Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lessons from Italian Widows- the Greatest Generation!

PAGLIA: Yeah, I mean you see these little widows- they're like eighty year olds- Italian widows running around. You know they outlive their husbands by thirty years. This is me. I wasn't married, but I'm like a widow.

GLENNDA: Yeah, I know Italian women- they would come to work, they would be in their eighties, and they'd still come to work. Every single day to work. Work, work, work.

PAGLIA: Yeah. And don't get in their way!

(Dialogue from "Vamps and Tramps", essay collection by Camille Paglia)

I never noticed it at first. Growing up third-generation in the Italian subculture, and benefiting from the emphasis Italian ladies of the second generation placed on the domestic arts, it was easy not to notice. These women were tough! Those domestic arts camoflauged the determination of the tigress in protecting their domain.

It became clearer as I moved into middle age. When my mother's generation grew older, they continued to be the glue that held families together. They coped with the increasing strains on their health. They frequently took care of THEIR ageing parents. They coped with the legendary issues of being married to Italian men. (In case anyone doubts that this is a real issue, just ask the Mrs. Giuliani- all three of them! And I say this as one who admires Rudy enormously. And the Italian men of the previous last generation could be much more of a handful.)

The secret to this extraordinary durability lies in a centered, realistic approach to life. These women had few illusions. Life is TOUGH. Things are NOT easy. My mother's generation had first hand knowledge of poverty, unemployment, scarcity, and bereavement. Unlike today's feminists, they knew instinctively that having a family involved enormous commitment. And they knew other things: holding down a job is hard, running a home is hard, being married is hard, and doing it all is triply hard. Life is about choices, and dignity is about not whining. And they were realistic about relationships. When a husband strayed, they could be angry, hurt, disappointed and even vengeful. But rarely surprised. And when a woman strayed- watch out!

It is sad to contemplate that this reality-based perspective is at risk of being lost as the generational tide recedes. It will be needed again if we face rocky times, which is most likely. The modern impulse is to reach for the comfortable security blanket of victimhood whenever things go wrong. The Italian widows of the Greatest Generation would laugh at this. It is up to their descendants who know better, however imperfectly, to make sure this perspective survives.

No comments: