At our family picnics, there are so many cousins and children of cousins and their children, it can be a challenge to meet and greet everyone.
My Aunt Joleen has the system nailed down though, as I witnessed at our recent gathering. “Now, who are you?” she simply asked, as she made the rounds.
And that’s pretty much how it went on Sunday at the Coffaro family picnic. Cousin John gave a four-weeks’ notice that we’re having a reunion, as this was a ritual back in the day and it’s been too long since we all got together. “I ran into my cousin Joe and he said, ‘how come we don’t get together as a family’? I said I don’t know. No reason. But we should.” Joe agreed and John said he’d do it. “And we picked a date and here we are.”
Hat tip to John, as not only did we have a big turnout, but he also organized a nine-hole golf outing before the picnic. Not a small feat when you consider the number of people involved on both sides of the cousin spectrum. On my side, we number about 30. On John’s side? Try 120. I’m exaggerating only a little bit.
GOLFING BEFORE THE PICNIC
One of the things that happens to cousins when you don’t see them for awhile is they tend to grow up. Then they get married and have children. And then you really start to lose track of who’s who.
Another good reason for getting together is for those aforementioned young people. Since the last time this group was together, some of the older generation have died, including my mother. (Oh she would have loved this picnic!) Our background story — the Ellis Island arrivals, the early days of settling here — is rich with details about adjusting to life in a new country and the bonds of family.
Our roots are in Sicily, in the town of Grotte. There were seven brothers and one sister but just three of the brothers came to America: Domenic, Giuseppe and Antonio. Dominic, my great uncle, came first in 1910. He settled in Birmingham, Ala., and worked on the railroad. Giuseppe, my grandfather, joined him in 1920. They eventually moved to Sandusky, Ohio, where Dominic continued to work on the railroad. When work dried up there, they moved to Cincinnati because Dominic remembered seeing smokestacks from the train and to him, that meant work. Antonio joined them in 1923.
Their story is a familiar Italian immigration tale: they arrived not knowing English, but were ready to work hard to make sure their children didn’t know the hardship they did. They worked in factories and even made a few trips back to Sicily before and after the Depression. That astounds me. We’re talking about an ocean voyage that likely lasted two weeks. They really didn’t know for certain if they were going to see family again, if they had to leave family members behind in Sicily for myriad reasons. In my grandmother’s case, she had an eye infection and wasn’t allowed to get on the ship when my grandfather left with their oldest son, my Uncle Pat. Talk about faith. Talk about guts.
In my opinion, stories like these, of adjusting, of growing a fig tree in an old washing machine (Dominic), having the first ripe tomatoes in the neighborhood (Giuseppe), and growing Alberta peaches (Antonio) need to be told again and again. It’s a wonderful thing to learn about your family’s roots. We need these gatherings to share those stories and ensure they get passed down.
Several of us have made the trip back to Grotte to see the town and visit our relatives who still live there. I’ve been there three times, the most recent in 2015.
During the picnic, I called Cousin Venera in Grotte for a video chat. “There were so many of you and you all looked great,” she wrote me later. “Of course I would have loved to have been there with all of you.”
At the picnic, I tried to get reacquainted with as many Coffaros as I could. I’m consumed with Italy, as this blog attests, and Italian customs. I made focaccia from scratch, and brought a chunk of parmigiano reggiano, a tub of antipasto and a thermos of espresso to the picnic. I wear my Italian horn on a necklace and I’m on WhatsApp to talk to cousins in Milan and Sicily and friends in Siena and Rome.
It was great to chat with Cousin Bob and his brother, Cousin Jeff. And to catch up with Patty and Cousin Ben and Joanne and Cousin Roger and share Sicily stories with Cousin Keith and to meet four-month-old Evelyn the youngest Coffaro in the bunch.
Cousin John looked around and noted that everyone was “overwhelmingly” enjoying themselves, “which is what it’s all about. That’s what it’s all about.” This big turnout bodes well for a repeat production, maybe next year. I think with a year’s notice, the turnout will be exceptionally larger.
And I fully expect Aunt Joleen to make the rounds again.