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The Italian American Experience (Personal Notes)

Michael Medico
Michael Medico

Retirement

Hello all! My name in Michael Medico and I am a proud Catholic and Italian American author. I retired as the CEO of an advertising agency that I founded and I am enjoying life. I have written a series titled ‘The Sainted Trilogy’ as well as a political satire…a short story and I am working on two new novels. I have also adapted the novels as 39-part series of screenplays that I hope to develop.

The books in the trilogy allowed me to delve into the lives and miracles of the saints and include information and the inspiration to take on this research and creating the narrative. You can take a look at the sainted trilogy website if you like. I have been blessed to be able to do what I love, and I look forward to my newfound role as a storyteller that I hope people will enjoy reading, and I want to wish you all a nice day.

Learning Italian

Hi, Michael Medico again…I want to thank all of the wonderful people that commented on my last post. Your thoughts were very kind and appreciated. As an author, though, I feel compelled to continue my reflections and here is my latest I call “Italian Language”.

When I was growing up in an Italian American household, my grandparents only spoke Italian to each other and my aunts and uncles knew Italian and spoke it as well, however my regret was that I never learned to speak the language. The reason that, as kids, we were discouraged from learning Italian was that we were told that we are Americans and English is the language.

In my writings families of the characters encouraged them and they learned and spoke the Italian language. I write some of their dialogue in Italian as I was able to translate my writing via the web-based translation software…amazing! I grew up in a wonderful Italian family and I miss them every day, but I also regret the opportunity to have been able to speak to them in Italian.

Growing Up Italian

Hi, it’s Michael again. This is a story of my family and I’d really like to know if any other Italian American families had something similar happen to them.

My grandfather, Agostino, grew up in a poor family in Italy. He came to America when he was 13 years old and never had anything other than an elementary school education. During his lifetime, he made his living as a tailor and became a self-made, successful business man who formed and ran his own dress manufacturing company in East Harlem, New York City.

Because my grandfather was never able to go to school beyond the 8th grade, he worshipped at the altar of education. At the time, doctors were considered to be the epitome of professions, having achieved the heights of learning, so it was preordained that both of his sons were to become doctors. Both my uncles were very smart and went to highly regarded universities; Columbia and University of Virginia. After graduation, my eldest uncle, Spartaco (Gene) applied to medical school. It was there he became a victim of the anti-Italian sentiment that existed at the time. He was told by the person who was interviewing him, “Why do you want to be a doctor? Why don’t you become a tailor like your father?”

My uncle went home and told this to his father, my grandfather, who became incensed by the obvious anti-Italian implication. I won’t mention the name of the university located in New York, but Agostino told his son that he was not to apply to any medical schools in America and both his sons went for their medical degrees in Italy; one in Rome and the other in Bologna. This was all pre-World War Two, so they were not subject to the tumult that would occur a few years later. Both uncles returned to America and joined the Armed Forces as doctors and one of my uncles was there tending to the wounded at Guadalcanal.

Both of my uncles passed away a number of years ago having raised beautiful families and having run successful practices. As you may have noticed, I am proud of my family and take pride in their accomplishments. As for my grandfather and grandmother, I only remember how much pleasure they took at what their sons achieved.

Family stories are such a great way of holding onto past family history, just like to did for Chris Pella in my novels. These are the various remembrances that you and your loved ones may have in common and if you would like to share them with others, we are all ears! Including me!

Naming His Children

One story I hope you will find amusing has to do with how my grandfather named his children…at least this is how it was told to me.

I was told my grandfather, Agostino, had a passion for reading the classics and listening to opera. Because he became so enamored with these legendary figures as a result, each time my grandmother, Sestilia, gave birth, he named his child after the characters from the books or the opera he was reading or listening to at the time.

So, I have an Uncle Spartaco (named after the legendary Thracian gladiator) we called him Gene, an Uncle Orpheus (Greek mythological poet and prophet) we called him Al, an Aunt Flora (named after the Greek goddess), an Aunt Aurora (names after the Roman goddess), an Aunt Ines (meaning ‘chaste’) and my mother Gilda (named for the lead in the opera Rigoletto).

When I was writing Book One of The Sainted Trilogy, I adapted my family history and named Chris Pella’s favorite uncle after three of my uncles, Spartaco ‘Al’ Barese. Chris’ calls him ‘Uncle Al’ and the character was the Chief of Detectives in Suffolk County on Long Island. He and his nephew Chris have a great relationship and both have a great sense of humor, just like my uncles. I’d love to hear if anyone had an experience that they would want to share about family names.

A Shout Out of Thanks!

