The Calabrian Corner

Who Said Mama's Boys?

Calabrian sons have somewhat of a reputation for being their mama's favorite child. In fact, many of us have sisters who swear that is the case. But it really isn't, and there are countless non-Italians who will argue that Italians do not have an exclusive hold on special mother-son relationships. The late singer Townes Van Zandt, for example, alludes to this in his famous song Pancho and Lefty, which gained wide popularity with the versions recorded by EmmyLou Harris and subsequently by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The very first verse ends with the following lines:

You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems;
She began to cry
When you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams.

No sirree! The bond that Italian males have with their mothers is no different than that of their non–Italian peers, even though unmarried Italian sons are notorious for living at home well into their adulthood. But this is, in fact, to keep the family unit together. Indeed, many an Italian parent has said to a son, upon expressing his need to move out: 'but why do you have to leave? This is your home. This is where you belong'. Furthermore, there are always reasons for why that bond develops the way it does. Sometimes it is as simple as the emotional needs of the mother; and sometimes it is based in the son's response to his mother's needs; or it can also be rooted in the complex psychological and emotional structure of a son raised amidst the pull of two cultures competing for his attention—a situation for which an immigrant mother is usually ill–prepared. The common factor, of course, is always the basic instincts of love and loyalty to one's family—and this dynamic can sometimes express itself in 'creative' ways (although the parent would probably label them 'rebellious').

Having said all this, and as is the case with other ethnic groups, I firmly believe that the primary relationship for an Italian son is with his male parent. The father–son bond enjoyed by well–known celebrities like Walter and Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods and his late father (and many, many more), is mirrored in household after household; and where it isn't, I daresay that it is envied. Indeed, I firmly believe that we men, as much as we love our moms, either already enjoy, or strive for or even crave a strong bond with our dads. In one of my novels, In the Twilight of the Moon, a son is asked to eulogize his father on behalf of the family and he starts off with the following words:

'I'd never trade my daddy,'
Said the little boy one fine day;
'He says I am a prince
And that my kingdom's far away.'
His child–like innocence made me smile
And I began to say:
'Would you trade your daddy if he weren't a king?'
The little boy said: 'No way!'

As we boys turn into men (whether 20 years old or 80), that sentiment never leaves us. The fondness, the need to admire, and, as we age, the need to look after our dad are central themes in our lives. Perhaps it is a recognition of our extended self; or perhaps it is due to the fact that human beings are basically decent creatures who value and appreciate the sacrifices our parents make for us; or perhaps it is as simple as Harry Chapin's words in his famous song Cat's in the Cradle whose refrain consistently has the son repeating 'I wanna be like you, dad'; and, eventually, the father, in his senior years, awakens to the following realization:

'And as I hung up the phone
It occurred to me,
My boy was just like me,
He'd grown up just like me.'

Despite the recurrence of this powerful theme, men have always been programmed to be emotionally strong, perhaps as a consequence of our responsibility to look after our families. Regardless, there is certainly no overabundance of literature on the father–son bond, although I believe that has been changing in recent years. I, too, in my aforementioned novel have made it a primary theme. In particular, contrary to the widespread belief that Italian sons have a special relationship with their mothers, I argue that what we really want is the approval of our father—and it sometimes manifests itself in 'funny' (or, to use my previous word, 'creative') ways, for, quite often, a genetically–inherited pride seems to rise up in displaced locations. In my case, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that, even as an adult, it was important for me to know that my father appreciated (or, preferably, admired) my achievements. And if he were to withhold his acknowledgment, I was deeply disappointed—although I would never let on publicly.

These kinds of dynamics strike me as those of the proverbial 'child within the man' and I have bounced this thought off many of my male friends—both Italian and non–Italian—and, to a man, they have all expressed the same sentiment. One of my Scottish friends, in fact, went so far as to say that he believes that all tension between him and his father was rooted in the deep love he felt for his dad, and the expectations he held were likely mired in his need for parental approval. I suppose that, on a subconscious level, I must subscribe to that theory as well since at least two of the brothers in my novel search for themselves through the turbulent relationships they have with their father.

Until next time ... 'ndi vidhimu' (we'll be seeing you). ... return to previous screen ...

Please check back periodically for further musings from The Calabrian Corner. Ciao for now.

Note:If you identify with my feelings on Italian families, try checking out my new ebook, In the Twilight of the Moon, which deals with Italian family dynamics, including aggression, depression, the seeking of parental approval, unrequited love, and dementia in elderly parents. It can be previewed through Amazon Kindle.