Bring It On!

A Reflection On Happy Remembrances

May 29th, 2007 | by Daniel DiRito |

I’ve never really liked holidays since for the most part they no longer seem to be about the person or event that triggered their creation. By and large, we’ve turned virtually all holidays into commercial opportunities and a reason to have some time off from work. With our “what’s in it for me” mentality and our need to be entertained, holidays have become a whirlwind of events and activities that leave little time to reflect. By the time we do these things we do, its time to get back to work and we once again begin the process of anticipating the next holiday inspired hiatus…often leapfrogging their real meaning.

My grandmother’s birthday is at the end of May and I’ve always associated it with Memorial Day. She died just under eight years ago and would have been ninety six this year. As a child, most of my holidays included my maternal grandma and grandpa…my paternal grandparents weren’t around as my dads mom died before I was born and his father died not long after I was born. They were all Italian immigrants who came to America as young adults.

When I think back on how we spent most holidays, they usually included a traditional meal prepared by my grandma and spending time around the dinner table listening to the conversation and the reminiscing of the older adults. They were all storytellers and they each seemed to have a style all their own. I’m sure that by the time I was a young adult, I had heard each story numerous times…which happened because we frequently had company that hadn’t heard the stories before and invariably, someone would ask one of the older folks to recount a favorite story for the newcomers. We never grew tired of hearing them because they were colorful, insightful, and about real life situations.

One of my favorite stories was told by my grandpa. As a young man, he lived in New York with his parents and worked as a laborer on the Empire State Building. Life at the time, and particularly in the Italian community, frequently involved a large circle of friends and relatives. From time to time the older and better traveled ones would give advice to the younger, more naive ones…advice that came from their more rapid assimilation into American culture…which frequently didn’t conform to the beliefs and customs of the older Italians.

As the story goes, one of these younger men, during a conversation with my grandpa, asked him if he was saving his money from what was at the time a decent job. My grandpa answered that he wasn’t…he was doing what young Italians who lived at home did…he gave his money to his parents. So his relative told him that he needed to start saving some money and suggested my grandpa open a bank account. After some sustained prodding, my grandpa acquiesced and began putting his money in the bank. With the ensuing payday, he deposited his earnings.

The deliberate nature of Italian familial dynamics led his parents to say nothing after the first payday passed without my grandpa placing his earnings on the table. Keep in mind that the Old Italian mind set was often accompanied by an unspoken strength and patience which was employed long enough to allow for the unexpected…but not much longer. Another week passed and my grandpa failed to place his earnings on the table. During dinner, my grandpa’s dad…pa as my grandpa called him…finally broached the subject. He told my grandpa that they (his mom and dad) had noticed that he didn’t bring home any money from work and they wondered if he might be having a problem that he wanted to discuss (giving the benefit of the doubt fits the above style perfectly). My grandpa explained that his cousin had suggested that he start saving his money for the future so he had opened a bank account. His mom and dad said very little other than to acknowledge what they had heard.

The next evening, my grandpa came home and as usual, his mom was preparing dinner. When it came time to eat, my grandpa noticed that there were only two place settings at the table…located at the seats where his mom and dad typically sat. As his mom began to put the food on the table, my grandpa finally broached the missing place setting. He calmly inquired about the missing plate; asking if there was a problem…to which his dad calmly responded, “no, there isn’t any problem”. Puzzled, my grandpa asked, “Well Pa, then where is my plate?” His dad, with continued calm, replied, “Where is the money you made from work?” to which my grandpa stated, “Pa, I told you last night that I started saving it in a bank account.” His dad paused for a moment (there is an art to sending messages in an Italian family) and calmly said, “Well, then you should go eat at the bank”, and with that the message had been delivered.

Without fail, everyone listening to the story would burst into laughter regardless of how many times they had heard the story. Thinking back, I’ve occasionally wondered why we laughed…but it was because my grandpa was imparting a story about the lessons we learn in life and he was doing so with humor which was an integral part of our Italian cultural tradition. While the incident involved a serious situation, once my grandpa understood the message his parents were delivering, there was no doubting that the story was priceless and he had perfected its delivery. I think the humor is also the result of a more pensive approach to life…one that sought to impart wisdom while preserving dignity…so more was said with less.

In truth, his dad and mom could have simply demanded to know why the money wasn’t on the table the very first night…but they thought wiser…and waited and watched in hopes that clarity would emerge and perhaps their son would offer a reasonable explanation…or on his own realize the inequity of the situation without the need for confrontation. When that didn’t happen, they delivered a gentle, though jolting, message that illuminated the relevant realities.

As it turned out, before the next payday, my grandpa and his dad agreed that he could continue to save some of his money but that he would pay a portion for his room and board. Thus an important lesson was learned and my grandpa would be a better man and better prepared for the coming travails of adult living.

