Growing Up Italian: Did I?

By Jane Pisciottoli Papa


    Other Italian Americans grew up surrounded by their Italian relatives in multigenerational families, immersed in the language and life style patterns of the Old Country. Not me. I grew up in a single family home in the suburbs amidst Americans. I was raised to be an American by my Irish American mother and my Americanized Italian father.

    Flash back to 1945: Like so many other GIís returning from World War II my father came home to marry a woman who had waited more than five years for him. The son of an Italian immigrant father and a mother born in Boston to parents just arrived from Italy, he had grown up in Dorchester, a streetcar ride from the cityís downtown. By his own description he learned at a young age that members of the dominant group in his neighborhood (read Irish) would laugh at anyone who was "different", most especially Italians, so he decided he would be an American. He never spoke Italian (and always claimed he didnít know how) and was not interested in Italian music, culture, or food. This attitude was reinforced in the Army where, for example, an Irish American priest chaplain saw the middle name "Fedele" on his records (named for his godfather) and said, "You donít want to be known by that name. We can just change it to Albert F. Pisciottoli and you can say the F. stands for Francis." In fact my father was apparently so eager, on some level, to become a mainstream American that when a friend had offered to fix him and his best friend up for a blind date with two Irish American girls, a schoolteacher and a nurse, he answered, sight unseen, "Iíll take the schoolteacher." And so he did.

    Again like so many other GIís who married after completing their wartime service, my father found it impossible to secure housing in Boston. The market was flooded by the sudden rush of so many young couples eager to begin their new lives together, so the newlyweds moved in with my fatherís parents. This must have been culture shock for my mother, the "Irish schoolteacher", although she had spent time visiting with her future in-laws while my father was overseas, so she must have had some idea of what she was getting into. In any event when I was born and brought home from the hospital, "home" was my grandparentsí house.

    Within a short time we moved to an inner city housing project (again, as did many families like ours), where we were living when my brother was born two years after me, and by the time I was ready to start school my parents were ready to buy a home. We would move to a brand new development in Weymouth, a suburb south of Boston. Back in Dorchester my grandmother cried. She was sure she would never see us again. When she was a girl it had taken all day to travel by wagon to Weymouth, way out in the country. She did not believe people who told her it was now a half-hourís jaunt by car to make the same trip.

    Perhaps originally as a means of placating my grandmother we promised to visit weekly. Every Saturday almost unfailingly we went for dinner. Sometimes we went on Sundays as well. At a young age I began to notice how greatly life in Dorchester differed from my everyday life in Weymouth.

    Our suburban neighborhood comprised families just like ours, children born after the war to couples who could not find housing in the city and who perhaps wished to escape to "the country" anyway. We were a baby boom born to ethnically mixed, Democratic-voting "city folk" who were now invading a small Old Yankee, Republican-voting town. There were not very many Italians in the bunch, though, and none of the children I became friendly with had Italian sounding names. My very best friend was Irish American (still is!), brought up with the emphasis on Irish.

    The first difference I became actively aware of was the scarcity of white haired people in Weymouth. Oh, there were a few to be seen in church on Sunday and weekly at the supermarket, but none living in my neighborhood or encountered within my regular routine. But there were lots of them at Grandmaís house, starting with Grandma and Grandpa themselves (although I could never fathom the notion of the neighbor who sometimes came in to "do" my grandmotherís beautiful silvery hair putting "blue stuff" into it). There were neighbors and relatives who dropped in to say hello, people who were driving or walking by and stopped in. There were couples, friends who came once a month to play cards on Saturday nights. Not only did many of these people have gray or white hair, making them a visual novelty for me, but they sounded different too. They often spoke in Italian or in heavily accented English that I had to listen to carefully in order to understand. And they smelled different, the men smoking thick stubby cigars as they played Scopa among themselves. The women always came dressed up, and I suspected they all wore corsets like the one my grandmother wore. (I had once seen bone stays in her sewing box and she had shown me how they were used.) They exclaimed over me in Italian and pinched my plump rosy cheeks. The men arrived wearing three-piece suits and soft gray felt hats with little red feathers tucked into the hatband.

    There was nothing like this to be seen or heard in Weymouth, as far as I could tell. I had never heard a language other than English spoken in my neighborhood or at school. Adults usually dressed much more casually than this older generation. And other kids didnít seem to have comparable experiences. They either didnít have grandparents, or didnít see them very often, or else the grandparents didnít seem nearly as exotic as mine. I was utterly fascinated by this unique other world I entered on weekends and by the role reserved for me within it.