I can’t tell you how great it was to read all the comments that people who relate to my story about my not learning Italian. So many of you were able to pass your comments onto me and for that I am so grateful…so many of you had the same experiences…so many of you had the same wonderful memories and so many of you had the same regrets about not learning the Italian or other languages.

I wish I could respond to each of you personally to let you know how much I enjoyed your memories about grandmothers, grandfathers and parents teaching you all about our collective heritage and for me it was a blessing to read what you had to say. When I wrote The Sainted Trilogy, I was hoping to connect with people who would relate to some of my personal experiences that I was able work into my novels and you all came through with style and warmth and, for this, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. One thing that you may be interested in is that so many who never learned the Italian language managed to learn Italian ‘cuss’ words and were so enthralled with how beautiful they sounded in Italian! I thought that was very funny!

Grandma wore Black

Hi, it’s Michael Medico again…I decided to continue to write posts of remembrances of my upbringing in an Italian American household. In a follow up to “Learning Italian” I had a memory that I would like to share that I call “Grandma Wore Black”.

My father passed away when I was four years old and me, my mom and brother moved in with my grandparents. We lived with them and close to our extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins all who lived in our house or close by. It was there I had the love, security and attention of so many wonderful relatives and my childhood was a blessing.

In 1961, my grandfather, Agostino, passed away. He was older and retired when we moved in with him and he was the patriarch that all our family loved and admired. As a kid I never considered that he would die, but when he died my grandmother, Sestilia, was distraught. She had her family who tried to comfort her as best as they could, but her heart was broken. “Gustie”, as she called him, was gone and, in the old Italian tradition and similar European traditions of the time, she was determined to wear black until the day she died. Grandma only had one black dress, so her daughters and friends tried to find the black dresses after the funeral, but there were none to be found.

It was soon after my mother gave me some money to buy some clothes for the summer at a locally famous NY department store called Alexanders. At the entrance of the store was the women’s department and you had to go through it to reach the young men’s section. As I was walking, I spotted a large table with women’s dresses piled up on display with a big “Special Sales” sign posted. There were no black dresses I could see on top, but I dove in and, as luck would have it, I managed to find three black dresses in size small that were just right as grandma was small.

With the money my mother had given me, I bought them and rushed home. When I got there my mom, Gilda and my Aunt Ines were sitting around the kitchen table consoling my grandma. I went over to her and I opened the bag and gave her the black dresses…I can only tell you that it was as if I gave her diamonds and gold. She looked at the dresses and up at me and was overcome. My mom and aunts couldn’t believe it and I was so very happy for grandma. She was so very grateful and tried to tell me in Italian…this time I was able to understand what this small gift meant to her.

It wasn’t a story that I adapted in The Sainted Trilogy series like I did with other memories, but if anyone who can relate to this has something to share, I am sure people would love to read it…so would I.

Holiday Celebrations

I thought that I would recount a memory of growing up in a Catholic, Italian-American home. I am sure that many of you who read this will be able to recount their own traditional holiday feasts.
I was a young kid and an early-memory was walking to Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in the Bronx, where I also attended school. When it was my turn, I would serve as the alter-boy at mass and some of my family would join in the worship.

After Mass, my family would assemble for the traditional meal. My grandmother always made enough to feed an army because, as she put it, “Vengono gente” or ‘people come.’
The family sat in the kitchen at a long table and there was usually 8 to 10 people for dinner including a guest or two. The first course was always pasta, different sizes and shapes, but always pasta. Then there were meatballs, sausages and braciola that cooked in the sauce she used for the pasta. The next course was usually chicken or beef along with salad and a vegetable. For dessert it was usually fruit, pastries or ricotta cheese cake or cookies. This was the usual Sunday dinner, but when it was a special holiday like Easter or Christmas, it was all hands-on-deck!

I remember my grandmother, mom and my aunt, spent days getting the house cleaned, the shopping done and the dinner prepared. For all the holidays we always had the extended family there and usually there were 25 to 30 people or more to celebrate. In the basement was a dining area with a table that, when extended, could accommodate a gathering of this size. All the kids got to sit at the ‘kids table’, which was fine with us.
Now for the uninitiated, you need to understand for us it was a six-hour meal. The feast started with antipasto, consisting of cheeses, cured meats, peppers, marinated vegetables, olives, crusty semolina bread and more…then you wait a half-hour for the next course. The pasta course was almost always lasagna…then you wait a half-hour for the next course. The third course was sauce meat (or gravy as some call it) consisting of meatballs, hot and sweet sausages and braciola…then you wait another half-hour. The following course was usually turkey or lamb or roast beef with a salad and vegetables…then you wait another half-hour. The next course was coffee, cake and pastries…then you waited another half-hour when cordials with expresso are served.

