In about 1905, two young Italian immigrants moved with their new baby son into a house in East Boston. They had come to America, like millions of others, in search of opportunity. They left a hard life behind them on the farm in Italy. They came to find work, to raise their family in a better place.
The young man worked very hard, with his hands and his strong back. He was quiet and thoughtful, by most accounts a simple man. His wife was a sturdy, strong willed, strong voiced woman with a huge laugh. They tell me that although he was the head of the family, she was one who would sometimes slam her fist on the table in anger, making the dishes jump.
The new young family grew quickly and exponentially; eventually there were 12 children and one Grandfather sharing the apartment with them. The kids were educated, fed, raised as Americans. One became an educator, one went to the seminary. One played Major League Baseball.
The baby of the family was my father. I grew up visiting that house on Byron Street in East Boston. I grew up on stories about my Mammanonni, who died when I was only an infant. I grew up knowing my Pappanonni, who remained a quiet, serene, rock steady presence in the lives of his children and grandchildren.
It was on Byron Street that I first learned how to pinch off the lower branches of tomato plants to help them blossom and bear fruit. I remember the neat rows of plants in the carefully tilled soil of the tiny yard behind the house. I remember the pungent smell of the leaves, a smell that I still love to this day.
It was in East Boston that I first watched the Red Sox on a little black and white TV, sitting beside Pappanonni as he smoked his pipe. It was there that I had my first struffoli at Easter. I played in the street with my cousins, danced to Petula Clark with my Auntie Jennie in the tiny living room, listened to the booming laughs of my father and his brothers as they told the stories of their youth.
I miss those visits, those streets, those wonderful memories.
I went back to East Boston today, as part of a history class. I went to learn about the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood, to see how the area has been renovated and improved. I went to learn about patterns of immigration in the city.
I am a teacher. I know that good teachers present information in a way that is factual, informative and unbiased. Sometimes I have to work hard not to impart my personal opinions when I am teaching.
But I also know that “history” is made up perspective and point of view. The natives who lived in Plimoth in 1620 would recount the history of the Mayflower through a very different narrative than the one we learned in school. I get that.
So I guess it is understandable that a “historic tour” lead by a member of the neighborhood’s newest immigrant group would tell a different story than the one I know. I guess it’s not a surprise that the Professor who lead the tour sees the history of the area through the lens of her own experience.
Still, it hurts to hear your people, your clan, your very own beloved family described in derogatory terms. It hurts to hear derisive references to their food, their church attendance, their cultural sensitivity. I won’t repeat all of the negative references about Italians that I heard today; what would be the point?
What I will do is to remind myself that my memories are valid; my experiences are true and they are real. I won’t let someone else’s low opinion color what I know of those generous, kind, funny people who I loved so much.
I will also remind myself that being inclusive and open minded doesn’t only mean welcoming newcomers and accepting their differences. It also means valuing those who came before, and accepting their outdated ways.
Dad, I could practically see you strolling through the neighborhood with your brothers.