    Because Grandpa was a professional barber he had a spare barber chair set up in the cellar for family haircuts, and part of the weekend ritual would include haircuts for my father and brother, my uncle, and assorted other relatives and friends who showed up. Down the stairs he would troop followed by all of the above-mentioned males, whose hair he would carefully cut. I sometimes followed along too, for I loved watching his perfectly manicured hands deftly manipulate the scissors and comb; I loved to watch him whisk the hair trimmings from their necks with his bone handled camelhair brush and then sprinkle on silky talcum powder; and I especially liked to watch and smell as he took red or amber liquid (bay rum, I think) from one of the bottles lined up on the dark wood shelf beneath the large mirror and pat it on their faces. Finally I would ask for a "ride" in the barber chair, and Grandpa would use the foot peddle to make the chair go up and down a few times, spin me around and around, then tickle me on the neck with the horsehair brush and pat some of the scented liquid behind my ears. He would have cut many heads of hair by that time on any given Saturday but he was never too tired to entertain me in such a way.

    I was very much in awe of Grandpa, for he was the self-proclaimed Patrone of the family. He always presided at the head of the dinner table wearing his burgundy-red velvet smoking jacket. As a small child I would climb up on his lap after dinner and ask to listen to his watch. He would pull from his vest watch pocket a large (to me enormous) gold stem-topped watch which he would hold to my ear while I listened attentively to its distinctive ticking sound. Then he would present for my handling and inspection the watch fob which hung on the other end of the gold chain that ran from one vest pocket to the other through a button hole. It resembled a sort of tiny gold Swiss army knife and included several small blades. Sometimes he would choose an orange from the patterned pressed glass fruit bowl that my grandmother put on the table after dinner. I was always delighted when he did so, for with a little urging from me he would carefully peel the orange with a small paring knife in such a way that the skin came off in one continuous piece, forming a pair of eyeglasses. While I squealed with pleasure and modeled the glasses Grandpa would place the orange slices in a glass of wine for a while before consuming both the orange and the wine.

    If Grandpa was the Patrone of the family then Grandma was surely the power behind the Patrone. In fact we always thought of their home as Grandmaís house, perhaps because in many ways she really did prevail there. For me she was even more indulgent than Grandpa and certainly more child-centered. Although I was not in awe of her as I was of Grandpa I was equally fascinated by the differences between the way she did things and the ways in which everyone else I knew behaved. For instance she had a hand cranked coffee grinder mounted on the side of a cabinet in the pantry. By way of contrast my parents made instant coffee at home in Weymouth, and there certainly was no place for a pantry or a coffee grinder in the kitchen of our small Cape-style house. I always asked if I could grind the coffee whenever I saw Grandma preparing to put the battered old aluminum napolitana on the stove (and I was certain to be watching when she turned it upside down!). I loved the grinding sound of the machinery and the coffee aroma it released as I struggled to force the handle through its rotations and saw the fruits of my efforts gather in the cup clamped below the spout. When the cup was full and Grandma removed it I often indicated a wish to continue grinding. Amid shouts of protest from my father that that would be wasteful Grandma would shrug her shoulders serenely and declare, "Thereís no harm in it. The coffee will keep in the refrigerator." She would replace the cup and I would grind coffee until my arm tired.

    Another piece of equipment that Grandma used that I was otherwise unfamiliar with was a curtain stretcher. This consisted of a large adjustable metal frame which stood in the manner of an easel and which had evenly spaced metal pins protruding from its periphery. One adjusted it to the dimensions of the curtain which was to be laundered then stretched the freshly washed curtain across it, securing the curtain in place to dry by forcing its edges onto the pins. Again in contrast, we had drip-dry curtains at home and apparently so did all of our neighbors, because I never saw curtain stretchers in their backyards. But Grandmaís many windows were all veiled in cotton lace panels which after washing needed to be stretched back to their original size on the stretcher. She also had tablecloths and bedspreads she had crocheted herself that required similar treatment. After I had discovered that the removal of the stiff dry curtain from the stretcher produced a musical "plinkety-plink" sound that traveled around the periphery as the curtain was gradually pulled off, I begged to be present for other such events and to be allowed to "help". Thereafter occasionally if we arrived early on a sunny Saturday afternoon Grandma would ask me to go down to the backyard with her to help pull curtains off the curtain stretcher. I listened with delight as she played my favorite tune!