Now you ask, what did we all do between courses. Well, the adults played penny-ante poker or other card games or roulette while my grandmother, mother and aunts cleared the table and set the next course, all the while us kids ran around making noise and acting crazy like most my cousins did when they got together.

I recalled some of these same memories of family growing up Catholic and Italian in my novels. I gave these same recollections to the main characters as I felt this was all part of the Catholic and Italian-American credo…Faith…Family and Food and that’s what made it so special for me.

Grandpa’s Wine Cellar

Hi, Michael Medico again, and author of The Sainted Trilogy. I have taken to put my writing aside and post some of my memories that I hope you can relate to. This is a memory of my grandfather, Agostino, with whom my family went to live with when my father died.
I grew up in the Bronx, New York in my grandparents’ house that was so large it took up half a block. To put this into perspective, the house was three stories high with the top floor having three apartments of five rooms each. This is where some of my extended family lived.

The main level, where I lived, had eight rooms along with a porch that ran the entire width of the house. On the main level there were also another three rooms used for a doctor’s office, where my uncle had his general practice. There was also a smaller office where my aunt, an attorney, practiced law. There was a four-car garage and a huge basement where we would hold holiday dinners for as many as thirty people. I don’t mean to brag or say that grandpa was very wealthy, but I was so proud of him. An Italian immigrant who grew up on a farm, came to America at 13 years old and learned to be a tailor. He started his own clothing company during the Great Depression, had the foresight to see the value in this building and took a chance and bought this grand house…think of the courage that must have taken.



Anyway, my grandfather loved a number of things; family was always first, another was his love of tending to his roses, his flower garden and his fig trees. Secondly, and in spite of the lack of a formal education, my grandfather also became a very savvy, but cautious investor. There is one memory, however, that will always stick in my mind, and that is when grandpa made his home made Italian red wine.

In late summer or early fall every year there came a delivery of deep purple grapes. The wooden crates of grapes were unloaded from a truck and taken to a small basement window on the side of our home. There was a wooden plank where the delivery guy would slide the crates down and my grandfather and great uncle, Zio Francisco would unpack the grapes. There was a very old hand driven wine press, and they would press the grapes for days and store the juice into three very large barrels, one for each of three years of ageing. In the barrels the juice would age until it became a deep colored red wine. The wine was something that was enjoyed by all many of the family and friends all year, especially on Sundays or holidays.



My final recollection was how my grandfather would take a glass of water and add a tablespoon of wine to the water turning it to a very light pink color. He would give each of the kids, usually me and my cousins, a glass and we all felt like we were on our way to becoming adults. I know I keep saying this…but I was blessed to be part of this family and the love and caring they gave me.

Value of Education

I think that some of you who read my social media posts may relate to this bit of my family history and upbringing and liken it to yours.

My grandfather, Agostino, never was able to go beyond a basic elementary school education. This according to my mom and aunt was the reason “Grandpa worships at the altar of education” and I got to know the meaning and truth behind that statement.

His first children were both male and for this reason it was preordained that they would become doctors…whether they wanted to or not. At the time doctors were held in the greatest esteem among the people who knew them and who needed their care in times of poor health and grandpa wanted this for his sons. Back then, it was a different world and culture that dictated the heads of the household held powers and sway over the family in ways that commanded respect and obedience.

This is how it was with my grandfather in that he saw his sons growing and getting the respect and esteem that he wanted for them and took enormous pride in having doctors as sons. That said they practiced until their late seventies and older. My uncle Gene lived in an upstate New York Community and was the only doctor for miles and miles. For over 30 years and he made house calls in some of the foulest weather you could imagine. My uncle Al gave up his general practice after a number of years and became a psychiatrist who worked for the Catholic Church in one of their charities. Both of my uncles’ wives were supportive and loving women who were very active taking on the roles of assistant and nurse when necessary.

Although my grandfather didn’t place the same type of pressure on his daughters, he was very supportive of their need to fully reach their potential. My aunt Ines became a lawyer and after she passed the NY Bar, she went on the get her degree in Physics and worked at Brookhaven Labs before she married. My mom, Gilda, was very bright and inquisitive, but she contacted diphtheria as a child and became increasingly hard of hearing until she became nearly deaf.

