Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Decline of the big American Catholic family

The New York Times has a warmhearted story, reminscing about the big American Catholic families of fifty years ago, when people used to listen to the Church teaching on contraception.

"The smaller Irish-American family has been attributed to many factors, but the one most often cited is a decline in willingness to defer to the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. “The church’s guidance on all kinds of things, including family planning, doesn’t carry the weight it used to carry,” said Terry Golway, a writer who teaches American history at Kean University in New Jersey.
In New York, the migration of the Irish middle class from the city to the suburbs contributed to the decline of the double-digit family, he said. “Their world was not defined by the parish as it once was, when they lived in the Bronx,” Professor Golway said. “They moved to the suburbs, where it really was a melting pot. Not everybody on your block was Irish anymore.”'

This is the type of family my father grew up in in Flushing Queens; six kids in bunk beds in bedrooms arranged around a huge kitchen. During the Depression both parents worked to keep a roof over their heads, and the kids banded together to run the home. The boys had baseball games in Grandpa's tomato garden ("Pop, if you see any tomatoes with seed in 'em; DON'T eat 'em!).
Saturday morning battles between the boys and bossy big sisters in charge of the housecleaning over a quarter to see the double feature. Jam-packed family car driving over the bridge to Granpa's farm in Jersey. And the legacy has continued, as the family is aging and 19 grandchildren are raising their own children. Weddings and funerals are reunions but the contstant contact by phone maintains the closeness born around the kitchen table on homemade benches where Nana's homemade tomato sauce was served twice a week; Sundays and Thursdays. I grew up enjoying the boisterous closeness at Christmas and Easter, the happy chaos of gangs of boys who had to be keep under control in the basement, where my cousin Liz and I were told "don't let anyone get hurt". We'd hide under the stairs and share secrets while the boys wrestled and made mayhem around us. Soon it wouild be time for dessert and we'd come upstairs to a table covered with dozens of pies, cakes, pudding and, best of all, expensive Italian pastries.
I'd sit at the adult table eating a cannoli and listen to Uncle Al's stories, complete with dialogue in various New York ethnic accents. He had stories of Old New York and he made them come alive, reliving the events as he made us roll with laughter. My favorite was when he and his brother left Queens on Good Friday by horse cart to get pizza in Manhattan on Good Friday. The horse wasn't tied, and took off down the street, with the cart swinging back and forth wildly, smashing the window of Harvey the Jewish tailor, who came outside yelling in Yiddish.

Big Catholic families, whether Irish, Italian, German or Polish are wonderful. and I wanted one myself. I still hope that one of my girls has a dozen children so I can sit around the Christmas table and tell stories of when I was a kid at my Italian family gatherings, hiding under the table and guessing whose feet was whose. Or when my ugly mutt of a dog, Skippy used to chase cars and recovered every time he got too close and got hit. We will brag about how Granpa Crafa was born ten years after Padre Pio in Pietrelcine, Italy, and baptized in the same Church. We were so proud the day he was canonized and bought a brick in the family name around his shrine in our church.
Two generations later, we still carry some of the closeness of my dad's big Italian family with us; it' is Granpa's gift to us.

Read the entire story here.

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1 comment:

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

Yup. People seem to think we have a huge family with just 4 kids when I know several families with 6. Of course those are mostly conservative Catholic homeschooling families. Many of the families in my children's Catholic school only have 1 or 2. Letting God's will be done as far as how many kids one has is almost unheard of nowadays, even among Catholics. People don't know what they are missing. Someone with no kids just commented that she didn't envy the stay at home mom and it must be like vacation when the kids go to school. Believe me I set her straight!