Modern Medicine, Italian Style
by Patricia Alfano
"Given the opportunity, the body has the ability to heal itself" - Battesta Alfano
My father is an extremely opinionated Italian man with some quirky ideas—especially when it comes to health issues. At 91, he won’t even take an aspirin. He has all his own teeth, walks five miles a day and claims he can still perform sexually. The only surgical invasion to his body was a hernia operation back in the 1960s at which he requested no anesthesia.
My father also never trusted modern medicine; he believes all doctors are “crooks” who experiment on people.
His mother, whom we called Nonna, lived to be 94. She also walked many miles every day and mostly ate the food she grew in her garden. She too, was suspicious of doctors and gave birth to her six children without medical assistance—or even a midwife for that matter.
As I ponder my father and grandmother’s good health and longevity, I wonder if there is a secret, some code in their DNA that resists the maladies from which the rest of us suffer. Is it their diet? Exercise? Mind over matter? Is it their ability to laugh at life and see the glass as perpetually half full, even in the worst of times? Whatever it is, I want it.
With my father’s distaste for doctors, I was rarely taken to one as a child. Instead, rubbing alcohol, Vicks or hot tea with lemon and whiskey cured most of my illnesses. If an ailment became too unbearable, we would summon my grandmother, who was bestowed with the power to perform a ritual that liberates a person from the dreaded curse known as the mal occhio, or the evil eye.
The mal occhio was believed to be the root of all evil, including sickness. Someone who could remove it was given more respect than any medical professional. During flu season, hoards of people would crowd my grandmother’s house to have the mal occhio removed.
Thank God nobody died.
Beside the mal occhio, food played an enormous role in our lives—not only with regard to healing, but life in general. In my childhood, the High Holy Order of Food ranked right up there with Marilyn Monroe and the Pope.
My grandmother’s diet was born of necessity and passed along to my father. She simply couldn’t afford meat, bakery items or the kinds of food that gave the wealthy gout, so she improvised.
“Do you know your grandmother is eating the weeds?” my young friend asked one day.
Nonna was picking dandelions to make cicoria when she decided to munch on the greens as she gathered them.
“That is cicoria,” I replied. “And we all eat it,” I added.
That was the last time that friend came to visit.
More interesting than his diet are my father’s ideas on physical fitness. I hadn’t given this much thought until recently when he came to see me.
“I need to find a bar,” he said shortly after his plane landed.
“A bar?” I asked. “But you don’t go to bars,” I said, looking him sternly in the eye.
“Not that kind of bar,” he snapped. “I need to hang.”
Hanging upside down from his knees is one of my father’s cure-alls. As a child I would watch him hanging like a bat from the crossbars of my swing set. Sometimes he would fold his arms in front of himself and sway back and forth, creating an eerie sight.
“Why does your father hang from your swings?” my friends would ask.
“Because it keeps his spine stretched.” I would answer, repeating his words.
Those friends eventually stopped visiting too. Their parents complained that my father’s hanging habit was giving the children nightmares.
These days, my father finds anything that will hold his weight, installs it in his apartment and hangs. It must work because at his age, he is still the full 5’8’’ he was as a young man. I, on the other hand, have asked his neighbor upstairs to listen for any thudding noises in case he lands on his head and needs to visit one of the “crooks” to sew it back together.
Then there is the area of mental health. Psychiatry has no place in our world. My family’s untreated paranoia of this medical discipline runs deep.
“You don’t tell your problems to strangers,” I’ve always been told. “Who knows what they will do with the information?” This is usually followed by, “This is why you have family; you tell us your problems and we solve them for you.” Your problems are then freely discussed among the family, and sometimes with the neighbors as well.
Growing up, I don’t recall anyone ever having “depression.” Instead, we had “the blues.” It depended on how blue the situation was before a familial prescription was rendered. Being slightly blue required an aunt or cousin to visit, a glass of wine, food and conversation; moderately blue summoned a few more relatives, several glasses of wine, food, conversation and Nunzio down the street to come sing and play his guitar; severely blue brought all the relatives, several gallons of wine, loud arguing over what the hell was wrong with you, and Nunzio, Paulie, Frankie and the rest of the neighborhood performing a production that would make Jersey Boys look like an elementary school play.
Whatever was making us “blue,” we got over it.
I remember one of our family pseudo-psychiatry sessions in which my cousin Jo-Jo was showing off his latest possession: a box of litmus-test strips. We never questioned how Jo-Jo came to acquire such strange articles; we simply partook of the bounty. At this particular gathering, someone decided we should take turns going to the basement, putting the strips on the water drain, and trying them out. It was then we found out just how many people in my family had diabetes. This caused much blueness, followed by a mass trip to Nonna’s for a mal occhio exorcism.
“Go forward in a cheerful manner,” my father says. “Look at me, I don’t worry about anything. Che sera, sera.”
My father worked three jobs to keep us afloat. But, somehow, he would find joy in his work and his life, always singing and dancing.
“The Studebaker fell apart on the bridge today,” he giddily said one bitter, cold day as he shuffled through the front door. “You should have seen the traffic jam I caused! Madonna!”
Anyone else would have been distraught. Not him. It was an event to be celebrated. His broken-down vehicle caused a zillion people to be inconvenienced. And the notoriety brought him great joy.
When I reminisce about how my father and grandmother lived long, healthy and happy lives, I wonder if I will be as fortunate. In my adult life, I’ve ingested antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, pain killers, oral contraceptives, and any other drug the pharmaceutical industry paid my physician to push. My constant worrying takes its toll, resulting in sleepless nights and high anxiety. Fear, stress and forgetting what is really important in life tie my back and stomach into knots. I have so much more, yet so much less than my ancestors who found joy in a ripe tomato or the ability to grow a fig tree in an inhospitable climate.
But I’m changing my ways.
I’ve decided that I won’t refrain from seeing a doctor if necessary, but I am going to return to my roots and take more responsibility for my health. I talk to my father every week to try and gain more insight into how to make obstacles a joyous game. With the exception of the mal occhio, my past is now my future. I plan to live closer to the earth and make my family and my dreams a priority, rather than material things.
Then I’m going to go hang with my dad.