What my immediate family lacks in size, it has always made up for in volume. Not only am I a passport-carrying American, my mother’s family is Italian-American. The stereotypes which lubricate films and television are sometimes spot on. Extended family get togethers, with aunties and uncles and 2nd cousins were loud affairs. Even with just the grandparents around for a Sunday dinner, it was loud. Talking over one another, interrupting with a hand-gesticulated point, shouting with a mouth half-full of food, all par for the course. My Papa wore a paper napkin tucked into his shirt collar as he joyously tucked into a bowl of linguine. For a long time I thought that ‘vaffanculo’ was a type of soup, (for the record, that’s pasta fagioli–which if you have a southern Italian background, sounds like va-zool). Until I was an adult living on my own, I didn’t even know you could differentiate between different types of ‘pasta’. Growing up, it was all macaroni and gravy (the red sauce, not the turkey kind). I have a distant cousin who went by the nickname Joe Words. You get the idea.
Larger than life, sometimes grudge holding, evil-eye warding, superstitious. Always loud, often eating, my mother’s family was almost a caricature of itself. But there was always love present and accounted for. In the preparation of the food, in the loudness, in the lack of table manners. In the cheek pinches and loud smacks on the lips. In that 2nd generation family, food was love, love was food, and you didn’t mess with either. If Nana’s eggplant parm needed a bit more salt, you best keep that to yourself, lest you find yourself on the other end of a grudge that could span the ocean from East Boston to Naples. Unless you were my grandfather and nothing was ever salted enough. And I swear to you I am surprised my grandmother didn’t have something engraved on his head-stone attesting to the fact that vaffanculo, there was enough salt in the gravy.
(A side note about the power of the ‘grudge’: one of my great-aunties, though only 4 foot 9 in real life, held such a sway over her family, and such a grudge against one of her daughters, that she swore the rest of the family to secrecy when she died–thereby getting the last word against her daughter, who wasn’t able to attend her funeral. The grudge goes with you into the afterlife apparently.)
On the other side of the family, let alone the pond, I married into a proper English family. There are special spoons for certain things. In fact, there are spoons and forks and knives and cheese knives and silver and crystal and things I don’t know the names of. In my house, sometimes you are lucky to get a real plate. Lots of food, not a lot of cutlery. My mother-in-law always has a dressing gown out for me to use while I am there and there is always a thank you card, sometimes arriving home before we do. It is a bit like staying in a hotel. There are lovely dinners, from soup to nuts, tablecloths and puddings. It is very civilized and orderly and English. And quiet. We put the kids through table manners boot camp the week before we visit. The stereotypes about the English exist for a reason as well.
Where my family shouts, my married family tip-toes. While they simmer, we boil over. You feel that you don’t get your money’s worth in my family unless there are tears and hugs and at least one threat of an evil eye.
My poor husband was not prepared for the heart clutching drama of the Italian-American family get together. I can count on one hand the number of visits that didn’t end in some sort of tearful confrontation. To be fair, the drama is usually surrounding the Nana. There are tears, there are confessions, there are promises. And usually some eggplant parm.
It is hard to let go of my American-ness, my casual-ness, my loud-ness when I am with my married family. Yes, I am loud. Yes, I can be brash. But I also tell it like it is, a skill which comes in handy during dinner table negotiations. I am often the one sent in to scout the situation, to ask questions, to pull someone aside and let them know that the side-long glances and pregnant pauses around the turkey had nothing to do with boiled sprouts and more with deep misunderstandings that stem back to childhood.
There is no judgement. One way is not better than the other, but of course it’s a lot easier to understand the familiar. So I don’t get why my husband’s family doesn’t just put a big plate of calamari on the table and shout at each other until they get it all out. Just the same as my husband doesn’t understand why we have a Hallmark movie drama every time my Nana comes to stay. (Since my father died, my long-suffering spouse fairly drowns in estrogen when he visits my family. Often I find him hiding, quiet, in another room to avoid being roped into the farce.)
But we learn from one another. I have learned that putting the kettle on for a nice cuppa really does solve a lot of things, without the tears or the Oscar performances. And my husband, I think, has learned that a hug goes a long way, that sometimes shouting and screaming and getting it all out in the open heals a lot faster than tamping it down and hoping it will go away. And that he’s not a huge fan of eggplant parmesan. I hope that we continue to learn from each other, from each other’s history, from each other’s ‘normal’. And if we are lucky, then our children will end up with a balance of the two.
Macaroni and sprouts, anyone?