The joy of growing up ITALIAN

by Don Augustine
(Gilbertsville, Pa.)


I am not the author of this but this is the way it was when I was growing up in Norristown, Pa. and I would like to share it with all of you.

Don Augustine

The joy of growing up ITALIAN


I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of
course I had been born in America, and lived here all of my life, but it
somehow never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant that I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter on mushy white bread that came out of plastic packages.

ME? I WAS ITALIAN.
To me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian/American children who had grown up in the 1930's, 1940’s,and 1950's, there was a definite distinction between US and THEM. We were ITALIANS. Everybody else, the Irish, English, German, Polish, Jewish, they were "MEDI-GANS". There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, and no hard feelings. It was just well we were sure ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal & ice man, a fruit & vegetable man (which we call the "HUCKSTER"), a watermelon man, a javela-water man and a fish man; we even had
a man who sharpened knives and scissors and a man who fixed umbrellas, who came right to our homes, or at least just outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied their trades in the Italian Neighborhoods. We could wait for their call, their yell, and their individual distinctive sound. We knew them by their names, and they knew us. Americans went to the store 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 peddler’s wagon or truck a couple of times a week, just to hitch a ride, most of my "MEDI-GAN" friends had to be satisfied going to the A&P.

Alas, when it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends and classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or rather, they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Now we ITALIANS, we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, but, only after we had finished the Antipasto, Chicken Soup with Escarole, Cheese Squares & Little Meatballs, Lasagna, Meatballs, Braciola, Salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday.

Also, our turkey was accompanied by a roast of some kind, just in case
someone walked in who didn't like turkey, and was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, and of course homemade cakes. No holiday was complete without some homemade baking. None of that store bought stuff for us. This is you learned to eat a seven-course meal between noon and 4 PM. how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine. Sunday was truly the big day of the week! That was the day you would wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil, as it dropped into the pan. Sunday we always had Gravy and Macaroni. (The "MEDI-GANS" called it sauce and 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 Holy Communion. But, the good part was, we knew when we got home we would find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tastes better than newly fried meatballs and fresh crisp Italian bread dipped into a pot of gravy. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food.

There was another difference between US anthems. We had gardens, not just flower gardens, but gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them and jarred them. Of course we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had grape vine 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 else it seemed our "MEDI-GAN" friends didn't seem to have. We had GRANDPARENTS! , It's not that they didn't have grandparents also; it's just that they didn't live in the same house, or on the same block. They visited their grandparents. We ate with ours, and God forbid we didn't see them at least once a day. I can still remember my grandfather telling us about how he came to America as a young man, "on the boat". How the family lived in a rented tenement and took in boarders in order to help make ends meet; how he decided he didn't want his children to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian / English which I learned to understand quite well.

So when they saved enough, and I never could figure out how, they bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how they hated to leave, would rather sit in the back yard and watch their garden grow. And when the did leave, for some special occasion, had to return as quickly as possible. After all, "nobody's watching the house". I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandparents' house or my aunts' house, and there would always be tables full of food and homemade wine and music. Women in the kitchen, men in the living room, and kids, kids everywhere. I must have a half million cousins, first, second and some who aren't even related, but what did it matter. And my grandfather, his stogie in his mouth and his fine mustache trimmed, would sit in the middle of it all grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling, surveying his family and how well his children had done. All were married and had fine wives and husbands, and healthy children. And everyone knew RESPECT. They had achieved their goal in coming to America, and now their children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to them, in this Great Country, because they were Americans.

When my grandparents died yeas ago, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, usually at my mothers house now, I always had the feeling they were there somehow. It was understandable of course. Everyone now has families of their own and grandchildren 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 last of the homemade wine has long since been drunk, and nobody covers the Fig tree in the fall anymore. 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 and even our parents. 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 its easier to buy it now, and too much is no good for you. We meet at my mother’s house now, at least my family does, but it’s not the same, anymore.

