"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

He Reminds Me Of Uncle Harry–What Nasty Tricks DNA Will Play!

Uncle Harry was a celebrated member of the Petrucci family, an icon really – an eccentric, unique, outrageous man who wore checks and plaids, pinched bottoms, ran a successful car dealership in Ansonia, and was the paterfamilias of five children and 10 grandchildren.

Harry had five sisters and three brothers, each with their own large families who had produced as many grandchildren as his own.  As a result the Petrucci family – married to the Iezzi, Minetta, Gandolfi, and Scarlucci families and, surprisingly  for that particular ethnic parochial era, the Lehman family.  Lou Lehrman was always invited to Aunt Angela’s Easter dinners with his wife, a second cousin of the Gandolfis, tolerated only because of his wife but otherwise marginalized, never really included, but never a bore either. 

The Gandolfis were always looking for ‘the Lehrman nose’ in his offspring and theirs – a not-so-subtle reference to his Jewishness.  It was said that one of his long-ago ancestors was a Medici, although recent history abjures the idea that the family was Jewish, an incorrect ascription because they were bankers and moneylenders.  They were most decidedly Catholic; but Lou Lehrman played on the notion to claim a quasi-Jewish but fully Italian heritage.

Image result for images lorenzo de medici

Most of the families seated around Aunt Angela’s dinner table could care less about Lou’s lineage or ancestry.  All they knew was that he was Jewish, and ‘the Lehrman nose’ was of concern because it could show up anywhere.

Stories breed stories, and legends breed legends; and so each of the families in the genealogical network of the Petruccis had their own stories that went far back in history, perhaps not so far as 15th century Florence, but well back before Garibaldi.  There were proud stories of nationalist heroes, outlaws, philanderers, and embezzlers.  As long as any distant relative was outsized and remarkable, his picture was put up on the mantle piece and he had a place at the table.   Descendants were just as proud of Don Garaffa and his mafia kingdom of lower Sicily as they were Prince Umberto II of Lombardy.  Although Garaffa was from the South, and Umberto was from the whiter, Northern regions of Italy, both were members of the same family clan.

Image result for images italian prince renaissance

“He looks just like Uncle Harry”, said Marfa Bigotti, of her new niece Albert. “The nose, the eyes, and especially the chin”.

Leona Iezzi demurred out of respect, but there was no way that her beautiful baby boy looked at all like Harry Petrucci or any of the Petruccis for that matter.  He favored the other side of the family – her side of the family – with hazel eyes, soft brown hair, and far more fair than any of Harry’s family.  Even after many generations in America, swarthy Italians still hoped and prayed for a blond, blue-eyed child.  Somewhere in the distant past of their genetic history there must have been an Alexander the Great to whom modern day Indians in Maharashtra with hazel eyes claim heritage.  Who knew? Who could decipher the double helix?

Looks were the least of it, although fair skin, regular features, and good size are always good signs.  Of course there was Cousin Guido who despite his ‘African’ looks became one of the most successful financiers in Southern New Jersey, a man who ran an independent investment banking operation from Trenton, challenged the Wall Street big boys in retail, currency, and the emerging IT markets.  His looks never stopped him, and his financial successes were reason enough for a beautiful young thing from Philadelphia to marry him; and as luck would have it, his children looked more Irish than Italian; and he was the talk of Aunt Angela’s table.  “How could a cretin like that father such beautiful children?”, the Garaffas, Iezzis, and Gandolfis whined.

Italians were no different from Jews, Poles, or Irish for whom class, color, status, and stature had always been important – of primary importance, actually, because those at the head of the line usually finished first.  Looks were important, and anyone who told you differently had not looked very far; and despite the prevailing prejudices of the 50s, a tall, attractive, commanding, sexy Italian-looking man could move ahead more easily than those with less charm, physical appeal, and the right attitude.  Valentino was not the great star of American cinema in the 20s and early 30s for nothing.

Ivy League universities until the late 60s were very elite, white, WASP places.  There were quotas for Jews, a practice uncovered after the ascendancy of new progressive presidents and deans of studies and quickly rescinded.  The old alumni and boards of directors didn’t know quite what to do with this influx of Jewish boys from Brighton Beach who, if no accommodations were made, would have swamped the freshman class of 1970. 

