Growing up not Italian in Hammonton
The “Growing Up Italian” articles in the past few Gazettes have been wonderful and tell all I ever wanted to be. Growing up not Italian in Hammonton was what I was. Looking at me, almost everyone would assume I am Italian, and I am. My biological father, Salvatore “Sammy” DeMarco, left my mother when I was less than a year old, and I never had contact with him. His Italian family was a mystery to me growing up.
My mother’s family was of German, English and Irish descent. I lived with my mother’s family until I was 3, then my mother, Doris Wescoat DeMarco, married Joseph Wilson. We moved to the home he had grown up in, filled with antiques and books. He adopted me and my name changed to Wilson. With his thirst for knowledge and gentle manner he was a perfect father.
Yet, as time passed, my Italian features became more prominent and my desire to fit in at school and be like my Italian friends increased. It was a yearning I couldn’t overcome. They were fascinating and all seemed to be related to each other. My best friend and neighbor was Donna Esposito Ingram. We played every day and when I would go to her house there was always a huge pot of gravy on the stove and a loaf of Italian bread nearby for dipping. Then I’d go home to my bland porkchops and boiled potatoes. My food had no color! I would go to my friend Theresa Interlante’s house and I found that her mother was always cooking and cleaning. I swear her hobby was making the kitchen floor shine.
My mother had lived with the DeMarco family for a year, so she did learn to cook Sicilian food, but she never liked it much. Sure, she made homemade Italian sauce, but I wanted “gravy.” I did learn how to make meatballs from her, but they tasted just like her meatloaf. The only cheese that was ever in my parent’s refrigerator was American and Velveeta. Our common desserts were Jell-O and vanilla cake covered in coconut. I would beg my father to buy a box of pizzelles or biscotti when we’d go to Olivo’s Market.
I eventually had six younger siblings, and they all had blonde hair, light eyes and pale skin. If they played in the sun, they burned; I tanned. They had small noses; I did not. Looking back at all my family reunion photos, the only cousins I resembled in the least were my Japanese cousins.
It seemed that whenever I was at an Italian friend’s home there would be relatives gathered around the kitchen table laughing and yelling. The women all wore dresses covered in aprons; my family never wore aprons. The Italian mothers wore red lipstick and bold costume jewelry. They had their hair permed or teased. My mother never went to a hairdresser, never wore makeup or jewelry. I wanted to be Italian! I even coveted their plastic-covered living room furniture, gaudy lamps and runners covering most of the wall-to-wall carpeting.
In addition to the laughing and yelling in their homes, it continued into the yard where there was always a group of men, with great nicknames, playing bocce ball. Kids of all ages would be running through the house and tumbling into the yard. I could never tell which children belonged to which parents because the disciplining and loving was given equally by every adult.
Holidays were the worst at my house because the dinner was always a turkey or ham, mashed potatoes, peas and a pumpkin pie. Since entertaining was unheard of, no family joined us. Then, in college, I began to date a Hammonton Italian, and the first holiday dinner I ate with them was Thanksgiving. After the huge turkey dinner, I thought the meal was over. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the table was cleared, reset and an entire meal of sausage, meatballs, braciole and pasta was served. Then trays of cookies, rum cake, pies and fruit followed. I was in heaven.
It was with boyfriend’s aunt I learned to roll dough around square wires to make “homemades.” They were then dried on her ironing board. Whenever I visited his relatives’ homes, I would always watch them cook and ask for advice. I learned that house chores were relegated to specific days of the week, which I do, and that clothes had to be hung on a line to dry.
That is the only Italian tradition I rejected soundly.
As a freshman in college, I received a letter from my birth father, who lived in Florida and wanted to see me; I would also meet my Italian grandmother. She couldn’t speak a word of English but hugged me profusely and cried. She took a gold religious necklace from her neck and placed it on me. It is one of my most prized possessions. I never saw her again. I saw him twice after that.
Over the years I have been a strange mix of an Italian wannabe, sometimes calling it sauce and sometimes gravy. Yet, the 16th of July is my favorite day of the year, even though I am Presbyterian. My favorite Christmas song is “Dominick the Donkey,” and I watch The Godfather and “The Sopranos” over and over.
I have been married to my husband, Al Brown, for 40 years. He is of German and English descent, but I know he married me for my Italian cooking.
Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.