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Posts tagged ‘Italian-Americans’

I saw Mommy dissing Santa Claus

Ho ho...no (Wikipedia)

Ho ho…no (Wikipedia)

Prepare yourself for a special holiday memory.

I’m seven years old. It’s Christmas time. My mother is leaning against the butcher block in the kitchen.

“I have to tell you something,” she said to me. She paused. She struggled to suppress a laugh. “There’s no such thing as Santa,” she said. And then the laughter came pealing out, like Christmas bells.

I think I said, “All right,” and then went on with my childhood. After all, we lived on one floor, so I could see the Christmas tree, and my parents putting presents under it, from my bed at night. Spoiler alert! If that was something people said in 1982.

And Christmas went on, too. We always hung stockings, got presents, and listened to worn cassettes of my father’s favorite carols. We drove around in the evenings to look at the neighborhood lights; we went to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. My father decorated a meticulous tree; my mother made Belgian waffles on Christmas morning. Glad tidings, comfort, joy, all of that.

I asked my mother about this special memory recently, to see if she would admit to it. “Oh yeah,” she said. “If I couldn’t have Christmas when I was little, why should anybody else?” she said in a sing-song voice. Her sense of humor saves her from being the cynic of the Western world.

My mother emigrated to New York from Italy when she was five years old. She was born in a tiny mountaintop town, in Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. The house she was born and lived in was built, like much of the town, around 1450. Dirt floors; smoking fires in the hearth; animals in the courtyard. There may have been a manger.

“There was no Christmas over there like here. We didn’t have much. Definitely no Santa,” she said. “Christmas was about going to church, the presepio [the Nativity scene], and the food.

“We didn’t have these endless supplies of food, everything was very limited. So whatever sugar or honey you had, you saved for Christmas.” My grandmother made Calabrese Christmas sweets, things we still love to eat, mainly variations on fried balls of dough dipped in honey or sugar: scalidi, struffoli, zeppole, turtiddi. And Christmas cookies. My husband likes to joke that cookies in my family are basically hard pieces of bread with sprinkles on them. But when you think about how getting sugar would mean walking an hour to the market town, it doesn’t seem so strange.

“And then, La Befana would come for Epiphany.” La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, in the form of a witch, left over from Pagan times, who comes on Epiphany Eve in January and fills stockings, certainly not plush ones with Snoopy on them like mine, with oranges, nuts, and candy. These things, part of my own children’s daily lives were cherished treats in Calabria. If you were bad, La Befana brought you coal. So that part translates. It’s the only part that does.

“When we got here, we didn’t speak English. We just didn’t get how Christmas was done,” my mother said. “The first year, we didn’t have a tree. We certainly didn’t have presents. Later we did have a tree, but Christmas was always a hard time. Your grandfather worked in construction, remember, so he was out of work all winter. So things were very lean until he could work again in the spring.” My mother was the youngest of five, with two sisters who were much older. “When they started working in the factory [they were seamstresses], I would get a doll, or they would make me a dress or a sweater. But still, the presents were the least of Christmas.”

Even in New York in the booming 1950s, where they had come to escape the want of the isolated villages of the Italian South, they still would hold sugar and honey in reserve till Christmas. I can see why the idea of Santa – even now, when we can dump entire pots of store-bought honey on trays of scalidi – would make you laugh, a little bit.

“But when we got married and you guys were little, we did Christmas the usual way. Your father always had that kind of a Christmas. Your grandparents would put up the Christmas tree on the 24th after all the kids were in bed, so they would wake up to a big surprise on Christmas morning. It was special for him. And Christmas was always special for you, too. But as for Santa, I don’t know. I just could never get into it.”

We gave Santa Claus lip service growing up, but I don’t have any memory of really believing, waiting for him to materialize in our house in the night. We didn’t have a chimney, so that didn’t help either. The presents, in my mind, were always from my parents, even though they kindly wrote “from Santa” on the labels. I have a friend whose parents did not go in much for Santa either. “We worked hard to buy those presents,” her mother told me. “Why should Santa get all the credit?” A fair point.

As for my all-American kids, two boys, ages six and three, are excited about Santa Claus. As is their privilege. And I encourage them to believe. But what I don’t want, especially when I think of how Christmas used to be for so many in my family, and how it still is for so many people, is for the focus of Christmas to be receiving gifts.

Instead, let it be sweet treats, bright lights on cold nights, being good to each other. My three-year-old is thrilled to screaming at the sight of Christmas lights glowing in the dark; I would rather him hold on to that wonder than the mystery of a man in red bearing judgment, and Legos.

That’s not to say those two will wake up on Christmas morning to a house full of nothing but the smell of good cheer. I look forward to treating them at this time of year. What I don’t want is to dangle the old man in front of them as a threat, and tell them he’ll turn the sleigh around if they are not good; if they don’t stop yelling; if they don’t pick up their toys, or eat their vegetables. That doesn’t seem right.

