As a child, I grew up listening raptly to my father's tales of his boyhoodÄa boyhood spent largely in the company of his Old World Italian relatives, in what was then a rural section of Baltimore City. Dad told of planting rows of tomato plants with his young cousins, of making wine with his father from grapes picked in the backyard arbor. He told of huge family gatherings on summer nights, when the women danced to old Sicilian tunes that old Uncle Nunzio played on his guitar. Except for the children, everyone chattered away in Italian.
I remember feeling vaguely cheated after hearing these stories. By the time I came along, most of my Italian relatives were long gone. The oldest ones had died; the younger ones had picked up and moved. The house where Dad grew up is still there, but the grape arbors and fig trees are not. A church playground now sits on the spot where Uncle Nunzio (whom I never met) used to play his guitar. No one in our family speaks Italian.
Dad's reminiscences came to mind recently, as I was reading the final proofs for this issue's cover story. The Amish and Mennonite families that Melissa Hendricks writes about (see below) comprise a community that is culturally close-knit. They live together, work the land together, and worship together. Unlike my Italian-American forebears, however, they've managed to preserve their culture. Today's Amish children still go to corn roasts and barn-raisings, in much the same way that their parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents did.
Of course, comparing my own experience to that of the Plain People is like comparing apples to oranges, as I'm the first to admit. Nonetheless, I can't help feeling wistful when I think about how my own ethnic heritage is slipping away. It's a wistfulness shared by friends and colleagues who, like me, are of the thirty- and forty-something generation. Many of us have aging parents and grandparents who still speak broken English, and who will still labor in the kitchen for hours making homemade piroghi, or baklava, or sauerbraten and potato dumplings. My friends and I, for whatever reason, haven't learned the recipes.
Somehow, I doubt we ever will. -- SD
During one house call late in the afternoon, the young mother of the house, after making her greetings, went about fixing dinner as Morton examined her small child and asked questions of the child's grandmother. "Pretty soon neighbors just started walking in, with covered dishes. They didn't knock first," Hendricks recounts. "They all started talking to Dr. Morton -- everyone knew him. It was very informal."
Despite repeated invitations to stay on for the potluck supper, Morton and Hendricks said their good-byes. He had to see another patient; she had to get back home to Annapolis to her own two small children. "I got lost driving home, out there in the cowfields," Hendricks says. "It was pouring rain and everything was so lush and green, almost glowing. I didn't want to leave."
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