Family in Waterbury
A typical Sunday afternoon gathering on the farm near Waterbury included Joanna Clapps Herman's 'mother aunts, comma Maria and lots of paesans,' she says. (photo courtesy Joanna Clapps Herman)

Aboriginal Family

What happened when an Anarchist Bastard raised a tribe of Italian Americans in the WASP-y Land of Steady Habits

by Brian Francis Slattery
New Haven Advocate

It's easy for those of us who live here to forget, but when a lot of people outside the state think of Connecticut — if they think of it as being anything other than the stretch of I-95 between New York and Boston, only noteworthy when an accident slows the traffic between them — they don't think first of Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford or Waterbury. Other states are defined by their cities. Connecticut, for people who don't live here, is defined by another state's city: It's one vast, homogenous suburb of New York; a place so wealthy, it's stifling.

“America is a hurricane,” Norman Mailer wrote once, uncharitably, “and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug white Protestants who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind.”

If the popular conception of Connecticut is to be believed, the eye of that hurricane has parked itself right over the state, and hasn't moved for years.

You can see why the stereotype exists. Connecticut's median income was the highest in the country in 2009. In popular culture, the state is represented by Revolutionary Road, The Ice Storm, The Stepford Wives. It's been so long since Mystic Pizza that the Mystic of Mystic Pizza isn't there any more. And then there's the plain fact that a lot of towns in Connecticut really have a lot of money. There are the grand estates in Greenwich, the gentleman farmers in the northwest corner. The picturesque shore towns where the families who have streets named after them still live. The rows upon rows of houses in Fairfield that can't possibly be worth that much, but are.

There are a few vague impressions, it seems, floating around the popular ether that contradict the stereotype, including that New Haven is blighted and crime-ridden: In 2002, when I first told friends in New York that I was moving here, a surprising number of them said “I'm sorry,” laboring under a perception that is, by my count, about 15 years out of date. But the tension that the dueling impressions set up — how can Connecticut be both a sprawling affluent suburb and a poster child for urban decay? — isn't examined very much outside the state. The reality of being here, the lives of most of the people who live here, have stayed hidden. But maybe that's about to change.

I often say that I was born in 1944 but raised in the 15th century because although I was born in Waterbury, Conn., in a New England factory town, in post–World War II, I grew up in a large southern Italian family where the rules were absolute, and customs antiquated. My sister and I were doing the jitterbug to Chuck Berry's ‘Maybelline' coming from the radio on the kitchen counter, my father was singing Nat King Cole songs in the shower and my grandfather was singing ‘Vicin' ‘u marre' and ‘Non sona più la sveglia' under the grape arbor.”

So begins Joanna Clapps Herman's The Anarchist Bastard, a rich collection of essays about her huge, brawling Italian-American family, critical yet full of love, respectful yet unsentimental, quietly unsparing. (The bastard in question is her maternal grandfather.) “Who wants to dig up all the stuff that hurts us or makes us feel stained, all that flutters up before we justly press it back?” Clapps writes.

My father's family's tragedies all live in that place for him and so too, in turn, for our family. He was wracked with pain and shame and he wanted to stay as far away from all those memories as he could. But sometimes they would fight their way to his surface and Lucia and I would hear fragments of what he had lived through.

Clapps gives us much more than that. Piecing those fragments together through long interviews with her family and in her own recollection, we get the sadnesses of her family in full. The fight her grandfather had with his brother that ended with a silence between them lasting 20 years. Her grandmother committed to a mental institution, where “there were people going wild, I mean climbing the walls,” her cousin Paul telling her, but “in the midst of this, of all these locked doors and screaming, your grandmother Bessie had the calmest smile, the most serene smile.” The deaths of her father Peter's brothers, when they were far too young to go, one from leukemia, the other from suicide. The domestic violence that shoots through the veins of her family, men and women alike. “Anger was our true north, our compass, our map, our weathervane,” she writes. “Screams, slaps, spankings, pinches, beatings were so much a part of our every day that fury seemed unremarkable, even ordinary.”