The difference between THEM and US isn't so easily defined anymore, and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were ITALIAN / ITALIANS, my parents were ITALIAN / AMERICIANS, I'm AMERICIAN / ITALIAN and my children are AMERICIAN / AMERICIANS. Oh I'm an AMERICIAN all right and proud of it, just as my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Americans now, the Irish, English, Germans, Polish and Jewish. United States citizens all, but somehow I still feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots. I'm really not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of their heritage.

They never knew my GRANDPARENTS.

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May 30, 2016
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Same as my childhood NEW
by: Dominic

Wow! What memories. The same as in Chicago, with a mix of Polish, Croatian, a few Russians and 1 Mexican family. I think I thought everyone lived like that until I went to High School in 1960. Must be why I have loved living in Mexico for 20 Yrs, Many places here are still that way! I have the Pastry, bread, Veggies, and Dairy trucks in front of my house everyday. Many, Many homes have more than 1 generation living there.
Ciao

Sep 29, 2015
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Mar 29, 2015
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Thanks a lot. NEW
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Apr 20, 2014
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I remember it like that also.
by: Jim D.

What I wouldn't give to relive it all over again,the way it used to be from 1950 to the year I went into the U.S. Air Force,in 1960 when it all changed somehow. Well written,well said and well done.
Ah,the good ol' days of yesteryear. Gone,but not forgotten.

Apr 16, 2014
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GREAT ARTICLE ...
by: Jerry

Thanks for sharing Don. Spot on! We, however called sauce/gravy 'SUGU'. I still have a fig tree, grow tomatoes and our house is still the family holiday gathering center where too much food is prepared; now mostly relegated to holidays rather than weekly gatherings.
Ciao

Apr 16, 2014
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I Wept
by: Joe Alessi

I am a second generation Italian American. I also live in Gilbertsville, Pa. I wept.

Jan 15, 2013
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OMG
by: Lisa

This has put into words what I have been trying to tell my kids about. How- yes- we are american but refer to our family as italian because of reasons you have so eloquently listed. So much of those things have changed.
I was part of your kid's generation and had the chance to see the very end of the original group that came over on "the boat". My grandmothers would do most of what they did. My mother and my aunt do some - and I just try to keep up. Making the Home made Canoli shells- pasta- Cookies - bread- and casatta cake is rare- few and far between. It is no longer the norm. It is an epic event when we can get the group together to do those thing.But I do remember all those things- the gardens - the wine-the Pasta and Sugu on Sundays at my Nana's house - hmmmm memories. thank you for writing this. :0)

Oct 19, 2012
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ethnic neighborhoods
by: Anonymous

I loved the piece. I grew up in a predominately Polish neighborhood, but have many of the same memories. I remember the iceman, the huckster, the bakery truck, and also the man who came around to collect the old rags households had. Everybody in the family "watched" the kids. We knew we had to walk the straight and narrow, because aunts and uncles, busias and grandpas, were checking on us. This is a change I see. When I was young I played in the street, rode a sled down the steep hill and picked huckleberries in the nearby woods. My children played in a suburbia development and their children have "playdates". Times have changed, sometimes for the better, but not always. Bernie Y.

Jun 11, 2011
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Buon appetito
by: Acchione

So many of us have the same stories, the same memories. You are right with each passing generation we lose a part of our italian culture. We must pass our traditions to our children, we must teach them to make homemade pasta and to cook with love, for our families. To be proud of their nationality and to keep the traditions and memories alive. I just recently became an Italian citizen, a gift from my grandfather from the grave. They worked hard and sacrificed so much for us. Please take the time for Sunday dinner with your family make the food with your hands like grandma did. Tell your children stories, they will be proud to be italian too. I am second generation but we still cook all grandmas recipes just like she did. Before she died she made each of her grandchildren a cookbook with all her dishes. My mother taught us to make homemade pasta, ravioli ect. Iam teaching my daughter now. We must not let their traditions disappear. It's the simplest things that bring the greatest pleasures in life. It's all about love, food and respect. We show our love thru the food we make. Buon appetito.

Jan 26, 2011
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I remember!
by: dolly

Great Great Great Job! I can relate .. I have those same memories, just couldn't express them the way this person did!