    Just as I was aware of Grandpaís hands as he worked cutting hair I was very conscious of Grandmaís hands in all that I saw her do. They were large and smooth, with straight fingers and pale unblemished skin. She wore no jewelry except a thick pink-gold wedding band. I can close my eyes and picture her hands as she knit afghans and crocheted lace edgings on handkerchiefs, ironed clothing with the heavy black flat iron which she heated on the gas stove, and performed all sorts of cooking tasks, such as forcing ground meat into cat-gut sausage casings through a very wide-mouthed funnel. But most fondly of all I recall her kneading pizza dough, her strong hands maintaining a slow, consistent rhythm as she pushed and turned, pushed and turned the dough. I knew just how strong her hands must really be as, of course, I asked to try it and, of course, I found that it was much harder than it looked. Most wonderfully of all, after kneading the dough to the proper consistency she would place it on the radiator in a green crockery bowl, covered with a white linen cloth. Several hours later the dough would have grown to fill the bowl, rising above its top edge, and in my childís mind there was no other explanation for this than magic!

    Many other people also thought my grandmother employed magic in her cooking, although perhaps in a more figurative way. She had been cooking for large family groups daily since she was fourteen and her mother died, and she had become quite expert at producing all sorts of traditional Calabrese fare. Absolutely everyone loved the foods she prepared, including her Irish American sister-in-law, her Irish American daughters-in-law, her Anglo-American son-in-law, and her "American" grandchildren. For me the center of my secret weekend world was the large dining table where she regularly served a bountiful array of the most delicious foods I knew. There were at least eight of us there each Saturday evening but it wouldnít matter if other people came by at the last minute. She always managed to have more than enough. As a small child I wondered why even familiar foods, such as salad, tasted better in Dorchester than they did in Weymouth. As I got older I came to see that the use of simple natural ingredients with few prepackaged additions made the difference. For instance, Grandmaís salad dressing did not come premixed in a bottle. In fact, she didnít add "salad dressing" as such at all, but merely tossed fresh greens and vegetables with olive oil and wine vinegar. Of course all of Grandmaís dishes were seasoned with more than a dash of love.

    Just as amazing to me were the foods she served that were not familiar from home. People in Weymouth had never heard of some of them ("Whatís tripe?"); did not know that some of them were indeed foods ("You can eat mushrooms?"); and had no experience with some of Grandmaís preparation methods ("You donít fry dough, you bake it!").

    So my role in the world I entered through my grandparentsí front door was to observe, to inquire, to compare, to enjoy, to be myself. Much loved and indulged, I looked forward to spending time with Grandma and usually slept at her house for one or two nights of each school vacation week. I often asked questions about her childhood and enjoyed hearing her stories. Even though these narratives were never delivered as sermons about how much easier modern living was than life in the days of her youth, she did manage to slip in a few words about her philosophy of life. I found much to admire.

    As childhood and adolescence receded from present into past and my grandparents passed from this life a sort of mystique grew for me around this ethnic generation gap/other world to which I had been a frequent visitor. The fact that it did not represent "typical" American life had been constantly reinforced for me by my everyday experiences at home, in my neighborhood, at school, and by what I saw on television. However the emotional impact of the parallel universe I experienced at my grandparentsí house was quite profound. Young childrenís thinking does not follow adult cause-and-effect logic but involves more associative connections, and in my childís mind all of the elements that I perceived as "Italian" had become associated with the unconditional love my grandparents showered upon me. The emotions associated with oneís early experiences can seldom be entirely overridden by intellectual forces applied in later years. So this world which exists now only in my memory, accessible only through reverie, continues to generate an aura of great warmth and comfort for me. I see that I have chosen as an adult to surround myself with reminders of my grandparents and that other world and the feelings I had experienced there. Photos, mementos Ėmy grandmotherís wedding ring on my hand, her "magic bowl" for rising dough in my kitchen, Italian travel, Italian genealogy, Italian operatic music Ė even my Italian American husband! All help to form a continuous thread from the maze of my childhood with its secret other world. But I was merely a visitor there, I didnít really belong to it. I didnít grow up Italian. Did I?

Return to Growing Up Italian Index

Return to Home Page