Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.
When my father wakes up in the morning, he creaks like an old house. He has literally worn out his shoulders from carrying the weight of his world, a leaf blower or fully grown tree, on his back year after year. His legs are shot from walking from one lawn to another and mowing or bending down to plant flowers. His head is weary with the reflection, nostalgia, and angst of old age. Perhaps, it is his hands that tell the entire story. His hands are like leather replete with cracks and creases. The nail beds are forever gray no matter how much soap and scrubbing. Yet, he works still. At 70, in fact, he says he needs to work, not for the money but for the glory.
My father is a landscaper. My father is a small business owner. My father is an immigrant. My father is America.
Americans are expecting thousands of immigrants – documented and undocumented – to go on strike today to show leaders, not to mention the rest of the world, what the country would be like without them. The hashtag popping up on social media is #ADayWithoutImmigrants. Our dirty little secret, according to the protesters, is that we need them to survive economically and culturally. Some of them think we couldn’t go on without them, in fact. Some even say our country would be a wasteland without them. Well, guess what? They’re right.
My own day without immigrants would be a bleak one indeed for I would cease to exist. My family would vanish. I am the daughter of immigrants, the granddaughter of immigrants, the wife of an immigrant, and the mother of a dual citizen. I am literally nothing and no one without immigrants. My Nonno Giovanni (in the photo above) sacrificed the only life he ever knew and moved his entire family to the United States beginning in 1960. He never did learn English, nor did he ever have the kinds of friends he had back in Italy, who played cards with him and delivered his children, and got tipsy with him. In America, he worked and so did his children.
Those dirty hands of my father paid for me to go to college without debt. They continue to help countless customers maintain their property, enjoy the luxuries of ponds and fancy walls in their yards, and do their part for the environment (with tree plantings, vegetable gardens, and manicured lawns that keep rodents and insects at bay naturally). Along with my mother, a native born American who is the child of immigrants herself, he raised three children to contribute to society. Those dirty hands held mine and those of my brother and sister. They lifted us up when times were hard and put us down when we tried to climb on our pedestals.
Without those hands, we’d be worse off. Without those hands, you’d be worse off. Today, I salute immigrants and the immigrant experience. It’s not just my father, who has brought this light to my life. I am a better person because of my Indian friends who showed me the joy of Diwali, my Jewish friends who still pray with me, my Greek and Mexican friends who have become family, my Korean friends who grew up with me, my Muslim friends who taught me about the real beliefs of their people and not the caricature on TV, my Japanese friends who taught me the wonders of Girl’s Day, my African friends whose devotion to raising the village is like my own, and the list goes on and on.
Today, as immigrants take to the streets to prove their worth to us, a worth that should be obvious to all, I can’t help but think of the words of the mighty Mario Cuomo:
Some Americans believed that we should think of these newcomers to our land as being dropped into a ‘melting pot’ that could boil away their distinguishing cultures, homogenizing them into a new multiethnic America. I have always believed that the better analogy for America would be the mosaic, like those in many church windows, each a different size, shape, and color, harmoniously arranged to form beautiful patterns. It would be tragic if our country were to sacrifice the immigrants’ gifts in favor of some kind of bland uniformity.
MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
The year was 1997. I was a freshman at The George Washington University, and Bill Clinton was about to be sworn in as president for his second term. I never considered going to the Inauguration. I didn’t even realize the public could just walk out there and view the entire thing. Didn’t you need tickets? My friend from elementary school who had met up with me again in college, Alex Laster, informed me that you didn’t and that I must go. He said it was my obligation and asked, “Wasn’t this the entire reason to go to school in D.C.?” In fact, it was.
Alex had spent first semester of our freshman year working for Clinton’s opponent Bob Dole, but he was still going to see the Inauguration in all its splendor. This was about celebrating democracy, being a patriot, loving America and that special peaceful transfer of power that separates us from all the rest. Sadly, Alex passed away about nine years ago, and I am grateful to my childhood friend and always remember him fondly, not least of all for forcing me to go to the 1997 Presidential Inauguration.
So, a group of us – bundled in fleece, down feathers, and long johns and with hot chocolate in hand – headed to the Capitol at 5 in the morning. Some of us hadn’t slept at all. There were gates barring us from getting too close. Those seats were reserved for those with tickets. So, we sat right down on the sidewalk to stake out our spot. I don’t remember much about what we said or did in the hours before the swearing in. But I do remember trembling, shaking, and wondering if this was going to be worth the frost bite.
