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

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Easter Dinner, Reunions, And Kinship–The Myth Of The Extended Family

Any excuse was good enough for a family gathering at the Petruccis.  They didn’t need weddings, funerals, or the incidence of distant relatives coming to town.  Every Sunday was a family affair – Cousin Connie and her brood from Ansonia; Harry Grillo from across the street; Leona Paolillo and her third husband; and the Garaffas, second cousins once removed from Angie Petrucci, uninvited guests but never turned away.  No one knew how Angie did it – antipasto, lasagna, ham and turkey, corn fritters, eggplant, and ricotta pie not just for Easter but on any given holiday, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.  Family gatherings were a natural for her, and better even the second cousins than friends from work, the university, or one neighborhood over.  She put up with Uncle Harry’s stories of Neapolitan royalty, the Mussolini family, and how Garibaldi stayed with his great-great grandparents on his way through Alife.

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She let Cousin Josephine take seconds and thirds on the eclairs, specially ordered from Luciabella’s, let Little Buster trample the ivy, and let Lou Lehman, the Jewish husband of Aunt Margaret, go on about stocks and real estate.  It all was part of the family thing, the never-questioned value of shared bloodlines.  An Italian thing, a Jewish one, an Irish one, and one familiar to anyone whose family came over on the boat – not so today when immigrants come over one-off and under the fence. 

Angie died a number of years ago.  She had given up her Sunday affairs after she moved into a condo on Westwalk and then into a nursing home.  The next generation – with the exception of one cousin who was as old Italian as his aunt, kept his children nearby, cooked pasta and roasts every Sunday, was a member of the Knights of Columbus, and arranged Easter dinner for all – moved far out of New Haven and gave up on family business.  They were, once and for all, Americans for whom the two-parent, two-children, no relatives assimilation model was it, and who gave a sigh of relief when the trips to Wooster Square, the endless meals at Angie’s, and the irrelevance of distant relatives were things of the past.  For as much as Angie liked her Sunday dinners, and while her generation’s cousins, aunts, and uncles still liked the Old World family busyness, their children did not. 

Image result for images wooster square new haven early 1900s

Italians and Jews were the last to give up on Old World traditions.  For them there was a stick-togetherness which was only partly derived from discrimination, and had more to do with some ancestral uber-bonding.  A social conservatism, bred from poverty and difficult conditions in Europe, but something more fundamental – a sense that family was ipso facto important, that family ties were the most binding, and that love had its alpha and omega in family.  The Irish, Poles, Scandinavians, and other Europeans who came to America were far less emotionally attached to each other, and gave in more easily to the customs of the New World; but the vestiges of old family traditions never completely disappeared.

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Today, even families that had no particular roots or traditions are gathering for family reunions.  A rediscovery of something which more than likely never existed, but a continuation of the myth.  At least Angie Petrucci’s cousins lived within fifty miles of New Haven, still ate bugnuts and pasta fazool, and had common memories of the Old Country.  Families reunions today are of name only. 

The Carpenters, the Lewises, the Albrittons gather every five years or so in a different place, wear name tags, and catch up on exactly how they are related; but share little more than a family tree.  The need to get together was never known nor made explicit.  It was just done.  An excuse to get away.  An anticipation of finding some family treasure or infidel.

For some families, these get-togethers become something of a juggernaut, displacing other events.  The Blakes’ yearly reunion in Boise was peremptory – participation was never voluntary, although the California faction resented the invitations, and the for the Virginia contingent the cookouts and rafting never outweighed the transfers in Denver and Chicago, they were expected.  No matter how incidental or strained family relationships might be, attendance was obligatory.  No matter how indifferent one might be to garrulous aunts or overbearing uncles or slow cousins, it was family that counted – or at least was supposed to count.

Attentiveness and love of immediate family is not the question.  It is simply when ‘family’ becomes a concept, an ideal, or a vision that the trouble begins. 

The best perspective is that of in-laws, the family outliers, those admitted by marriage but never really included.  They watch the hijinks with amusement, boredom, and indifference.  From the inside family reunions may seem the yearly annealing and bonding they are purported to be; but from the outside they are collective events that simply come and go.  Most of the distant relatives assembled on Lake Echo or Big Fish River are forgotten as soon as the plane leaves the ground; yet the organizers have already planned the next event, venue, and activity list.

Those without families – only children of only child parents – do quite well without family, free to choose friends and acquaintances, vacations, and celebrations with no prescribed agenda or protocol.  They are happy within their nuclear family, even happier when grandchildren are born, but unimpressed and un-tempted by large families and their large family doings. 
It’s all pleasant enough.  The Western mountains, the Adirondacks, Pacific Grove all congenial places for family gatherings, and for those for whom such gatherings meant little there were easy outs.  The Idaho Falls bar scene was a nice amalgam of ranchers, retirees, and casual visitors.  The Northern Neck and Carmel were close and accessible. For all the family affairs – four course dinners, venison and pork sausage lunches, and English breakfasts – there was always refuge.  In-laws in particular wondered what the fuss was all about.  Distant relations from as far afield as County Cork and Chianace, as unknown to the Blakes as Times Square incidental tourists, were welcomed as old, dear, and close family; but more often than not drifted off into the woods, the oyster bars along Fisherman’s Wharf, and among the racing crowd at Mel’s.

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Close family – mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, and grandparents – have always been a counted-upon safety net, called upon for special comfort, supportive love, and familiarity; but once one left the inner rings and extended well beyond and outside any bounds of real intimacy, what was the point?  Did Aunt Sybil, Park Avenue matron, aunt by marriage and a second marriage at that, merit any special attention or interest? Were the Delaware cousins who had never strayed more than twenty miles outside of town and who, even after years of trying, never managed any upward mobility, worth any attention whatsoever? Or the Santoros who got no further than Wallingford in their trajectory?

There is said to be something important and essential about extended and historical families.  Not only do the Feisterville Reillys and Dundalk Murphys have something important to contribute – stories of poverty in County Clare, whisky running in the days of Connolly, Behan, Collins, and Emmett – and not only do the histories of the Fanuccis and Petrillos, Sorrentino gangsters and New Haven mafiosi add nothing of importance.  They re irrelevant to the lives of New Haven undertakers, florists, and pharmacists which followed.

Matter how? is the question. An outsider to the New Haven or Wilmington families would see nothing unusual other than American second generation Europeans celebrating confraternity, ethnicity, bi-cultural history with nothing more than a few pints of Guinness, eggplant parmigiana, and some tall tales to combine them.   Families are repetitive iterations of the same thing – the same stories of cultural unease, striving, getting beat up, and family rivalries, all uninteresting for their awkward similarity, good for a few laughs for descendants.  Who wants to be them? No one.

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Family reunions – like weddings and funerals – are supposed to be resolving events.  Old jealousies and suspicions laid aside, hands shaken, and rent fabric resewn.  Such events are usually anything but.  Uncle Harry is still a buffoon, Aunt Sophia a harridan, and Cousin Benny an obnoxious comer – an insurance salesman with no reins, an intrusive cipher with Aunt Angie’s entry card.

Close family squabbles must be resolved.  Brothers and sisters should not fight, resent, or harbor injustices.  Extended family differences are matters only for gossip, rumor, and innuendo; and family reunions are venues for confirmation of the above.  Nothing is ever accomplished, and no great emotional epiphanies ever result.

Better the cousins,  distant aunts and uncles should stay in Ireland or Southern Italy; Bayonne or the North Shore; Brooklyn, or the North End.  Everyone will be better off.,

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