One of the most important ways to preserve Italian American culture is with the stories of our lives and of our ancestors. Sometimes the journey goes back several generations, other times, the memories seem as though they were only yesterday.
The Italian immigrants who made their homes in America transformed the culture of this country, leaving a legacy through their contributions and through the achievements of their descendants. The strength of family, work ethic, devotion and, of course, humor, along with the sacrifices made are the foundations of many Italian American communities. The book’s author, Joe C. Polacco was born in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York and he captures all aspects of Italian American life in Vina, A Brooklyn Memoir. It is a tribute, not only to his mother, but to strong women everywhere.
It is as much about Brooklyn as it is Vina, which is saying a lot. Brooklynm during the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the present, has a mix of cultures that cross section America more expressly than most other places one can think of.
Through stories told by family and friends, Joe offers a look into the life of a woman who embodied the American dream, blending it with the traditions of her Italian ancestry. Tales of her life, as well as the colorful characters, she associated with, are recounted as she presided over the family home. Although not a cast of thousands, the characters such as Mrs. Epstein, who owned the used clothing store; Florie, who preferred scotch and smoking to cooking and eating; argumentative Giulio and Large Mary, provide the mixture and clash of personalities that, coupled with the author’s conversational writing style, bring a charm, freshness and life to the stories.
Even if one has never enjoyed the simple pleasures or sheer madness of neighborhood life, Joe takes the reader directly into the action. As an example: “On 86th Street in Bensonhurst, if you’re picking through produce when a bunch of new carciofi (artichokes) or string beans are dumped on the stand, you have to fight a gaggle of aggressive ladies (and a few brave, battle-hardened men) on the lookout for the prime specimens. The MPB [Most Precious Blood Parish] summer street festival was typical – with the processional Madonna draped in dollar bills, a raised stage of fazools singing ballads from the old country, games of chance and the aromas of freshly shucked clams, deep-fried zeppole and sausage and pepper sandwiches.”
Interspersed with his first-person accounts of life with Vina are narratives from others whose lives were affected by his mother. In relating the vignettes, the author shares how the strength, humor and compassion of Vina influenced his own life and that the stories he tells became as much about him as his mom. Even as every family has moments of despair and desperation, it is the humor that resounds and usually it is only much later that we can gain a genuine appreciation for the struggles and sacrifices that parents endured. As much as the author and his brother were the motivation for Vina to work as hard as she did, her natural good humor, talents in the kitchen and with a needle and thread brought a grounding to her boys. Vena lived her entire 87 years in Brooklyn, but had the soul of the Mezzogiorno inside her.
“Vina, A Brooklyn Memoir” offers a nostalgic look into the past. It is a return to another era that includes a ride along the old West End Line – from Coney Island to 57th Street (south end of Central Park) in Manhattan. He also includes an amusing glossary of terms and slang, including many in Italian (with Yiddish and Russian thrown in), that were commonly used at the time.
About the Author
Joe C. Polacco is Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has taught undergraduate, graduate and medical students. Through his teaching, he has traveled the world conducting seminars on various topics in his field. Joe presented at the Universitá di Pisa (where Galileo was Professor of Mathematics) and the Universitá degli Studi di Bari, the region of his paternal grandparents. He was twice a Senior Fulbright Fellow and has won numerous awards for teaching and for his international work. He is also known as the “Poet Laureate of Biochemistry” for his proficiency in writing multi-stanza limericks. This is his first full length book.
Vina, A Brooklyn Memoir is published by Compass Flower Press and is available from Amazon.