That however, did not stop her from winning a high-school science award and going on to take the necessary classes to become a licensed laboratory technician. I think one of the proudest days in my grandfather Agostino and my great uncle Zio Francesco’ life was when my uncles graduated and become doctors. From that moment on, every time they would greet either of my uncles, they would always say, “Dottore, come stai!” I know that my grandfather would have loved to go onto higher education, but that was not meant to be. For this reason, he may have felt inadequate on some level, but he was a larger-than-life figure to me and our family. I only hope Grandpa knew how much he was loved and respected by everyone who knew him.

He accomplished so much that he towers above many so-called over-educated ‘intellectuals’ elites today who know only what they read and little of how life really works.

Random Memories

As you may have become aware, I like to write some stories and my childhood memories living in the Bronx. This post is what I call “Random Memories’ because they are totally disconnected but indelibly etched in my mind. The first of these have to do with my grandmother, Sestilia. She was the traditional Italian homemaker that was devoted to cleaning and cooking for her family. When she had the time she would make pasta from scratch, mixing the flour and kneading the dough. She would then lay it out on a large and, very old, wooden board that I am sure was used by generations past. She also had a long stick that she would use to roll out the dough into great sheets and cut it into various shapes and sizes.

Well, if the truth be told, that stick made the perfect ‘stick ball stick’ and I took the liberty of absconding with it for the world championship game my friends and I were going to play. I was sure that I would be able to hit a three-sewer cover homerun and this was worth the risk of incurring the wrath of grandma. Well, this was one of what I have come to know as the ‘Medico Luck’ in that I was not only found out by grandma, but I got a tongue lashing from the sweetest woman that I ever knew. This resulted in my solemn vow never to use the stick again. By the way I never got to hit that three-sewer home run.


This next memory was one of my family getting together to listen to a sone. It wasn’t just any song; it was the Neapolitan version of “Sixteen Tons” by Lou Monti originally made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford). One of my uncles had bought a copy and brought it to one of the family dinners that we often had. He put the vinyl disc on the record player and the adults gathered around to listen.

You had to hear the laughter from the adults in the family that were listening to the song and the kids looking at each other asking themselves, what the heck was this guy saying and why the heck was everyone laughing. I asked my uncle and he told me what some of the lyrics meant but I’ve forgotten. This is one of those times that I wish I had learned Italian.

Driving The Amalfi Coast

It should have been on my ‘bucket list’, but quite frankly I never even remotely thought of it. This is a recent memory that I call ‘Driving the Amalfi Coast’. This happened on my trip to Italy about eight years ago. We went with our best friends and took a land tour though Italy stopping in Venice, Florence and Naples. We also took and a cruise through the Adriatic and Aegean Seas with stops at various ports. It was a wonderful trip that I will never forget.

After our short stay in Naples, we went to Sorrento and stayed to see this beautiful town and make our way to the Isle of Capri! After three days we rented a car for our next stop, Amalfi. We went to pick up the car and I found out that it was has a manual transmission, something neither my buddy or I had driven regularly for more than 30 years. I was hoping that my buddy would want to drive, but when hear heard that we would be driving along the Amalfi Coast, he would have no part of the prospect of killing all of us. But for me to be able to drive the Amalfi Coast it was a thrill, besides telling everyone that I did it, made it all worthwhile. The four of us took off from Sorrento for the drive along a serpentine route that was treacherous to say the least. There were two lanes for traffic. but in reality, it was maybe one and half lanes especially if are you used to driving in America. With each twist and turn the views of the Gulf of Salerno were spectacular. Every now and then there were cut outs in the road that allow cars to stop and enjoy the views.

One of the hazards that I was especially aware of was the tourist buses that travelled the Amalfi Drive. As you know, buses are much wider than cars so if you are driving a car you will need to squeeze over as far right as you can otherwise…well you can guess what might happen.

While the route does have its risks, it also has its many rewards. We passed some of the most colorful and beautiful towns built alongside the rocky cliffs along the coast. Places like Fornillo, Positano, Arienzo, San Gennaro and other coastal towns that make you just want to stop the world and get off. I should mention that for the entire trip my passengers maintained a ‘white knuckled’ sense of fear, but we finally made it to Amalfi, none the less for wear. Seriously, I consider driving the Amalfi Coast one of the high-points of any trip that I have taken and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

If you have ever been to Amalfi, you know what a wonderful destination it is. I was overwhelmed by the Church of St. Andrew and the crypt where one of the twelve apostles’ remains are kept. The church is like a museum that contains so many artifacts that left me speechless.

The next day we had planned a trip to Ravelo. I was excited to take the drive as I heard it was even more treacherous that the Amalfi Drive, but calmer and cooler heads prevailed when I was told how extremely difficult it is. I reluctantly agreed to leave the driving to the pros…BTW, Ravelo is among the most special places I have ever been to, but that’s another story.

