Posts tagged: Family

Family Loss

By , February 11, 2016

This past weekend I delivered the eulogy at my Aunt Mary’s burial mass. Unsurprisingly, I spent much of the 48 hours prior thinking about what I would say. As I began composing what would become the eulogy I found myself lamenting not just the death of my beloved aunt, but the disappearance of an entire way of life that she represented.

The house in which I grew up was next door to that of my aunt and uncle, and most of my earliest childhood memories include them as often as they do my own parents. My two older brothers blur together with my three cousins next door. Numerous other relatives lived within either walking, or short driving, distance, and my entire childhood in Hawthorne is an unending melange of family members coming and going. Most notably, Sundays were full of family, as my grandparents had always come to Aunt Mary’s house every week after mass, which meant that all the other relatives usually came, too. The cast varied, but every Sunday, week after week for 25 or 30 years, members of the Gioia, Dragotto, Galatioto, Cicinelli, Leone, and Gallante families, to name but a few, came together to eat, drink, talk, play pinochle, share family stories, or watch television. I have but the dimmest recollection, if even any at all, of my Sicilian grandparents, but the Sunday tradition continued even after their deaths. My oldest brother has the clearest memories of these weekly gatherings, and he says it wasn’t unusual for him to be one of 15 or 20 children present, along with countless adult aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, spouses, and others in attendance every Sunday.

For me, being surrounded by family in some capacity was a constant, until one day, it wasn’t. Crime in Los Angeles, especially the area in which we lived, had grown so bad that we had no choice but to move. My father owned a shoe store, and after yet another robbery at gunpoint my parents decided to sell the house and the store and move six hours north to Sonoma County. While the move was undoubtedly for the best in terms of safety, and clean air, it meant we suddenly had no family anywhere nearby. We weren’t the only ones, either. Family by family, we all left Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, moving to cities that were safer and serener, but also sterile and solitary. Where once we saw family every day, and gathered en masse after mass every Sunday, we now see each other perhaps every 10 to 15 years, at either a wedding or a funeral. Case in point: this weekend I met adults who were infants the last time I saw them.

I know ours wasn’t the only large family of Italians that once gathered at least once a week, and I’m equally certain that most who did, no longer do. The breakup of our clan mirrors that of most immigrant families in America. Before the 1970s, it was unusual if first and second generation immigrant families did not live, if not on the same block as multiple family members, then within a mile or two of nearly all their relatives. A family bought a house, and everyone moved in. As the family grew, or could afford to buy another home, they bought the house next door, or across the street. This began with immigrants congregating in specific parts of town, as when my grandfather came to the U.S. and moved into a tenement on Elizabeth Street, in New York’s Little Italy, because that block was populated not just by Sicilians, but primarily by Sicilians specifically from his hometown of Castellammare del Golfo. The next block was also Sicilian, but Sicilians from a different city. It was no surprise that when he met his wife, who lived on the same block as him, she was another Castellammarese.

Even as the family moved West, first to Detroit, then later to Los Angeles, the tradition of families living in close proximity continued, as did the tradition of immigrants from the same region moving to the same part of a city, and we were but one of many large Italians families living in Hawthorne. Living amongst others from the same Old Country made sense when it came time to marry off the younger, American-born, generation. In fact, when the Depression hit, my grandparents sent their eldest son to Los Angeles to scout for opportunity. He met with another Sicilian family and sent word for the rest of the family to move. The Gioias trekked across the country and stayed for a few nights with that family, the Dragottos, until they found a home of their own. Later, that eldest Gioia son would marry a Dragotto daughter, and the youngest Gioia, my recently departed and dearly missed Aunt Mary, would marry a younger Dragotto son, my Uncle Jack. (It was something of a minor crisis in my family when my father didn’t marry the Sicilian girl who’d been hand-picked for him by his family, and instead married a Mexican girl, but she was quickly adopted into the family and in short time became as Italian as anyone else.)

