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Growing Up Italian Canadian
Who Are These People?
It wasn't until I was about three yeas old that I had my first Italian experience. When I looked back over the years I realized it was around that time that my father's mother came to visit us in Toronto from Italy. All I could remember of that visit was a vague image of a person whom I could not understand nor speak to in the same language. I didn't know then that many years later I would endeavour to find out as much as I could about that woman whom I had met so fleetingly, and the life that my father had left behind when he came to Canada.
The fact then though was that most of the people around us in the little suburb of Toronto where we lived , were not Italian. In this community one of our next door neighbours was Scottish and my friend and her family across the road were also of British descent. That was my world up to that point. Of course there was an Italian community in Toronto itself; my dad and his sister had chosen that city back in the 1920's along with many others. In fact when I was a baby we had lived in the Little Italy part of Toronto, but at the ripe old age of 3 I had absolutely no recollection of those times at all. Over all at that time, Italian immigrants to Canada were not that high in numbers when compared to the United States, with the biggest influx being after the second world war and even more into the 50's, 60's and onward. Now, as I understand it Toronto has the biggest Italian population - per capita - next only to Italy itself!
So in the next couple of years I would find out two things that startled me. One was the first time I met another little girl with the name Lynda - or Linda as it is more commonly spelled. I wondered how in the heck this could be! This was my name. The next was when I started school and encountered people who had trouble with my last name of Virginillo. To be sure it was a hard name to pronounce - it was even for me. But I didn't realize at the time just how "foreign" it sounded, nor how rare a name it was. In fact all through the years of my growing up I never saw evidence of that name anywhere. There was no one else in our area with that surname; in fact no one else in Ontario, my dad being the only one at that time to bring the name to Canada.
Wherever I traveled as a young adult I would look in the local phonebook to see if I could find Virginillo families, but always came up empty. Several years ago when I did my research I came across a surname map for Italy. When I keyed in "Virginillo" all that came up was an indication of less than 100 people and I am probably being generous at that. All of these hits, with the exception of maybe 5 in Rome, showed in the same town that my dad came from in Italy. Surely then we are all related.
When I was 7 we moved from our "anglo-saxon" neighbourhood in Toronto to my maternal grandmother's house in Hamilton. Now we were in a different ballgame altogether. Hamilton, being a smaller city, plus being a steel industry town certainly had its share of Italians. I began to hear the Italian language more often, both when my relatives were trying to make nonna really understand something, and it seemed more so when they didn't want "me" to understand something. Plus my grandmother's friends of the cheek pinching variety visited often at the house. When they were not visiting, nonna dragged me along on some of her visits to them. I remember in particular a lady by the name of Mrs. Gallardi. I was always greeted on arrival at her place with one or the other or both cheeks being pinched between her thumb and forefinger with her saying something like "che bella" or asking "filgia Adelina" (is this Adele's daughter?) of course then I would be invited to sit with them and have a biscotti, which to this day I do not like, while they drank coffee. And in my grandmother's house my name came out sounding more like "Leenda".
Going to school in Hamilton was also different than going to school in my old suburb in Toronto. By now the nuns at St. Ann's grade school were used to us Italians so I fit in with no difficulty at all. I have since heard stories from my mom and aunts about one of the nuns from their school days exclaiming, "they should take all you Lanzas and send you back where you came from." And there's another thing. I became quite enamored with this Lanza name, my mother's maiden name. I thought it made a much nicer sounding name than Virginillo and for sure was far easier to pronounce. Plus there was that famous American tenor of the times, Mario Lanza which made me wish even more so that my name could have been Lynda Lanza. It had such a nice ring to it I thought. But more to the point, my two years in Hamilton and at St. Ann's Catholic School between the ages of 7 and 9 passed quite uneventfully. I made a couple of friends at school, one being Italian, and a couple of friends around my neighbourhood one of whom was Jewish, and we all melted together quite nicely.
