Mount AllegroMount Allegro
by Jerre Mangione

I’m named after two immigrant great-grandmothers, one Polish and the other Lithuanian. No Italian ancestors anywhere in my family. Yet there were a lot of things about this book that resonated for me with echoes of my own grandparents’ stories. This was my hometown the way it was in the 1920’s, when Grandma and Grandpa were growing up in another immigrant neighborhood just a couple of miles from the one described in this memoir.

When I read of the author’s father’s “compare”  going to work in the piano factory, I know it must have been that same Aeolean piano factory in East Rochester where Grandma’s father worked. When I read of the author’s mother and aunt sewing for the tailor shops, I remember Grandpa’s mother and sisters doing the same, and recall the names of some of them – Fashion Park, Michaels-Sterns, Hickey-Freeman, Barheis. When I read of the author’s father taking the trolley up through Charlotte to Lake Ontario, or his aunt taking the kids on a jaunt over to Sea Breeze, I remember Grandma’s stories of similar holiday trolley rides. I can see Grandma and Grandpa’s world here in this book.

Whether Italian or Polish, the experience of these generations was the experience of so many families during those same decades, turning gradually from the Old World to the New over the course of two wars and a depression. For example, Mangione writes of the confusion of languages spoken by his family. The kids all learned English at school, but at home, amongst the older relatives, they spoke Italian, because his mother “considered it sinful for relatives to permit their children to speak a language which the entire family could not speak fluently.”  I’ve heard from Grandma about the weekly Sunday dinners at Grandpa’s parents’ house, at which Grandpa and his brothers and sisters all spoke only Polish for the ease and comfort of their parents, while Grandma’s conversational options were the other non-Polish-speaking spouses.

Yet the Polish spoken by Grandpa wasn’t the language of a native speaker. It was always, for him, a second language, and one which grew more and more rusty as the generation of native speakers before him died out until there was nobody left to speak it with. The same linguistic breakdown happened to the Italian spoken by the Mangione family —  “If my relatives were under the impression that they were speaking the same dialect they brought with them from Sicily, they were mistaken. After a few years of hearing American, Yiddish, Polish, and Italian dialects other than their own, their language gathered words which no one in Sicily could possibly understand. ” What happened to generations of Italian and Polish speakers is still happening today, as Spanish and English gradually become “Spanglish”.

What I loved best about this book was the feeling that I’m sitting in a crowded kitchen or on the front porch, just listening while everyone joins in recounting favorite family stories. Reading Mangione’s memoir, I can imagine him sitting over supper with family, saying — “Now about Uncle Nino — remember him? He’s the one who used to make those wonderful toasts at dinner — yes, the one who played the joke on the coal dealer and Uncle Minicuzzu — yes, that’s the uncle I mean. Anyway, there was this time when two robbers came to his house –“

In every family, there are the classic stories of our ancestors, stories that are told and retold over the years until what remains is a lean thing with only the bones and muscle left. Which stories are the ones that end up being remembered and passed down? I think the ones we latch onto and keep are the ones which tell us something about the people who lived before us. Knowing the facts about our ancestors isn’t enough. Collecting names and dates and data give us little sense of who they were as individuals. A good story, though, can bring them to life again.

Some of Mangione’s stories are moving, others are painful, and still others are comical. But all of them are colored by the author’s personal memories of the people who figure in them. It’s that personal connection that gives them their richness and vividness. When I heard stories from Grandma, I was hearing from someone who had personal memories of the immigrant generation of our family, people who had died before I was born. When I retell the stories to my nieces, I’m never going to be able to tell them the same way Grandma did, because I’m speaking of people who live for me only in stories I’ve heard.

Mangione begins this book with the question of what makes an American. His schoolteacher told him that being born here made him American. But when he put the question to his father, “my father wasn’t very helpful. ‘Your children will be Americani. But you, my son, are half-and-half.’” Trying to figure out what that means is the thread which runs through all the rest of the book, taking the author at last on a trip to Sicily to examine the roots of his own background. Having always felt a bit of an outsider as an American, he ends up discovering that he’s even more of an outsider in Sicily. In writing this book, looking back on these experiences, he brings that perspective as an outsider full circle, looking curiously at his own half-and-half childhood with the eye of an interested observer.

I think about this passage in connection with my own family. My great-grandparents were immigrants. Some lived long enough to eventually become citizens, but they always spoke their first languages, with Grandpa’s mother, so I’ve heard, never completely comfortable with the English language. Grandpa’s generation, on the other hand, were easily bilingual, with English as their first language and Polish only spoken to please the old folks. Grandpa and others of his generation also had their surnames legally changed in the 1950’s to appear less “foreign”. Yet the half-and-half element was still there. Grandpa always loved his pirogi and golumki, never forgot to splash water at us on Dingus Day, and taught me to dance the polka when I was five years old. By my dad’s generation, there was no longer any half-and-half. My dad never spoke a word of Polish and never danced the polka. Dingus Day died out with Grandpa. Yet there are a few things that linger — mostly the foods. Though Grandma is gone, I still use her recipe to make pirogi for my dad, to whom those frozen objects in supermarkets are not and never will be pirogi, regardless of what it says on the box.

It’s strange that reading a book about a Sicilian family should have started me thinking so much about my own decidedly non-Sicilian family. But if my family had been Irish, or Pakistani, or Mexican, who knows but that I’d have been led into similar reflections. For all the differences between people at first glance, I keep finding that at the deepest levels, our stories have similar roots. We listen to each other’s stories attentively enough and suddenly we find ourselves saying, “But yes, that’s familiar — I understand where you come from after all!”