Please enjoy this article from January 2014 from our dear friend Phil Campanella.
While we lament the dissolution of the Italian American neighborhoods, and the loss of Italian identity in the second, third, fourth, and fifth generations of Americans of Italian ancestry, there nevertheless remain intact, the qualities that are fundamental to the Italian family. Although the character of the family has changed from Greco-Roman times, the qualities underpinning the family remain constant. The qualities are timeless and universal. They have endured for centuries, and they will continue to endure notwithstanding the changes in social and neighborhood institutions.
The Italians venerate three interrelated and critical qualities of loving relationships: respect, loyalty and honesty. Respect for the person includes having a high regard for the person’s ideas, feelings, space, body and property. Honesty and loyalty are closely related to respect and require truthfulness, dedication and commitment. We discern these qualities in the relationship between family members and friends. The qualities are as constant today as when they were stated in the New Testament. Indeed, they are the components of loving relationships.
These enduring qualities of love can be readily observed when guests come to the family home for dinner. The guests are greeted with a friendly hug and kiss on each cheek. The mother, with the help of the children, prepares a soup made of chicken, pastina, escarole, celery and carrots. She puts a pan with olive oil on the burner to brown diced onions and garlic and adds a jar or two of tomatoes, white wine, basil leaves and salt and pepper to make a marinara sauce. Then the pot is put on to boil the water for the pasta, while the meatballs and veal are fried and the sausage and potatoes are roasted. The bread is put into the oven to warm. The smell of the cooking food stimulates the appetite.
The table is set and the homemade wine is brought up from the cool basement together with the homemade vinegar for the salad. Now family, relatives and friends sit and begin eating, drinking wine, talking about family and friends, and telling stories.
They recount a letter recently received from a boy in a small town in Italy who just made his First Communion. He thanks his aunt in America for sending him the communion suit worn by her son last year when he made his communion. The boy describes how he was the best dressed communicant and how proud he was to wear the suit. The story brings a warm smile to everyone’s faces and a tear of joy to others. They perceive and appreciate the aunt’s understanding heart. A quality referenced in the Old Testament.
They tell the story of Nick, who on a cold winter’s night with a blizzard howling, showed up at the neighborhood bar with a guitar slung over his shoulder. He was quite a sight with his snow-covered overcoat and with a slight list to the starboard side, prompting many at the bar to think he had made one or two stops before arriving. Nevertheless, he took off his coat and began to play Italian folk songs on his guitar starting with “Torna a Surriento”. Everyone joined in the singing and after each song, a round of drinks was ordered for everyone in the bar. The cold winter night was made a little warmer by the conviviality.
The stories and laughter continue around the dinner table as the fresh fruit is served. One of the guests recalls reading the story about A.P. Giannini, the founder of a bank in San Francisco. When the great earthquake and conflagration destroyed the city in 1906, Giannini set up two barrels, placed a plank on top and began making loans to the people who had lost everything. He made the loans on a handshake. They spoke about his caring and respect for the people and how the people had the integrity and respect to later repay the loans. They noted that Giannini’s bank was called the Bank of Italy, and in 1928 merged and became the Bank of America. They remarked on how the sharing of time, talent and treasure is a quality of love referenced in the New Testament on many occasions.
They recalled the recent death of a family member and friend, and how much respect and honor were demonstrated by those that attended the wake and funeral mass. Their presence, embrace and prayers comforted the grieving family. They showed their love by being there to support the mourning family.
One of the children at the dinner quietly whispered to his mother: “Why does everyone use their hands so much when they speak?” The mother, using her hands, quietly explained to the child that gestures are expressive means of communication among the family and friends.
After the fruit, came espresso, anisette and biscotti and the stories and camaraderie continued. In passing, they spoke of the victimization of Italians such as the wrongful execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and the lynching of Italians in the South and other injustices that blemished the American experience. They discussed forgiveness. But how can there be forgiveness when there is no accountability, repentance or remorse? They noted how the notoriety of organized crime at times overshadowed the contributions and accomplishments of Italian Americans, and resulted in guilt by ethnicity. Nevertheless, they choose not to dwell on the subject, for they appreciate America as the land of opportunity. America afforded them and their families the chance to succeed as doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, law enforcement officers, builders, journalists, writers, businessmen, scientists, teachers, priests, bishops, cardinals, artists, musicians, entertainers and athletes. They believe that Adam Smith had it right when he wrote that each individual striving to improve himself or herself contributes to the improvement of all of society. They understand that while the assimilation and amalgamation of the Italians into American society detracted from the old traditions, it offered great opportunities.
Of course, the feast ended and the guests began to depart with discussion of when the next celebration of life would occur. Perhaps it would be a birthday party or celebration of one of the sacraments: a baptism, a First Communion, a Confirmation, or a wedding. Or maybe it would be a feast celebration: St. Joseph, St. Anthony, St. Gennaro or the much celebrated Feast of the Assumption.
We often long for life to remain as we liked it, but that will not happen in these changing times. Family and friends move away or die, new life is created, and additional duties and obligations require our attention. We lose one attribute of life, and we gain another. Nevertheless, there are certain constants, and those are the qualities of enduring love that have sustained us in the past and will sustain us as a loving culture in the future. The qualities are articulated in the Bible and are as relevant and meaningful today as they were thousands of years ago. While ethnic neighborhoods are disappearing and monuments are crumbling, it should not be forgotten that above all, the loving culture of the Italian Americans is enduring.