In preparation for my wife’s family reunion, I spent four days fishing with my father-in-law in Canada where I sat in a boat all day listening to stories that went something like this: Your Uncle Paul’s cousin Annazette married a fella who works over at Newell Rubbermaid. Nice guy. His father and I were in Troop 38 together at Marmion and he’s in an investment club with your brother Eddie. Well, they don’t really invest in anything. They just get together once a week to drink and shoot the shit. But anyway, they came up here fishing and he caught a bass in that bay over there. A very nice fish. A real beauty.
Over the years, I’ve grown used to hearing these stories told in the same shaggy dog manner by cousins, brothers and other relatives because my wife comes from what you might call a large Italian family in Rockford, Illinois, and they like nothing more than getting together with each other.
The immediate family comes from eight brothers and sisters born to Tony and Jean Domino in the 10 1/2 years from 1959 to 1970. (“What happened in the off-year?” I once asked him. “Color TV,” he said.) But Tony’s issue was nothing compared to his father’s father (11) or his mother’s father (13), so when the table was set last weekend for the descendants of Salvatore Ingrassia to celebrate his emigration from Sicily to the United States in 1884, it surprised no one that there were 267 placecards.
The Verdi Club
The reunion was held at Rockford’s Verdi Club, a red brick edifice along the Rock River not to be confused with the other Italian ethnic clubs in Rockford – the Lombardi Club, the Venetian Club or the St. Ambrosia Society – because, as any Italian will tell you, the cultures of Sicily, Lombard, Venice and Rome are vastly different. The single factor that unites them was America’s disdain for all of them when they first arrived here.
As we entered, over the door of the Verdi Club, was a Budweiser sign advertising Bingo on Thursday and Sunday nights. Italian operas played over the public address system as the organizing committee handed out credentials. The tables were strewn with Italian flags and plastic artichokes stuffed with questions meant to get families talking about their heritage. (Sample: What is the most Italian thing about you?) And the agenda promised lessons in Bocce ball and Italian bingo after dinner, brief remarks and the requisite picture. Clearly, the main event was what in our family would be called schmoozing and consisted in theirs of kissing elderly women on the cheek and enduring bear hug handshakes from the men.
The ten branches of the family (Two children died in infancy. A third became a nun.) were given color coded name tags, each delineated with the generation, lineage and status of the bearer. I was, for instance, the 3G spouse of Lucy Domino Jacobs. The oldest attendees were Aunt Vita and Aunt Frances, 96; the youngest, a sixth-generation cherub (appropriately named Isaiah). There was an award for the relative who came the farthest (from Holland) and the “most Italian,” the prize being a set of furry car dice.
I am not by nature a social person so I was drawn to the other spouses standing on the periphery. When pulled into conversation, I invariably found myself talking to someone named Tony, Paul, Lucy or Maryjo – names that hang on the family tree like barnacles on a ship bottom – and explaining myself as co-ordinates on the Ingrassia map.
The Greatness of Italy
Reunions are a time to celebrate family, which often involves embellishing the past achievements of ancestors. The Ingrassias have not fed the American celebrity machine like, for instance, the Bush, Hilton or Lohan clan. The most famous ancestor turns out to be Anne Sterling, a B-movie actress in the 40’s best known for appearing on the cover of racy tabloids. But other Ingrassias have made their mark on the local stage, as one newspaper account put it, personifying, nurturing and defending “the spiritual and moral greatness of Italy.”
Thus, my father-in-law proudly boasts that his Uncle Tony was not just a lawyer, he was the first Italian-American lawyer in Rockford. His Uncle Nunzio was the first Italian-American alderman. His mother Lucy headed up the Catholic Foresters and was the first Italian-American woman from Rockford ever invited to the White House – “and come to think of it, probably the only one.”
But Salvatore himself was a piece of work, as he recalls. (“The truth is Grandpa Ingrassia was something of a tyrant,” he confides.) One of his sons jumped from a second-story window to avoid a beating; another ran away for three months; another daughter, after getting tied to a post in the basement for coming home 10 minutes late from a dance, up and joined the convent.
