There is something comforting about growing up in a large family whether it is blood related or neighborhood related. When I was very young my mother's family all lived within walking distance of one another. They gathered around their momma. My grandmother lived in the very next apartment so the main gathering place was at our place, because of Nana. Nana had six living children, three boys and three girls, four were married and two guys weren't. The married children had children who were somewhat older than me and my brother. My cousins would come to see Nana and the girl cousins had loads of friends who thought I was very cute and loved to hug me and I loved that, they were soft and smelled nice. My male cousins were into sports. My uncles were into sports, gambling and show business. There was always someone around, lots of yelling, screaming, eating and laughing. My father immigrated from Italy when he was 19. He came from a large family, 18 or 21 I never could get that straight, and joined part of his family that immigrated earlier in Waterberry, Conn.. They later came into New York and two uncles settled in the Bronx. My father and his sisters settled in Corona and that's how he met my mom. His side of the family was very Italian, not Italian-American like my mom's. But I learned early that the somber looks were masking a need to laugh, scream, yell and eat just like mom's family. My only problem was that they spoke Italian especially when they didn't want the kids to know what they were saying. They weren't as much fun for us kids as mom's family but they had one thing that endeared me to them. My uncle Tony, dad's brother-in-law would always give my brother and me a quarter whenever we saw him. Wow, do you know how much a quarter was to a kid way back in the 1940's? When I had kids they tell me he gave them a dollar, inflation I guess. When we moved from Corona to Flushing, Queens Borough Hill, we traded a neighborhood where every one knew each other for a new neighborhood where every one knew each other. In Corona there were more Italians. On the Hill there were Italians but more of a mixture that contained a lot of Irish. But we all melded into one community. We'd visit our family in Corona and The Bronx and lived very easily with our new neighbors.
Next door we had Louise who'd call my mom Sue even though her name was Lena, short for Angelina, she called my grandmother Sue, in fact she called all the women she knew Sue. She'd watch out for all the kids not just her own. If you did anything wrong someone would get it back to mom. Everyone made sure everybody's kid wasn't getting into trouble, which we did plenty, and that everyone was safe. The neighborhood was like having another family. A lot of yelling, screaming, laughing and eating. People shared everything including home grown vegetables and fruit. I can still smell the sweet odors of home made grape jelly when the season came for the grapes to be picked off the vines.
Over the years, families moved further away and distance can destroy closeness. Neighborhoods became exclusive and privacy has become more important than sharing one's life. We as a people have become withdrawn and focused on the things only affecting us. We don't want to be intrusive. Little by little our families have become smaller and our neighborhoods restricted to a few "hellos and How are You?" without
really waiting for an answer. Recently I have had two experiences that brought back the feeling that the extended family brought with it. I was on a weekend retreat with two sons and three cousins. The religious experience did not impact me as did the feeling of family. My two sons and two cousins had the giggles all weekend, starting even in Mass. They played practical jokes on each other and we laughed, yelled and ate. Along with all my cousins we exchanged stories sharing our collective memories. The other experience happened at a Baptism for one of my cousins, I think first, twice removed, where we had to travel some 60 miles and got lost to boot. My children with their spouses were there and cousins I haven't seen in years and others I rarely see. All of us, my my first cousin, once removed seemed genuinely happy to see us as we were in being there to share her and her husband's happiness. There was a lot of screaming, yelling, laughing and eating. Somehow our genes were speaking to us. In the retreat and the Baptism we were joining with each other because we were family and in that joining we brought all who had past into the gathering. Collective memory; collective living; shared experiences knowing of the past loves and renewing the new loves. Somehow, I guess that is what family is all about even the extended family which includes neighborhoods and friends. I shall never forget Corona, The Hill, Louise, my Nonna, mom and pop and uncles, aunts and cousins. They are what make up me and I hope in some way I am part of them.