Editor’s note: As Nevada County prepares to celebrate the fourth annual Italian Festival at Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley — 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sept. 14-15 — Valentina Maffei-Parkman shares a bit of her own Italian heritage with The Union.
As a child, I thought every holiday and family event — like birthdays, Catholic milestones and graduation parties — consisted of 20 or more adults and their children crammed into a 1,200-square-foot house.
Table settings extended from kitchen to dining room and well into the living room, where lively and boisterous conversations were the norm and nobody was exempt but encouraged to speak up. It was a time for my comedic cousins to poke fun and bring us to tears of laughter. We learned about the olden days as our elders reminisced about their youth and those who passed before us. Even in sorrowful times we found solace in each other’s company and were able to laugh at the good times we shared. My family continues to hold onto these traditions, and I’m proud to share the Italian hospitality handed down to me from my parents with others.
I did not realize it then, but I was blessed with a large and loud Italian family. Our “family” consisted not only of blood relatives, but also friends and neighbors. We joined together to partake in merriment and the never-ending trays of food that took days to prepare. It wasn’t unheard of to have seven courses of food: antipasto that consisted of trays of olives, salami, pickled pigs feet, cream cheese filled celery sticks, peppers, pickles and pickled onions, soup that was usually Minestrone, some kind of pasta or risotto (Italian rice), vegetables and at least two different meats (usually either turkey, roast or ham), salad and then the endless desserts. However, my favorite was the breads: San Francisco sourdough and North Beach foccacia (Italian bread). Guests went home with a plates filled with leftovers, and my mother could manage to whip up a week’s worth of lunches and dinners from the leftovers.
My teenage years were quite another story, and at times, I didn’t appreciate growing up Italian style as you could not get away with anything. My mother would tell me constantly she had “eyes in back of her head,” and there were times when she proved this outrageous claim! It’s hard to be an invisible teenager living among the many aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends watching out for you. In retrospect, I’m glad they were there for me.
As for speaking the language, my parents spoke fluent Italian, but my siblings and I did not. Unfortunately, I tuned them out as I thought it was about someone in trouble, finances, someone’s passing or it was just none of my concern. That changed, though, when I turned 16. I had the privilege of working weekends as a junior ground stewardess for Trans World Airlines. It was there that I was approached by Roger Boschetti who hosted a San Francisco Italian Variety Show to be his co-hostess. I was able to say with great passion, “si” (yes) and “ciao” (hi/bye) to the viewers. It wasn’t until meeting my future Italian husband that I started attending Italian classes. Fast forward nearly 40 years, I’m remarried and my Italian conversations are still spoken in half Italian and English with lots of expressive hand gestures thrown in!
As time marches on, I embrace my Italian heritage and realize I will never be shy or quiet, that the passion of the Italian culture is something to be cherished and shared. After all, look at all the wonderful things Italians have and continue to contribute to the world. I know my daughter will continue to carry on the Italian traditions my parents passed onto to me and some day onto her future children. While our family may no longer be big in numbers, we will always be loud and have large hearts that will welcome all to join in with us Italiano style!
Valentina Maffei-Parkman lives in Alta Sierra.
Even in sorrowful times we found solace in each other’s company and were able to laugh at the good times we shared. My family continues to hold onto these traditions, and I’m proud to share the Italian hospitality handed down to me from my parents with others.