The Joy of Growing-Up Italian

by Joseph McKeown

"I was well into adulthood before I realized I was an American. Of course I had been born in America and had lived here all of my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans are people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came in plastic packages. But I was ITALIAN.

For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian-American children who grew up in the 40's or 50's, there was a definite distinction drawn between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else....the Irish, German, Polish, Jews, they were the "MED-E-GONES". There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard-feelings....just, well, we were sure ours was the better way, For instance, we had a bread-man, a coal-man, and ice-man, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, and a fish-man; we even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors, who came to our homes or at least outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied their wares in the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sound. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to the stores for most of their foods. What a waste! Truly I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot crispy loaf of bread waiting behind the screen door...

There was another difference between US and THEM. We had gardens. Not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, and jarred them, Of course, we also grew peppers (hot and sweet), basil, parsly, lettuce and zucchini. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree....and in the Fall, everyone covered the fig-tree and made home-made wine, lots of it. Of course, those gardens thrived so, because we also had something else our American friends didn't seem to have. We had a GRANDFATHER!! It's not that they didn't have a Grandfather; its just that they didn't live in the same house or on the same block. They VISITED their Grandfathers. We ate with ours...and God forbid, if we did not see them once a day."

- Elvira S. Oliver
  The Joy of Growing-Up Italian