Home > Uncategorized > The Advantages of Growing Up Italian

The Advantages of Growing Up Italian

Saturday, March 19, 2005, 03:15 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

NOTE (10/08/2017) — Please see the comment posted 09/22/2017 explaining the misattribution of the piece referenced here to Lee Sataline. Thanks to his daughter, Suzanne, for the correct information. —DM

The following column, written by Lee Sataline, appeared in the Hartford Courant on June 13, 2000, at which time my cousin clipped it and put it aside for some unknown future use. She made copies and gave them to us after my grandmother’s funeral yesterday. Grandma was a first-generation American of Sicilian descent; Grandpa, who died several years ago, was an Abruzzese immigrant who later became an American citizen and put up a flagpole in the front yard so he could fly the Stars and Stripes. They didn’t speak Italian to their children because they wanted them to be American. Change a few of the details and this column could have been about their side of my family.

I was already in my 20s before I realized I, too, was an American. Although I was born in the United States and had lived here all of my life, somehow it never occurred to me that just being a U.S. citizen made me an American. Before the war (World War II), Americans to me were those people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that they bought in the A&P. Not me. I was Italian.

Everybody else in the neighborhood, the Irish, the Germans, the Polish, the Jews, they were A-meri-gones, as my folks called them. There was no animosity in this distinction, no prejudice, no anger. We just… well… were sure our Italian way was better.

For instance, we had a bread man, a vegetable man, a fish man and a fruit man. [The Den Mother’s note: My grandparents also had an egg lady and a chicken lady.] We even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors right there at our house. The others, the A-meri-gones, they went to stores to get their food.

I pitied their loss. These Americans never knew the pleasure of waking up in the morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of warm Italian bread at the back screen door. And it always amazed me that my American friends and classmates only ate turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We Italians also ate turkey… but only after we finished the antipasto, the soup, the lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else our mothers thought was appropriate for the holiday. We usually had a roast too, just in case someone stopped by who didn’t like turkey. And all this was followed by fruit, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, homemade cookies. No store-bought stuff for us.

There was another difference between us and them. We had gardens; not just flower gardens but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce, squash and more tomatoes [DM: And garlic]. We cooked them, we dried them, we canned them and we ate them. And everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree. Every fall we made homemade wine and lots of it. Of course our gardens thrived because we had something else the A-meri-gones didn’t seem to have. We had a grandfather.

Now, it’s not that Americans didn’t have grandfathers, it’s just that theirs didn’t live in the same house or on the same street. They would visit their grandfathers. But we ate with ours and God forbid we didn’t see him at least once a day. I remember my grandfather telling us how he came to this country as a young man "on the boat." How the family lived in a rented tenement and took in boarders to make ends meet. And how he decided he didn’t want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian English.

So he saved, don’t ask me how, and he bought a house. It would serve as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he would hate to leave, preferring to sit on the back porch and watch the garden grow. And when he did leave it for some special occasion, he would want to return as soon as possible. After all, "nobody was watching the house."

I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at the house. There was music and wine, and tables filled with food. The women were in the kitchen, the men in the living room and kids, lots of kids, everywhere. I must have a million cousins, first and second and some who are not even related. Who cared? And my grandfather, grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling, would sit in the middle of it all, surveying his brood. How well they had done. A builder, a cop, a machinist, a businessman and one who continued his trade, masonry (there had to be one rogue in the family). And the girls had all married well and had fine husbands and healthy children. He had achieved his goal in coming to America. They were Americans.

When my grandfather died, things seemed to change—slowly at first, as aunts and uncles began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer, and when we did get together, usually at my mother’s house, something was missing. Today, we visit once or twice a year. Mostly we meet at weddings and wakes.

Lots of other things have changed too. Grandfather’s old house is now covered with vinyl siding, and although one of my uncles still lives there, grandfather’s garden and grape trellis are gone.

Our holidays have changed, too. The great quantity of food we once ate with no ill effects is now bad for us. Too much cholesterol, too much sugar, too many calories. And nobody bakes anymore.

The difference between us and them isn’t easy to define anymore. I suppose that’s good. My grandparents were Italian Italians, my parents were Italian Americans, I’m American Italian and my children… they’re Americans.

Of course, I’m proud to be an American, just like my grandfather would want me to be. We’re all Americans now—the Irish, the Germans, the Poles and the Jews. But somehow I still feel a little bit Italian. My children have been cheated out of a wonderful piece of their heritage. They never knew my grandfather.

Lee Sataline is a gastroenterologist in Cheshire.

One more note. I am glad I had my grandparents teach me about growing a vegetable garden and making homemade ravioli before it was too late.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Suzanne Sataline
    Friday, September 22, 2017, 11:17 EDT at 11:17

    Hi. I was surprised to find this essay and read it. I knew within a few sentences that it did not come from my father, Lee Sataline. On June 15, 2000, the Hartford Courant corrected the errant identification. https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/177906293/

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