When I was 9 my dad and mom moved my younger sister Nanci and I out of nonna's house to a little house of our own in Ancaster, just on the outskirts of Hamilton. This move was pushed along because when we moved from Toronto to my grandmother's house, my mom's sister and her husband also sold their house in Hamilton and moved in too. Of course now we were too many people in the same house. We were the ones to move out now for two major reasons. One, my aunt and uncle had a car which was very handy for taking nonna back and forth to church. And two, in nonna's words, my sister made too much wind running around the house!
In any event and more importantly, this move found me back once again in a non-Italian environment. It was 1954 and the town we moved to was still quite small and very waspish with a population of only 8,000 people. And out of that population I believe there were no more than four Italian families. One of these besides mine was my other aunt and uncle and their kids who had also moved to Ancaster - but not into the same house as us - thank God! I was registered into the local one and only Catholic grade school, coincidentally named St. Ann's as was my school in Hamilton. This one though was very different. Once again most of my classmates were of British descent, many of them being of Irish Ancestry, along with a few Dutch thrown in for good measure. Talk about getting confused.
I was in grade 4 at this point and things moved along quite smoothly for the next couple of years. Somewhere along the way I began to notice how popular Italian jokes were. And because I was a minority here, most likely I took many of them too seriously. For instance one of the favourite sayings of the day was "how do you like my Dago boots? Dago where I go." This was often passed around during recess time and while I knew full well that these things were not directed at me, nor meant to make me feel uncomfortable, nonetheless I ended up feeling exactly like that - uncomfortable. The reality of the whole thing is that I was Canadian; Canadian with an Italian background. But somewhere along the way that got lost in the translation. I do think sometimes that this idea was fostered in my family, particularly amongst the whole of my relatives. It is true that in later years I often reflected on the fact that it seemed to me that my American relatives were American first and Italian second, while we Canadians thought of ourselves as Italian.
The Teen Years
In any event my grade school years passed by uneventfully, and after spending two years attending a girls only high school in a Catholic convent, I transferred over to the local High School and integrated myself into the mixed boy/girl situation with no hitches. When I was 14 I had my first serious boyfriend. he was Irish (non Catholic) background and the first time he took me home to meet his mother it was clear right from the moment that I walked in the front door that she was not pleased. We left the house fairly quickly and I could tell that he was angry at his mother. I was told afterwards by his brother that their mother had expressed displeasure that he did not choose an English girl instead. I don't suppose it helped either that I was Catholic. it wasn't a big deal; after all I was only 14 and we certainly were not going to get married, even if he thought so at the itme. In fact our relationship only lasted about 6 months and the decision to move on was in the end made by me. But still I remembered that little incident years later.
A year later I met the fellow who would eventually become my first husband. He also was of British background and informed me right from the beginning that he had always wanted to go out with an Italian girl. In fact he took to calling me Gina! It's no wonder that I was having a bit of an identity crisis. I recall a stuck up aunt of his visiting from out West. We were sitting around the dining room table and she was asking me about my family. I can't recall the exact conversation but I do recall feeling as though she thought I had just got off the boat, and I was left wondering if I was doing or saying something to give this impression. All of these things were quite harmless and looking back I realize now that it was the time of life that I was in, those vulnerable teen years in which you are always trying so hard to find a spot into which you fit. I did end up marrying this fellow, but then we divorced seventeen years later. But his family was a nice counterbalance to my Italian side of things.
Years later, and after being happily married to my second husband I realized that I had become more than comfortable in my skin. This naturally came with age, along with a good man who was very much responsible for building my self-confidence. I embrace my Canadian birth with a fierce loyalty and I know that I am a Canadian first - a Canadian who happens to have a wonderful Italian heritage. I realized one day not long ago that I have come to love my maiden name of Virginillo and I am so glad that my sister decided to keep it as her name when she married. It sounds a bit like music to me now. And in a town that used to be 8,000 population with a scant few Italians, it is now a town of 30,000 with "tons of Italians". Many years have passed. There are new people on the block now and Italians are no longer the minority immigrant. Being children of immigrant families, some of them may experience the same bit of confusion that I did. But in the end I hope they are able to embrace their new home, while at the same time being proud of their unique heritage.