I am proud to be 50% Italian, 40% German, and the rest a hodgepodge of other nationalities that make me the terrific person I am, but ultimately I’m 100% American!
My mom – a full blooded Italian Neapolitan (someone from Naples, Italy) – came to America in 1965 to marry an American and enjoy her own slice of the American dream. She came from a dirt poor Italian family. Since she was the oldest girl in a family of nine kids, she had to drop out of school after the first grade to help out her family. In her teens she had worked for many American families. She was loved and appreciated by them and they treated her well. She thought America was a land flowing with milk and honey.
Through a friend of a friend of a friend, she found out my father – recently widowed – was looking for a wife. He had heard that Italian women were great with children, excellent cooks, and extremely good-looking. Who can ever resist an Italian? Through fate – or stupidity – or perhaps both, they married and thus began my mom’s journey to America.
Financially, the dream was way more than she imagined! A nice home in the suburbs of Long Island, a television set, a vehicle, plenty of food, and even some money left over. She was blessed with two great looking, intelligent, outstanding, humble kids. Relationally, the dream left a lot to be desired. Father was abusive physically – at a time when many in our society chose to look the other way.
When I was 5, we left him for good and moved to Italy, where we were homeless. Not living under a bridge homeless, but shuffling from relative to relative every few months, occasionally having a place of our own (sans electricity), but mostly living with other people. Two years later we moved back to the United States, this time to Norfolk, Virginia.
Mom eked out a living with a combination of welfare and cleaning people’s houses. When sis and I complained about school, Mom would get a real serious look on her face and give us a passionate pep talk in her adorable Italian accent.
“Jeemy” she would say, (everybody called me Jimmy growing up, but my Italian relatives called me Jeemy).
“Jeemy. Di only-a tinga I ever-a wanta growin uppa was-a to go-a to school-a. Now-a you-a be tankful dat you canna go-a to school-a. No more-a complain-a.” That importance of school sunk in to the deepest part of my brain. Although there were other times I complained, I learned to be thankful for the chance to go to school.
Jeemy grew up and became James. I joined the Army, got married, and started having kids. Mom became Nonna – the Italian word for grandmother. I took one or two college classes every chance I had, earning my associate’s degree and then my bachelor’s degree while in the Army. It took me about 14 years. I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree. Eventually I also earned my master’s degree at the age of 45. I was accepted into a doctoral program, but decided I’d rather save my money and start putting that effort into the many projects I had on hold during my younger days. Was earning the degrees difficult? Yes! Were they worth it? Yes! And I have my mom to thank for all her encouragement about the importance of school (mom passed away in 2021 at the age of 77).
One of my kids – when he was an underclassman – decided he wanted to be a lawyer. He didn’t want to just go to any law school, he wanted to go to Yale. He took a year off after earning his bachelor’s degree to work and study for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). By this time he was married and a father to a baby girl. He made many sacrifices, often choosing not to go to fun family events so he could study for the LSAT. He scored in the 99th percentile and was accepted into Yale Law School. He graduated and is a success in his field!
America has its flaws. Every country does. But is there anywhere else in the world where the grandson of a poor, uneducated immigrant can graduate from Yale Law School? We are the land of opportunity. Take advantage of it!
James is a public school music teacher. He is thankful for the education he has been able to receive. His education is not finished yet. He learns something new everyday and will continue to learn until the day he dies. James is the author of 5 books, including I Cannoli Imagine: My Italian Life, in which he shares many funny stories about growing up with an Italian mom. James is available to share his inspirational message with your group. In Your Now Doesn’t Determine Your Future he shares his own personal journey of overcoming adversity and helping others to do the same. Check out his web page at www.jamesdivine.net. Special thanks to Zia Rosaria for being the inspiration for this article!!