My mother’s family was where I’ve experienced and known community.
My mom, however, raised us on individualism. The youngest child of Italian immigrants, Anna, my mother was forbidden to learn her parent’s native and only language, as did her older siblings. My grandparents, who lived in New York City, wanted her Americanized. So, they spoke to her only through gestures of a raised finger and the evil eye then left her to the influences of the new world. Therein my mom became a modern woman who kept up with changing styles (wore pants), counted calories, and bought TV dinners for us kids to heat up with the babysitter.
This was fine for her, but I grew up on Long Island longing for the community which banished her from its trajectory and enveloped me in its outpourings of the handmade and communally shared on Sundays and holiday visits.
After an hour long drive from Plainview to Brooklyn, we arrived at my mom’s father’s brownstone. Wafts of tomato sauce and garlic gurgled from the stove. Animated cries of “Anna and Joey are here!” echoed through the apartment. My parents, brother, sister and I were met in a sea of embraces as we meandered from room to room. Then one by one, we bent over my grandfather’s bedside reaching him propped up and warm beneath his blankets. He gently cupped our faces with his hands and murmured, “Ciao, bella mia,” and I knew I was home.
Visits centered on meals and food gathering was a collective effort. Instead of someone making one stop at a grocery store, each contributed from favored neighborhood shops — homemade ravioli from Pastoso’s, pepperoni and cheese from Luigi’s, Italian butter cookies from Eleventh Avenue, and sausage from the corner butcher. Grandpa’s backyard provided tomatoes, grapes, peaches and the coveted figs, from the tree he carried in a carton from Sicily.
After a lively day of stirring sauces and stories, passing bread and jokes and playing pranks and penny poker, my heart as well as my tummy was full. As Dad maneuvered our car home on the Cross Island Expressway, I leaned my enthused head on my brother’s shoulder and mused in a dream-like state. Street lamps flashed rhythmically in the night through the backseat window. Silently and separately, I digested my food and my thoughts.
Once on the Island, we were a thread pulled away from the familial fabric. The unweaving began for my mom as a child when she could not communicate with her parents as her siblings could. Her four sisters brought her up, warning her not to leave the block for fear of her encountering danger. But she was cut off early on and as an adult forsook the family bonds and left the New York boroughs to break ground on up and coming Long Island. All the while, the four sisters and their offspring sprawled to corners of Brooklyn and later Staten Island loosening ties, but staying in range of each other. They kept their weave intact. Within hours of Aunt Stella calling Aunt Jenny to tell that Cousin Dino’s temperature broke, the whole family knew.
But my nuclear family was the loose end that unraveled. My brother, sister and I were mom’s only threads of community, as dad was usually away at work. My mom felt overwhelmed with housework, so we had chores. I washed windows and bathrooms, ironed dad’s handkerchiefs and shirts and packed lunches. In the morning we kids arose alone, made our breakfasts, cleaned our dishes and got to the school bus. Like Mom, we became a string of islands.
And Mom did her part efficiently. Like the housewife on the commercial who quickly spray-cleaned her house so she could go sailing, mom always took the quickest route. Once she found a nice birthday present for one of my friends, she bought several to have on hand and need not go looking again.
But I loved the slow paced, homemade ways in Little House on the Prairie books. I took the deserted path and made things from scratch. I melted wax into candles, sewed pocketbooks, and pressed flowers. However Mom refused to receive my gifts. “Buy me something at Lord and Taylor,” she would say, and my spirit wilted.
I now understand why Mom preferred buying to making. She was shamed by the homespun. Olive oil from her tuna sandwich wrapped in newspaper dripped through her lunch bag. The clove of garlic hanging from her neck to ward off illness smelled. She desired quality store bought things. When I asked for a guitar in middle school, she and Dad bought me a top of the line Martin. Disturbed by my gawking classmates, I quickly brushed paint over the Martin inscription to make the guitar my own.
As partner of Benito Construction Corporation, Dad awoke at 5 in the morning to fight Long Island Expressway traffic to work in the city. He tried to buy us the security he lacked during his childhood in the depression. When I was in high school, we made our third move up to a two and a half-acre plot secluded by forest and a long driveway descending to the street. Soon, there was a cleaning lady and gardeners and vacation homes on St. Thomas and Siesta Key. According to him, we had made it.
So, my brother, sister and I were the second generation launched to the modern world. While further unraveling the familial fabric, we reached back to find our places. My brother took a year off from Princeton to work on a vineyard in Italy. He later settled in Berkeley, California, with his family. My sister studied a year in Milan. She then married an Italian who she brought back to live on Long Island. I sought to bring the old country to America. I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, looking for community. I now live a short drive from my folk’s vacation home in Florida.
This reminds me of the flow of water. When one current enters another that is dominant, the more docile submerges to become part of it. In time, if the original impulse persists, it can find its place, as itself, amid its surroundings. My grandparents and their ways were lost in the new world. My parents became part of its mainstream. I have struggled to find my place amid these currents. I grapple still, realizing that I am a point on a wave — a reemergence of what was brought, subdued and survived.
I recently invited my folks over to my 400 square foot home for a meal of homemade pasta and homegrown escarole. My dad walked past my garden bursting with purple tomatoes and curvy okra without a turn of the head. This stunned me. My friends were enchanted by my garden’s exuberance.
Dad grew up on rural Long Island before it was developed. His mom raised nine children on homemade pasta and pizza. Chickens roamed the yard. Grandpa cut his six sons’ hair in the cellar where they pressed wine.
I cherish stories of Grandma rolling out raviolis and seasoning meat balls on Sunday afternoons. Neighbors strolled by and visited on the front porch. They were invited in for a meal. I couldn’t fathom how many raviolis and meatballs this took, but I knew this was hospitality and the community I missed.
I asked Dad about his upbringing, and he shook his head and furrowed his brow. He spewed out tales of his being chased by nasty, pecking chickens, playing shenanigans to get out of stomping grapes and bearing under four older, bullying brothers in the room they shared. This explains his distancing.
I am part of a Mennonite Church. Members share stories of their childhood families planting and harvesting corn, squash, and tomatoes. I am fascinated by these tales; however, most folks begrudge the work — endless hours spent canning produce through the sweltering summer heat. Like my dad, most disavow old ways.
I believe these touches of the homemade and handmade, the sowing, cooking and cleaning bind us together in community. I have felt the fraying of this fabric since my youth and been trying to mend it. Perhaps we have to lose these bonds, to see their value and want them back.