Tag: Italian-American (page 2 of 4)

Do You Embrace the Hyphens?

National Honor SocietyThis has been a busy month. My book came out in print. I had modest success at a writing competition at a writer’s conference. My son turned sixteen. Got his official driver’s licence and went out on his own. He was inducted into National Honor’s Society. My daughter, as a freshman, qualified for the conference match in tennis. And while my family has been celebrating our milestones, there have been two things dominating the news, or at least the news that I follow:

  1. The government shutdown.
  2. Columbus Day not being a legitimate national holiday.

The shutdown was of course more important to me. Thankfully the situation is, at least temporarily, resolved. I spent most of the shutdown time wondering why our elected officials think their opinions are worth more than ours and why it’s okay for them not to balance a budget when we have to. Mostly I wondered whether we’re going to reelect these same people to office again just because we recognize their names on the ballots. There’s nothing I can do about it now, though, so I’ll focus on the other issue.

The one dealing with my nationality.

So many people say we shouldn’t hyphenate. We should be Americans and leave it at that. I know I just gave my opinion on the subject, but as it’s still (for a few days) National Italian American Heritage Month, I want to talk about it again.

I recently read a fantastic news article in The Washington Times about Columbus Day and nationalities. While I can’t reprint it here for copyright reasons, I encourage you to read it (Dust-up over Redskins name a good time to examine Columbus Day). In it, I learned that Columbus Day wasn’t originally celebrated as a whites-triumphing-over-natives holiday, but rather, it celebrated people who weren’t considered white at all in a country that was, at the time, predominantly white.

You see, Italians were considered non-white, or dark-skinned, and in fact still are to some people. I have been called a dago, been treated differently than my fair-haired husband (who is of Italian descent) and children, and heard horror stories from when my family came to America. Of course I hyphenate. I’m proud of how far we’ve come. And I look forward to where we’re going.

There’s nothing wrong with hyphens and slashes. There’s a reason they exist. It’s to make communication easier. My kids are athletes and they are quite smart. They’re scholar-athletes. I write but I also take care of my home. I’m a writer/homemaker. (If I’m ever a NYTBSA, I’ll hire a housekeeper and happily drop that slash.) In my family, I’m a wife/mother. And I love that slash. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. And yes, I’m Italian-American. I live in America. I live by and honor this country’s values and freedoms (even when our elected officials are making a mess of things). But it’s my Italian heritage that makes me who I am. That hyphen makes me me.

So embrace the hyphens and slashes. They define us in ways nothing else can.

How do you define yourself? What are your hyphens and slashes?

Do You Know What NIAHM Is? We’re Celebrating…

timeIt has been (and is going to remain) a busy time for me. I had two different sets of visitors recently (my parents followed by my in-laws), I’m in the final stretch of my WIP, the print version of my first novel is about to be finished (the eBooks are already available), my daughter qualified for the district tournament in tennis (extra practices), my son’s birthday is right around the corner, and I’m leaving for a conference this week.

Craziness.

But life is boring without such events, whether you consider them treats (family visiting) or obstacles (carving out time to get work done). I wouldn’t change things for the world.

So when I sat down to compose this blog, I wondered what about my current life would interest you.

  • Our families wouldn’t interest you. You don’t know them.
  • My WIP is pretty cool, but I’m not sure what I can share about that yet.
  • I’ve already droned on and on about my published novel.
  • My kids and their events are likely more interesting to me than anyone else.
  • And I’ll be telling you about the conference in another week, so…

Yeah. My life is hectic, but there’s really not much going on that’s worth sharing.

So I figured I’d give you a glimpse into what makes me… well, me.

My father’s heritage is varied, but my mother is 100% Italian. That, coupled with the facts that I was closer with my mother’s family than my dad’s growing up and that I married into an Italian family, makes that part of my heritage resonate with me. Yes, I’m 1/8 Irish, German, Scottish, and Swedish, but when people ask me my heritage, I say I’m Italian. And proud of it.

Many of you probably don’t know this, but October is National Italian American Heritage Month. It’s not advertised like some other nationalities’ months, but it’s important to me and my family. It’s the time of year set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of my ancestors.

italian american heritage month_banner_2009I’ve noticed several people on the Internet comment that we should drop the hyphens and no longer be Nationality-Americans, but instead just be Americans. I couldn’t disagree more.

