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  • Nostalgic about Spring
    Uncover my Italian family's peasant roots and why spring gets me—and other Italians, too—thinking about the old times
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Spring is in the air, which means I'm waxing nostalgic about my family of Italian peasants. Sure, I'm a college grad who works from the comfort of her own home and writes for a living. But I come from a people with humble beginnings. On the island of Ischia, both sides of my family grew grapes, made wine, sold vegetables they grew from various plots of land that they saved up to purchase, and did whatever they had to do to get food on the table.

    Their bathrooms were outside, they shared beds with various siblings and sometimes their parents, their homes had no heat, and they had to perform lots of manual labor to earn money and to just survive. They hunted, gardened, and gathered for food. Life was hard, but they didn't seem to realize it. They had their friends, who lived the same way they did. They had their fun like playing soccer in the piazza (even if it meant kicking around a softball someone sent from America) or camping out in a cantina (or wine cellar) in the mountains where they grew grapes. They had their family, who supported them through many trials – from sickness to the premature deaths of some of their siblings.

    But, as the sun returned after a long winter in Ischia, my people came to life. They prepared the land for a season of growth. The women and the men were "zappatori" or "diggers". They tilled the land to get the soil ready to nurture the wide variety of vegetables and fruits that they would be planting. Italian gardens in Ischia and southern Italy in general usually include lettuce, wild arugula, onions, eggplants, grapes, lemons (lots of 'em), tangerines, oranges, beans, and tomatoes.

    Even after moving to the United States, my people never gave up the garden. In fact, my father built up his own landscaping business, which essentially means he plants things as a career. Our house has a garden replete with rows and rows of tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, zucchini, beans, scallions, and herbs. We once even grew pumpkins. From late spring to late autumn, we eat off the land.

    When I was younger, I remember Nonna Francesca with a broom in the garden. She would sweep the path to the garden, so my father could easily get there. She'd pull weeds. Being 70 didn't stop her. On Sunday afternoons, we kids would be playing in the backyard while she would be gardening. My brother John, cousin Big John, and I would run wild, and we'd always climb on my father's truck much to the chagrin of Nonna. She'd chase us around with her broom until we safely got down. My brother and cousin would get a beating, but I never did because I was a girl. It definitely worked in my favor.

    My cousin and brother often say they wish she was still around to chase them with the broom now. I wish she was, too. Last weekend, Big John's daughters were outside my house in the driveway and for a moment I could see their father as a 10-year-old running away from Nonna and her broom. The nostalgia that comes every spring had begun to kick in.

    The traces of our Italian peasant roots are always evident if you look closely at us. You'll see it in the way Big John's oldest daughter rips a piece of basil off the plant and eats it fresh without thinking twice. You'll see it when I tend to the roses and am unafraid to get my hands dirty. That black soil under my fingernails is a symbol of my family history. You'll see it when my father picks the tomatoes off the vine and makes us all a huge salad. You'll see it when all my aunts and uncles start tilling their own soil here in America. An Italian zappatore might leave Italy, but he always brings his shovel with him – and his mentality is passed down from one generation to the next. Every spring, you are reminded of your peasants!

    Di Meglio is the guide to Newlyweds for About.com, where you'll get advice on everything from communicating better with your spouse to learning how to cook together. You can also find more information on all things Italian at www.francescadimeglio.com.

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