The Family History
After dinner, they played home movies of a family gathering in the 1940’s almost as large as this one, and Tony Domino, a great grandson who has traveled back to Sicily many times to research records and talk with distant relatives, gave the family history.
The original homestead was a grain mill in Camporeale, a bone dry, dirt poor small town in the mountains about 35 miles south of Palermo.
Salvatore Ingrassia was 26 when he followed his older brother Pasqualle to the United States, arriving at the customs house in New Orleans. At the time, Louisiana was still trying to recover from the Civil War loss of slave labor so they offered discount fares in the poorest regions of Italy to anyone who would book passage through New Orleans. Recruiters from local plantations would meet the arriving boats and put the workers up in quarter houses, former slave quarters the Italians shared with the remaining African-Americans and anyone else at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Grandpa Ingrassia brought with him his first wife, Francesca Sacco, and a one-year-old son named Joseph. But the southern climate gave Francesca consumption and she returned to Sicily after a year or two – and died shortly after. In 1889, he met and married his second wife, Carmela Musso, herself newly arrived from Sicily, and together they ran a small concession selling fruit and sandwiches, with Sal supplementing their income by going off for long periods to work on the railroads in Missouri.
Ten years later, as the century came to an end, Sal decided to take his family back to Italy. He was going nowhere fast in America. Now burdened with five children, however, he discovered Sicily was no bargain either so he decided to try his luck again. This time, he booked passage through Ellis Island, but quickly moved back to New Orleans to open a full-fledged grocery store on Magazine Street in 1901.
The problem with the American Dream is that it rarely follows the path we pretend it does. Honesty, hard work, and perseverance are no guarantee of success. Although Sal was doing all right in New Orleans, his wife’s relatives had emigrated to Rockford, and she wanted the comfort of family.
“We’ve tried it your way, “ Tony imagines Carmela saying, “Now I want to try it mine.” Tony’s presentation to the assembled Ingrassia relatives is crisp, authoritative and, for many, a revelation. Still, it sparks memories of tales other family members have heard about the move.
“Is that when he put the kids in an orphanage while he got established?” someone in the crowd asks.
“No, that was his brother Pasqualle, but that’s another story,” Tony replies.
The Melting Pot
Salvatore opened his first store in Rockford at 1211 Rock Street in 1905 selling “staples and fancy groceries”. By 1918, he was opening his third store on Main Street in partnership with his sons Nunzio (Del) and Ted.
But he will be remembered more for the accomplishments of his progeny than his own. One started a furniture store, another became a lawyer, a daughter mastered the insurance business, two others entered the liquor business (whether before or after the end of prohibition remains a topic of some dispute.) What is not in dispute is that the Ingrassias, in all their many third generation names and permutations, have become pillars of the Rockford community.
The most poignant stories about America often come from immigrants because they are simple stories of struggle: to get out of the old country, to rise up the economic ladder, to overcome language and cultural barriers, usually just to gain a foothold in America so the next generation can reap the full rewards.
As Nathan Glazier and Daniel Moynihan would demonstrate in their 1960 collaboration “Beyond The Melting Pot,” very few immigrant cultures assimilated easily. The Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles and, more recently, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans have all faced discrimination; and one of the ways they overcame it was by self-segregating into their own communities and clinging to family vines, using them to pull each other up. The Ingrassia Family Reunion was a demonstration that it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes 116 years.
To get a picture of the whole Ingrassia clan, the photographer brought a ladder and divided the families into three groups he would later seam into a panoramic shot. The first groups were the red, white and blue families. They took their places on four picnic tables and – wouldn’t you know – two of the tables collapsed. Nothing comes easy. Elderly aunts tumbled into little children, and three women were left with bruised ankles, one seriously enough to go to the hospital.
But nothing was going to hold back the family portrait. They climbed back into the frame for another go. The other color coded families took their turn in the spotlight, and the photos were completed just as thunder rolled in off the river.
As the family dispersed, my wife’s cousin Mike Cavataio suggested we make up a T-shirt saying “I survived the Ingrassia Reunion.”
“I’m down with that,” I said because it was a nice reunion. A real beauty.