But The Anarchist Bastard isn't a story about victimhood. Clapps broke her family's tradition of violence over her knee when she left Waterbury and raised her own child, though not with judgment. And now, she can see even the anger in the context of something bigger: “We were full of anger, but not angst,” she writes. “My tribe hasn't heard of ennui. Angry, but not depressed. In a land of clarity, there's too much to be done for introspection. Runzeling, nursing things over, isn't a virtue to us. That's for the self-indulgent. We did. We acted. We stood on the side of virtue. Simplicity. And violence. Greek theater of Italian-American life.”

This objectivity, the unwillingness to judge her family, lets Clapps lay her past truly bare, placing the joys of her clan next to the sorrows and telling you not to pass a verdict, but to see people, living their lives as best they know how, realized as fully as Clapps can make them. So you get the sweet stories, too: the romance of her parents' four-year courtship, after her father had said that the very first time he saw her, “walking there with her sister…. She was so pretty, so pretty, you can't believe it — like Hollywood pretty. I knew immediately she was the one.”

But most important, you get the everyday: going to school, going to church; making food and clothes, coffee and wine. A story from her father about an acquaintance who made some bad wine: “Mr. Passarento's wine had spoiled. It was a great tragedy. I can remember my father saying with all the melancholy he could muster, ‘Passarento's shot to hell.' He meant his social career was dead for the year.” And then good wine: “I remember them drawing a glass of wine and the three of them standing in a circle passing the wine, silent. Reserving judgment. It went from my father to Mammanonna to Canio. Canio was the last in line. That year it was a particularly good wine. Canio tasted it and then he said, ‘Stu vine … ca u solo remainishe bia emboad.' (‘This wine is so powerful, if the sun goes down when you are drinking it, you won't be able to find your way home.')”

Then there are the thousands of tiny connections among Clapps and the rest of her family — her sister, her cousins, and everyone else — the fierce love that makes a tribe in all its conflicted glory. And it's told, as much as possible, in her family members' own riotous voices, the urgent rhythm of their speech, an English a thousand miles from the measured lilt of America's aristocracy, but which you hear on the streets of New Haven every day. For me, it was in the voices of her family, and the values embedded in them, that the shock of recognition came, of my own huge, chaotic Catholic family, and of the state I know better than to pretend I'm from, even though I've lived here for almost 10 years and understand the same way I understand the familial tribe I'm in. Here, the rules are clear and don't have to be spoken, and you are measured, in the end, not by where you live, where you went to school, or where you work, but by who you are, what you say and what you can do.

I'm a generation below Clapps; my mother was born in 1946, my father in 1945. Just as Clapps moved away — but not too far away from her “ancestral village” of Waterbury, as she called it when I talked to her — my father left Albany and my mother Long Island to settle in upstate New York, where my sister and I were raised. So the shock of recognition wasn't of my nuclear family, but the extended families my parents had moved away from: the sprawl of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents who had stayed closer to home and were and are worlds unto themselves, full of drama and politics, histories of tragedy, comedy and luck, enough death and life to fill novels, all bound together by a devotion to one another and by the values of the particular Catholic immigrant cultures they grew up in, my mother Italian and Ukrainian, my father Irish. We lived hours from them, but we visited both sides of the family several times a year, and even today, having moved away over 30 years ago, my parents are most themselves when they visit, just like Clapps told me in a long interview that, “When I go home and sit at my family's table, I am more alive than anywhere else.” That hit me when I was a kid, too: My extended family showed me a vitality of life, a way of living bigger, that I loved and still love being a part of.

