Since I was a boy, one thing was made clear to me straight away: when Italians came to the United States, they brought their towns and villages with them.
My grandmother at fifty-three years old emphasized this as she baked in a hot fry hut in a Catholic church parking lot, rolling out and dipping in scalding oil pizza dough, until it was crisp and ready for sauces and cheeses or powdered sugar.
“Nel blu, dipinto di blu” echoed from a car speaker on repeat for hours on end while Italian grandparents watched their American grandchildren toss rings, roll skee-balls, and whack their share of moles yearning to win glorious prizes.
They laughed and joked and cursed in Italian, thinking we grandchildren didn’t understand. We did. It was the local priest who couldn’t.
And when we misbehaved? They sat us down and demanded we eat overflowing plates of fried rice balls, steamed broccoli rabe, sausage breads, and manicotti until we begged for freedom.
Italian grandfathers wore their Knights of Columbus uniforms with their feathery hats and multicolored capes and marched through the streets brandishing dull swords and white sashes while a marching band banged drums and blasted trumpets.
The grandfathers slouched in rickety lawn chairs drinking down beer in the hot summer sun with their proud daughters talking their ears off next to them while the non-Italian sons-in-law staffed carnival games.
Their potbellies stretched their waistlines and expanded thin suspenders to the point they might snap. They didn’t care. It was a price they promised to pay in exchange for lives with “the most beautiful Italian women” they called their wives.
The music blended in a most tranquil chaos until firecrackers were lit at sunset to fill the streets with explosions and colored smoke and singing and thunderous applause.
This was the era of Italian grandparents, the age of Italian festivals long since forgotten. Yet as they danced their last tarantella, cooked their last batch of cannelloni, and said their farewells, they left us all and took their Italian villages with them to heaven. Every year, the festivals got smaller. First, the music went. Then the fat grandfathers and beautiful grandmothers. Then the fried pizza dough. Then the marching bands, until all that was left were shadows and memories and stories we grandchildren held in our hearts.
We still cooked the four-hour sauces, but they never tasted the same. We listened to the music though we didn’t know the words. The spirit of the festival was lost to us.
And we remembered fondly those forgotten festivities as they were replaced by cheap carnivals in superstore parking lots. Tranquil chaos just became chaos. Soulful songs became top forty hits. Games became rigged and rides turned into “death traps” according to our parents.
But to this day, we remember the festivals. We close our eyes and remember community and sparklers and family and fun and food. We remember how to curse in Italian. And we wait in hope for those Italian villages to return, even if only in our dreams.