Then, I remember getting the chills – and not just from the cold – when the President and his family filed into place on the steps and he recited, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Then, Clinton spoke, and I recognized the weight of what I was watching, the way this was so much more than pomp and circumstance, how this moment was about to shape our future in ways good and bad and in ways that would outlast his four more years in the White House. Here’s just some of what he said in the last inaugural speech of the 20th century, which still resonates today:
…The future is up to us. Our Founders taught us that the preservation of our liberty and our Union depends upon responsible citizenship. And we need a new sense of responsibility for a new century. There is work to do, work that Government alone cannot do: teaching children to read, hiring people off welfare rolls, coming out from behind locked doors and shuttered windows to help reclaim our streets from drugs and gangs and crime, taking time out of our own lives to serve others.
Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our neighbors and our Nation. Our greatest responsibility is to embrace a new spirit of community for a new century. For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America. The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future: Will we be one Nation, one people, with one common destiny, or not? Will we all come together, or come apart?
I became a patriot that day. An interest in politics had driven me to go to school in the nation’s capital. My friend was right in that we had to go to witness history after having chosen GW for this very reason. Now, I was feeling it in the core of my being. Despite the frigid air, a warmth washed over me. Upon reflection, I was certain it was a sweet sentiment more than an intellectual thought.
My heart was full of love of country, yes. But the emotion was bringing me to a greater conclusion about just how lucky I am that my family moved from Italy, and I am a bona-fide American. What other country in the world so deftly and passionately elevates the idea of democracy and not just in name? Here, we witnessed the result of free elections, the result of practicing our civic duty. I was sitting with Dole voters, who still wanted to see the historic significance of the day and celebrate the system, even if they weren’t necessarily happy with the winner.
The Inauguration gives all Americans a chance to contemplate how they want to shape their own future. On that day back in 1997, my eye was often trained on Hillary Clinton, who was wearing hot pink. I’ll never forget it. She commanded attention – at least from me – in a way she hadn’t before. Still, never did I imagine she would go on to be Senator of New York or Secretary of State, never mind the first woman ever to be nominated by a major political party.
Of course, I could not anticipate the plague of scandal that would dominate Clinton’s second term. In fact, for about a year, every time my friends and I went grocery shopping at the nearby Watergate, we would get photographed by paparazzi, who would snap pics of any woman with brown hair in hopes she was the mistress Monica Lewinsky. At my CNBC internship, I was often welcoming Ann Coulter, who made it her job to rip the Clintons apart regularly on the political shows that would evolve into MSNBC. And for a radio internship, I stood in line at the congressional bookstore (along with everyone else in town) for hours just to purchase the Starr Report. Remember that?
All that was coming didn’t matter on Inauguration Day. Politics didn’t even matter. America mattered on Inauguration Day. Democracy mattered on Inauguration Day. History mattered on Inauguration Day. My awakening to freedom – and all the responsibility that comes with it – mattered on Inauguration Day. So, today, I wish you a happy and healthy Inauguration. No matter what happens, the future is up to us.
MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
Every family dinner feels like a pot that is boiling over because the divisive language coming from the 2016 Election is spilling onto my dining room table and burning my brain. At Italian Sunday Funday lunch, I was listening to the talk about San Francisco 49er QB Colin Kaepernick, which turned to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Doesn’t everything end with those two nowadays? Without telling you where I stand exactly (although you can probably guess), I had an epiphany later in the day after reflecting on my own reaction to recent national events. The anger snuck up on me, and I didn’t like the feeling or my behavior, so I took a walk and I thought and thought. Why am I taking all this stuff so personally? Why am I so angry? Then, I realized it is all about the messed up priorities of our country and what that means for me right now and what it will mean for my child someday. I ask you my fellow Americans (and outside observers like the Italians) is this how we want to define ourselves?
There are so many more confounding priorities and beliefs, but I’m a working mother in the United States, which means I have to work 10 times harder for less pay than my male counterparts and find a way to raise my son all at the same time with little to no help. Therefore, I must stop here. You can feel free to chime in and let me know where we’re going wrong in your opinion.
CUCINA/LE FESTE – CELEBRATIONS
The 4th of July is a revelation, a not-to-be-missed tradition featuring fireworks, food, and drinking, all of which compliments my Italian heritage. Yet nothing brings out my Americanness quite like celebrating my country’s birth in my ancestor’s Italy. Basically, I throw red, white, and blue over everything and force my pasta-loving friends and family to indulge in American barbecue. (Talk about a challenge; it ain’t easy to make good barbecue in Italy.) While I dress everyone – including Nonna – in stars and stripes and plant flags all over the house and make super-sized burgers or finger-licking chicken wings (which Italians usually throw in the garbage rather than cook and savor), I try to throw the natives a bone.
One year that bone came in the form of the above strawberry tiramisu dessert. Like me, it looks American but has Italian blood in its veins. Normally, tiramisu, which means “pick me up,” is made with Savoiardi cookies, mascarpone cheese, whipped cream, and espresso. This recipe, however, replaces the espresso with strawberries. I threw in a few blueberries to get the blue and represent the stars on the flag.