The automobile, then the interstate highway system, then the airplane, and now the internet have all served to give people greater mobility, and have also served to break up the close familial unit. As a society, we’ve tried to replace family with friends, often united by some shared interest. Whether it’s fans of the same sports team gathering regularly to watch their team’s games, either at a stadium or someone’s home, science fiction buffs attending weekly role-playing game sessions, or friends who bonded over an appreciation for some sub-genre of music meeting regularly at live shows or discotheques to listen, and dance, to their favorite bands together, there is usually some unifying force around which these friends rally, but whatever that force, it never seems as strong as the bond that family provides.

Friends move, interests change, former best friends marry and begin to raise children, and disputes or breakups polarize friendships. Perhaps most notably, age separates friends. Few, if any, groups of friends run the age gamut from infant to septuagenarian, as common interests, not to mention societal mores, don’t typically promote such interactions. The bond of family offers something else, a sort of true connection and shared history, the weight of which can’t be matched within a circle of friends. Your grandchildren will never care how your friend’s friend met his wife, but they will relish the tale of how your grandparents met.

What does this all mean? Hell if I know. About the only thing that I do know is that my generation had something important, something that dated back 200,000 years to the emergence of man and lasted until about the mid-1970s, taken from it during our childhood, and that subsequent generations will never even have that something to begin with. I think not having a large family in close proximity at all times has created a massive and unfillable void in our collective lives, and try as we might to replace that need with the ephemeral substitute of friends, we’ll never find a true replacement for what a family offers.

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Goodbye

By , November 23, 2005

Thank you for a lifetime of love and guidance. I would never have made it this far, or done as well, without you. You gave me the raw material to work with, and the drive and vision to use it. I would not be the man I am today without you. Whenever people compliment me on my manners, I always tell them that they should be thanking you. I learned from your example. That and the yardstick you could mysteriously produce from thin air under seemingly any circumstances. If I ever failed to follow the etiquette lessons you provided, or misbehaved in any fashion, then wham! I would get a not-so-gentle reminder from the Yardstick of Etiquette across my backside. But in all seriousness, you taught me how to be a good human being. You always put your children and your family first, but you never took advantage of any other person. I never once knew you to lie to anyone about anything for any reason, nor did I ever know you to fail to keep your word to anyone. You seemed always to do the right thing, and instilled in me a belief in doing likewise.

We became even closer in recent years. When Dad passed away, we leaned on each other. When you needed a date for your 50th high school reunion, you asked me to the dance. When Vernon Bean annihilated Pinky, you were by my side. When Sue disappeared, I turned to you for solace and guidance. I tried to brighten your remaining days and made sure you received the best treatment available. You always made a big deal out of the weekly trips I made to get you to the doctor, but for me they were a joy. I got to know you, and through you my father, so much better in these past two years than I think I did in all the years we had together before them.

Until I grew up and left home, I assumed all families were like ours– always happy. I never realized that so many people had fights with their siblings and/ or parents. That other people sometimes left home, or went to bed angry. I took for granted, and was probably spoiled by, the fact that you and Dad taught all four of us to be moral, honest, caring individuals who love one another, and work to make the world around us a better place first, and for ourselves second.

I miss you already. I’m still continuing your quest to pay that man back for the milkshake. Maybe some day, together we’ll have paid the debt. Goodbye, Mom.

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Another Wild Saturday Night

By , July 2, 2005

My job usually keeps me busy on Saturday nights. For example, later tonight I’m putting on a casino party in San Francisco. As it happened, last weekend I had Saturday night off. I was spending it eating pie with two of my nephews when the phone rang at around 10:00 PM. It was Alice, a woman who used to work with my mother. She told me to turn on C-SPAN because they were showing my older brother giving some sort of speech. I dutifully trudged into the other room and turned on the television set. Sure enough, as promised, there he was; wearing a silly robe no less. It was a re-broadcast of the commencement address he gave for Seton Hall’s graduation this year. A moment later, the phone rang again. It was Ronzie, another family friend. “Your brother is on C-SPAN!” she shouted at me. No sooner did I hang up than the phone again rang– yet another friend reporting to me that they were watching my brother on C-SPAN.

