Italian American

Day 2 of Unemployment

Today is the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I won’t lie, things could be worse.

Every year, at the end of summer, my grandparents make tomato sauce in their backyard. The entire block smells of boiling tomatoes and hard work. In their old age, they’ve moved into the summer home they’ve owned since 1978; a newly renovated beauty in a beach town that has the second highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the US, called Breezy Point, NY. They’ve always been the “odd man out” here, not truly understanding the Irish customs or traditions that their neighbors celebrate and vice versa. But, after emigrating to Brooklyn from a small southern Italian town in the ’60s, they’ve learned to keep their heads down and cause no problems.

Anyway, today was the day for sauce. I was the lucky one chosen to pick up the tomatoes this morning at 7:30 and make the traffic-filled trek out to Breezy Point with a pickup bed full of tomato bushels and a Nesquik in hand.

After MANY hours of work, we have finally added the finished jars to the heat to seal and preserve them. Today was full of annoying issues and difficult situations, but finally, all 20+ bushels are done and we can celebrate. As all 16 of us sit around the table for the first taste of our newly made sauce, it’s great to remember that I wouldn’t have been able to help today if I had a job, I wouldn’t have been able to carry on the tradition.

I guess we can consider that the silver lining.

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Merry Christmas Eve!

Hello my friends. Merry Christmas Eve, or as I like to call it “the more important of the two Christmases.”merry-christmas-eve_1217

My family, like many Italian-American families, celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes tonight. I can honestly say that I never even knew this meal was an Italian thing. I just assumed everyone ate fish on Christmas the way everyone eats turkey on Thanksgiving; that is, until I went to college and people told me they ate ham or chicken on Christmas Eve… OR didn’t even celebrate it at all? Sacrilege people… BLASPHEMY.

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But as an adult, I have learned to cherish the weird things my family does as part of a tradition that was created when my grandparents decided to make the long journey to America and begin their life here. And just to prove that we are strangely fun, I will list the events of tonight.

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Christmas Eve starts off with my mom cleaning shrimp and making cheesecake the night before. This can go on until at least 3am. Let’s just say my mom is a night owl.

Christmas Eve day begins as early as 11am with the arrival of my maternal grandparents to begin cooking. Unfortunately, I will not be there to help, seeing as I am at work for absolutely no reason since I haven’t even received an email yet.

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The day is spent in preparation for the mass migration to my basement, where we will be hosting at least 40 people (with others coming and going throughout the night to drop off presents or grab some food before going to another relative’s house) around a covered pool table and a couple of folding tables. It will be a Christmas miracle that we all fit down there without causing a serious raucous.

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After eating a meal with an infinite amount of courses, we will help clean up and let people do there own thing while coffee and dessert are prepared. This is usually when the smaller kids go nuts and Nerf guns come out and the old people start to freak out. Its all very amusing until someone over the age of 40 gets hit in the head with a Nerf bullet.

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FINALLY at about a quarter to midnight, bells can be heard from the basement as Santa Claus begins his decent from the first floor’s chimney where he will be attacked by crazed children who are too excited to use real words, so just scream his name until he finds a seat. He puts on a show of asking children if they’ve been good and scares the crap out of the really small ones, which is always funny/mean. Mind you, Santa never looks the same twice, he must get plastic surgery or something… gotta keep up with the times I guess.

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It takes a little while for S.C. to hand out all the presents to children both big and small, and for everyone to get a picture on his lap; and when I say everyone, I mean every single person in that basement sits on Santa’s lap. No one is excluded. People who aren’t used to coming to our Christmas Eve dinners might find it embarrassing, but it is the best picture you take all year (trust me.) By the end, Santa’s beard is askew, he is sweating his eyebrows off and is absolutely ready to get back to the frigid temperatures of the North Pole.

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The kids scream their good byes as the Man in Red climbs back up the stairs and makes his way to the chimney and back to his sleigh, which I’m almost sure involves some kind of scotch.

