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