New Harbor was a very Italian city at that time, and the aldermen were unhappy that  matriculated so few boys from the neighborhood.  The university always seemed to find an excuse; but they could not turn down Angelo D’Alessio, a young man from the local high school with a straight A average, good SAT scores, captain of the football team, and a promising young citizen.  When the university demurred and put him on the waiting list, the aldermen showed up en masse at the office of the dean.  Admit this young man, they said, or suffer the consequences.

Dean Carpenter was very sensitive to town-gown relations and in this dawning era of popular democracy any scent of white, Protestant elitism could hurt him and the university.  So he capitulated.  His unofficial remark in the margins of an April 1969 memo to a physics professor (‘Pass this ape’) was typical and luckily not discovered until many decades later.

The damage was already done – not the memo, but the admission of D’Alessio – and the university had no recourse but to follow up with what they called ‘Italo-search’, an early form of affirmative action.  The university made a significant outreach effort into the New Harbor and larger New England community to find qualified Italian Americans.  Needless to say the campaign was a success.  However, what kept the Old Guard still alive awake at night was that now everyone was admitted, and in fact there were  protests by Asian students asserting that their numbers have been limited by a quota system.

During this experimental period of the late 60s when new deans began to let in ‘everyone’, the diners at Angela’s Easter table were as happy as could be.  “About time”, said one.  “Columbus, Verazzano, Fermi, Michelangelo, Bernini”, said another.  The wall of prejudice was cracking.

They were right, for in subsequent years not only were Italians and Jews admitted to Yale and Harvard in record numbers, it was never given a second thought.  Attention was turned to blacks, Latinos, gays, and transgenders; and the heat was on the university to open its doors even wider.

Image result for images lgbt flag

“Can you imagine?”, said Peter Petrucci, now in his mid-nineties, referring to the growing LGBT lobby pressuring Yale.  “I am withholding my alumni contribution as of today”.

Now, the issues that old Italians faced are no longer. It matters far less if the new baby has blue eyes and blonde hair, a gently upturned nose, and a rosy complexion.  Intermarriage is so common that anything goes as far as race, culture, and ethnic origin is concerned.  Intermarriage between blacks and whites is still extremely uncommon, but admixture of whites and Latinos and especially whites and Asians is too frequent to mention.  Grandparents of a mixed white-Asian marriage remember Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzy Wong and are as happy as can be with the little, cute, Asian-looking sweetheart of a baby.

Image result for images nancy kwan

All of which means that the ‘who does he look like’ game has fewer consequences than ever before.  If anything the younger generation would prefer cloning.  Better that there be a complete deletion of the bits of Uncle Harry’s DNA that still float around in the gene pool rather than deal with them.  Yes, it would be nice to capture some of the Medicis and Garibaldis, and princes of Verona; but one cannot have everything, and it is far better to eliminate the bad and the ugly rather than take one’s chances on the good.

Aunt Angela is long dead and most of the diners at her Easter dinner table; and gone are the assumptions about heritage, genetics, and legacy.  If the baby is healthy, that is enough.  He will grow out of what looks like the Lehrman nose or the Garaffa ears; and even if he doesn’t, he is likely to have the Petrucci brains.

In other words, the fun has been taken out of baby recognition.  There is very little at stake now.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, fine hair mean less than they ever did in this multicultural world; and intelligence is fixed enough in DNA (50 percent or more, according to the latest scientific research) to reasonably assure an able child of two able parents. Of course some family anomalies may show up after generations – oddballs, hors de série surprises, changelings, even reprobates – but that is out of anyone’s control and in this age of inclusivity and social tolerance, irrelevant.

I for one miss Aunt Angela’s Easter dinners.  Everyone gossiped about everyone else.  Family lore was so mixed and intertwined that it made the truth impossible or irrelevant.  No one cared about veracity, only about presentation.  There was something collectively recognizable and noteworthy about the Petruccis for better or worse. 

Today, with a bit of sputum in a cup, the mystery of descent, heritage, and family influence can be solved.  No longer does anyone have to suffer Uncle Harry’s interminable stories about his great-father or Cousin Guido’s inflated accounts of his cousin in the employ of Al Capone.

I miss Aunt Angela’s ham pies, her antipasto, her gnocchi, and her Easter eggs; but Uncle Harry most of all.

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