In December my grandmother died after a long battle with Alzheimer's. I'm a fourth-generation Italian, and my grandmother was the epicenter of our world. At her funeral, I pondered how our family would fare without its matriarch; I began to fear that without her, we might lose the togetherness that is so central to an Italian family's lifeblood. I was overcome by an urgency to hold onto the lessons she and my grandfather, who is now slowly fading from dementia and Parkinson's, had passed on. I didn't want us to forget the stories of where we started, the stories that held us all together.
Being Italian makes you nostalgic for things you never knew. I grew up hearing stories about how my great-grandmother lived in the kitchen day and night cooking for her people; about her five sisters—one of whom raised them all, and one of whom tried to nose dive into an open grave to express her grief for when a family member died (we aren't known for our subtlety). I heard stories about my great-grandfather's opera records, and my grandfather's constant need to be rescued from shenanigans by his cousins. My family's stories have always filled me with a warmth and familiarity that is tangible.
There's something about the sense of famiglia I inherited that I think our world could use more of today. We take care of each other; we encourage each other; we nourish each other, and not just literally. But doing this takes effort, as I realized when my grandmother passed. Our family traditions won't just happen if we don't pass them on; the stories won't last if we don't tell them.
In recent years, I have witnessed for myself what many sociologists have been saying for years, that there is increased fragmentation within American society. Political and social divides have grown wider, and we've seen an influx of families that are broken or hurting. Marc Dunkelman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, said that community has been replaced with a strong sense of individuality. Once upon a time, being part of a community meant being aware of the needs of those around you, and playing an active role in their lives. Now, it means leaving those around you in peace and avoiding involvement in the name of "not interfering."
Contrary to this, the tight-knit Italian lifestyle has actually been proven to improve communities from all number of backgrounds. Consider the Roseto Effect—a phenomenon discovered by researchers in an Italian-American community in Pennsylvania. Research conducted between 1955 and 1965 showed that this community experienced lower mortality rates and were less likely to have heart disease than the average American community. What was surprising about this was that the people within this community consumed a high-carb Italian diet, drank wine without restraint, and smoked unfiltered cigars. The researchers concluded that it was the strong sense of community that kept morale up and stress low, leading to an overall healthier community.
I know I saw this same effect in my Italian brood. Just listening to my family's stories offered deep-rooted lessons on the value of togetherness. Take, for instance, the memories of my grandfather growing up during The Great Depression, on a block where every home was owned by one of his aunts and uncles—they were dirt poor, but my grandpa says he didn't notice because they never went without. One uncle was a butcher and made sure that everyone always had fresh meat; another did plaster work, and could guarantee that your house would always look clean and fresh; my great-grandfather was a barber and gave everyone their first and last haircuts. You had a rip, an aunt would sew it; you didn't like what mama was making for dinner? No problem, go next door and see what they are eating there.
I've become convinced the meal culture itself is enough to heal the world, and I don't mean we all have to become pasta eaters. If you have ever been to Italy, you know that the food is an art, but what you didn't know is that behind every meal is a nonna in the kitchen unselfishly devoting herself to the stove to make course after course for a multitude of guests. Many of our family events revolve around the meal. We don't just sit and eat, we savor, but more important than the food that brings us together are the people who we spend hours talking to over wine until the dessert comes out and coffee is served.
As I went off to college, many of my meals were spent alone or while watching Netflix. However, each time I returned home, I was reminded how the communal aspects of meals nourished my soul. The passing of bread and the loud conversations that can truly last hours never felt like wasted time.
I learned perhaps my most valuable lesson on family at my grandmother's funeral. Of course we did our fair share of crying, but we spent much of the funeral weekend in each others' company, eating meals together and laughing as we told stories. We grieved together in a way unlike any funeral I had attended. And although no one threw themselves into the grave this time, this funeral was undeniably striking—we saw third and fourth generations continuing the traditions of verbal storytelling and meals to cure all ailments.
Seeing the world increasingly suffer more isolation and the breakdown of human relationships, I have become all the more determined to ensure this tradition continues. If it means I have to act like my nonna, so be it. I will feed everyone, and tell the stories, and kiss cheeks. I will pass on my family's stories to everyone who will hear, and make them nostalgic, too, for something they've never known. Because I'm convinced we can all take advantage of the Roseto Effect in our lives. We just have to continue to place a higher value on our human relationships than we place on almost anything else. Whether it's your biological family or friends who always have your back, everyone needs la famiglia.
Photo Credit: Luisa Brimble