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My Italian Family

      My dad’s family is made up of Italians and Sicilians. People who do not come from Italian or Sicilian bloodlines automatically will group them together. Many Sicilians I have met do not consider themselves related to Italians, even though they are under the governance of Rome. Italians and Sicilians have had their differences in the past and these differences are softened, at least in America, by the joining of these two cultures and bloodlines through marriage. 

      When they speak both groups can make their needs known to each other, but their dialects are different. I do not speak either language, (Except for some swear words), yet when I hear Italian and Sicilian spoken side by side, I can hear a difference.

      The Sicilians tend to have darker skin, eyes and hair, and I believe as a group, tend to be a little shorter in stature than the Italians… at least the Northern Italians in areas such as Milan.

      My dad’s immediate and extended family is mostly very dark skinned, dark eyes, and dark hair. They tended to have two types of builds when they are young: very stocky, powerfully muscular bodies, or very wiry strong bodies. This applies to the men and women alike.

      A number of people that come from Italian stock have blonde hair and blue eyes though these physical traits are more rare among the Sicilians. The only two people with blue eyes in my in Dad’s family are my dad and his father. My grandfather, aside from his blue eyes, displays the strong influence of the Moors. In his youth he was built like a large adult male chimpanzee. He had short powerful legs and torso. Also in his youth he had kinky fro hair that was like a helmet of steel wool. He had a barrel chest and the chest muscles that looked like those of a chimp rather than the classical beauty of a body builder or a gymnast. His abdominal area was also barrel-like although without fat, but rather thick bands of muscles that stuck out like bricks.

      His arms and shoulders were the most ape-like aspect about him. His shoulders were neither broad nor narrow, but the muscles of his delts and traps were like thick cords that stood out boldly at ever angle. His arms were gibbon like in length and chimpanzee like in the way the muscles attached. His arms felt as sturdy as oak banisters. It was said that he could lift an average man off the floor by grabbing his neck or coat collar around their neck with both hands. He liked to make extra money by betting people that he could perform unusual feats of strength, agility and balance. I’ve been told that even in his fifties he could grab the arms of a rocking chair and push himself into a handstand. My mother told me that he could actually keep his balance as he did continuous handstand pushups on the rocking chair.

      Genetics or not, his great strength and robust frame had been forged by years of hard labor. He dug ditches on road crews for years before becoming a gravedigger for all the local cemeteries. Since death is a growth industry this job kept him busy full-time. The Italians and Sicilians refer to the task of digging ditches and grave digging as guinea golf.

      My dad told me that in his day my Grandfather Jimmy Chimera had oodles of charisma and old world charm and he was also quite the ladies man. During the few times he would hit a dry spell he would pay his respects to the local brothels a few times a week for physical maintenance or as my Dad liked to say, ‘to help him keep the edge off.’

I remember that as a kid over-hearing the low murmuring gossip of Dad’s family when they mentioned one of his physical attributes. It was said that his member was so enormous that the ladies of the night, after one look, would charge him double. I was so young at the time I really didn’t understand what my relatives meant. After all, my grand papa was only five feet tall. I heard some of my male relatives refer to him as “Jimmy the Club” or “Little Big Man.”

      My Grandfather was not just a frequent indulger in the hedonistic realm; he had other talents as well. Except for his own private stock of Dago red wine that he made, my grandpapa was not much of a drinker. He liked to work hard, was very frugal and his only indulgences was charming the ladies and Tomcatting around until he got married.

      My Dad told me that my grandpa came to America when he was fifteen and lived in a boarding house, which provided him with only a single room and a sink; he had to share the bathroom. The family that ran the house provided occasional meals at extra cost.

After working hard for fifteen years, he went back to Italy to bring back a wife.

      Besides having oodles of charisma, he also was quite the talker. My relatives said that my Grandfather was taken by my Grandmother had been a dark haired, dark eyed beauty. He may have even stretched the truth a bit when he told her that he was a big shot in the States, a Pezzonovante. He did not think it necessary to tell her that his main source of income came from being a professional guinea golfer.

      I could imagine him telling his new illiterate bride,

“Don’t ever ask me anything about my business… ever!”

My dad told me that my grandmother was very disappointed when she found out my grandfather was not the Pezzonovante that he claimed to be. I don’t want to say my grandfather lied, or he exaggerated…after all, it’s all a matter of perspective.

His was just different than hers.

      My grandmother was domineering in the way that a lot of old school Italian women from the old country are. My grandfather ruled her, but aside from my grandfather, she ruled everything around her with an iron-will.

      My Grandmother was not happy about my dad’s choice of a wife. A lot of mothers believe that there is no woman good enough for their sons.

      Italian mothers tend to be extremists in this regard. In my grandmother’s eyes my mother was the worst possible choice for her boy. She was sixteen and uneducated. You’d think that my grandmother would be forgiving of this flaw, since my grandmother herself married at seventeen and was illiterate. However, in addition, my mother did not come from a family with money or influence.

      My mother was outgoing and bubbly, not meek and subservient like all good women should be toward their husbands and mothers-in-law. My mother’s greatest sins in the eyes of my grandmother however, was that she was not Italian, which meant her grandkids would be mongrels. My mother was not Catholic… and heaven forbid…she did not know how to cook!

      My dad thought that my mom was a perfect choice, aside from the fact that she could not cook.

She was a virgin, extraordinarily beautiful with an exotic mix of American Indian and German-Irish stock that was stamped strongly on her features. She was also bubbly, young, and therefore more likely to be more malleable than many Italian girls of that day and age. My dad once told me that a lot of the Italian girls that he dated were either run-arounds (too easy) or virginal; virginal Italian women because of their cultural conditioning, were less likely to do the racier things in the bedroom. At least that was his view.