I couldn’t help but wonder why all these people were watching C-SPAN in the first place. I realize that “eating pie” is not exactly a night on the town, but hey, I’m just not used to having a free Saturday night. Why does the rest of the free world seem to be home watching C-SPAN? Am I missing out? Is the C-SPAN Saturday night line-up must-see TV? Isn’t it normally a rerun of the Assistant Secretary of the House Subcommittee on Corrugated Piping giving a speech about ditch-digging to an empty room? I have clearly missed a major shift in the viewing habits of the American public.

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It Isn’t Christmas Without a Knife Fight

By , December 26, 2004

If you have never met my family, it will be understandable if you think this post is an exaggeration, if not a downright fabrication, but I promise it is all true. I’ll spare you the mundane details, but our Christmas Eve dinner, which we chose to spend at a local restaurant, turned into a semi-brawl that pitted me, my mother, and my older brother against the restaurant owner, the chef, and the kitchen staff. It began with the owner making a snide comment to my sister-in-low, which we ignored, but later he insulted me, at which point we decided to have a merry old time and cause a good old-fashioned “scene.” Even still, it wasn’t until the owner began shouting into the face of my dear, old mother that the fisticuffs began. At that point, one of the sous-chefs came at me with a knife. I disarmed him, and held him at bay which unsettled the owner to the point where he gave in and endured a stern talking-to from my brother.

Christmas dinner was much calmer. (How could it have been otherwise?) Fizzy and I spent 7 hours in the kitchen preparing what was hopefully a grand feast for the family. I stuffed and roasted a goose, I did. All my life I’d wanted to eat a roasted goose on Christmas, and by golly 2005 was the year for it.

Today’s Question: What did Santa Bring You?

I got many neat toys under the tree. One was a juicer. Now I can have freshly squeezed grapefruit juice all the time.

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So Much for That Idea

By , November 8, 2004

My mom and her friend took a trip from California to Washington, DC, via Amtrak. She loves riding trains; so do I. We have been thinking of doing this cross-Canada train trip thing together. I spoke to her on the phone today to see how the trip went.

Greg: Ma! Welcome home…how was your trip? Did you have fun on the train?

Mom: You can screw going through Canada on a train.

Amtrak’s slogan is What a Difference a Train Makes. They made a difference alright, just not the one they intended to make.

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Arcade Fire – Tunnels

By , September 15, 2004

And if the snow buries my,
My neighborhood.
And if my parents are crying
Then I’ll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours,
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours.
You climb out the chimney
And meet me in the middle,
The middle of the town

I’ve been playing this song over and over and over for more than a week. I can’t get enough of it, and I cannot wait for the supposedly soon-to-come album.

Currently Playing: Arcade Fire – Tunnels

I am not using hyperbole when I say that this song may be finest combination of deeply profound, poetic lyrics and a beautiful tune I have ever heard. I am fully prepared to crown this song as just that. There may well be songs with a prettier tune, and songs with even more poignant lyrics, but none that I know have both to the degree that this one does. There are more levels to this song than I can yet comprehend, and with every listen I feel I have grasped some new element of its meaning.

I’m going to try to break down some of what I take away from the song, so bear with me as I suddenly get all abstract and emotional.

But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms,
And our parent’s bedrooms,
And the bedrooms of our friends

They have hit upon something so powerful there– the bedrooms of our parents and our friends. I think I speak for nearly everyone when I say that as a child, though willing and able to run rampant through the rest of the house, I treated my parents’ bedroom with a sense of awe and respect. It wasn’t quite off-limits, but it was certainly semi-hallowed ground, and now that I’m grown-up I remember it as somehow mysterious and larger than life. Now, that alone would have been enough of an allusion to elevate this song to the “super hella profound and deep” category, but then they immediately take it one step further– the bedrooms of our friends.

