By the time I married that Italian girl with the deep brown eyes, enticing figure, “girly-smelling” dark brunette hair and unusual, to me, last name of “DeNicolo,” I knew I was marrying into an “ethnic” family that had many traditions whose roots were sunk deep in “Old World” antiquity. I had spent my childhood and adolescence in a “lily white,” Anglo-Saxon small town in Kansas in a family that had no strong traditions. The word “ethnic” wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. I had never attended school with anyone who claimed membership in any particular nationality other than American, or of any race other than Caucasian until I started college. So my entry into a solidly ethnic Italian enclave in Chicago caused major culture shock on all parties involved.
"That Italian Girl As She Was When I Met Her
Since I looked like a German Aryan; tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, one of the first questions after being introduced to a new member of the family, and there were dozens of them, was “What are you?” It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were asking “What nationality are you?” My answer “American” didn’t satisfy them. Their response would be, “No, no, I know; but what nationality are you?” I soon became pegged as a German even though the first American “Carriker,” who, in fact was a German named “Kaercher,” came to America before the Revolutionary War. I learned to smile and accept my new nationality. Since they knew I was a soldier and obviously not from Chicago the next question was, “Where are you from?” I knew they would have NO idea where the little town of Caney KS was and since I’d attended Wichita State University, I told them “Wichita KS.” It didn’t help much. Most of these were people who had never been more than 100 miles away from Chicago. The only city they could associate with Kansas was “Kansas City.” For many weeks I accepted my new identity as “The German from Kansas City;” because keeping steady company with my newly-found and lovely Italian girl-friend was ample compensation for any peevishness I felt in being misunderstood.
Despite a couple of attempts by her well-meaning Mother to sink the “love boat” she saw “pulling away from the dock” and a secret (from me) date with an old “friend” that Anne accepted “to see if what she was beginning to feel for me was genuine,” (a “test drive” I did not know about until after the wedding), the big city Italian girl and the country bumpkin, “German” from “Kansas City” continued to see one another. I became immersed in her culture and discovered some traditions that I came to enjoy immensely.
As in “The Old Country” most of the De Nicolo traditions centered on The Church calendar. Easter, Christmas, and celebrations called “Feast Days.” Italians with ancestral roots in the Italian province of Potenza, many of whom lived on the West Side of Chicago, had a particular affinity for a medieval saintly man now known as St. Rocco of Potenza. His Feast Day began with a Solemn High Mass followed by a street procession trailing behind an Italian band. Once, for this celebration, I was persuaded to be a member of the band. It was a musical experience unlike any I had ever experienced before or since. This band didn’t “march” as military bands do; they STROLLED down the street while playing Italian music I’d never heard. With many years of military band marching experience behind me it was hard for me to play music and not “keep in step” with it. After the procession the band sat in an impromptu bandstand and played a concert while the crowd milled around and feasted on Italian sausage, Italian roast beef sandwiches, oysters on the half-shell, crabs, cold beer and soda sold from numerous booths where the smoke of the charcoal fires and the delicious smells of the food lay heavily over the crowd. It was a great fun tradition that has unfortunately fallen victim to “modern times.”
Christmas and Easter, though, were huge, high holidays that reeked with ancient traditions that to an unsophisticated Kansas boy seemed at first exotic. After a few years I came to love them. To appreciate the Christmas Tradition you need to understand Advent. At that time Advent was a penitential time to prepare spiritually for the birth of Our Lord. During those four weeks we ate only one full meal per day, two “skimpy” meals and no snacking. But then, Christmas Eve! The entire extended family, Aunts, Uncles, Nieces and Nephews gathered around a table sway-backed with an assortment of seafood including an entrée of pasta covered with a red sauce made not with meat but with lobster tail and sprinkled with bread crumbs made with dried French bread flavored with family secret herbs. The pasta was complemented by boiled and deep fried shrimp, crab legs, clams and oysters on the half-shell served with fresh lemons and hot sauce, deep fried smelt, calamari, baccala (a dried, then-prepared codfish), garlic bread, Vino, many kinds of rich, fresh-baked cookies and robust coffee served after all were bulging with food
Later, after dishes were cleared and some digestion had taken place it was time for Midnight Mass. After the “older folks” passed away, their descendants scattered across the country, and under the influence of modern disdain for ancient custom, those traditions have become for most a memory
"That Italian Girl" at 65
(This was a professional "Glamour Shot"
she had made at my request
for my birthday.)