Our heritage shapes us, defines who we are. (tweet this)

The United States is called “The Great Melting Pot” because many nationalities came together to form one great nation. But just like in any recipe, the end result may be magnificent, but it wouldn’t have turned out that way without each separate ingredient.

The US is wonderful because of all the nationalities that formed it; not in spite of them. (tweet this)

We should celebrate the hyphens.

Some facts regarding Italian-Americans:

  • Over 5.4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1992.
  • Today there are over 26 million Americans of Italian descent in the United States.
  • Italians comprise the fifth largest ethnic group in our country.
  • The greatest concentration of Italians is in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (where I’m from).
  • After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, 600,000 Italian-Americans were branded “enemy aliens.”
  • Over 250 were interred for over two years.
  • More than 1500 were arrested.
  • It became dangerous—and in some places illegal—to speak Italian, or the “enemy’s language,” resulting in a rapid decline of the use of Italian by immigrant families.
  • The worst lynching in US history was of Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891.
  • Everyone knows of Italian’s contributions in the arts and sciences, but here are some lesser known facts:
    • 2 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Italian.
    • 4 Italians fought in and survived the Battle of Little Bighorn.
    • The Planter’s Peanut Company and its logo, Mr. Peanut, were designed by an Italian.
    • Popular songs, like “Chattanooga Choo-choo,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” and “An Affair to Remember,” were composed by an Italian.
    • The ice cream cone, the Big Mac, and the first shopping mall were created by Italians.
    • The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation’s two highest military honors—the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor—was Italian.
    • Countless singers, actors, and athletes are Italian-American.

Yes, I believe that Italians are responsible for much of American history. They’ve been productive members of the military, the sciences, the arts, and sports. They’ve been persecuted for their heritage and have enriched the culture in this country. It’s no wonder I believe in hyphens.

I am an Italian-American. And I’m damn proud of it. (tweet this)

In honor of National Italian American Heritage Month, and because I mentioned melting pots and food earlier, I’m going to include a traditional Italian recipe here. I have so many, it was hard for me to pick. So I’m posting something rich, sweet, and smooth—kind of like an Italian trifecta. Try it this month, you’ll love it. After all, if you believe we’re all brothers and sisters, then you must believe there’s a little bit of Italian in all of us. And if not, allow me to share a little of my Italian heritage with you.

Tiramisu

Ingredients:

  • 7 eggs, separated
  • 7 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 c Kahlua
  • 2 1/2 c mascarpone cheese
  • 3/4 c cold espresso or strong black coffee
  • 24 lady fingers
  • 3 Tbsp cocoa powder or 4 oz grated unsweetened chocolate (I use the cocoa powder)

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar with a standing mixer until pale and thick, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add liquor and mascarpone and beat until mixture is thick and smooth.
  2. Clean the beaters and thoroughly dry them. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and form peaks. Fold egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.
  3. Pour the espresso into a shallow dish. Dip a lady finger in, turning QUICKLY so that it gets wet but doesn’t disintegrate, and place it on the bottom of an 8x8x2 inch dish. Repeat until the entire bottom of pan is covered.
  4. Spoon half of mixture over ladyfingers.
  5. Repeat with another of soaked ladyfingers and cover with remaining mixture.
  6. Level surface with spatula then top with cocoa or chocolate shavings.
  7. Cover and chill for several hours before serving.

If you’re interested in more Italian-American information, visit The Committee to Observe October as Italian-American Heritage Month site. There you will find a lot of information, including the 31 Days of Italian-Americans list (one name for each day of the month).

So, are you part Italian? Do you have a story or recipe to share? You know the drill…

Four Ways a Family Game Can Help Improve Your Writing

Quite often I talk about family traditions in my blog. One that I don’t believe I covered yet is bocce.

bocce playing

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The word “bocce” is a pluralized form of the Italian word “boccia” which means “bowl,” so it’s probably not surprising that, in the United States, bocce is often referred to as lawn bowling. That makes me chuckle because (1) while there is ball rolling, there are no pins to knock down, and (2) most non-Italians who know about the game play it on the beach, not their yard.

