The Calabrian Corner

by Dominic Spano, Ph.D.

You Can Take the Boy Out of Calabria but ...

My past couple of postings have alluded to my fascination with Calabrian customs and traditions, with special mention of its idioms as expressed both behaviorally and through its artists. To a remarkable degree, these traditions seem capable of living on, even after emigration—at the very least for 2 or 3 generations after Calabrians leave their fatherland. To be sure, some of the customs, such as the wailing and chanting at a funeral, die off within the first generation or two. But these are, for lack of a better word, the phenotypic expression of the ancestral tradition. The deep respect for the symbolic meaning seems to live on. For example, my clan is now in its fourth generation of North American born offspring, and even the great–grandchildren of the original immigrants are still attending funerals of paesani they barely know, as representatives of the family. In other words, the family surname still appears in the Guest Book for the relatives of the deceased, as a sign of continuing respect.

I often ponder these dynamics, although I admit to not fully understanding their etiology. Still, the time invested seems to be something I need to do and I devote regular attention to it. Perhaps it is a means of remaining connected to my roots. Or maybe it is something more—a mysterious power that is in our genes, passed on to us by our ancestors who instilled a strong sense of family in us—a tradition that most of us still wish to pass on to our progeny. This latter thought gave rise to an interesting perspective for me recently. I was listening to the late Mino Reitano's version of Calabria Mia, a song in which Calabria is personified as a mother, complete with the emotions that accompany that role. The lyrics speak directly to Calabria about her missing offspring:

Eu preghu nott' e ghiornu lu signuri
Ca tutt' i figghii toi ann' a turnari
Lu sannu ca tu si malata 'i cori
Lu sannu ca cussi non poi campari
Calabria mia.

In this verse, the narrator is assuring a heartsick parent that he prays for the return of her children, who must know that she cannot go on this way. The last line reveals the intended listener to be 'My Calabria'. The song goes on to speak of the reasons behind the emigration that took Calabria's children away from her while the 'mother' pregha sempri a' Madonna (constantly prays to the Blessed Mother), but si 'nce lavuru cca su figghiu torna (if work could be found here, her son would return). All the while, the mother has no idea that, overseas, her son is speaking to her: ciangi sempri stu cori, Ma, ciangi sempri di nostalgia (this heart is crying, Mom, this nostalgic heart cries constantly).

As someone who was raised by Calabrians on both sides of the family, I can attest to the lofty status we place on our mothers; hence I find these lyrics, which speak to the tearing apart of a family, very moving. The vivid depiction of a mother's heartache, of the resulting sadness and despair that make up her grieving, result in a powerful image of what the immigration experience must have been like for many of the Calabrian pioneers who had never left their hometown previously, save for those who had performed their military duties during the War. The picture conjured is exactly that of an aggrieved mother praying for each and every one of her offspring to return to her, where they belong; and when I stop to think of the emotional impact that leaving one's fatherland for a world he/she knows nothing about must inflict, I always need to pause and appreciate what my parents and grandparents were able to accomplish subsequent to their leap of courage into the unknown. Those of us that followed have certainly never had to face those kinds of hardships as a result of the road they paved for us. And yet, on a lighter note, I must add that the image of a child leaving his mother struck a chord with me on another level as well due to having grown up hearing my own mother (who, like most Calabrian mothers, although they love us more than I can put into words, is intimately familiar with the powerful role of the proverbial 'guilt trip') resort to a favorite expression from the Calabria of her youth: 'na mamma fa pe' centu figghii, ma centu figghii non fannu pe' 'na mamma, loosely translated as 'a mother spreads herself to 100 children, but 100 children cannot add up to one mother'.

Perhaps a song by a Calabrian singer based in Toronto, Canada, who performed under the name Rocco Del Sud, sums up the emigrant son's feelings most appropriately. The song, entitled Lascio La Mamma Mia, and which was quite popular in the 1970's and 1980's, begins like this:

Io parto lontano
Lascio la mamma mia
Lascio la mia patria
Pure la casa mia
Sento fischiare il treno
Chi chiamma con premura
Col cuore addolorato
Salgo su 'n' avventura
M'affaccio al finestrino
Col cuore straziante
Vedo la mamma mia
Con gli occhi lacrimante
Non piangere mammina
Perche quel pianto strano
Io ti penso sempre
Quando saro lontano.

The first four lines speak to the young man leaving his mother, his fatherland and his house behind as he is about to board a train that will eventually lead him to a distant land. As he hears the train's hasty whistle, he reveals that he is boarding this adventure with a pained heart. Once inside his booth, through the window he sees his tearful, broken–hearted mother and he calls out to her not to cry, for when he is far away he will always be thinking of her nonetheless. After another emotional verse, the departing young man ends the song by revealing the maturity that is inherent to the life cycle: ora che sono grande, ti dovette lasciare, which loosely translates into 'now that I've grown up, it is necessary that I leave you'. Thus, at least in my mind, the song ends on a hope–filled note in that the hard work the tightly–knit Calabrian parents had put into the rearing of their child is now on display as the son comforts the grieving mother, reassuring her that they have equipped him to take his place in the world.

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.

Note:If you identify with my feelings on Italian families, try checking out my 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.