If there was trepidation in the bedroom of my parents, there was a magic in the bedrooms of my friends. At that age, your bedroom is the only place where you have any autonomy; beyond how you dress, the posters with which you adorn your bedroom walls are nearly your sole expression of self. Seeing what someone else did with their tiny corner of the world always made me question how my own little kingdom looked. Today, years later, I remember those rooms with a hallowed sense of nostalgia. The hours spent listening to music or just wondering about life were all framed by the environment of some friend’s bedroom. I hadn’t thought about it before, but that one little line in this song floods my mind with memories every time I hear it.

Arcade Fire - Tunnels

If I had to offer an overarching meaning, I’d say this is a song about growing up unprepared for the world that we must face as adults. Either because of death, absence, or plain negligence, so many of our parents just aren’t there to guide us, and we’re on our own. We’re a generation of children in adult’s bodies, going through the motions of adulthood without ever having earned it. That is just my take on the lyrics, and I’m sure there are many other ways to interpret this song. In truth, there are certainly numerous meanings intertwined with one another. The only certainty is that it is a song charged with powerful symbolism and poetic wordplay, perhaps none so more than when the chorus comes in for the final time: it arrives with one extra line, and it’s a line that ups the ante exponentially:

You change all the lead
Sleeping in my head to gold,
As the day grows dim,
I hear you sing a golden hymn,
The song I’ve been trying to sing

The song I’ve been trying to sing. That feeling or emotion that is forever in the back of your mind, and one you know, if you could just bring it forward, would make all the difference in the world; but one you can’t put it into concrete form. It remains hovering just behind your consciousness. To hear someone singing it– would that be to experience a moment where someone is able to make sense of everything in your life that has heretofore been a confused jumble? Or would it only add to the confusion, when a moment later the song is gone and you can’t remember exactly how it went, and it too ends up buried in the recesses of your mind, a haunting melody that you need to hear again but know you never will.

I’m normally a very literal, to-the-point writer, and when I try to put my emotional response to a song like this onto paper (computer screen?) I fear I am lacking. Much like the golden hymn in the song, I’m afraid that I am only skirting around what I feel because there really aren’t words that convey what I am feeling; or, if such words do exist, I do not know them.

Purify the colors, purify my mind
And spread the ashes of the colors
Over this heart of mine!

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Ten Years

By , September 11, 2004

I’ve been ruminating about my future lately. Most of the time, I feel as if I have a solid foundation underfoot, and my life is going in the direction I want to see it go, but once in awhile I catch myself wondering if somehow I should be doing more. It’s like there is this check list of the basics in life,

significant other
family
friends
career
financial stability
general fulfillment
and so on,

and I have a nice check next to each one, and it’s allowing me to sort of coast along a little bit. Is there some way I could be doing more? Could I be changing the world around me in positive way more than I already am, if I even am doing so at all? Is it enough to have nailed down all the fundamental aspects of life, or should I be striving to “take it to another level,” or however one would say it in the Attitudinal Beliefs patois?

I asked myself– where will I be ten years from now? Will I still live here in my college apartment? Will I be doing the same job? Will I be married? Will I be a father? Just what will I be doing come 2014? Or will the Mayans have risen from the dead and eaten us all by then, so it won’t even matter? I didn’t have a very precise answer to any of those questions.

Nothing else in this world seems to stay the same, so who is to say that the person I am right now won’t also be subject to that state of eternal flux that plagues everything else. Whatever is taken for granted today could be gone tomorrow, or I may lose the things I need later on; or they might not even be there in the first place. I have no idea what I am talking about anymore.

My life is great right now, but it could probably be even better. I hope ten years from now I can re-read this blog and say without a doubt that I bettered my life since authoring it.

Today’s Question: Ten years from now. You. Well?

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Any Independence Day Ideas?

By , June 28, 2004

Sue and I have no plans for the Fourth of July. Usually we visit my parents, but nothing is happening at the homestead this year. What are the rest of you doing? Does anyone have a recommendation for fun things we can do?

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Bunny Berigan – I Can’t Get Started

By , March 2, 2004

I was happily surprised that so many of you enjoyed the story last time, and as such I shall now tell you the rest of it. As before, I will tell the tale in the context of a song that is relevant to the story.