Bocce is played with eight heavy balls (bocce) around the size of a softball and one smaller ball (jack) called the pallino which is about the size of a golf ball. It can be played one-on-one, or in teams of two, three, or four.

bocce

Roberta F. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To begin, someone rolls the pallino down the court (or beach, or lawn). Then that person bowls first, or rolls their bocce ball, trying to come as close to the pallino as possible. Then the person from the opposite team does the same. Whichever team is further from the pallino has to continue playing. Players have the option of trying to get their ball in closer than their opponent or trying to knock the pallino and the opponent ball away from each other (and hopefully get the pallino closer to one of their own bocce balls). After all the balls have been rolled down the court, one point is awarded for each ball closer to the pallino than the opponent’s closest ball within range. Scoring is pretty similar to horseshoes, but there are no “ringer” points; whether touching the pallino or near it, one point is awarded. Then the whole process starts again until one team has accrued a set number of points. In regular rules, the game goes to twelve, fifteen or twenty-one points, but you can determine what number you want to play to.

In our hometown (Vandergrift, Pennsylvania), the local Sons of Italy club had bocce courts on their property for years. The men would gather and play. For a while, leagues were formed, but that gave way to just friendly pick-ups. It was a chance for the men to get together and play a game from their heritage while enjoying the company of their friends. When we moved to Ohio, we joined the Sons of Italy there, and they had leagues that included women. We moved away before we got to participate, however, but the game was quite popular there. When we lived in Michigan, there was actually a restaurant with many indoor courts. They catered to league play, but when the leagues weren’t competing, anyone could take a court and play a game or two. We were happy to see that when we moved there; it was a way our family (our kids were little then) could all get together and do something fun.

My husband’s family takes bocce pretty seriously. My father-in-law travels with his own set of bocce balls, he wipes them clean between each toss, and he keeps a tape measure with his kit in case there is a discrepancy among players as to whose ball is closer. My husband loves the game so much, he built a court in our backyard. My kids also loved the game until they had to shovel tons of rock and gravel to complete our court. You would think they’d like to enjoy the fruits of their labors, but they only play if friends or grandparents visit. (They all get pretty competitive. I like a slightly more relaxed game.)

So why am I babbling on about bocce? Well, for three reasons.

One—no one who comes to my house knows what the court is for or what the game is, so I thought I’d offer an explanation to those of you who don’t know.

Two—it’s just another opportunity to share Italian traditions with you, so you understand more about me.

Three—there’s a lot that can be learned from the game, personally and professionally.

bocce

Image via morguefile.com; by Jusben

Personally, bocce (and any sport or game) teaches patience, hand-eye coordination, and hopefully good sportsmanship. It’s an easy enough game that young children can play (keeping them involved with family instead of alone playing their own games), intricate enough that adults can get competitive, and gentle enough that even the elderly or infirm can participate. It truly is an all-inclusive game, and if we had more activities like these, our physical and emotional health could only improve. It’s a lot better than four people in four different rooms of the house watching television or playing video games.

Professionally there are lessons to be learned, too. I’m a writer, and I’ve learned a lot that I can apply to my craft from analyzing the game.

One—practice makes perfect. Just like the first ball you roll won’t be nearly as good as one you roll after one hundred games, the first draft of something you write won’t be nearly as good as something you’ve revised. Also, the first book you write won’t go nearly as smoothly as the tenth book you write. They say you need 10,000 hours to master a task; get writing! You can fake a lot until you make it, but you can’t fake experience.

Two—sometimes you have to change strategy. In bocce, you can roll until your wrists are sore, but if a ball is blocking you, you need to shoot it out of the way. In writing, sometimes even carefully crafted plots for some reason don’t work. When that happens, the best course of action is to abandon the plan and try to take things in a different direction. Listen to what your characters are telling you. They know best what they need to do, and if they aren’t following your plan, there’s probably something better for them to do.

Three—don’t get cocky. In bocce, just because the score is 10-2 doesn’t mean you have the game in the bag. Three good turns by the other team could have them in the lead. In writing, you can’t take anything for granted. You might have a solid story and a rock-star agent, but that doesn’t mean anything. Even once you get the contract and the advance, your work isn’t over. There’s marketing to do, and you have to keep producing or the ride is over.

Four—in bocce, whether winning or losing, be a good sport. You don’t want to be the person no one wants to play with because of your attitude. In the publishing industry, always be gracious, even to someone giving you a bad critique; you don’t know who your words will reach, and you never want to have a bad reputation.

So, bocce is a fun Italian game the whole family can enjoy. The next time you see people rolling colored balls down a beach or in their yard, you’ll know what they’re doing. Take the time to watch and learn, maybe even join in. You’ll have a blast. And don’t forget to take some lessons away from the game.

What games did your family play growing up? Did you learn anything from them? Why don’t you share in the comments?