So, how to handle Saint Nick? Short of calling the boys into the kitchen to deliver some bad tidings?

“Am I a good boy?” my six-year-old asked me the other day. I could see he was apprehensive of the judgment that was coming, the ups and downs of his behavior that year dancing through his head.

“Listen to me,” I held his face, looked him in the eyes. “You are a good boy. Let’s end the suspense. Santa is coming for you.”

His eyes widened. “But can he see what I am doing? Can he see me when I do things that aren’t good?”

“Santa can see that you have a good heart. You are a good brother. You are a good friend. Even good boys make mistakes sometimes, and he knows that. Everybody makes mistakes. But he knows you are good. So just keep showing him the good boy you are inside, OK?”

I guess the best thing about Santa is that it gives you something magical to believe in, in the bleakest nights of midwinter. So let him believe. But also let him believe in the good within himself, year round.

And let him believe that Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us. And has the same handwriting as me. Wouldn’t that be magical?

 

“The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” over at Medium – check it out!

The blog has lain fallow for a while, mostly because I have been writing some things offline. I also wanted the opportunity to use “has lain” in a sentence.

One of the things I’ve been working on: my essay, “The Knife of Teodoro Zuccarelli” is now up in the Open Ticket collection over at Medium. Go there and read a tale of brigands, a baroness, library books, and things lost in translation. Go read it now! Please and thank you!

Image

Missing teeth

A young boy after losing two baby teeth, exfol...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.

My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.

In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.

Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck.  Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?

After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”

“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.

I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.

Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”

I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.

I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.

I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?

I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.

“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”

“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”

Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family.  I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”

Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.

They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.

I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”

“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself.  When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.

A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.

“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.

“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.

“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”

I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?

I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.

I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.

Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.

Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.

My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.

Growing up Italian in a mac-and-cheese world

I grew up in a two-family house with my Italian grandparents. So my childhood sounded pretty much like this video below. Feel free to skip it, if you’re a ‘merican, but if you have such a grandmother, mi raccomando – WATCH IT

I only wish I had a talent for puppetry and thought of it myself. All I would need to change is the hair. My Nonna had very fine, silky black hair. Plus she wasn’t that cheerful. She was funny, though. Her response to the question, “How are you?”  was “Staiu moriendu!” – I’m dying. And her farewell (forgive the approximated spelling of Calabrese dialect): “Stat’attiendu, ca ti chiappa ‘ngunu!” Be careful, someone might kidnap you.

Growing up in a bilingual, first-generation-American household has helped shape how I look at the world, how I look at America, how I look at a box of macaroni and cheese (never ate it until college, LOVED IT, never told my grandmother about it). And now that my grandparents have passed away, and our family moves away from the culture we grew up with, how do I pass on this part of myself to my children? How do I keep their Italian heritage alive for them, now that they live in a mac-and-cheese world? Actually, C hates the stuff, he prefers meatballs. So at least there’s that, Nonna, can you hear me? I can sense her glowering at me from on high.

To start, I am trying to make sure they at least hear the Italian language. I am not a native Italian speaker, so it’s not natural for me just to speak it to them all the time. But I learned it in school, and am well-versed enough in the dialect that I often use Calabrese terms. There are some things you just can’t translate. Especially insults. Like calling someone “caccata” – you just know it when you see it, and English suffers for not having an equivalent term. Or lagnusu – it’s a slob, but someone who is a slob to the core of their being. And there’s scustumato, malavita, and hopefully you’ll never get called ‘numbala, or good-for-nothing. On the flip side, being sperta, if you’re a girl, or spiertu, if you’re a boy, is the highest compliment. You’re on the ball, you’re quick, you know what’s what without being told. I still aspire to be sperta. How am I doing? Well, I’m typing on the computer instead of cleaning my house, so not so good.

My children don’t take naps, they go ninnano’. And when my son doesn’t like what he gets, it’s chistu o cazzu - this or…let’s say “nothing.” He doesn’t have to know cazzu is a bad word; he just has to know he ain’t getting an alternative. Then there is the childhood favorite uffa! (one of T’s first words), and many more. There’s also the yelling. Yelling is caring in an Italian house.

When C and T were babies, I would often watch RAI International, the Italian-language TV channel, while I was nursing, hoping that some Italian would passively enter their bloodstreams. We would watch this insane cooking/talk show, La Prova del Cuoco, or my favorite, the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars, Ballando con le Stelle. Indulge me for a moment and let me tell you a little about them. Please? I have no one else to discuss them with.

I also had to watch these shows with the babies because, like many Italian television shows, they are so long they would fill up my DVR if I didn’t keep up, and my husband would go crazy (che ‘merican!). One episode of Ballando is four hours! Partly because they have to do a lot of vamping while they “tabulate” the audience votes so they can deliver the results the same night, and partly because of the fighting. Oh, the fighting. It’s the actual reason I watch Italian TV. Le polemiche, as far as I can tell, are as integral to Italian TV as product integration and Ryan Seacrest are to American TV.