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Once the wrappings and boxes have been condensed to giant black garbage bags against the wall and the screams of delight have died down, my grandmother (Nonna Isa) gets the children into a line, smallest to tallest to begin the procession. The smaller children are given flowing white robes and the older children, a candle (sometimes we even light them, depending on the age of the child) and stand at attention by the basement stairs. The youngest child, who is currently my 3 year old cousin Rosanna, is given the highest honor of the procession, to hold the Baby Jesus.

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While the older crowd strikes up a chorus of Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, which literally translates to “you come down from the stars,” the children make their way upstairs to the nativity set under the Christmas Tree. The tree sits at about 13 feet high, while each of the Nativity’s characters stand at about 2 feet, most kneeling. Baby Jesus is placed into the manger and the carols begin. My family is too lazy to go Christmas caroling I think, so we sing in front of the tree, everything from Jingle Bells to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Each is screamed at the top of our lungs so that even though we aren’t going around the neighborhood, our neighbors will still be able to hear us. We close with a very excited version of Happy Birthday to Jesus, which everyone giggles through, but will never not sing.

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I added in this gif because this is literally how new people, who are not used to this part of Christmas, look at us while we sing. But hey, who doesn’t love a good audience.

Once the singing has ended, we return to the basement to begin the clean up. At this point, it is pretty late and most of the younger kids (and myself) are ready for bed. Everyone begins their good byes and everyone who is staying for the night goes to claim a bed.

I love my family. I love our traditions; I love our weird sense of humor; I love that this is how I was brought up and I am convinced that there is no better way to celebrate Christmas Eve than to sing Happy Birthday at the top of your lungs at 1am to a porcelain Jesus.

And with that, I will bid you adieu, because the morning has now stretched into afternoon and I have to prepare myself to leave early.

Merry Christmas my friends. May your life be filled with love and light and my you be safe from harm.

 

Reporting live from Minnesota

My mom’s sister has been moving around since she got married. Every 3 to 5 years, my uncle would be relocated for work because he is good at what he does and they would settle into a new home in a new city.
In 36 days they will be moving from Minnesota to Virginia. Thanks to my aunt and uncle, I’ve been across the country and around the world.
Today, I was sitting in Minneapolis, at a kitchen table with my grandparents, aunts, cousins and uncle’s family, who have become my own. Everyone had traveled from New York for my cousin’s first holy Communion. Seated together we discussed life in Minnesota, their move, what’s going on at home in New York, and Italy back in the day. I am second generation Italian-American. Both my parents were born in America but their parents came to America from Italy. My mom’s parents moved to America after they got married in a small town in southern Italy in the region of Puglia. My dad’s parents came from the same small town as my mom’s parents but met and married here in America.
I appreciate all they did by sacrificing theirs lives in Italy to come to America and start all over again, but I still like hearing about their childhoods. They talked about what it was like during the war when the American soldiers came to their town and how they all knew each other even before they became related by marriage. Most of the time I know the people they mention in their stories because I’ve met then before or heard the story, but today they mentioned someone with a weird name I has never heard of. In this small town in southern Italy, a lot of people had the same last name. To avoid confusion, everyone was given a nickname that could relate only to them. That way, the other people in the town didn’t have to use their last name. I thought it was really exciting that every man in the town had his own name. It seemed helpful in situations where there were 6 sons in the family, all with the same last name (like my mom’s father’s family.)
My dad’s grandfather was called Garofalo, which means carnation in the town’s dialect. Apparently he got this name because he always wore a carnation in his suit pocket. I could tell my dad liked to hear that one. I get my love of history from him. My mom’s grandfather was called Brocolaiulo. This is the dialect word for the excess that is left over when making olive oil. His profession was to collect and sell it, so that is where his nickname came from. I remember hearing stories when I was younger about my Mom’s youngest sister thinking Brocolaiulo was part of her name as well.
I love history, but really love hearing about my family’s history. It’s good to know where you come from because it can help you figure out where you’re going.