Can One Red Kimono Bridge an Ethnic Divide?

red kimonoIn February, my friend and fellow author Jan Morrill was kind enough to write a guest post for me right before the release of her new novel, The Red Kimono. Since then, the book has come out and I read it in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. I found myself bonding with each of her characters so fully that I had to know what happened. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Jan book releaseSaturday evening, a local bookstore hosted Jan, having a “coming out” party for her novel, during which she read excerpts from the book and gave those of us in attendance more of the history behind the novel. There was a sizeable turnout, good food, and great entertainment—namely Jan, her family stories, and her research.

The striking thing about The Red Kimono is that its message transcends culture. I don’t have to be a Japanese American to relate to the characters in her book. My ancestors hail from Europe, and yet the themes in the novel are as pertinent to me as they are to Jan as they will be to you. Her work deals with racism, culture, compassion, and most importantly, family.

My writing always seems to come back to the core family dynamic, and this book looks at familial relationships from the point of view of three very different characters. It’s difficult not to place yourself in not only their shoes, but even some of the secondary characters, and wonder how you would behave in their position, ponder how things would be different if their family lives were different. I challenge you to read this book and not consider your own family unit from a different light.

Yes, this Saturday was indeed a joy. I had the rare opportunity to get a sneak peek behind the veil and learn what prompted the first of what I hope will be a series of novels by a talented and engaging author. I hope this post encourages you to do three things:

  1. Spend some time with your family. We always think there will be time to develop or strengthen familial bonds, but you never know when it will be too late.
  2. Attend a book release of an author you enjoy. You’ll learn so many things about the book and the author that you otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to.
  3. Buy Jan’s book, The Red Kimono. It’s an engaging read, and you won’t regret it.

What Inspires You?

FamilyI had planned on spending today’s post talking about contract terms. I recently signed a contract and thought it might be nice to go over some of the terminology that writers might find confusing. But earlier this week my parents-in-law were visiting, so I couldn’t write ahead of schedule, and the day I set actually set aside for blog-writing was spent visiting my niece. She stopped here on her way across the country. She just graduated from specialized training in the US Navy and has a three week leave before her next assignment begins, so she’s going home for a visit, and we were a pit stop along the way. I’m sorry, but visiting my niece/godchild takes precedent over defining contract terms, particularly when I haven’t seen her in a year and a half.

These visits got me thinking about the importance of family and its impact in my writing. The novels that I’m working on right now—the one under contract and the series I’m pitching to an agent—both have characters with strong family ties.

The contracted piece deals with two twins who have lost their parents and only have each other. Forget about the “twin bond,” these two have forged a relationship that’s thick and tight. If the adage is true that blood is thicker than water, remember—they’re the only blood each other has left.

For the series I’m working on, I relied more on my heritage. It deals with four
Italian-American sisters for whom family is everything even before tragedy strikes their lives. And when it all hits the fan, those bonds are there, not to be tested, but to bear each other up.

So it’s pretty clear to me that my own life relationships pretty clearly shape my fiction. That isn’t to say that if my sister makes me angry she’s going to end up being a shrew in my next book, or if my dad buys me a car he’s going to be written in as a handsome billionaire (hint, hint; wink, wink; nudge, nudge). But it does mean that things in my life that touch me are reflected in the things that I write.

What about the things that are important to you? What things touch you, and do they make it into your writing in some manner? Tell us about your writing in the comments.

Just A Few Steps Can Make All The Difference

Anyone who visits my blog with any frequency (or anyone who has taken the time to read the tagline in the top right corner) knows that my ancestry is Italian, and I’m quite proud of it. I occasionally blog about it because I want people to get to know me and my heritage, I want them to love and embrace it for the wonderful and rich culture it is, and I want them to know what it’s like because that’s the world many of my characters come from in my fiction. I figure if my readers know and love my world, they’ll know and love my characters’ worlds, too.

Just last week I was contacted by someone who has now become an online friend. He shares my heritage, but he pointed out part of our culture that isn’t so wonderful, and it’s something that, while it does touch Italian-Americans more frequently than others, it can touch us all. I invited him to guest post here today to share his knowledge with you. Without further ado, I give you Craig Butler.

On May 5, the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation is holding Care Walk 2013, a series of walks designed to show support for all those living with the blood disorder thalassemia (often called Cooley’s anemia) and to raise funds for the Foundation’s programs on behalf of people with thalassemia. Thalssemia is disproportionately found in people of specific heritages, including those of Italian descent.

