Only last week, I wrote about my grandfather Dominic, who passed away 30 years ago. As I write that, it is incredible to think he has been gone that long, and yet compelled me to action just a few days ago. This past Thursday, his last remaining sister, Mary, passed away at the age of 96.
Dominic, and his five younger sisters, were first generation Italian-Americans. Their parents came to this country and built entirely new lives here, like millions of other immigrants. My early life was heavily influenced by their Italian foods, traditions and customs. My earliest memories are of family gatherings, holidays, picnics, weddings and funerals … all boisterously attended by people that loved life, loved to eat, and loved each other. It was a difficult family network to understand, the Mattioli family connected to the Bilotti family because of Dominic and Josephine’s marriage; to the Patitucci family because of Mary’s marriage to Sam; to Potenziani, Perrone, Pulera, Montemurro, Madrigrano and more through additional marriages. But what was really easy to understand was that family was important … and the more family, the better. It was a different time, and a different way of life.
Some of my most favorite memories are of the family picnics we would attend, many of which were held at Mary and Sam’s home. Their home was perfect for these gatherings, for the additional strip of land next to the house had been purchased by Sam and turned into a fabulous lawn and garden. On the front portion, we would gather and setup tables for food. Off to the side a bit, there would always be a bocce competition underway … and in the back, Sam had a wonderful garden, complete with trellises full of grapes. At the right time of year, this was the perfect place to be. If a Cubs game happened to be on, a TV would be strung out the kitchen window, and a few of the men would be gathered around squinting against the glare of the sun. I don’t believe they could actually ever see anything on that TV. I always wondered why they just didn’t pull out a radio.
The thing these gatherings also provided was a strong sense of Italy, and all things Italian. From the salads, to the baked chicken, to the pastas and lasagnas, the food was always incredible and plentiful. And whenever the eating appeared to be at an end, out would come the most wonderful assortment of Italian cookies, biscotti, cakes and coffee. The Italian influence was very prevalent in my extended family, and throughout the extended community. It was a common theme, a strong thread, a bond that connected a local community back to a place of origin. For me, the last of those “first generation links” in that chain to Italy was my Great Auntie Mary.
As I sat through the funeral service today, the memories of those gatherings ran though my mind. I have to admit, they are getting more faded and distant as time passes. They are such great memories, such cherished times, I wish there were a better way to capture them and hold on to them, but there simply is not. And in actuality, while the memories are wonderful, it is really the experiences that add up and make us who we are, and direct us where to go. It is that endless weave, moving from the past, into the present, and towards the future that is the platform for progress and change. There is no stopping it.
I am an optimist and like to think that we are heading towards better places and experiences. That isn’t always the case. Today I have to stop for a moment, because sadly for me, Italy feels just a little bit further away than it did yesterday.