I always knew I was Italian. I grew up thinking that everyone had an ethnic label of one kind or another. I didn’t feel outwardly proud of it except for a time in junior high school when I learned that the Irish and the Italians were natural enemies. I heard it on the playground so it must have been true. I felt an obligation for some mysterious reason to, shall I say, “favor” Italians over the Irish. But I really had no idea why. And at recess, Brian Keeney and Vinny Mongillo were still my best buddies. So it really didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now.
But I always knew I was Italian. The language, the food, the family. The Sunday afternoons at grandma’s house where our large extended family gathered. And while the adults droned on around the big table with their big words in a jumble of English and Napolitano dialect, the many cousins played. Family secrets were whispered, alliances formed, broken and repaired all in the time we visited between Sunday morning mass and the Ed Sullivan Show that night.
Dinner was pasta. And meatballs, sausages, pork skin, and rolled beef steak--braciole. And large rounds of crusty bread. Dessert was sweet pastries or a special Boston cream pie from the local pasticceria. Coffee was strong and intensely black. The anisette, with its licorice fragrance, was a treat. I was allowed to just wet my lips with the alcohol—don’t tell grandpa.
While my wife and I could not recreate the large extended family of my city upbringing, our children were raised on the same food, customs, and ethnic identity that we both honor. There's pride in knowing that others before you had a place in time, a place in history. Not famous or profound, perhaps, but steady in its way. A family to be traced, to be revered and to be remembered. This is a gift to one’s children given in their youth that only reveals itself fully when it’s to be passed on.