You’re probably asking “What is thalassemia?” It’s a genetic blood disorder, so it’s something a person is born with, not something they catch. A person who has a severe form, such as thalassemia major, has blood that doesn’t carry oxygen around to the body the way it’s supposed to. If left untreated, this causes a severe anemia and eventually brings about death.

GabriellaGabriella, the beautiful little girl whose picture you see, has thalassemia major. Fortunately, she gets treatment: she goes to the hospital every couple of weeks and spends the day getting a blood transfusion. She’ll need to do this her whole life—unless a cure is found.

The blood transfusions save Gabriella’s life, but there’s also a big downside to them. They overload her body with iron, way more than the body knows what to do with. So she has to take a daily drug treatment to help get rid of that extra iron. If she doesn’t, it can destroy her heart, liver or other organs, or cause other problems like diabetes and osteoporosis.

For many thalassemia patients, that daily drug treatment involves sticking a needle into the body and pumping iron in for 8-12 hours a day. For their entire lives.

So having thalassemia is a big burden. That’s why the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation is around:

To help these people, to help find better treatments and to help find a cure.

The annual Care Walk is one of the Foundation’s most important fund raisers. The better it does, the more the Foundation is able to do to help Gabriella and all those suffering from thalassemia.

Care Walk is designed for maximum convenience: We ask people to set up a Walk at a time and place that works for them. It can be as simple as walking around your neighborhood with a couple of friends or as involved as organizing a larger walk in a park or other area.

Our goal is to have at least one person walking for every person with thalassemia in the U.S.!

Because of the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation, Gabriella’s mother has great hope for her child. “I want to let everyone know that, even though the illness is not curable, it is treatable. I want to encourage parents that it’s not the end of the world if you have a child with thalassemia. Your child will still have a wonderful life and future if they get the proper care—and the future is getting brighter by the day.”

And the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation is here to make that brighter day get here as soon as possible. You can register for Care Walk or support someone who is walking by going to http://tinyurl.com/CareWalk2013 or you can email n.perozo@cooleysanemia.org for more information. And learn more about thalassemia and the Cooley’s Anemia Foundation at www.thalassemia.org. Thank you.

So a big thank you goes out to Craig Butler for writing this guest post and informing us about thalassemia. Maybe the steps we take on May 5 will be steps toward a brighter future for thalassemia patients.

Traditions Gone by the Wayside

This is the time of year when I get cravings for weird things. It might be because it’s Lent and I give up a lot of indulgent foods, or it might be because of the time of year it is. For example, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and that means Shamrock Shakes. Usually those coincided with Lent, so unless they were released before Lent started (like this year), we’d need to not have given up sweets for Lent or freeze them until after Easter. When I moved to Arkansas, I was horrified to learn that they had never heard of Shamrock Shakes. Last year, McDonald’s had a new release here… Shamrock Shakes! However, they were “test marketing” them in limited quantities, so they were virtually impossible to come by. Finally, this year, the stars aligned. McDonald’s released Shamrock Shakes in mass quantities before Lent in Arkansas. One craving averted.

sausageThere are some cravings, though, that I’ll never get to satisfy again. Right after Christmas when I was young, my whole family would gather in my grandparents’ basement to make sausage and sopresatta. It was hard work—it took the whole day—and took a lot of preparation before that, but boy was it worth it. (Squeamish readers may want to skip ahead.)

Sheep intestine had to be soaked in ice water and citrus for days to be cleaned and deodorized. Pork shoulder had to be ground, and we didn’t have a motorized crank; it was all done by hand. Pounds and pounds were fed through the feed tube, and once coarsely ground, became the basis for the sausage and sopresatta mixtures. Seasonings were stirred into the meat by hand, requiring the men to dig into big bowls up to their elbows. Peppers were added to the sopresatta mix. Finally the mixtures were pushed back into the extruder and into the intestine casing.

The sausage was hung in my grandparents’ fruit cellar—the coldest place in the house, or cooked right away for us to eat with homemade bread and, if we were lucky, a sip of wine. The sopresatta had to be pressed until it cured completely. It took six to eight weeks to dry out. This is the time of year we’d be eating the homemade salami, and at this time every year, I get a craving for it. The stuff you buy in the stores just isn’t the same, and frankly, living in Arkansas, any kind of Italian food is hard to come by, let alone the stuff prepared the way we’re used to.

