Thursday, February 4, 2016

7770. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 153)

(pt. 153)
The Italian aspect of things was always funny to me.
In Avenel there seemed a fair share of Italian last
names, and I always wondered if they faced some
or all of the same weird conflicts I did with that
lineage. Perhaps everyone did : each nationality
providing its own tray of problems for snacks
and fodder. For instance, representing whatever 
ideal 'Italian' was supposed to be, my father took 
giant steps, constantly. He'd judge others by their 
use or non-use of 'tradition'. He'd call out other
nationalities for their supposed 'traits' but never
do anything but somehow overlook his own great
Hippodrome of guilty and dumb pleasures. He'd
get angry and hostile about other 'Italians' who'd,
according to him, 'betrayed' their station. A good for
instance was the next-door neighbor, Ralph Miranda.
There were numerous on and off conflicts with Ralph.
Mostly it always turned out OK after time, but here and
there it got pretty horrid too. The one time, among others,
that I remember well was the day my father came home
and saw that Ralph Miranda had planted a 'Nixon For
President' official campaign sign on his lawn. (It 
actually said 'Nixon-Lodge', which was the team 
running : Richard Nixon for President, and Henry Cabot 
Lodge for Vice-President, on the Republican ticket, 1960,
against Kennedy and Johnson on the Democrat ticket).
This drove my father absolutely blue-in-the-face crazy.
He swore it was a betrayal of every small-man, 
lift-the-poor, New Deal Rooseveltian principle, and 
he held it against Ralph Miranda  -  the Italian guy 
from Brooklyn  -  for betraying that innate Italian 
pride and trust. It was funny, because really it meant 
nothing. Ralph didn't see it in the same terms as my
father did. Henry Cabot Lodge, in fact, was old-line
American royalty, as far as names went : the Cabots
and the Lodges were long-established and elite American
names. Might as well go with that, if you can. I always
liked it anyway, because it sounded like a 'place', 
somewhere to go  -  'Nixon Lodge'. Fun for me.
I don't know how anyone else voted, or what they
thought about any of this, whatever nationality. No 
one, to my knowledge, ever really talked about this stuff.
My father's idea was always that if you were a poor, decent
and striving American, you voted as a Democrat, no matter 
what. To his eyes, they 'took care of the working man,' while
Republicans always cared only about business and the rich.
Go figure.
Another endlessly funny and annoying thing was, of course,
the food. Pasta, the word, was unused then. It was Macaroni
or it was Spaghetti. The other stuff was luxury  -  raviolis,
lasagnas, and all that. I never cared. There was always a 
quarrel too over nomenclature. I forget how it went, but the
red, tomato stuff  -  cooked and lorded over for hours  -  was
either 'sauce' or 'gravy' Like I said, I forget how it went, but
a 'real' Italian said one thing and a not-real Italian said another.
'Pass the sauce', or 'Pass the gravy', or something like that.
It's still a quarrel, because I've heard others, to this day, going
on about it. My father used to have these crazy rituals about
food, especially on Sundays, every Sunday, and on big holidays
too. The eating on Sunday was ritualized  -  to the minute, a
mid-afternoon sit-down, with bowls of spaghetti, or whatever,
the just-right Italian bakery-bread, a country-red Italian cheap
wine, salad, olives, garlic bread, the whole thing, Endlessly, 
over and over, and you simply had to attend. There was 
no getting out of unless it was some momentous or horrid 
reason. I got so tired of the whole thing that I still, to this
day, hate eating. My father would preside over the Sunday
table. It was so funny. He'd still have his church clothes on, 
a tie about two-feet wide with some shiny, glossy pattern,
a white shirt, and all. By that time of afternoon he'd have the
sleeves rolled up anyway. In about an hour, there'd be sure
to be a red stain of some sort on either the shirt or the tie.
Whatever the sequence is, salad first or last, my father had
it backwards, to my knowledge. I think salad is first, like to
awaken your taste buds or appetite or something, but my
father's dictate was that the salad be eaten last. Which we
always did. I don't know what that was about, or what 
importance it had anyway, but that's how it was. My
mother's role in this was always pretty much as the silent 
one, the cook, and the server. Little else is remembered, 
except for the fact (perhaps gross) that my father sealed off
every meal with a burp. He was a big burper. Another weird
habit -  perhaps a typical peasant-class Italo-Euro thing. 
I don't know. I do know that, in sixth grade, Mr. Ziccardi
taught us, in one of those ancient-history/culture subject
things, that  -  as he put it  -  in ancient Greece people
would loudly burp after a meal, as a guest, to show their
appreciation and satisfaction of the meal, for the host.
Oh well, sure made me feel better about it  -  ancient 
history and a legacy of good burping too!
The whole Italian thing got pretty stupid. Popes and
food, cars and church-ritual stuff. There was some form
of smug self-satisfaction about it all. But, when pressed,
you could never really admit to it. The whole 'melting pot'
theory of America just couldn't allow for those discriminatory
tactics about other white races. To their face anyway. It was
okay to grumble on about blacks and Puerto Ricans, on the
other hand, because that's just the way it went. My father was
the grandest example I'd ever seen of that. And we won't even
mention the Jews! Sounds bizarre now, yeah, but for me it
was reality, Parts One, Two, and Three as well.
Another thing was my father's sense of 'pride'. About 
achieving things. Like that white picket fence I mentioned in 
the initial chapters :  it was pretty beautiful, and he did it 
all himself : wooden posts and slats, each post capped with 
a three-sectioned topper. A large double gate, for the car at the 
driveway, and a single gate twelve feet or so away, for individual 
entry. Like a manor house or some grand ranch or estate. It was 
for many years my father's pride  -  something out front that 
others could see. I often thought that, if he could have, my 
father would have much preferred that the extension which 
he built at the rear of the house would have been built at the 
front. With pride, and a pride for what 'others' could see. 
Funny stuff, I'd think.
My father used to classify trees too. he never wanted, nor 
did he ever like, what he called 'dirty trees'  -  the sort of 
trees dropped fruit or seed-berries or any of that. The 
sycamores and birches that split bark and left slices of old 
bark on the ground. The big, flowering Magnolias and such 
that grandly flowered in May, and then left a mess of dead 
flower petals all over the street or lawn below. Those were
 'dirty trees', and he abhorred them. He mostly did like 
hedges, and rimmed the large backyard with them; 
azalea bushes, which bloomed for 'Mother's Day' and 
disappeared, and an occasional (surprisingly) Dogwood
tree. He'd bought and planted two or three of them
in the rear yard. Whites ones, flowering. He'd mutter 
something about the religiosity of the white blooms, some 
gospel-story significance that I never got to understand. He 
had, as well, somehow in place a large weeping willow tree, 
at the center  of the rear yard, which tree he did wind up 
hating because the roots eventually grew too large and 
protruded from the ground, interfering with his 
He'd always make a sense of place from the things in his
surroundings. Everything was usually large, for the biggest
size symbolized 'the best'. So, I guess then atomic bomb
was far better than a hand grenade in that estimation of things,
forget about what today is called 'collateral damage.' That would 
have been us, the 'Collaterals.' Should have been maybe our
family name  - except it doesn't really sound that Italian.
Whatever. Hey, while we're at it, pass me the gravysauce. 

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