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Mama Mia, What Were They Thinking?

As many who know me know, I’m of Italian descent. My grandparents came from Italy, and we grew up in an Italian American home, with many Italian delicacies on our table, and many of the Italian influenced celebrations of holidays/feast days, but our family, like many of my schoolmates’ families, were proud to be Americans, just as much as being Italian.

Many of my friends’, also of Italian descent, fathers served this country in one of the armed forces, and were proud to have done so. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, were celebrated patriotically and proudly, as were all the holiday/feast days of our Italian and American heritages, so we weren’t just Italians living in America, we were raised as true Italian Americans.

Because of our ancestral heritage, our parents, though mine were born in this country, not Italy, still taught and influenced us much like their parents did them. Growing up under their roofs, under their rules and expectations, we sometimes scratched our heads, wondering what they were thinking as parents. We never really questioned our fathers openly, we were more apt to challenge our mothers thinking of what we had to do, and why we had to do things, the way they said we should, and would, do it.

It wasn’t until a friend, a fellow Italian American, and I, were recently sitting, talking about our home lives growing up, laughing loudly, because it seemed like we, and many other children of Italian descent we grew up or went to school with, could have swapped homes growing up and our lives would be almost exactly the same. Our reminiscing brought us to the conclusion that our parents, especially our mothers, raised us the way they did, because it was the way they were taught by their parents, and they were expected to do things the way their parents said with no question, argument, or negotiation, and be kind and respectful to, and toward, others.

One of the biggest parenting strategies our moms used was guilt. I haven’t met many Italian Americans from my generation, who don’t have guilt scars, whose mother didn’t use guilt to make them do things or behave the way they said. Just ask any of them. If you didn’t behave the way they expected, you’d be cursed with guilt that would shroud you, with no expiration date. Where did they learn to use guilt as a parenting strategy? It probably happened to them.

Another strategy mothers used to make their point was fear. Not necessarily physical fear, though we were spanked as children if our misbehaviors warranted it, but nothing we considered abuse. Mothers were creative in using fear as a dormant seed they could plant in your subconscious and wake it up when they wanted to get you back on the straight and narrow. How many would agree the fear of what might happen to you was worse than if it really happened? Our mothers were the unofficial creators of 1972-1974 animated television program which included characters voiced by Tom Bosley and Jack Burns. How many remember “Wait ’til Your Father Gets Home?” My guess, producers Hanna and Barbara (Italians descendants?) were inspired from hearing that line from most moms back in our day. There was also the warning that God was always watching. Being Catholic, our Baltimore Catechism spoke of Fear of the Lord, so it worked as well as the threat of Dad finding out we misbehaved. It was another seed planted in our minds that always kept us looking over our shoulders or up to the heavens. One more “fear,” sometimes played like an ace in the hole, was the periodic mention of Father Baker’s.

Other things our moms did that made us question why they did what they did included feeding everyone that came into our home. Coffee breaks of contractors working at the house took place at our kitchen table with fresh coffee and baked goods. Once, the dryer repairman complimented the aroma of something cooking for dinner, and poof, an extra table place was set, and we had a guest for dinner. My friend told me his mom chose where she wanted her wake to be based on the number of steps at the funeral home, because many of her friends were older and she didn’t want them to have to deal with too many steps when paying their respects.

What were they thinking? Why did they do some things they did? My buddy’s explanation, and it’s a good one, is that it’s what they learned from their parents, to raise their children with religion, discipline, and feel bad if you disappointed others, or behaved less than expected, and always think of, and share with, others, no matter how much, or little, you had.

And guess what? It worked. We survived the guilt, fear, discipline, and most from our generation brought a lot of what we learned from our parents, into our families, and share what’s in this narrative with them so they know what we learned and why were taught it.

We laugh at many things our moms said and did, but the fact that we remember them clearly and vividly, must mean they influenced us and helped lay a foundation for pretty good lives for us.

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