So as this holiday comes to an end, recounting this story has allowed me to return to those years when each holiday was a time of reflection and an opportunity to learn more of life’s lessons. As Memorial Day passes, I long for those moments around the table and those simplistic stories that determined what I believed and shaped who I would become…and I fondly remember those who have left this life and I recommit myself to maintaining the texture and depth of their legacies of love.

  1. 8 Responses to “A Reflection On Happy Remembrances”

  2. By tammara on May 29, 2007 | Reply

    daniel,

    i have many of these stories too. i was raised in a large family of scottish/swedes (what a mix) and my grampa (papa roy) was the one who said things no one has ever forgotten.

    here are a few of his best:

    when you graduate high school or turn 18, whichever comes first, we are sawing your end of the table off (this reminds me of your story)

    if you lose your head, your ass goes with it

    if you stand around with your hand on your fanny long enough, you’ll turn into a teapot

    birds what look alike in the face, fly together, side by each. (birds of a feather)

    it looks like you are going to have to go to college, because anyone can see you can’t work for a living

    when papa roy died at 85 we all remembered all of these things and shared them into a little book that we copied and sent round to all family members.

    thanks for sharing your wonderful memories. i pray that this younger generation puts down the cell phones and the ipods long enough to hear some of these stories and learns to love them the way we did, learns how to live from folks who were simple, and good.

  3. By Daniel DiRito on May 29, 2007 | Reply

    Tammara,

    Thanks for your comments and for sharing a few of Papa Roy’s sayings. I really enjoyed reading them.

    I have a question for you. In your opinion, what were the dynamics that led so many of these old timers to come up with these clever ways of communicating? Obviously, it wasn’t required…they had the authority to say what they wanted in most instances.

    I’ll be anxious to hear your take.

    Regards,

    Daniel

  4. By tammara on May 29, 2007 | Reply

    well i’m not entirely sure, but i know this. papa roy was married to gramma martha, also known as “kind words”. now gramma martha was a christian in beautiful sense of the word. she was forever helping, taking in others when she didn’t have squat herself, taking care of elderly and infirm until she became so herself. BUT, when gramma had your number, she rang that bell loud and clear. she didn’t pull any punchs.

    both gramma and grampa where adored by their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, neighbors, friends, and everyone who came into their lives. they walked their talk, understood politics in a way that today’s adults rarely do, and they led by example rather than by force.

    everyone in my family would rather dig out their belly buttons with a spoon than have either of these people disappointed in them. notice, i didn’t say mad at them. cuz they could get mad at you and that was ok, just meant a difference of opinion that you would eventually work through, but disappointed in you was very very very bad. no one of us wanted anything to do with that. it meant we failed big time.

    i believe they were moral giants. we don’t have so many of those here anymore. they didn’t have to resort to force, because they had lived right, loved well, and we knew if they judged against something we did it was wrong. no question about it. they held no grudges, thus if you rectified your fuck up, that was the end of it, and on we went. if you didn’t, they never turned away, they continued to love us all, but even though they didn’t remind you over and over about the wrong thing, you always knew they didn’t like it. no one in our family ever stayed long on the wrong course once roy and martha set out against it.

    i miss them more than i can say, but i am glad they did not live to see our national failure with iraq. they would have both been so sad. they had 4 boys in vietnam. it was a very hard time for both of them, and for our family. they would have been heartbroken to see me as a military wife. on the other hand, especially papa roy would have been so proud of what i am doing now. he always was a “give em hell” sort of a guy.

    it is a mystery but i can say, whatever it was, we need more of it.

  5. By Dusty on May 29, 2007 | Reply

    Beautiful post Daniel. Thanks for taking me back in time as well. :)

  6. By tammara on May 30, 2007 | Reply

    my sister just reminded me of another of papa roy’s great lines.

    “i’d rather have a sister in the whorehouse than a daughter in the republican party”

  7. By Dusty on May 30, 2007 | Reply

    LMAO Tammara! God what a great guy Papa Roy was.

  8. By tammara on May 30, 2007 | Reply

    he was that dusty. i miss him so much. i was his and gramma martha’s very first grandchild, and i was so blessed to have them both with me until i was near 40. they were my safe haven, my role models, the keepers of the flame for me. the world is less without them.

  9. By Daniel DiRito on May 30, 2007 | Reply

    Tammara,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re completely on the mark when you say that “they walked the talk”…they were examples of sincerity that others didn’t want to disappoint; in fact, most who knew them aspired to be more like them.

    I suspect that explains some of the negative things we see happening in many of today’s families.

    And yes, we could certainly use more people like them.

    Regards,

    Daniel

    P.S. Thanks Dusty!

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