The hardest part for me, though, is saying goodbye to the memories. I was too young to actually be a part of the sausage-making process, but I remember sitting on the stool in the basement, watching my grandparents, my parents, my aunt, uncle and cousins work. I remember playing with my young cousins while the adults toiled. My grandmother only had a two-bedroom home, so the house was tiny, and filling it with that many people trying to accomplish a difficult task with a bunch of kids underfoot should have brought conflict and strife, but it didn’t. There was laughter and love and fun. Sometimes there was music, but more often than not when the music ended, people were so busy goofing around that they forgot to turn it back on. At the end of the day, the sausage and sopresatta was made for the year, but the memories were made for a lifetime.

My grandfather is gone now. My parents and aunt and uncle no longer make the sausage—it’s too much work for them. My siblings and my cousins didn’t carry the tradition on. We’ve all drifted apart—me farthest of all, nearly one thousand miles—and simply didn’t manage to keep the tradition alive. Even if we managed to start it up again, it just wouldn’t be the same without my grandfather managing the process. My husband and I tried to make some sausage a few years ago, but it just wasn’t right. Times change and traditions fall by the wayside.

So this year, I finally got my Shamrock Shake, but I won’t be having any sopresatta. At least, not any of my grandfather’s homemade sopresatta. Some traditions just can’t be replicated. We should try to enjoy what time we have with our families while we have them. You never know when those times will be nothing but treasured memories.

Holiday or Heritage? Will You Fight for Cultural Cognizance?

US FlagI just read an article called “Columbus Day To Native American Day? CA Assemblyman Roger Hernandez Introduces Bill AB 55” by Anna Almendrala. In it, she discusses the possibility that Columbus Day will be replaced by a holiday called Native American Day in California. With us celebrating Martin Luther King Day today, and with Black History Month approaching in February, people definitely have minority rights and awareness on their minds. That brings up an interesting point.

Do you know what minority group fell victim to the largest lynching in US history? I’ll give you three hints.

1. It occurred in 1891.italian flag

2. It took place in Louisiana.

3. It was not African Americans.

It was Italian Americans.

I learned this dark part of my heritage in a fascinating piece called “When Italian Immigrants Were ‘The Other’” by Ed Falco.

New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy had been murdered, and nine Italians had been tried and found not guilty. Enraged, a mob stormed the jail. The nine innocent men, along with two Italians in jail on other charges, were taken and lynched. The police began arresting Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans. Throughout the country, Italian Americans were being assaulted.

The New York Times ran editorials supporting the attacks, calling Sicilans “sneaking and cowardly” and “a band of assassins” and supported New Orleans’ lynching approach as their only recourse.

Teddy Roosevelt, who wasn’t yet in office, said the lynchings were a “rather good thing,” and John Parker, lynch mob organizer who went on to become Louisiana’s governor, said Italians were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

I have no interest in taking away anyone’s right to celebrate their heritage. Ask my children, I’m the first one to complain every Thanksgiving that it’s a hypocritical holiday. Atheists celebrate it as a secular holiday, so obviously they don’t believe the pilgrims were thanking God for a bountiful harvest. Christians who do see the Grace of God in the holiday often forget the role the Native Americans played in the first Thanksgiving meal. And even when their role is remembered, no one acknowledges that the settlers simply turned around and stole their land from them after they saved their lives. So really, isn’t Thanksgiving more of a Native American Remembrance Day than Columbus Day?

Yes, Native Americans were here before us. I don’t know how they got here. Maybe they were here since Pangaea. Maybe they crossed the Bering Strait over a now melted glacial bridge. There is no denying though, they were here first and have first claim. That’s undisputed. There’s also evidence that the Vikings came and went before Columbus did. The Italians didn’t live here first. The Italians didn’t even find this land first. But it was Columbus who paved the way for mass exploration, resulting in the country that we’re all benefitting from today. Why not acknowledge that?

I’m saddened at the horrors that befell the native cultures who lived here. The explorers hundreds of years ago were conquerors, and they were hostile and brutal. The spread of disease and the treatment of women especially turns my stomach. We can’t change the past; we can only learn from it. So let’s not put cultures on pedestals. Let’s not forget that when the Europeans tried to buy the land, albeit for a ridiculously low sum, the natives accepted the offerings believing that in their culture, land couldn’t be purchased because it couldn’t be owned. It wasn’t just the Europeans who were duplicitous in their dealings.

