In recent years, the movement to promote awareness of certain illnesses, conditions, and cultural differences has been successful in uniting and educating each of us. We can stop for a minute and appreciate and understand the struggles others are facing.
Now fully immersed in my middle-age years and hopefully nearing my golden years, I’ve realized my own lifelong struggle has always been the same. I still want to fit in. That’s because I belong to a unique group – a child of Italian immigrants.
My future generation of grandchildren will never walk a mile in my shoes. As we all know, childhood upbringings greatly influence our adult lives and our relationships with others. Ultimately we then pass it all down to our kids.
As far back as I can remember, I developed a feeling of independence and responsibility. My parents had already taken a huge leap of faith by uprooting their entire existence when they moved here. So while they struggled with being lonely in a different country with a strange language and to work and support their family, I got sent off to school, barely having mastered the English language.
And without any help from my parents and teachers, somehow my sister and I excelled in most classes, especially English, and the whole time our parents didn’t even have an inkling until they came to our annual parent/teacher conferences that we also attended, as both student and translator!
And of course, academic expectations in the 1960s at a parochial school were certainly much lower and no comparison to current times, but still an amazing accomplishment on our part as young, basically undirected kids.
All boasting aside, it was just the way things were, and those days in elementary school were happy, sad, scary, and sometimes really funny. Or at least now they are as an adult looking back. I remember one day in the cafeteria/auditorium/gym lunch table with 10 other kids. I was totally mortified when I tried to bite into my sandwich with Capocollo and provolone cheese on American bread. The whole thing fell apart while everyone else was effortlessly chowing down on PBJ sandwiches. That was a classic cultural clash! The funnier thing is all four of my kids hardly ever tried and barely requested PBJ sandwiches, probably just not part of our DNA!
Despite all the problems I encountered and the emotions I felt, being lonely was not one of them. My sister and I created our own insider group with my Italian cousins. We fostered such solid relationships that, to this day, we still are in each others’ lives, closer and fonder of each other more than ever.
We understood and needed each other because we shared the same upbringing and the same doubts and anxieties. And even though I would never take back any of those days, and the never-ending tales, banding together also hindered my assimilation into the American culture.
Despite it all, we at least partially assimilated. I figured it out after all these years. And that’s probably the best we could do, given how we started. I’ve always felt I lived my life just like the game we played as kids, Red Rover, Red Rover.
I’ve been “running over” back and forth as I’m summoned from members of the “two teams” while trying my best not to get stuck on only one side my whole life.
By default, we were raised bilingual. We could still communicate with Italian relatives visiting or on a family trip to our parents’ hometown in Italy. What a culture shock that was because we didn’t grow up there. To the Italians, we were the outsiders, the Americani. And naturally, these trips didn’t happen until I was much older because Italian parents didn’t believe in taking many vacations. So the first time I was on a plane, I was 24 years old, headed to California on my honeymoon. You could say we led a sheltered life, but so full of family, fun, and great food. What a joyful childhood, with so many memories to savor, besides the delicious never-ending meals, and that was just on a regular Sunday, not necessarily a holiday.
Sometimes I honestly feel like a human light switch, depending on who I’m with and what I need to say, an Italian, an American…
But sad to say, my multicultural life experience won’t be replicated with my kids or my grandchildren, so I have to choose what to pass on, and of course, Italian customs and traditions, the way I knew them have faded over the decades. Nothing ever stays the same, and our kids have made progress assimilating and Americanizing and be successful and happy. Their first-generation parents have taught them well.
I realized the other night, standing in my kitchen with my 4-year-old grandson, that I had turned into my grandmother somehow. God bless her and the love of snacks she always provided us. “No, I’m not hungry,” was not an option! I was so excited to show my grandson the four types of Stella D’oro cookies I had brought for him and so thrilled he was just as excited to pick out his fave kind.