I’ve adapted an old recipe by celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis to remove the alcohol and make it kid-friendly. Trust me, however. Giada’s recipe is a winner with the adults; your Zio won’t be able to get enough, and you’ll get drunk on the whipped cream while making it. True story. I hope your people enjoy this recipe as much as mine do. Happy 4th!
1 and 1/4 cups Strawberry jam
1/3 cup + 2 tbsp Orange juice
1 pound Mascarpone cheese at room temperature to soften
1 and 1/3 cup Whipping or heavy cream
1/3 cup Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 pounds strawberries, divided
30 to 50 Savoiardi cookies (Giada says you can use ladyfingers, and you can, but the Savoiardi are a must for Italians because they are much better at soaking up the flavors in the other layers)
“America e’ sempre America. America is always America.” -my father Pasquale Di Meglio and everyone else in my family
Whenever I’m in the United States, I’m Italian. Whenever I’m in Italy, I’m l’Americana. The truth is that I’m somewhere in between. Any child of an immigrant will tell you the same. You live this life with one foot in one country and one foot in the other. Italy will never leave us. It’s in our blood. It’s like the Sunday sauce runs thickly through our veins. Our food, our fighting, our faces can be traced to Ischia, that little island off the coast of Naples in Italy. It’s inescapable. And for that reason, we’ll always be somewhat foreign to our American neighbors. The rabbit on our Sunday dinner table and the fact that nonna and zia are the only acceptable babysitters and we know women who iron sheets and underwear (and don’t put them in an institution) on a regular basis separate us from everyone else in the States. There’s nothing that we can do to change that.
But the more time I spend in Italy, the more I understand what my father (and really all my immigrant relatives) mean when they say “America is always America.” We chose to pack up our things and move to America. We saw this country as a chance to live out dreams, rather than just get by. We saw it as the place to go to get rewarded, rather than pigeonholed, for our hard work. My paternal grandparents were already in their 50s and had raised grown children with families of their own when they decided to move from Ischia to the United States. Just imagine leaving behind everything you know, all your friends and family, your culture and your language when you’re already more than halfway through your life. They gave all that up and moved here for me. I think about that almost everyday. Would I be willing to make such a sacrifice for the future of my family, for those who haven’t even been born yet?
Of course, I wasn’t even a twinkling in my parent’s eyes in 1960 when my grandparents gathered up three of their nine children – the only ones who were still minors – and made the move. My father was only 13, the baby of the family, when he joined them on their journey from the Old World to the New. But my grandfather knew that my father would not have to live as hard a life working the limited land and fighting for every last piece of property available. He knew America would give my father untold riches and freedom like none he would have experienced back in Ischia.
Indeed, my father graduated from Fort Lee High School in New Jersey. He is the only one in the family with a high school diploma. He married an American (whose family also comes from Ischia, but who herself was born in the States and graduated from a junior college to boot). Although he works the land as a landscaper, he does so on his terms and as the boss of his own company. He would never have experienced such glory in Ischia. I, his daughter, married an Ischitano. I’ve seen what his future would have been on that small island. The life there is mostly about making ends meet. Sure, there are hotel and restaurant owners whose families can travel and do more than your average islander. But there’s not much in the way of dreaming. There’s not much in the way of ambition. So, I thank God everyday that my grandparents had the guts to come here to give me my American passport.
Sure, times have changed. The United States has weakened in many ways. Our government is more divided than ever. Immigrants have an even tougher time (if that’s possible) than they did before. Terrorism and hatred plague us. There is almost no more middle class – just the 1 percent and everyone else. Some people have stopped believing in the American dream. In my darker moments, I sometimes have my own doubts. But then I travel back to Ischia. It has its charms, but it also reminds me of why I’m American at my core.
That siesta in the middle of the day has a way of getting under my skin. We’re built for work, and we should do it while we can. Naps are for babies, the ill, and the elderly. They have a place in the world but not in the middle of the day when you’re a healthy, young or middle-aged adult. All those vacation days and soccer games and water cooler banter is fine and well. But it all gets in the way of making more of yourself, letting your creative juices flow, and realizing your true potential. Now, I’m not against talking to your co-workers or taking a break from work or leisurely enjoying a delicious meal. I think it’s good for the soul. But I am against the idea that work gets in the way of the good stuff. Work can be the good stuff. In America, you still have the possibility to dream your dreams and live them out. You still have the possibility of making money as your own boss. You still have the chance to move up in the world if you set your mind to it and that’s what you want to do. Determination can get you somewhere. Believe me, other places don’t allow that.
On that small little island that birthed our family, the people are resigned to inheriting property when loved ones die and taking on jobs in tourism. Even the college graduates are waiting tables and opening hotel doors – and these jobs are only available for six months out of the year when tourists are flocking to the place. I, an American, could major in journalism and attempt to work in that very industry. I’ve done just that. Sure, I’m making less money than I would had I went to business school or medical school or just about anything else except teaching school. But it was my choice. It was my dream. And I am able to live it here in my America. Amen.
