In his post about the traditions surrounding St. Joseph’s eve, Dominic Preziosi recounts his Italian in-laws’ encounters with their Irish neighbors in a long-ago Jersey City. His descriptions of the feuds and the ethnic resentments—and ultimately the friendships and even a marriage—between these first- and second-generation families, brought back memories of my own experience growing up straddling the Irish-Italian cultural divide in the 50s and 60s.
I am, you see, the product of a mixed marriage.
My father, James Thomas Hannan, Jr. a first-generation Irish-American Catholic, met Josephine Judith Vitagliano, a first-generation Italian-American Catholic, while he was recovering from an appendectomy at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, NJ. She was a nurse who cared for him and his roommate. Self-assured and outgoing, she made them an offer: the first one to leave the hospital could ask her on date. And if that weren’t cheeky enough, she gave them each a rose from a discarded vase in another room.
A week later, my father showed up at my grandparents’ house with a bouquet of 11 roses, a gesture at once so romantic and fraught (he had ventured into the “other” part of town), that I can’t imagine how the man I came to know had conceived of, let alone carried out, such a stunt. Yet, there he was with his blue eyes, brown wavy hair, and light skin standing among his future in-laws curiously eyeing this Amerigan.
However awkward that initial encounter may have been for my father, I’m sure that my mother’s introduction to my Irish grandparents was just as uncomfortable—for my grandparents.
Did I mention that my mother was self-assured and outgoing? I’m sure that James and Esther Hannan didn’t know what to make of the big personality that had invaded their home and their lives.
Despite whatever lingering misgivings their families harbored, my parents continued to date. My father was drafted into the Army during the early days of WWII, and my parents were married in my mother’s Italian parish during one of my father’s leaves. He was shipped out to Europe soon after and, as fate would have it, he served his entire tour in Italy. He came home sometime after VE Day to start a family and launch a career.
When I was born, my parents and I spent six months living with my Italian grandparents. We then moved into a housing complex—barracks, essentially—that had been newly built for returning GIs. We lived in those drafty, drab units for a couple of years until my brother came along. Needing more room, my parents bought a house in my Irish grandparents’ parish, St. Mary’s in Paterson. Its pastor was Ireland-born, Msgr. John F. Brady, and most of the parishioners were Irish-American. That was to change in the late-fifties. Much to Msgr. Brady’s chagrin, Italians began migrating into the parish; the bishop even saw fit to assign an Italian-American curate. The good monsignor eventually developed an uneasy tolerance for the Eyetalians. After all, it was the Christian thing to do. And, he couldn’t fail to notice how many of these newcomers gave so generously to the Sunday collections, the building fund drives, and the bishop’s appeals.
Within my family—and, perhaps, because we were family, despite the ethnic differences—the tensions weren’t quite so pronounced as they were between Msgr. Brady and his Italian parishioners or between Dominic’s relatives and the Irish kids they grew up with.
But, there were tensions, and they were manifested in the respective families’ approach to life and religion.
Family life for my Italian relatives was a ritual of togetherness. Every Sunday at noon, my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins descended on my grandparents’ house for Sunday gravy. Later in the afternoon, other relatives would arrive bearing cakes and sweets. The evening was capped off with a card game conducted at the kitchen table in a haze of cigarette smoke.
My mother’s attempts to forge the same type of bond with my Irish grandparents were met with a combination of bemusement and discomfort. The Irish side of the family loved each other’s company and had great times when they all got together. They just didn’t get together all that often, and didn’t really see the need to do so.
A number of colorful characters made their way through my Italian grandparents’ lives over the years. They all seemed to have nicknames: Blackie, Shorty, Musty, Bracciole, Shaky, Meat-a-Meat. There was Uncle “Cholly” from Pennsylvania, whose rheumy eyes and Errol Flynn mustache gave him an unsavory air. There was Jimmy Inverso, always reeking of garlic and Vitalis, who brought back exotic meats and cheeses from his frequent trips to Italy, and who gave my brothers and me silver dollars for Christmas. And who can forget the gravelly-voiced Goomada Lucy, her teeth, fingers, and hair stained yellow-brown from the nicotine of her chain-smoked cigarettes.
The only memorable visitors to my Irish grandparents’ house were Willy and Annie from Brooklyn—Brooklyn, that faraway land that was home to Ebbets Field and my beloved Dodgers. I remember peppering Willie with questions about Flatbush and Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson, but somehow I never caught him sober.
My grandparents were also a study in contrasts.
James Hannan, Sr. worked in a foundry, drank Schaefer beer, smoked Robert Burns cigarillos, and loved his roller derby. On the other side of town, Arturo Vitagliano, a tailor trained in the “old country,” worked in various clothing shops over years, enjoying the occasional glass of wine, L&M cigarettes, and those damn New York Yankees. He also enjoyed teasing my brothers and me about our mixed heritage, affectionately referring to us as Irish eficie (dumb Irish).
Carmela Vitagliano and Essie Hannan were matriarchs with distinctly different approaches to cooking and life. Carmela spent more than half of her life at the stove preparing simple, yet memorable meals. Many of the ingredients were grown in her extensive garden, which also included a grape arbor, and fig, peach, and mulberry trees. Essie always put a serviceable meal on the table, but I’m hard-pressed to recall one. Her clam chowder, however, which she sent over every Friday in Lent, is a taste that I long for till this day. When hardship befell her family, Carmela would sigh with fatalistic resignation, “Whaddya gonna do?”In similar circumstances, Essie, with a twinkle in her eye, would offer, “Ain’t that awful?” Maybe that’s why my grandfather lovingly called her “the old battle axe.”
Most Sundays we attended Mass at St. Mary’s. From the beginning, Introibo ad altare Dei, to the ending, Ita, missa est, my Irish grandparents were, shall I say, prayerfully attentive. On those rare occasions when we visited the Italian-American Blessed Sacrament, we were treated to a more emotive brand of worship. My grandmother, rosary draped over one hand, prayer book clenched in the other, seemed caught up in the ceremony. (My grandfather had stopped attending Mass before I was born. When I would plead with him to return, he said he would if “the priests” allowed him to take up the collection. I naively thought that his request was serious—and not all that unreasonable.)
Growing up in the gravitational pull of these distinct spheres could at times be disconcerting. I measured my identity with competing cultural markers. Some days, I was Italian, others, Irish. (Imagine my dilemma when I had to choose a side when my Irish and Italian classmates gathered for the annual St. Patrick’s Day brawl in the school courtyard.) Yet, the tensions that I had internalized were somehow transmuted into an enriching whole, a unique hybrid that I happily embrace.
Such is the grace of a mixed marriage.