2005-10-07 / Columnists

On The Beach

With Beverly Baxter

BEVERLY BAXTERBEVERLY BAXTER George Greco, who is a man of many virtues, sent me this piece in his hope that I would share with you his proud Italian heritage as we celebrate Christopher Columbus Day. As I read the piece, it brought fond recollections of my own heritage; and although I am not of Italian dissent, I can truly identify with the sentiments expressed. Whether you are of Italian, Jewish, or Irish heritage, hopefully, if you’re lucky enough, you will have fond memories of those who came before you. Those whose lives still live and resonate within your own. Those wonderful courageous parents, grandparents, or, in my case, great-grandparents, who ventured here as pioneers to carve out a new life; and through much sacrifice, claim their piece of the American promise. May you read about one man’s love of his proud ancestry and may you, within his story, hear your own.

“I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of course, I had been born in America and had lived here all my life; yet somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on mushy white bread that came out of 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 Italian. Everybody else—the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish—they were the “Med-E-Gones”. There was no doubt that ours was the “better way”. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal and iceman, a fruit and vegetable man, a fisherman; we even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors who came right to our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, in their individual sound. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to the 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 fresh Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends only ate turkey on Thanksgiving. Or rather, that 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, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. This turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (just in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey) and was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes, and, of course, homemade cookies. No holiday was complete without some home baking. None of that store-bought stuff for us. This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 4 p.m., or how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food!

Sunday was truly a big day of the week! That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you laid in bed, you could hear the hiss as the tomatoes were dropped into the pan. Sundays, we always had gravy (the “Med-E-Gones” called it sauce) and macaroni (they called it pasta). Of course Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass; and of course, you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. But the good part was that we knew that when we got home, we’d find hot meatballs frying and crisp fresh bread, and there’s nothing that tastes better than newly fried meatballs and fresh 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, tomatoes, and more tomatoes! We ate them, cooked them, jarred them... and we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Of course, everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree; and in the fall, everybody made their own wine—and lots of it! Of course those gardens thrived so because we also had something else it seemed 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 grandfathers. 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 in boarders to make ends meet; and how he decided he didn’t want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. They would have better. All this, of course, in his own version of Italian/English which I learned to understand quite well.

Soon, when he 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. And oh how he hated to leave it! He would rather sit on the back porch and watch his garden grow than leave; yet even when he would leave to go to some special occasion, he’d have to return as soon as possible because “nobody’s watching the house”! I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandfather’s house. There’d be tables of food, homemade wine, and music. Women in the kitchen. Men in the living room, and kids everywhere! I must have a half million cousins, first and second, and some who weren’t even related, but it didn’t matter. And my grandfather, his pipe in his mouth and his fine mustache trimmed, would sit in the middle of it all grinning his mischievous smile. His dark eyes twinkling as he surveyed his domain. Proud of his family and how well his children had done with their lives—and of course, everybody knew RESPECT.

He had achieved his goal in coming to America and to New York; and now his children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country because they were Americans.

When my grandfather died, things began to change. Family gatherings became fewer and something seemed to be missing; and although when we would get together at my mother’s house, I always had the feeling that he was there somehow. Everyone now has families of their own and grandchildren of their own. Today we visit once or twice a year or meet at weddings and wakes where we try in a short amount of time to catch up with each other’s lives and keep the family together.

Other things have changed as well. The old house my grandfather proudly bought is now covered with aluminum siding; 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 in the fall anymore. For a while we would make the rounds visiting family on the holidays; but now, we occasionally visit the cemetery. A lot of them are there now: grandparents, uncles, aunts, even my own 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. It’s easier to buy it now from the store 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 difference between “us” and “them” isn’t so easily defined anymore, and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italian-Americans, I’m an American Italian, and my children are American Americans. Oh, I’m an American alright and proud of it, much as my grandfather would want me to be.

We are all Americans now—the Irish, Germans, Jews, and Poles. 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 not sure what it is. All I do know is that my children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of the heritage. They never knew my grandfather.”

***Happy Columbus Day!

***Happy New Year!

***Breezy Point residents Jane and Ed Deacy have much to sing about these days as they celebrate the birth of their granddaughter Hailey Rose who came into the world on September 15 weighing 7lbs. 1oz..She joins her brother Vaughn Xavier and proud parents Danielle and Brendan Martin who reside in White Plains. Congratulations!

***May we always seek to find that common thread that makes us all the same.

We are all part of a unique family called Americans. 

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