I'm sure you have all seen this before but just in case:
I was well into adulthood when I realized I was American. Of course, I had been born in America and had lived here all my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came from plastic packages. Me? I was Italian.
For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian American children who grew up in the 40's and 50's, there was a definite distinction between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else - the Irish, German, Pole and Jew -they were the "Med-e-gones." There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just-well-we were sure ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal and ice man, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, and a fish man. We even had a man who sharpened our knives and scissors who came right to our homes or at least right outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sound. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to stores for most of their foods. What a waste!
Truly I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on back of the peddlers' truck a couple of times just to hitch a ride, most of my "Med-e-gone" friends had to be satisfied with going to the A & P. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends or classmates ate only turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or rather, that they ONLY ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, but only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagne, meatballs, salad, and holiday. The turkey was usually accompanied by a roast, an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, homemade cookies. No holiday was complete without some home baking, none of the store bought stuff for us. This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 4:00 PM, how to handle hot chestnuts, and put tangerine wedges in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance of food.
Speaking of food - Sunday was truly the big day of the week! This was the day you would wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you laid in bed, you could hear the hiss as tomatoes were dropped in the pan. Sunday we always had gravy (the "Med-e-gones" called it sauce) and macaroni (they called it pasta). Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn't eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving Communion. But the good part was we knew when we got home we'd find hot meatballs frying and nothing tastes better than newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of gravy.
There was another difference between US and THEM. We had gardens - not just flower gardens but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, and jarred them. Of course we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody has a grapevine and a fig tree and in the Fall everybody made homemade wine - lots of it. Of course, those gardens thrived so because we also had something our American friends didn't have. We had a Grandfather! It's not that they didn't have grandfathers, it's just that they didn't live in the same house or on the same block. They visited their grandfather. We ate with ours and God forbid we didn't see him at least once a day. I can still remember my grandfather telling me about how he came to America as a young man, "on a boat." How the family lived in a rented tenement and took boarders in to help make ends meet. How he decided he didn't want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian/English which I soon learned to understand quite well.
So when we saved enough, and I could never figure out how, he bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he hated to leave. He would rather sit on the back porch and watch his garden grow. When we did leave for some special occasion, he had to return quickly as possible, after all, "nobody's watching the house." I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandfather's house and there would be tables of food and homemade wine, and music. Women in the kitchen, men in the living room and kids, kids everywhere. I must have a million cousins, first and second, and some who aren't even related, but what did it matter. And my grandfather, his pipe in his mouth, and fine moustache trimmed, would sit in the middle of it all, grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling, surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a cop, one a fireman, one had his trade, and of course, there was always the rogue. And the girls, they had all married well, had fine husbands and healthy children. Everyone knows "respect."
He had achieved his goal in coming to America and to New Jersey. Now his children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in his great country because they were Americans. When my grandfather died years ago at the age of 76, things began to change. Slowly at first, then uncles and aunts eventually began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, usually at my mother's house now, I always had the feeling he was there somehow. It was understandable of course. Everyone now had families of their own. Today they visit once or twice a year. Today we meet at weddings and wakes.
Lots of other things have changed too. The old house my grandfather bought is now covered with aluminum siding although my uncles lives there and of course, my grandfather's garden is gone. The last of the homemade wine has long since been drunk and nobody covers the fig tree any more. For a while, we would make the rounds on the holidays, visiting family. Now we occasionally visit the cemetery. A lot of them are there, grandparents, uncles, aunts, even my father.
The holidays have changed too. The great quantity of food we once consumed without any ill effects is no good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories, and nobody bothers to bake anymore - too busy - and it's easier to buy it now and too much is no good for you. We meet at my house now, at least my family does, but it's not the same.
The differences between US and THEM aren't so easily defined anymore, and I guess that is good. My grandparents were Italian-American, I'm American-Italian and my children are American-Americans. Oh, I'm American all right and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are all Americans now - the Irish, Germans, Poles and Jews. U.S. citizens all - but somehow I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots. I'm really now sure what it is. All I know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of heritage. They never knew my grandfather.