"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wild Italian

This is the flagpole outside of the Sons of Italy club in Sayre, PA, where I went for my Uncle Bougie's celebration of life ceremony this weekend.  This is also the club where my grandfather's celebration of life ceremony was.  And the club where my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary party was; where I sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" for a teary audience of Italian seniors when I was fourteen.  And the club where my grandfather called Bingo and my grandmother served pizza every week for forty years.  He would make his rounds, telling inappropriate jokes.  She would practice her Italian with little Lucy in the kitchen.

I love being Italian.  I am a few other ethnic backgrounds as well, but as Dr. Malfi says on The Sopranos, "When you're even a little bit Italian, it crowds out everything else in your genetic history."

The sights I see as I look around the club are warm and familiar.  I know these people.  I am related to most of them, whether I know how or not.  The DiSistos, the Sopranos, the Mastracchios, the Cocchis.  The men stand in small circles with their hands in their pockets, jingling change.  They have round noses, thick fingers with gold pinky rings, white hair that contrasts starkly with their leathery dark skin.  The women - both young and old - have layers and layers of makeup, meticulous hairdos, and coordinated outfits.

The rotund, balding bartender slugs out another glass gallon jug of red wine onto the wooden bar.  Frank Sinatra plays in the background.  It's always Frankie.  I see Jimmy Alexander and hear, once again, the story of how he introduced my parents to each other almost forty years ago.  I love that story.

The gloved servers set small, styrofoam bowls of iceberg salad with italian dressing in front of each person.  It's always the same salad.  My grandfather used to pay me a quarter to eat mine.  Soon they will bring out the chafing dishes of baked ziti, meatballs, sausage (both hot and mild), and roasted potatoes.  There will be large bowls of extra tomato sauce and parmesean cheese from Italy on the buffet table.  There will be overflowing baskets of fresh Italian bread in front of each person; much more than necessary.  When we are stuffed beyond capacity, they will place small dishes of Neapolitan ice cream in front of us.  We are Italian.  This is how we grieve.

The beer and wine continue to flow.  The belts begin to loosen a notch.  The stories of the "old country" roll out through thick accents and mouths full of pasta. The uncles excuse themselves for their fifth cigarette of the night.

In a particular moment that seems to stand still among the noise and bustle, my chin resting in my hand, my belly full, taking in old Mattia's stories, I feel frozen in place.  I realize that Bougie was my last relative from Sayre.  His wife, my great-aunt Jeanette, is in a nursing home there but will probably be moved soon.  This service is likely the last time I will ever be in Sayre; the last time I will eat this Sons of Italy dinner.  I breathe deeply and make an effort to frame the moment in my mind.

I am proud to be Italian, even just a quarter.  It is a wild heritage for a wild people.  I feel myself getting teary, but before I get too sentimental, I hear my grandmother's voice in my head, "State zit!  Manga!"  (stuuta-zeet. maan-ja)

Shut up and eat.

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