May 26, 2010
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Thanks Augistine
by: Marco

My wife and I grew up in the North End of Boston (Little Italy) and after reading your comments I miss it more than I can say. Everything was the same as you describe, except for the garden. And yeah the GRAVY cooking on Sunday morning was the best memory you brought up. I miss Mama getting me up for Mass too.

Mar 24, 2010
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That's my Life !
by: Jo Ann

What a beautiful remembrance. That was so my life growing up and how I wanted that for my children, but the times changed so fast that I was only able to give them just a part of it, but I was left with many good stories to tell them and they love hearing about them.

I love how you mention your family garden with all the tomaotoes. That was just like my father garden. I never understood why he only grew tomaotes,but then again what else could of made the most beautiful looking garden ever but a tomatoe.

Thanks for bringing such a warm feeling to my heart with your story of the "Italian Famly". God Bless you.

Feb 12, 2010
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The Oldest Blogger
by: Elvira Sperduto Oliver

Hi! Augustine

After I posted my first comment to you and returned to the beginning of your story, I noted that you are in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania and not New York. Sorry for the error. You would have liked my brother. I used to go up to see him once a month, from Toms River, New Jersey until he passed away.

Elvira

Feb 12, 2010
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The Oldest Blogger on Earth
by: Elvira Sperduto OLIVER

I had no knowledge my essay was on the internet until a few years ago when a paisana mentioned it to me. Thank you for stating that you are not the author. Is it possible you knew my brother? He lived in Gilbertsville, N.Y. but passed away in 1993. His name was Ernest Sperduto.


I was validated as the oldest blogger since August 2009....and, if you would like to know more about me, please read my blogs.

Thank you again. Sincerely,

Elvira S. Oliver

Jan 26, 2010
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Heartwarming Reflections
by: Marion Estephan

As I read the memories I was thinking that this could be about my family except that we are Lebanese.My husband was born in Lebanon and I grew up in an Lebanese neighborhood in Easton,Pa.,surrounded by Italians.The Lebanese would speak Italian and vice versa. My husband and I have tried to keep the Sunday dinner tradition alive,with the children and grandchildren coming to our house.My husband has the huge garden ,the fig trees and the grape vine which supplies us leaves for stuffed grape leaves.
The food is different,ours being Gibbie,Tabbouli,
Stuffed Grape Leaves,Himmous,Garlic Sauce,Pureed Eggplant,Chicken and Rice,Baked Gibbie etc.but the traditions and love are the same.My son was hysterical when he read that the grandparents didn't want to leave their house and would always rush back home,this describes us exactly.

Jan 24, 2010
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Touching
by: Deanna

Your story was wonderful and I feel I lived a piece of your life with you through your memories! Never forget those memories and keep telling them as often as you can! You never know what grandchild might cherish those traditions just by seeing your eyes light up when you tell them!!!

Jan 06, 2010
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Heartwarming
by: Anonymous

Thank you so very much for sharing these thoughts with italians everywhere. I was touched and a little saddened. I grew up in Pottstown in the 50's, a purebreed italian. My memories are endless ofour family gatherings at my grandparents homes. I would like to share one holiday memory and that is "the kids table". My grandfather built a table to accommodate all my aunts & uncles and a sperate table for my cousins. We numbered about 35. It was a big deal when you graduated to the adults table. My grandmom would make at least 10 pounds of homemades (spaghetti), one pound for my grandpop and each uncle, the rest for us. I never saw one family consume so much pasta! And yes that was just an appetizer to be followed by every meat imaginable. Those years were so special and the best memories to this day!

Dec 27, 2009
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Don's right -on
by: Mike JanFrancisco

I remember growing up in Norristown in the 40's and I surely can relate to Don's comments All I can say is great memories! Salute!

Dec 26, 2009
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Memories
by: Len Fusco

Well said, my wife (Not Itialian) always tells me we over eat and over cook, especially if company is coming. And if the company are Amidi-gans they eat like birds so she thinks she is correct because of the amount of left overs.But I love the left overs!

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