Thursday, October 13, 2011

Prima Famiglia

I am one hundred percent Italian and second generation born in the United States of America. So, like most newcomers or immigrants my grandparents came over in a big ship that landed in New York. They settled in the Bronx. There is a little town known there, or should I say Avenue, "Arthur Avenue" that was/is predominantly Italian and has stayed that way until this very day. (I believe the mafia has some hand in keeping it exactly the same---yikes-you didn't hear that from me).

I grew up making monthly pilgrimages with my family back to the old place. Walking down the street as a child it was like we had landed in Italy itself. The people, the language, the shops-it was amazing. Every time we visited, my father would take us to all of the same shops-one being the poultry shop. As we approached it we could see all the live chickens in the store front window. It was kind of like a pet store, but only for selling chickens and yes, we got to take a chicken home, but not as a pet.

 I remember the very first time I ever entered. I was very excited thinking that we were going to have a pet chicken and take it back to Queens, New York. My father said, "Go ahead Ellie, go pick out the best and biggest chicken." I took the choosing very seriously- I studied them, watched them, talked with them, petted them, and when I found the chicken that was going to be my life long pet my father said, "Good job." The owner of the shop quickly grabbed the chicken by it's legs and carried it upside down to the other end of the store. I thought that wasn't very nice to do to my new friend. My father said to me, "Follow the man and watch." Watch what? I thought. Are they going to put a pretty pink bow around her neck? Put her in a cage so I could carry her home? Nope, that was not the plan. I watched as they lowered my screaming, cackling, new chicken friend into scalding hot water-into, what became, a silent grave. She came out not moving. She was dead. In complete fear, sadness, and shock tears began to roll down my cheeks. My father, on the other hand, seemed quite delighted with his new purchase of dead chicken and we briskly walked out of the store to join the rest of the family.

After that, we continued down the street popping in and out of shops. We would go into the bakery-all goods within it were Italian-(Didn't really need to mention that did I?) Anyway, entering the bakery was better than burning any yankee candle. If I try hard enough I can still smell that sweet aroma of fresh baked breads and cookies. I would stare at all the varied cookies and say to myself, ' If you could have any cookies which would you choose?" I would always choose one hundred canoles, a least fifty of the different almond cookies, and beg for a slice of Napoleon cake.

Next was the meat shop. ummm, no good memories there- moving on.

We would take a break and have lunch. I tell you in no other time in my life did I ever see my father get excited and smile more than when he was choosing the lunch for all of us. Who knows what he was saying to the waiter, but boy, when the food arrived there were massive amounts of it and all delicious. Pasta, meatballs, broccoli-rabe, breads, sauce, olives, artichokes, wine--delicious!

We were italian. We were family. And I knew my heritage.

'Prima familigia' translates: family is always first.  Growing up Italian, although I was of the Roman Catholic faith--family was my religion. God and family were equal. I'm serious-if you think i'm kidding just watch any clip of the Godfather movies-one, two or three. Yup, to Italians family is a religion. Also, I'd like to mention and to further prove my point- 'prima familigia' doesn't just mean 'family first' it is understood 'family is always first.' Italians do not have a phrase-family first- the way they would say it is 'prima famiglia' which to them means-family is always first--I ask you, how crazy is that!!??

Honestly, I never realized how much my family had a hold on me until a few short years ago. In the past, my family could abuse me, make fun of me, threaten my very life, and yet I was taught--you forgive, forget, and move on. Walking into the house where family was waiting- you came in smiling, hugging, kissing hello, and being joyous. Happy, happy-all the time.

So, when a few years ago, six to be exact, I was threatened with being 'cut-off,' (an Italian phrase which means a family member is disowned by another family member).  I felt like a whole part of me was dying. My family, like knowing Jesus today, was everything to me. I don't know if expressing myself in words will ever really convey the hardship I have gone through. It felt like I was being cut in half- a cutting- properly phrased- a cutting-off. My family was in my mannerisms. My family was in my voice, my hair, my face, my thoughts, my memories. Even my blood was family-that was drilled into my head over and over again-"We're blood, we're family"-(If you say it in a deep, Marlon Brando, maffia type voice-then you've got it). With great fear I knew being cut-off was inevitable.

You see, the things my family had been doing over that last year together, the choices they were making, were getting too difficult to just 'smile' away anymore. I had to confront. I had to be different. I had to stand for what was right. I had to stand up for my true God- I had chosen to follow Him, and Him only. The choice made my knees buckle. Made me tremble. Made me loose sleep. I was a wreck.

In that choosing- my family felt betrayed. they warned me to submit- I could not.

The words, "You're cut-off from the family," never actually were said. nothing was ever said. The phone just stopped ringing. My parents were gone and I was dead to them.

My sisters, well, they cut me off in the usual Italian way with the shouting, arguing, and ugly e-mails. I think they finally worn themselves out and then they were as silent as my wet chicken. I have lost my parents, four sisters, their husbands, seven nieces and eight nephews.

I remember when reading through the gospels for the first time, twenty or so years ago, coming across the scripture in Luke 12:51-53.

"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

I didn't like that at all.  Jesus didn't come to bring division, He came to bring peace-happy, happiness all the time. He was meek and mild and a child that never grew up. Right? Well, that's what I wanted to believe and honestly, every time I came across that scripture, because I didn't understand it nor did I like it, I would skip over it (!) I really didn't like hearing that my mother might come against me one day and I didn't understand why He would say He came to bring division-why would He say such things?

I understand now. Taking a stand for Christ will bring division. People don't want to die to self. People are selfish. People are prideful. People are their own gods. People are sinners and like sin.  People don't like the Ten Commandments. People don't like change.  People want to hate. People want to feel superior to others- to gossip.  People want to do what they want to do and that's that. And everything about Jesus goes contrary to what comes natural to humans. So to take a stand will bring division, not peace.

After the final call had been made, and I knew they were all really gone, I mourned. I mourned for about three months. They were dead to me because I knew I was dead to them. I knew that I would never hear my father call me 'Ellie' again, my mother say, 'How's my girl?', my sisters and I laugh over stupid things and laugh because we just 'got' each other or have those inside jokes that really only sisters have, and I would never see my nieces and nephews grow up. It was over.

End of part 1-the prima famiglia saga.   


  1. I wrote a comment but it disappeared. Your writing is so descriptive and funny and personal! Keep it up! I love you and am truly excited for what God is doing through this. As for your father and the chicken story--reminds me of my father-in-law(another "old world" dad whose parents arrived here just off the boat). Sometimes he says things completely oblivious that they are hurtful--certainly not his intention. Your Italian Daddy was unaware of the tenderness of his youngest daughter's heart. He was simply about the business of pulling together a fabulous meal for the famiglia. Ellie, your Heavenly Father LOVES your heart! Kisses!

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  3. thank you sarah =) this blog has been alot of fun for me-hard at times, but fun. i enjoy thinking about the past and how far i have come and thinking that maybe one of these stories will bless someone out there. this world can be just so hard, but our Lord is so gentle. to Him be all the glory =) love you girl! and thanks again for not only taking the time to read my blog, but also to respond-it really blesses me =)

  4. I am now signed in to your blog via a Gmail account I haven't used in some time. I haven't done any reading of your information on yourself as yet. Consumed considerable time sorting this out, any way GREETINGS!!!
    Garandfather (Grandpa) And G.G.