With Memorial Day having just passed, marking the unofficial start of summer, Anthony and I decided to share an excerpt from my memoir, The Dreams that Break Your Heart. This chapter is about a trip down the Shore in Jersey, which is a summer ritual familiar to countless East-Coast Italian Americans. This is the real Jersey Shore, which has nothing to do with the television show that marred its image. This Jersey Shore is about a break from hard work, loving life, and, of course, above all – la famiglia.
If you’re a regular listener of the podcast, you’ve heard us mention the book and refer to it many times. It starts with my parents’ childhoods in Southern Italy, through the volatile early years when they first immigrated to New York, and up through the years until I am born; interspersed throughout that narrative is my own story of growing up a modern, free-spirited girl in an old-fashioned Italian household, with all the blessings and tensions inherent in that experience.
My book is about stories. The stories we hear about our ancestors; the family stories we are a part of and the stories we are not a part of, but somehow, they remain a part of us. They interested me from a very early age. I felt that I had to write this book, or it would always be sitting in my heart, waiting for me to let it out. What is it about Italian Americans in particular that bonds us so deeply to our families? I could always feel, for instance, my maternal nonna, who I was named after, inside of me, but she died before I was born. What is that mystery? I wrote this book, in large part, to try and understand it.
I truly hope this excerpt resonates with you. Dal mio cuore al tuo….
“The Italians…they made their world. They said, Who’s better than me?
They knew how to sit there and say that and be happy.”
– Don DeLillo
Every other summer or so, we head down the shore in Jersey. It’s never just my family and me, but always a caravan of friends and relatives traveling along the Parkway toward the shore points — car after car packed with children and boxes of pasta, gallons of homemade wine, batons of homemade salami, loaves of Italian bread fresh from Arthur Avenue, pounds of prosciutto and mortadella wrapped in white butcher paper, and hunks of provolone that were toted in pocketbooks from Italy through customs in New York City.
I live among grownups who give to relaxation the same vigor they give to work. They put everything they have into both. For most of them, trouble and struggle root their days, and these good times are a little shaft of light. They reach for the light like plants stuck in dark pots, and they’ll curse anything or anyone that tries to get between them and the light; this includes cops, hotel proprietors, and their own nagging children.
“Go play with your cousins,” they snap, shrugging a leaning child off their shoulder. “Go see what your sister’s doing,” they say. And we listen.
A block of kitchenette-equipped rooms at a motel in Lavallette, bordering Seaside Heights, has been reserved. Our caravan rolls in like an invading army. I am one in a squad of some twenty children disembarking from station wagons, tearing into the warm salt air, screeching with liberation after the near two-hour car ride. The teenagers, my siblings among them, step out of the cars more coolly, slowly, than us children, aviator sunglasses hiding their eyes, fingers running through hair feathered and teased. Each family sets up camp in its own room, but every room is everyone’s room. All doors are open to me. In every photo I’m in from these trips, I am in the arms of someone different — in the arms of mothers who are not mine, of teenage siblings who are not my siblings: But they are my mothers and they are my brothers and sisters.
After the sun goes down, we move in a pack toward the boardwalk. Its mechanical clanks, its neon and high-wattage-bulb lights create a carnival façade across the air above the thrashing ocean, making the water, all tangled with the moon’s great tug upon it, seem less menacing. I can already smell the sweet white powder sifted atop the funnel cake my daddy will buy me; I can hear the ding of the game stands, anticipate the balloon atop the clown’s head growing as I vie for my stuffed bear, shooting water into the clown’s mouth until the balloon has no choice but to pop. But the grownups walk leisurely in their sandals and summer shorts, agonizingly slow for us children who flutter around them, hoping to propel them faster toward the great fluorescent merry-go-round, the shivering roller coaster, the dizzying teacups. Finally, we reach the boardwalk and pound across those wooden planks, mixing into the stream of sunburned people, the parade of people holding ice cream cones and slices of oily pizza, with the barkers hollering two plays for a dollar always a winner step right up…
On one corner of the pier, my siblings and I hand our tiny paper tickets over to ride the Log Floom, which hovers over the Atlantic. From the top of the tracks I can see the dark waves slapping against the beams of the boardwalk below us, and how wild the ocean really is, how deep, how dark; just before the log-shaped car we sit in launches us rollercoaster-style into a pool of chlorinated water below, I look down and see my parents standing beneath the starry sky, the Himalaya behind them spinning its little cars in a blurring circle while the DJ blasts record after record of dance songs and warns everyone to hold on. My father has his arm around my mother, his left hand on her right shoulder; my mother holds the bear my daddy shelled out dollar after dollar for me to win, and I feel summer and the magic of the Shore flitter in my belly as my big sister grabs my hands from the metal safety bar and yells, “Hold them up over your head!” And our Log Floom car sails down the ramp, through the ocean wind, our screams just another high-pitched note in the chorus of boardwalk music.
What our parents can give us they do. Considering they had never seen a rollercoaster as children, let alone ridden one, considering they had never travelled anywhere with their families, save for to the fields to pick potatoes and then finally to America, they stand on the boardwalk feeling pride in their accomplishments. Here we are, at the seashore, well fed and winning teddy bears, eating ice cream cones, riding roller coasters, and if this is not evidence of what a damn fine job they are doing, then tell them, what is?
Leaping off the ride, I run toward them, and my blue eyes and crinoline dresses evidence a new phase in our family story, an American-influenced phase of progress and upward mobility.
I lean my cheek against my father’s stomach and wrap my arm around him; his body is warm and strong and in an instant I feel his brawny hand atop my head. He still has his arm draped over my mother’s shoulder. She begins to turn, and we move, joined together as if by hinges, along the boardwalk, toward the game stand ahead where my siblings are laying quarters down on the Great Wheel of Chance.
The next evening, at the hotel, the grownups drag the patio tables together to make a long, unified table at which all of us can sit to eat. Our mothers have cooked some ten pounds of spaghetti and the grill has enough meat on it to feed all of Jersey. The adults stay up long past the point when we children, sun struck, well-fed, collapse onto laps or pullout sofas. They drink wine, then espresso, then limonata and Sambuca; they eat pasta, then steak, then salad, then nuts fresh from cracked shells; they smoke cigarettes, laugh laughter of howls, and tease each other with double entendres until the early hours of the next day dawn.
When we wake in the morning, the owner of the hotel, a middle-aged American woman who lives alone with her reticent husband, is angry because all the furniture is rearranged and because the other guests (there are other guests?) are complaining.
“You can’t just go taking over the place!” the hotel owner says to the grownups. “Don’t you know how to behave?” she asks. “You can’t just move things around to suit you!”
This is how they know to behave — eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And they can, actually, they believe, in their infinite stubbornness and pride, transform with their own two hands any damn place on God’s green earth they set their feet upon.
When the hotel owner, not mollified, stomps away, hollering that we’re not welcomed to stay in her place again, my father sighs.
“What does she understand,” he says, “she has no family.”