Currently Playing: Bunny Berigan – I Can’t Get Started

When we left off, Daddy and Mommy were back together in L.A., except they weren’t Daddy and Mommy yet. They were just two people who liked to hang out together. At that time, she worked at a soda fountain and he drove a taxi. On her breaks, she’d sometimes sit in his cab and they’d listen to the radio. Their favorite thing to hear was the now-legendary Joe Hernandez calling the horse races at Santa Anita.

Naturally, my mom had a fiancee at the time, but she apparently wasn’t too serious about him, for when my dad asked her to go on a date, she agreed. On their date, he took her to the racetrack at Santa Anita to see the horse races they’d previously only heard on the radio. According to my mom, the combination of the day at the races and a hot roast beef sandwich he bought her at the track (a big deal to her as she was very poor) was enough to win her over, so when soon thereafter he asked her to elope to Las Vegas with him soon thereafter, she said “yes.”

Bunny Berigan - I Can't Get Started 78

They each brought a friend along to act as a witness for the wedding, and drove to Las Vegas to tie the knot. However, this story does not have the happy ending you may be expecting. My mom got cold feet at the altar and said “no.” It worked out sort of okay, because the two friends they’d brought to act as witnesses decided to get married instead, so the chaplain still had someone to marry. In the meantime, while the newlyweds stayed to honeymoon, my parents had to make the awkward drive back to Los Angeles.

I’ve flown around the world in a plane
I’ve settled revolutions in Spain
And the North Pole I have charted
Still I can’t get started with you

While driving her home, my dad sang “I Can’t Get Started” to my mom. She said it was the first time she’d ever heard it, and to this day it is one of her favorite songs. Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, they kept seeing one another, and eventually, they tried again and eloped (successfully) to Tijuana, and they lived happily ever after. Until Peasprout was born and behaved very brattily. The end.

I’ve been consulted by Franklin D.
Greta Garbo has had me to tea
Still, I’m broken-hearted
‘Cause I can’t get started with you.

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Frankie Laine – That’s My Desire

By , March 1, 2004

My father’s parents both emigrated from Sicily, independently of one another. They met in New York, fell in love, and got married. I think they hoped/ expected their children would also marry Sicilians. Their eldest, my uncle, married a Sicilian girl, and the youngest, my aunt, was set to marry that girl’s younger brother in an arranged marriage. Did that make sense? Anyway, you’d think that two out of three ain’t bad, but when my father began dating my mom, who was Mexican, they were not very happy. They went as far as to send my dad back to Detroit (they’d moved from New York to Detroit before coming to Los Angeles) to meet the nice Sicilian girl they had arranged for him to marry. It was all for naught. He pretended to go along with the plan, and arranged to return to Los Angeles to purchase a ring or some such thing, but it was all trickeration and chicanery, and once he got back to California he stayed for good.

Currently Playing: Frankie Laine – That’s My Desire

Meanwhile, Frankie Laine was all the rage in the world of music. The song that made him famous was “That’s My Desire,” which had made it as far as number four on the charts back in 1946. You can click the above link to hear the song, if that is your desire. Haw haw. Get it?

When my dad got back to Los Angeles he learned that Frankie Laine was scheduled to perform in Hollywood that night, and immediately asked my mom out on a date. She said she would go out with him, but there was a show she really wanted to see. He told her that he also had something in mind he wanted to do, but maybe they could do both. They didn’t need to, as she had the Frankie Laine concert in Hollywood in mind too. So they went, and lived happily ever after. Later that year they were married, and after some time my grandparents finally accepted Mom into the family, and turned her into an honorary Sicilian.

Frankie Laine - That Lucky Old Sun

The song came on the radio the other night as I was driving my Mom home from her weekly chemotherapy appointment. My father passed away a little over two years ago, but he and my mother had more than 50 happy years of marriage before they did, and he’s still missed. My mother shared the story with me, and I liked it so much that I am now sharing it with you.

I am realizing that as you age, your life becomes more and more memories of the past, and less about the present or the future. I hope I’m making the most of my youth while I have it, and creating lasting memories to one day share with my offspring. Today’s Question: Are you?

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