceto, the woods in Ischia, Italy, where he regularly camped out as a kid for certain religious feast days.
So, we return to Disney. Today, we watch Happily Ever After from the top of California Grill in Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The flurry of images projected onto Cinderella’s Castle cast a spell on us. Hearing the rush to silence from the sea of onlookers is magnificent. That booming launch of fireworks dancing in the sky, in beat with the music, stays with a person.
Standing on that rooftop with fireworks shaped like hearts dissipating before us, I clutch my little boy. His jaw sits practically on the floor. “I never want it to stop, Mommy,” he says. And I respond, “I know. I know.” Truth is neither do I.
My own parents sit right inside the doors of the restaurant. They preferred to watch the show from our table. Certainly, they long ago held onto my siblings and me in the same way. They too wished upon a Disney firework that we would stay little just a little bit longer. Of course, they longed to make our innocence and sense of security and cherished moments endure as long as possible. Now, they are doing the same for their grandchildren. As the fireworks enlighten us, we must accept that these years vanish in an instant – and there’s no way to get them back once they’re gone.