You have to hand it to the Italians. They really know how to live. Often, they top off one of those three-course, homemade lunches or light dinners with the “passeggiata” or stroll down the street to the piazza or town square. It is where everyone goes to see and be seen. On your way – and once you arrive – you are likely to see old, historic buildings and clock towers, churches with their worshipers, and bars buzzing with people. There is probably a line of Vespas and pretty girls, who look like they have stepped out of a fashion magazine. Of course, somewhere nearby you’ll find gelato if it’s summer. And there will be older ladies and gents dressed to the nines despite their canes and walkers mulling around and talking about the good ol’ days.
When a Jersey girl like me gets an itch to take an Italian stroll, she heads to the mini mall, the American equivalent of a piazza. Recently, I have been appreciating such walks for the opportunity they give you to reflect on the wonders of nature. Few things are more beautiful than colorful autumn. Jewel-toned leaves paint the sky and lift the spirit.
Recently, while the leaves were raining down on us and the crisp breeze caressed our cheeks, I couldn’t help but think that life really is beautiful. Even though Italy has its historic charm, New Jersey is home. Of course, in the Jersey “piazza,” you might still find a pizza joint, an old-school nonna, and pretty Italian boys. Truly, the big difference is the purpose of the piazza. Americans go there in a rush to catch up with errands, whereas the Italians go there to slow down.
Yes, Italy is stunningly beautiful with a rich history and the best food you’ll ever eat. But it’s not my home. It never will be. I’ve done my best to make myself comfortable here, and I’ve had some good times. I love my husband, father, ancestors, all native Italians. And my love-hate relationship with Ischia will never go away.
My heart, however, belongs to New Jersey. Often, when I’m in the Boot as I am now, I grow nostalgic for home. When I do, I look at pictures of the George Washington Bridge. I am a Bridgewoman by birth, and it is my security blanket. It earned its post for life on 9-11. After spending the night of 9-11 on the floor of my friend’s NYC apartment wondering how the world could ever be the same, I found my way onto the ferry. On one side of the boat, I saw the inferno of downtown New York and smelled the stench of our apocalypse. On the other side was the George Washington Bridge – brave, strong, intact, and beckoning me home. Indeed, it has become ever more the center of my world. Whenever I return from Italy, it’s always right there. In front of me. Beckoning me home once again.
So, I was inspired by its beauty and this photo my husband snapped while in the car one evening back home. It’s always most beautiful when it’s all lit up or adorned with an American flag, isn’t it? In an attempt to stretch my writing chops (and feel like I’m back in middle school), I chose haiku to express my sweet, sweet nostalgia for home. Here goes:
The George Washington Bridge
Tower to Heaven,
My September salvation,
Lights my way to home
My brother had the brilliant idea of taking his 3-year-old daughter and my 2-year-old son ice skating over the weekend. We decided to embrace the winter and the cold and the fact that there’s little else to do when mountains of snow cover your neighborhood. A bit of research – on the part of my brother – revealed that Fritz Dietl Ice Rink in Westwood had double-bladed skates perfect for toddlers interested in hanging out on the ice. He thought the kids would also enjoy it more because it was smaller than the other nearby rinks. We were wrong.
The place was swarming with people, including lots of much bigger kids, for the chance at rink time. There was a big sign on the door that said the place has no insurance, and you’ll be skating at your own risk. The cashier also insisted we pay cash, no credit cards. It cost $52 for my brother, his daughter, my son, and me to rent skates and take to the ice for about 30 minutes. And, despite what my brother read on the Web site, there were no double blades.
Needless to say, getting my 2-year-old stable on ice skates on very slippery ice was nearly impossible, especially when I had not skated in nearly 20 years and have had three knee surgeries since then. Basically, it was like trying to get a fish to swim on blacktop. Baby Boy and I walked through the door onto the ice, I held onto the wall, and he rolled around on his bottom a bit before I decided this wasn’t going to work. Instead, he pretended to play the pinball machine (we didn’t put money in it) and looked at the trophies and skates being doled out by staff while we waited for my niece and brother to finish up. They had a slightly better experience but only because my brother was willing to lift and carry her for three rounds on the ice. After about 15 minutes, we were all turning in our skates and moving on. I asked my niece if she had fun and she said, “Not so much.” How’s that for honesty?
We all decided the idea was a good one. Next time, we’ll consider a bigger rink with more resources, such as Ice House NJ in Hackensack or the Palisades Center Ice Rink in West Nyack, N.Y. Don’t worry about our plans being ruined by the “not so fun” time on the ice on Sunday. Baby Boy and his cousin made up for it by steering the fire engine shopping wagon at our Shop Rite run afterward. See photo below. Figures, Italian kids prefer grocery shopping to ice skating.