On La Prova del Cuoco there was an old dude (Beppe Bigazzi) who sat in a throne off to the side of the stage, commenting on everything the host (Antonella Clerici) and the other cooks got wrong. They’re not cooking the mushrooms the right way; they don’t know the proper provenance of a particular recipe. Oh, this guy was a delight. He could derail the show for ten minutes.

Another all-time favorite is the 2007 edition of the Miss Italia pageant. This aired right after C was born so it was perfect. First, because it took RAI literally twelve hours over four nights to pick out the appropriate broad in a bikini. Then: Mike Bongiorno, the late and venerated Italian TV presenter, introduced his co-host, one Loretta Goggi. She walks on stage, and as she schlepps down this giant staircase she starts beefing and QUITS THE SHOW. On the spot. She just leaves this 80-year-old guy holding the bag, because she was enraged that it took the producers twenty minutes from the start of the broadcast to bring her on stage (she came on after some comedy bit). It was amazing. The reigning Miss Italia offered to fill in, because Bongiorno was just standing there, not knowing what to do. Way to capitalize, I say. La Goggi came back the following night, I think, but she and Bongiorno wouldn’t even look at each other. And they had to carry on like this for a million hours. Of riveting TV.

And then, Ballando con le Stelle. I once thought I was going to write a blog just on this show, but there is way too much there to recap. I just don’t have the time (see blog title). Four hours a week and it would always go over. Before I get to le polemiche, let me just say this for the show. I’m not sure what the opinion in Italy is of Milly Carlucci, but I think she is a very capable captain of some very rocky seas. And I don’t know why, but I can understand her Italian absolutely perfectly. With no gaps in comprehension. So for that I love her. Also, the costumes on that show are (mostly) gorgeous, not some grown-up version of Toddlers and Tiaras gear like they have on the American edition of the show.

Milly keeps things moving best she can as five judges have their interminable say on the dances, and then the celebs and pros give it right back to them. And if that doesn’t take long enough, they always bring in a bunch of journalists and other personalities of dubious provenance to sit bordocampo, next to the stage, and offer their opinions. At length. And they’re always trying to pick fights. Which is not hard to do because fights happen at the drop of a hat. I remember one series in which all the celebs and pros got together and threatened to quit if the judges didn’t recognize their abilities with more respect. Because these judges LOVE to give out 0′s, 1′s and 2′s. It’s not like on the American version, where if you get a 6 that’s a horrible score. There is one judge (who’s Scottish, by the way) who causes apoplectic displays of gratitude in the celebs if she gives them a 6.

All of this was nothing compared to the season that featured a dark, brooding actor named Lorenzo Crespi (just google him and see what ridiculous photos come up – NSFW). Crespi walked off the show just before he was supposed to dance, and no one could find him. He just left his pro standing there alone on the stage amidst the confusion. One of the co-hosts actually took his personal cell phone out on stage to try to call Crespi because he was nowhere to be found. He was probably somewhere in the bowels of RAI’s television studio at Foro Italico in Rome, punching a wall with great passion to the sax strains of “Baker Street.” This chaotic scene was the apex of a season of Crespi railing against his treatment by the judges, angry with every critique, and endlessly proclaiming himself more gifted than the other celebs. Then after he left, the producers milked le polemiche for all it was worth, further stopping the show to analyze, over and over again, what had happened. And badmouth Crespi. Here is just a tiny bit of it:

The whole affair was fascinating, unprofessional, and clearly partly done to grab attention. All of these polemiche are. But at the same time, I admire this mad behavior, because the personalities involved are so willing to drop their masks. These are not choreographed meltdowns, like the kind you see on Bravo reality shows. These people are outright losing it, and they don’t care who knows, because in that moment they feel so passionately about what’s happening. These perceived injustices have become their truth, and that makes them lash out in a most theatrical way. It’s a bit like a Luigi Pirandello play, in which Italian life itself is spectacle and it’s lived accordingly, in a constant state of high drama.

Bigazzi, la Goggi, and Crespi, come to think of it, are like four-year-olds, or at least like my four-year-old. Preschoolers are a little dramatic too, wouldn’t you say? The sky is green, say, because he says so, and to tell him otherwise provokes a fierce spiral of indignation. C is still figuring out how to manage a life that may not always jibe with his expectations, so he converts what he believes into what he sees. Like the play title, Cosi’ e (se vi pare): it is so, if you think it’s so. Appearance is all. This might make him, at times, un pochino scustumato. But it’s also what makes him sharp, what might make him him spiertu one day. I suppose to get at the great passion, you’ve got to take the tantrums. So maybe C is more Italian than I perceive him to be, after all.

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