I’m proud to be an American, just as I’m proud to be of Italian descent. I think it’s important to celebrate where we came from, but not to the point that we divide ourselves from the rest of our countrymen. There is no reason to take away a celebration from one culture and give it to another when we can set aside days for both cultures to celebrate their own histories, particularly when the cultures include a beautiful and strong one like the Italian culture that has been oppressed time and again, and an often forgotten and proud one like the Native American culture. Both cultures deserve a right to be acknowledged. I would happily celebrate a day that honors and remembers the Native American culture. I would also hope the people of this great nation can see the contributions of my culture, and can see a reason to honor it.

I see no reason why state legislators feel the need to waste time on divisive bills when there are obviously more important matters facing our nation. Let’s not let them get away with eroding our traditions or wasting our time and tax dollars. Instead, let’s uphold them to the principles that all our ancestors lived by—concern for the welfare of the people who inhabit this great nation.

This Italian’s Guide to St. Nicholas Day

religious stockingsYesterday was the first day of the Advent Season. We lit the first purple candle on our advent wreath, sang verses one and two of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel at Mass, and have already finished decorating our home for Christmas. That is, after all, what the Advent Season, is all about. It’s the preparation for Christmas. Parents everywhere are baking and shopping, and if there are young ones in the home, lists are being made for Santa’s visit. But wait! Didn’t we forget something? Christmas is actually Christ’s Mass, and there isn’t really a Santa Claus Day, but there is a St. Nicholas Day, and it’s this week. Due to the commercialism of Christmas, it’s been overshadowed, but there are customs and traditions that are still alive, some of which I’ve kept going in my own family.

Nicolas was born to wealthy parents in land under Greek control. His parents died when he was very young, and he followed Christ’s teachings to give his wealth to the poor, giving the whole of his inheritance to help the sick, needy and suffering. At a young age he became Bishop of Myra, and was known for his generosity, particularly to children and sailors. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith, and finally released when the prisons were too full of religious prisoners to hold actual criminals. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, and finally died in Myra on December 6, 343, where he was buried in the cathedral. In the spring of 1087, his remains were moved to Bari, Italy for easier pilgrimage access. The Basilica di San Nicola was built over his crypt, allowing tourists to pay homage to the saint who assisted children, sailors, prisoners, famine victims, and others in need.

In Italy today on St. Nicholas Eve, children put a plate on the table with a letter to St. Nicholas. They promise to be good in the coming year, and in exchange they ask for gifts from the saint. When St. Nicholas visits overnight, he reads the letters and fills some of the requests. He’ll also leave candies and cookies on the plate for the children to wake to. On St. Nicholas Day, grandfathers will sometimes dress up like St. Nicholas and hand out the presents. Good children will get their gifts, but naughty children will get sugar candy that looks like lumps of coal.

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of young women wanting to get married. There is a special ritual in Bari for young ladies hoping for a husband. They go to the Basilica and drop a note to St. Nicholas in a special box, along with three coins. In Sicily, young ladies will wear traditional dress on December 5 and 6 and sing special songs to him.

My daughter isn’t old enough to look for a husband, and I wouldn’t expect her to sing for one or drop notes in a box. We’re going to do things the American way, I think. But we have adopted the celebration of St. Nicholas Day, because, if as Americans we can commercialize Christmas, then as Italians and as Catholics we can celebrate the life of the patron saint of children.

We have special “religious” stockings in our house. These are our St. Nicholas Day stockings. On December 6, our kids know to look in them for little gifts. Also, there is always fruit in them, usually an orange or an apple. I’m not sure when or how that tradition started. I think it had to do with my grandfather and there always being fruit on the holiday table, but for St. Nicholas day, there is always fruit.

To help the less fortunate, St. Nicholas used to throw bags of money through windows and fireplaces of people’s homes. Those bags would land in the socks that they’d hung to dry or in the shoes that were warming on the hearth. That’s how the stocking tradition began. And that’s why we give our St. Nicholas gifts in the religious stockings at our house.

We don’t make nearly the production out of St. Nicholas Day that we do out of Christmas. (After all, it’s not Christ’s Mass.) But we do celebrate it. It’s a nice reminder of where our family came from. This time of year is hard for my family because we don’t get to spend it with our extended family. Celebrating this holiday is just another way we can keep family traditions alive. Perhaps it’s a tradition that you’d like to start with your family.

