So you want to be Italian?
Friday, November 20, 2015

I thought I was Italian, from my Mama’s side, so the comment from my cousin Giovanni in Italy made me laugh. Then I realized he was right; I was born American, and had no papers linking me to Italy. Moro D’Oro and Montepagano were places on a map, distant locations we heard about as children accompanied by a longing in our Grandmother’s eyes.

Grandpa did not become an American citizen until years after Mama was born, which qualifies my sister Nonie and me to apply for dual citizenship with Italy. We are in the midst of that process now. Nevertheless, why we want to complete the circle that began almost 100 years ago is a valid question.

We identify as Italian, we grew up in its culture, and the bond shared with those who know not to put hamburger in their spaghetti sauce brings us together. Society today seems to focus on the us vs. them posture that is divisive, and we, who were once the children of immigrants, cling together as though still on a boat heading toward Ellis Island. My grandparent’s names are listed in the Ellis Island registry. Our cousin Mike (in New Jersey, as there are two cousins Michael), is the keeper of the facts, lineage, pictures … he connects us to what we now embrace as a more literal part of who we are, and how we have come to define ourselves.

Mike sent pictures from his trip to Italy last May. “The "Patacoli house" is the ancestral home of the di Bonaventuras in Morro D'Oro (mother of Elisa [our grandmother]). We were given the tour by Giuseppi (my sixth cousin ---- connecting back to the same grandparent in 1666) and his son Giovanni. The nameplate says "AD Febbraio 1770 Qui Fecit V. Patacoli.” The Patacoli is a nickname for di Bonaventura family in Montepagano and is "our" branch of this prolific family in the region.” I want to go there, to touch the stones, to walk where my family walked. Yes, not distant relatives, they were and are family, and to an Italian, family is everything (La famiglia è tutto).  

We were told as children, by our grandfather in a thick Italian accent, “No speak Italian. You proud American. You speak English.” We learned to speak and understand a few words of Italian, and wish now that we knew more. The words that sneaked through from Gram were usually associated with food and accompanied by a hearty laugh. “Yeat, yeat, mangiare.” I learned to say, “Come si dice” (how do you say?) and plopped the English word on the end hoping to learn a word or two of Italian. Much later, I learned that English was Mama’s second language, learned in grade school, and that she and her sister taught my grandparents English.

I grew up knowing only my maternal side of the family. My parents divorced when I was four, making the connection of family even more important. I used to say that every time I cut myself that I bled out anything that was not Italian. Now, approaching my sixth decade, I am learning to appreciate and embrace the Celtic side, which, with a name like Jones, I can hardly deny.

Like Mama, big sister Nonie has always been the one to teach me the important things in life, lessons that went beyond cooking, baking, gardening, and crocheting. The lessons were pictures of our connections with the earth, and traditions. We walk the farm each day to see how the plants and flowers have grown, encouraging them, telling them they are beautiful and apologizing to them if they do not live, mourning their loss. Gram told us you never say thank you for a gifted plant, as that was bad luck. My garden is full of things like Marty’s Hostas, Missy’s tulips, Jerry’s Irises, which the bunnies ate. Gram always said, “The bunnies gotta eat, too,” unless they really went to town, then Nonie says Gram let the expletives fly. I remember hearing Gram say, “Sun on the beach,” learning later that was her effort at English swearing.

We make handmade gifts, like the picture book Nonie made for me with photos of our family, including partially blank pages that encourage me to add my own memories. We cook from the heart, as our Mama did, because food was a way to gather, to celebrate, to comfort. We do not babysit our grandchildren, we share in their raising, knowing we get far more from those hours than we could ever give. With Mama gone, Nonie and I call each other during the times when we would have called her, now leaning on each other to provide the unconditional love and support that once came from our dear Mama.

We teach our children to have strong work ethics, that one’s word has value (Grandpa’s business contracts were handshakes). If they need help, we remember our parents helping us, saying, “What I do for you, you do for your children.” We respond to their needs, not their wants, and are clear about the difference. We teach them humility, to roll up their sleeves and find satisfaction in the results of hard labor. We teach them to respect their elders, and I have seen the tenderness and love my children show to seniors, even strangers, knowing those are somebody’s parents and grandparents.

We teach our children that they are connected to everyone and everything, that you do not have to be the same race, gender, religion, or species. We respect and love, realizing that others may not feel that way, but that is ok, too. My children are independent, critical thinkers, kind, loving, nurturing, and generous people who, like my mother, would give you their last meal or dollar. I am proud of them, and I am proud that they reflect the values Mama taught me, as her parents taught her.

When Mama died, I felt as though I had lost my identity, culture, and foundation. An orphan at 56, I had nothing to stabilize me, to connect to or pass along to my children and grandsons. I broke into tears in my doctor’s office, and he gently put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You are not alone. You have an entire Italian community out there.” He was right, and he became a cousin that day, one I know I can rely on for more than medical care. He is famiglia.

Yes, I want to be Italian!

*Note: I publish under Sherry Jones Mayo, author of Confessions of a Trauma Junkie: My Life as a Paramedic, which will come out in a second edition later this year or early 2016, and More Confessions of a Trauma Junkie.   

Sherry Jones, EdD(c), MS, RN, FAAETS, EMTP (Ret.)

CEO Education Resource Strategies, Inc.

Board of Directors, Region 2N, Michigan Crisis Response Association

Approved Instructor, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation




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