By Charles Sacchetti
In my neighborhood, Italian families had many traditions. To mention a few, Christmas Eve always included a seafood meal called the feast of the seven fishes, plastic slipcovers adorned the furniture in every living room and Sundays always started with Mass followed by mom frying meatballs and sausage while making the gravy. That wonderful creation would simmer for several hours before its marriage to some type of pasta for the Sunday meal.
After the meal came another tradition. My father, his brothers and my grandfather would meet at one of their homes and spend three hours in intense battle. No physical violence was involved, of course. Besides, after a meal like that, no one had the inclination toward physical activity. The battle to which I refer was the weekly card game.
No one played for money. It was strictly for bragging rights. All of the brothers had nicknames. Uncle Fred was “Woodpecker,” Uncle Mario was “Slats,” Uncle Joe was “Joe Pierre” and my father Henry was “Riggie.” Although grown men, no one would dare call Grand Pop anything but “Pop.” It would be unheard of for any of the sons to call him by his first name. Thankfully, to this day, that type of “enlightenment” has never invaded our family. He was their father; therefore he was always treated with honor.
They usually started by playing a few Italian warm-up games, like “briscola” or “scopa.” After an hour or so, they got down to business: pinochle. Uncle Mario was clearly the best player. In fact, he made daily bus trips to the casino, well into his 80s, to play poker. He more than held his own. The youngest brother would always be teamed with Grand Pop. My father, the oldest son, would be teamed with Fred or Joe. They alternated since my father had seniority! Back in the 1950s no one had air conditioning. We had fans, and in the summer months the windows and screen doors were always open. After each pinochle hand was completed, the players would “critique” one another’s performance. No one critiqued Grand Pop, for the reasons mentioned above; however everyone else was fair game. This was the part I liked the most. They would yell and call each other names in Italian. I would do my best to write them down for future use on my buddies, but I had trouble spelling them and they came too rapidly for me to keep up! With elevated voices, they loved to offer un-solicited opinions on each other’s decisions and intelligence levels. With the windows open, the neighbors were used to the noise but any strangers walking outside for a Sunday stroll didn’t know whether they should just walk faster or call the cops to report a riot. The interesting thing was that these postmortems only lasted a minute or so and then the next hand would begin. There was never a verbal carryover from the previous hand. Once the new hand begun, the slate was wiped clean … until that hand was over.
I have come to realize that I learned a lot from watching those games some 60 years ago. I learned that it was OK to be competitive and passionate about winning. This really helped me during my baseball and sales careers. I learned to appreciate the camaraderie between men, which I now hold as one of my most treasured gifts. And finally, I learned something even more important. When the card game ended those men, who just minutes before acted like they were ready to kill each other, would get up from the table to hug and kiss each other and say goodbye.
That showed me that love of family trumps everything.