Why I’m Thankful for the White Tornado

It’s a few days early for Thanksgiving, but I always post on Mondays, so I’m posting today about what I’m thankful for. God has been good to me. I’m truly blessed. I have a loving husband and a wonderful son and daughter. I have two adorable dogs that bring us joy every day. We have a beautiful home and, given all the areas of the world that have been hit with disasters in recent years, it would be wrong of me to complain that it’s too far from my extended family… but that’s really the only thing that bothers me about my house. It just isn’t in my hometown.

Mary NaccaratoAnd that brings me to the topic of this post. I could write about so many different things this year, but what (or I guess I should say who) this blog post is focusing on is in my hometown. I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite people in the world: my grandmother, Mary Naccarato. I know almost everyone thinks they have the best grandma, but I have to tell you, this lady is one in seven billion.

Gramma, or Nana (as the great-grandkids call her), is a ninety-four year old dynamo. Because of her bright white hair and her unlimited supply of energy, she’s earned the nickname “The White Tornado.” This is a woman who still climbs ladders to polish the crystal on her chandelier, sweeps and scrubs her porches, and adheres to the same weekly housework schedule she created when she first got married… probably the same one she learned from her mother, because it’s the one my mother uses and it’s the one I (kind of) follow.

Her parents came from Italy when she had just one sibling. She was born in Colorado and spent her early childhood there, where she developed a love for horses and the wilderness. At a young age her family (which eventually became seven children) moved to New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where she eventually met my grandfather. She had other suitors, but it was my grandfather who won her heart. He used to walk the fifteen to twenty miles from Vandergrift to her house just to see her. When they married, she knew he had to take care of his mother and younger siblings (his father had died at a young age and he was the man of the family since he was fourteen), so she acquiesced her position as woman of the house, letting my grandfather continue to support his family.

His siblings were eventually able to care for themselves, and my grandmother got her own home. She lost her only son in a difficult stillbirth, but she went on to have two wonderful daughters: my mother and my aunt. The way I hear it, their house was the town hangout. She would make cookies or pizza roll or any number or wonderful treats and the kids would congregate there. There were times my dad and his friends dropped by when my mom and aunt weren’t there, just to visit and grab a snack. Why wouldn’t they? She’s the world’s best cook and she tells the best stories. She’s a great listener, too.

Things didn’t change when Gramma’s children were out of the house and her grandchildren were roaming the town. My friends and I used to drop in all the time for a snack and a visit. So did my brother, my sister, and my cousins. Sometimes our friends would drop by without us. It turns out, no one can go past my grandmother’s house without saying hello. And hello leads to a visit. And a visit leads to food, so…

When I got my license, I had a built-in shopping buddy. She was my good luck charm. If I needed something, really needed something, I’d take her with me. I always found what I was looking for if she was with me. Even if it took a while. Once I told her I needed to take a quick run to Staples for some things for my writing portfolio. We were there for two hours. To this day when she sees a Staples commercial she thinks of me. But I did manage to get everything I needed. She’s my good luck charm.

The week before my wedding, when my husband had his bachelor party, all of my bridesmaids had something else going on. One was underage, two were out of town, one was at the hospital with her fiancé, and two were moms with young kids at home… I wasn’t having a bachelorette party. I could have gone out with other friends or hung out with my parents for the last time. But I chose to spend the time with my grandmother. We went to my new apartment, papered my kitchen shelves, reminisced about my grandfather and other family moments, and then we went out. We had a blast. We talk about it to this day. It was one of the best nights of my life. I wouldn’t trade that memory for anything in the world.

Once all the grandkids were married, the great-grandkids came. We have traditions to carry on. Sure, we are learning them from our mothers, but Gramma is still there helping us, reminding us what is truly important. She came to my house and helped make homemade ravioli for the last Easter I hosted before I moved out of state. She still shares recipes and tells stories. She shows us pictures and gives us heirlooms. She is a living tradition.

I don’t get home very often. I miss seeing her, hugging her, baking with her, sharing these things with her. But then I remember, when her family left Italy, that was it. They never went back. They never even called home—the cost was too much. Because of technological advances, I can talk to her whenever I want. I have the luxury of hearing her voice. No, it’s not the same. I can’t sit at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a few pizzelles, but I haven’t lost touch with her.

And as long as I have her, I will give thanks for that.

I hope this Thanksgiving you all have someone in your lives for whom you can be as grateful as I am for my grandmother.

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