Kids Corner


Letters From Espanola





There was a fascinating documentary on our public television station this last week: ‘The Italian Americans‘. It opened a window into the life of Italians who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Since watching the documentary, I have been thinking a lot about family.

My mother's family immigrated from Italy during that period. I still remember my great-grandfather who hardly spoke a word of English but made his own wine based on the movement of the moon.

Our family didn't come from Sicily. We originally lived outside of Rome, and also in the beautiful northern provence of Abruzzi. My siblings and I are called "third generation" immigrants. By the time you get to the third generation, a lot of connection with the old traditions get lost. You become "Americanized” to a large extent, although some part of that immigrant story still lives deep inside your being.

Hollywood has glamorized the Mafia, probably the most notorious aspect of the Italian immigration. The word "famiglia" has, unfortunately, become associated with gangsters, and with crime and violence.

But, you know, the real world does not work that way. What I know from growing up is that the Mafia are considered in the community as the lowest class of Italians. Other families do not respect them. Even if they extort money from you, they don't get the respect.

There is a whole world there. Famiglia is not about crime. Famiglia is a deep, unspoken and sometimes morally ambiguous code that essentially means you take care of your own, no matter what. Once you are part of the family, you are always part of the family. Unless you do something to really insult the family, you always have a place at the table.

Do not ask me how I know this. No one ever told me. It was just something in the air when I grew up.

It might mean that someone's husband is a cop and someone else brought a questionable ‘business associate’ to dinner. In the family, those differences are put aside. They don't matter. The cop and the ‘business associate’ have a beer together and talk about baseball. Outside the home, tomorrow, one might try to put the other in jail.

That's okay. What happens outside the home is what happens outside the home.

But when everyone comes together inside the home, the code of family has more power. Everyone eats and drinks, and laughs and gets along. Because that is what families are for - to keep the harmony and the togetherness.

How deep and how unconscious this code got ingrained in me is hard to explain. I remember when my sister and her husband got divorced. They had two children together, and those children were everyone's highest priority. I said to him at the time, "You might be divorcing my sister, but you are still my brother." And unbeknownst to me, my mother said almost exactly the same thing to him. "You might be divorcing my daughter, but you are still my son." He fathered those children, so he will always be part of the family.

The movies make it seem like famiglia is a patriarchal leadership structure. But in its essence, famiglia is actually very matriarchal. It runs through the connections of the women. That network is how everyone knows how everyone else is doing.

Where there is a break-down in the women's relationships, that is where the network stops operating. The family extends through the women who keep it going.

These are my own reflections of what I learned along the way. Not because anyone explained it to me. It was just what I absorbed. I don't have anything to compare it to. Family is a very private realm. It's a very personal realm. Because ultimately, it has to be the sanctuary of life.

Outside the home, people work and hassle. They fight and sweat. Somewhere, there has to be a place of peace. Of rest. Of harmony and relaxation.

That is home. That is family.

No one does it perfectly. Family can also drive you crazier than anyone else. But, at least that is where we try.

I think because of my roots, the Sikh idea of the ‘girhast ashram’ (Life within the Family) has always appealed to me. It takes the code of famiglia one step further. One more dimension. That the family has to also become a place for the soul of each person to grow and evolve. To see each member of the family as going on his or her own journey towards his or her own destiny.

And to create in the home a loving but neutral gaze that understands that life is for the journey to unfold. Sometimes positively. Sometimes through challenge and difficulty.

But through this lens, the home becomes a center for us to practice tolerance and love, to support each other and pray together.

It is not easy. Heck, it might be one of the hardest things in the world sometimes. But I believe this is what makes life worthwhile.

As for myself, I have lived alone for the last 15 years, and I have made my home my oasis. It is a place of peace, of rest, of meditation, of renewal. What I love the most is that when people come to visit, they feel it. They relax and enjoy. Eat and talk.

Sometimes I have classes here where we discuss Gurbani. For me, home is the place for people to get nurtured. To laugh. To have really deep conversations. To appreciate life and each other.

Ultimately, that is what matters in life. Just to appreciate. Just to enjoy.

And it starts with family.

With embracing and accepting each other - just as we are.

February 25, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh (Canada), February 25, 2015, 8:22 AM.

I can totally relate to it. Thanks for a great write up!

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), February 25, 2015, 1:06 PM.

Sikhi does not accept the premise that the householder's life is sinful in its origin and is an illusion. Some religions, mainly Hinduism, and Christianity as well, have gone on to declare that 'creation' is a source of evil and suffering is inherent in it. In others, such as Buddhism and Jainism, for spiritual living, it is essential to turn away from society. Sikhism, on the other hand, believes that human birth is a splendid gift of God and it must be cherished for a beautiful living. Amidst the impurities of worldly life, we have to abide in spirituality to be one with God. God is True and so is His Creation. Sukhmani Sahib: "Aap sat keeaa sabh sat" -- The world we see is His Manifestation and through this we see Him. We must enlighten our mind so that we can lead a householder's life. A householder's life is truth-controlled desires.

3: Sunderta Kaur (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA), March 01, 2015, 11:24 AM.

So great to hear about how your Italian roots and cultural background live on in you. I did not know about how and what happens outside the home is separate from what happens inside the home. There are unspoken rules that transcend mere etiquette. Although I've seen all the gangster films many times over, I've never associated the word Famiglia with the Mafia. It's clear to me that Famiglia means so much more than "Crime Family". Now I understand better what that meaning is for people. Thanks for your post.

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Letters From Espanola"

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