Columns 2003

America a melange of accents…and that’s a good thing

Ever since 9/11, a lot of pundits have been saying that patriotism is back in vogue.  I personally don’t think it ever went out of vogue. I do think there were attempts to hijack its meaning by some groups that decided if you didn’t agree with them, then you weren’t patriotic. They perhaps felt that patriotism had gone out of vogue because what they saw did not match their definition.

I don’t believe that any one group of people can speak for what is or isn’t patriotic in America.  A country built by rebels on the idea that shaking up the establishment and thumbing your nose at tradition is a healthy approach to authority, is not a country easily boxed in by facile definitions.

America to me has been, and always will be, accents.  Not accents in the sense of southern drawls and Texan twangs but accents that derive from English as a second language. Because I first learned all about being American from people with some pretty thick accents.

The Salesian Sisters that taught at St. Michael’s in the 50’s were almost all Italian immigrants. So when I was taught the Pledge of Allegiance, I learned it with an Italian lilt and some incomprehensible pronunciation of words like “for which it stands”.

After Philadelphia condemned the neighborhood my parents were raised in to make room for an expressway, the whole Italian community that lived there picked up and moved to a suburb called Glenside. Everyone still stayed pretty close together. It was just that now they had trees and lawns instead of stoops and sidewalks. And on July 4, they would throw the kind of outdoor feast that my grandparents, remembering the old world through rose colored glasses, thought was just like a festa in Italy.

At our July 4 cookouts, my family had dandelion salad, fried bread with squash blossoms in the middle and sausages with peppers instead of coleslaw and hot dogs. And since my Uncle Albert broke a millennia old tradition and married someone with a Polish as opposed to Italian heritage, there might also be some dishes available that my grandparents viewed with suspicion.

The men played bocce ball. The women cooked in the kitchen. Yes, this was a barbecue but the men did not see that as a good excuse to not serve pasta.  Since this was before air conditioning, the women would frequently join the men in the shade of the porch to escape the heat of the kitchen. My cousins and I would run all over the place accompanied by lackadaisical threats to our well being voiced by whoever’s garden patch we were currently barreling through.

The only thing that interrupted the long and lazy day was the parade.  We all went to the parade because that’s what Americans did on Independence Day and we were, thank god and light a candle to St. Jude, Americans.

Glenside threw one great July 4 parade. It was certainly not the biggest happening in the Philadelphia area that day, and maybe it wasn’t even the best, but it was absolutely full-blooded American.  The high school band played. The fire trucks drove by, the flag passed multiple times held by innumerable honor guards representing groups from the boy scouts to the local Moose Lodge.

And every time it passed, my parents and grandparents stood up and put their hand over their heart.  And all the veterans saluted. And then everyone cheered.  Because it was our flag out there; because we were so lucky it was our flag; because we were Americans now and that was the ultimate dream come true.

I tell a story in my book about the time I brought a young Inupiat friend home with me from Barrow. When she met Grandpop Rocco, he put his hand out, shook hers heartily and said, in an Italian accent that made the words almost indecipherable, “Welcome to my country”.

He may have had the facts wrong but he had the sentiment right.  This was his country, a country of myriad accents blending to make one beautiful sound that is the sound of America. And there is no one group anywhere in this country that can claim that sound exclusively because it takes all our voices to create it.