      I also think that since my dad was quite the womanizer it must have put a damper on his relationships with his relatives. Many men, Italian or otherwise, do play around occasionally but keep things under-wraps. But the level and frequency that my dad played around would be looked at with contempt in a tightly knit American Italian community.

      It was not something that he could have kept secret. If my dad had married an Italian woman, he would have had to contend with double the amount of the family members who would feel contentious toward him. Men may run around regardless of the culture…but no one likes it when a man is running around on their sister, niece, or daughter.

      My dad, to his pleasure and dismay, found my mother to not only be bubbly, but also strong-willed. I don’t know if he had never counted on that. To my grandmother’s dismay, my father claimed that my mother could not boil water.  My father, like many Italian men was a very good cook. He was the one who taught my mother how to cook.

      My grandmother became resentful because before my mother entered the family, she was considered as the Italian chef extraordinaire.

      That was until my mother put her mind to be the best cook that she could be.

      My father and all the relatives on both sides of my family would rave that my mother was a da Vinci in the kitchen. I do not exaggerate when I say that my mother made the best lasagna in the world. I have friends who are snooty Italian connoisseurs that will testify to this.

      My dad said this made my grandmother despise my mother even more.

      My mother had many people in my father’s family who were allies. My Great Uncle Bruno and my grandfather both loved my mother and us three kids. Both of these guys were very old school, old country courteous Italian men.

      I would often hear one or the other tell my mom as they hugged and kissed her on both cheeks, “Ah…my little Faya…youra my little girla.” “My sweet little Faya.” I remember on one occasion overhearing my Grandfather commanding my Grandmother to go over and help her daughter-in-law when my father was gone for months as a merchant marine.

      He’d say, “Alicia, you gitta your ass over to help Faya.” “She needs help with our grandchildren.”

My grandmother, God rest her soul, did not hate us kids… but we could tell that she preferred to spend time with my Uncle Pip and Aunt Gita’s kids. My brother, and sister, and I were never jealous, but it did hurt our feelings to know our grandfather had to order her to our house to be with us. This hurt us especially since we knew that she resented any activity that took her away from spending time with her other grandchildren.

      My Uncle Bruno and Uncle Pip were too other favorite uncles. Uncle Bruno was a bear of a man and much stockier than most Italian or Sicilian men. He looked like a burly Italian Omar Shariff and like my Grandfather he also had an air of old world gallantry about him. He had heavy black brows with obsidian eyes that were always alert and often filled with humor, a thick head of hair that he kept combed back. He always had a smile breaking up on his broad mahogany face, and a thick well trimmed mustache.

      He had enormous strength and vitality; it literally radiated from him. He worked into his nineties remaining strong and vigorous, with hair still more dark than grey or white.

      His days on Earth came to an end while shoveling ice and snow off of his driveway. He slipped on some ice causing him to fall and break a hip. As vigorous as he was, he died in the hospital from pneumonia.

      Along with Grandfather and Uncle Pip, my Uncle Bruno was one of my mother’s favorite people. They loved and respected each other deeply.

      I really loved being around my Dad’s other relatives. They were always a joy and always seemed to enjoy my mother… or at least show her respect.

      I remember my Uncles Gino, Antoino Relbuda, Tony, Nazereno, Uncle Bruno, Pauncho, Fredrico, as well as my Aunt Gita, Aunt Marie Fain, Le-Marches, Aunt Lucy, Aunt Jo Jo, Aunt Sarah, Grandma Olorini, from Ascoli Piceneio. I also remember hundreds of cousins. Italians consider people to be close relatives -- even if it is only by marriage or as someone’s Godparent.

      When I was a kid, Italians could count on each other to be there to help each other out or to network for jobs. I think my Dad was the first to break from those traditions; he was an aberration and an anomaly in that regard.

      I think that his overwhelming drive to spread his seed compelled him to operate his life in a manner that made being familial next to impossible. It was his Achilles heel. It is why a lot of old school Italians look at that kind of behavior as a weak indulgence, especially by Pezzonovantes.

      This is not to say that big-shot Italian men don’t run around or do not take pride in their powers of seduction and sexual skill. It’s just that they feel that it is unmanly for any man to be such a slave to his penis that he would ignore all other important aspects of life such as attaining wealth, raising a strong family, or building and honoring friendships.

As a kid I remember this being talked about and not really understanding the sexual aspect. I just remember thinking strongly about not being a slave to my feelings for women to the exclusion of all else. It made sense to me then, though in the years that followed it was a weakness I had to contend with.

      My Italian family was always fascinating to be around. When they got together, life seemed to be one big festival. Italians weddings were fun, as could be a wake at a funeral.

There would be lots of joking, singing, drinking and eating. Some of the men would play poker while the women went off into the kitchen to gossip and play pinochle. The kids would busy themselves with lots of other things.

      Unlike most of the kids, I preferred to hang out with adults so I could listen to the men talk. Then I would hang out with the women. I would go back and forth during the course of the night. I loved to hear my relatives talk about Italy and Sicily. I loved to hear them talk in fluent Italian or Sicilian, even though I could not understand what they were saying.

      I remember telling my Grandfather that I could not understand Italian and I asked him, “How do you say I don’t understand in Italian Grandpa?” He smiled, “Just say, no capesse en Italiano.”

      One of my female relatives from across the room yells out, “No capesse en Siliciano.”

      As a kid growing up in Italian or Sicilian families we would hear the words for stop, stop it, excuse me, thank you, you’re welcome, hey stupid; lots of things that parents say to their kids.     I often wondered what my destiny would have been or how I would have turned out if I had stayed in this environment.



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