The Annual Church Bazaar

Hi, Michael Medico again and, I just thought of another story about my childhood that I hope you will enjoy. I call it “The Annual Church Bazaar”. Some people may call it the “Church Fair” or the “Church Carnival”, but at our Parish that me and my family belonged to, it was called a “Church Bazaar.”

The school and church that held this annual event was Immaculate Conception Church in the Bronx. At the time it was populated with mostly Italians and many of the older adults were from Italy and had settled in the Bronx. Most of the children and grandchildren, however, were born in America.

The Parish was always strongly supported by the congregation; Sunday mass was always full or nearly full. The school’s classes were always full, with as many as 30 or 32 per class students and, when the time came for the Annual Bazaar, the grounds were filled with people out for a good time. There were rides and games for the kids and there were booths for food and candy, and it was loud, boisterous and so much fun.

For the adults there was a “Las Vegas Night” where the auditorium was set up to accommodate tables for different kinds of games. I can’t say for sure, but I think there was roulette, spinning wheels where you bet on the numbers, and there were card games. There may have been other games, but the men who ran the games wouldn’t allow anyone under 18 years of age in.

Those men, by the way, were all members of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus who would host and run the event. They would also run the raffle which had a grand prize of a brand-new Cadillac. The car was on display outside the auditorium, and everyone would look at the car with visions of cruising down to Orchard Beach on a hot summer day. As this was the biggest and best annual fundraiser for the church and school, the Knights would sell raffle tickets and, as far as I can remember, each ticket was $10 or $20. In today’s terms it does not appear like a very large amount, but when you considered this was during the late 1950’s, it was a lot of money.

I was fascinated by the “Las Vegas Night” and all the fun that the adults were having, so I stood by the door and just watched and listened and when it came time to announce the winner of the raffle everyone stopped. All who had purchased tickets held their stubs and waited to see if they won. Even the priests and Father Christopher, the pastor, had bought tickets themselves, and were also very excited.

There was a stage at one side of the auditorium, and it was flanked by members of the Knights who stood in military like attention. Next, the head of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus walked up onto the stage toward a big drum filled with the second half of all the raffle tickets sold. Now the head Knight of the local chapter would walk solemnly over to this large drum and grab the handle. He would give the drum a sufficient amount of turns to assure that the tickets were properly mixed and then he would stop. He then reached into the big bin and pulled out a single stub. He did not, however, look at the tickets stub, but turned his gaze to the hundreds of people starring up at him. The drama was intense, and you could cut the tension with a knife as all waited for the winner to be named.

The head Knight then looked down and a surprised look came on his face and he loudly proclaimed “…and the winner is FATHER CHRISTOPHER!”

Well, the entire audience screamed and excitedly clapped and a very surprised Father Christopher looked at this stub and back up at the head Knight and back to his stub. Slack-jawed, Father Christopher looked around as if to say, there must be some kind of mistake.

Well, it wasn’t a mistake…well maybe it was, but who cares anyway.

3 thoughts on “The Italian American Experience (Personal Notes)”

  1. My grandmother was Spanish, but she too was a fabulous cook, and being widowed, also wore black the rest of her life. My twin brother and I were fortunate to eat lunch with her every day besides the large family feasts. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn Spanish until high school, so our conversations with her were mostly pointing and her saying, “Come, come”, Spanish for “eat”.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Great remembrance and so many parallels in your past that were the same in mine. Thanks so much for sharing and for your interest.
      Best regards,
      Mike

  2. I love these tales. So similar to my family stories in Brooklyn. My grandfather arrived from Bari Italy with my pregnant grandmother Nicolette, my namesake. He started as the iceman and when refrigeration killed his business he converted the ice truck to a moving truck. His sons Joseph and John ( my dad) took over when they returned from Okinawa during WW 2. Flatbush Moving Van Co. is now run by my brother and his son and they were recently featured in the NYTIMES business section in relation to the exodus from the city.
    My dad was a journalism major at NYU when the war broke out and he enlisted. All the children and grandchildren are college grads with a couple of doctors and lawyers in the mix. This week we will enjoy a Liantonio family reunion on Squam Lake, NH…and many of us have visited the relatives in Bari… but we don’t speak Italian sadly.
    I love your stories and the great blog. Keep it coming…so precious!

    1. Dear Collette,
      I am honored that you read and enjoyed my memories! I can’t believe how vividly they came back and how much I enjoyed the recollections myself. I love yout family memories too and I know how special they must be. Enjoy the family reunion.
      Best regards,
      Mike

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