Tahlequah Daily Press

January 13, 2014

In Italian families, you have to learn to make noise

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — You’ve heard the stereotypes about Italian families. Most of them are true.

It doesn’t matter whether the family member who “came over on the boat” has been in the grave since 1900, nor is dilution through intermarriage with other ethnic types a concern. Just as the blue-eyed blonde holding a CDIB card proudly proclaiming 1/4092nds degree of Indian blood is a Cherokee citizen, an Italian is an Italian.

My father-in-law, whose parents were among the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, is a full-blood. My mother-in-law was a Heinz 57 mix of Scots, Irish, English and God knows what else. That’s kind of like my own family, although the Poindexters are of ancient French stock. My mother-in-law used to remind me she was NOT French.

This disclaimer took on a decidedly acid tone in the wake of 9/11, when France demurred on an Iraq attack, and Congress renamed the popular greasy fast-food spuds “freedom fries.”

Still, how many people do you hear trumpeting their French ancestry? No one brags about being 1/16th German, or knits Fair Isle sweaters to honor a great-great-great-grandfather from Norway. It’s different for Italians; they’ve been fashionable for some time now. I blame it on the glamor of all those mob shows on TV, probably spawned by “The Godfather.”

All Italians like their own food. In my husband’s family, Italian sausage is viewed with the same gusto as a thick, juicy steak in Oklahoma. One of my father-in-law’s favorite dishes is the classic “sausage and bell peppers,” which my mother-in-law cooked with onions in a marinara sauce. She had a lasagna recipe passed down to her by her mother-in-law, “Grandma Francis.”

I never met Grandma Francis, although she was still alive when my husband and I first married. By the time we had enough money to travel to New Jersey, she was long dead, although I think some grandchildren might have still been living in the old three-story home in Plainfield. Now it’s been sold, and according to my father-in-law, the neighborhood has “gone bad.” That’s a polite way of saying ethnic groups considered less-than-savory by the Italians have moved into the area.

Italians tend to express their opinions, and with extreme volume. Again, one does not have to be a full-blood – or anything close to it – to display that characteristic. If you live with someone of Italian descent, you must quickly learn to yell and gesticulate wildly, because that’s the only way you’ll ever get your point across, much less be heard over the cacophony created by other Italians in the room.

When I first met my husband in 1981, he explained that Italian-Americans don’t mind being called “dagos,” and will tolerate the “wop” slur. But calling an Italian a “guinea,” he said, can get you killed. Turns out, it’s rather like using the n-word. For years, my husband and I assumed it was a reference to the flightless birds of same name, because they hang out in gangs, like to eat, wear pin-striped suits and make a lot of noise.

Now we know the reference is to the Guinea Coast of Africa, and the implication is that Italians are not “white.” My husband and son are pleased to claim their biracial status.

Italians are known for their colorful verbiage. I know this because we traveled to Italy in 1999, and because I try to learn the language for when we return. One of my favorite stories, which my mother-in-law used to tell, was about my father-in-law’s behavior behind the wheel in California traffic jams. Papa Joe spoke only Italian the first few years of his life, and though he now claims to have forgotten most of it, when he was newly married, he remembered plenty.

As the story goes, Joe would yell and curse at other drivers in Italian, and was especially fond of a certain phrase, but would never translate.

Not long after he and Barbara were married, they went to New Jersey, where Barbara met her father-in-law, James, for the first time. (She’d met Grandma Frances, who attended their wedding in California.) Barbara worked up the courage to ask her father-in-law what that favorite phrase meant. His eyes grew huge, and he began to wave his arms, as Italians are wont to do, then said: “I doan-a care WHOOOO it-tis. You doan-a take-a that offa NOOOObody – not even my Joey!”

Several years ago, I asked my father-in-law what the phrase meant. He said, “Shame on you!” and wouldn’t tell; he has become progressively more G-rated as the years go by. But I already knew the first part was a variant of the f-word, and with a little research, I got pretty close on the second. Let’s just say the result was a not-very-nice description of a woman.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.