“We were not like those Protestants, the most deeply ‘Merican state one could enter,” Clapps writes. “They were all one thin bland mass of baked macaroni eaters as far as we were concerned.” Well into my late teens, if someone asked me what I was, it would never have occurred to me to say I was American; I would have said I was part Irish, part Italian and part Ukrainian, a formulation I dropped only when I lived abroad in the year after I graduated college. Even now, that label — American — is a suit that hasn't been cut right. I'm never sure I know what the word means, and it's a poor fit in ways that surprise me. When Tea Partiers say they want their country back, the reaction I feel isn't political; it's personal, an uneasy sense that, regardless of my politics, I'm not included in their definition of “we.” I'm in Clapps's tribe, people who “collected in threes or fours on the edges of America,” as she writes. “We made communities where the ancient mores of our culture preserve something so old it doesn't have a written record, only a song here and a rag there.” But we hang together, and we know each other when we meet. After I spoke with Clapps about her book, she told me that she felt like she was talking to a long-lost cousin. I felt the same way.

The passage from generation to generation matters. Some things are lost. Clapps's grandparents, she told me, “made their own prosciutto, their own cheese, their own ham.” My Italian and Ukrainian great-grandmothers could feed their families out of their gardens. Clapps's generation still makes its own wine. My generation doesn't do any of that, doesn't really know how.

“There was such pride in physical work and capability, more than achievement,” Clapps told me. “It was affecting the world you were in and staying close to it, and being good at all the ordinary stuff. We're all incredible cooks, and our children are, too, but it was ordinary then, you didn't make a fuss about it. You made your own clothes, and you'd make a fuss about them, but the fact of making them was ordinary.”

I know how to cook from my mother, but neither of us know how to knit or sew, even though my Ukrainian great-grandmother was exceptional at it. My son wears the sweaters she made for my uncles when they were boys, and which I wore as a child as well. There still isn't a stitch loose.

But other things are not lost at all; if anything, they seem to get more important all the time. “To be without manners, with — out customs, is the worst thing,” Clapps told me. “When I was growing up, I hated it. Making cookies for the hairdresser, that sort of thing. But I find myself adopting more and more of my mother's habits and customs — skills that I lost for a while — because it makes your world so much richer.”

She's right. The values, the attitude, the worldview my family taught me about being a member of a tribe has let me create my own tribe wherever I go. But it also helps me, again and again, to live where I do. To understand that, to make my way here, it's not about the fancy education I got or the rarefied job I have. It's about getting out, showing up, talking straight, giving what I can give, with honesty, humor and respect. Then the place opens like a flower, because everyone else is doing the same thing.

The Connecticut where Clapps grew up, and where I live now, doesn't get talked about very much. I don't know why; maybe everyone's too busy living to stop and write about it. But it's so easy to see when you get here.

In New Britain, there's a street where all the signs are in Polish. At Liuzzi's in North Haven, my mother, on a visit, waves her fingers over some of the provolone they have out, which is already pretty good stuff. “Is this nice?” she asks, in that half-skeptical tone I've only heard Italian-Americans muster. The cheesemonger frowns. He knows what she's asking, brings a different provolone out from behind the counter.

My father finds out where the good stuffed shells are by asking a guy near Wooster Square who's running an import store. It's a slow day, and he's having a shot of whiskey on a Saturday afternoon. The guy sends my father over to a store in West Haven that doesn't look like a store. They're the best stuffed shells we've had all year.

In El Jibaro, the big barbershop on Grand Avenue in Fair Haven, the man who gives me a haircut six times a year puts his hand on my shoulder when he's done, blesses me, and means it.

And in the summer on the weekend, my family and I go to Lighthouse Point, or the beaches in West Haven. The air is hot and heavy and there's not enough shade. Big families have the kinds of spreads you set up when you plan to be there all day, and they're yelling at each other up and down the beach. The smell of meat being cooked right. Someone's set up a sound system to pump out a fat beat, maybe hip-hop, maybe merengue, maybe reggaeton, something that makes your head bob. Cars are growling in the parking lots. Two guys are arguing with each other, standing close together and gesticulating. It's all loud, really loud, just like it is in the pages of Clapps's book, like it is with my own gigantic family, because so much life can't be quiet. It's a hurricane, and the eye is far away. We're all in the middle of its swinging arms.