by Jack Rieger
On Saturday night, my cheerful, loving Italian family celebrated my Aunt Janet’s birthday in San Francisco. My Aunt Janet — one of the nicest, warmest people you will ever meet — would disown me if I disclosed her age, but it’s a year worth celebrating with people you love and care about.
In case you haven’t been to an Italian birthday party, there are three essential ingredients. The first, of course, is Italian food. Italians are notorious for inhaling massive amounts of carbs, mostly in the form of spaghetti, pizza and variations of bread. To Italians, food represents the familiar feeling of returning home and sharing a tradition with people you love. That, along with a terminal stomach ache.
Secondly, an Italian birthday requires toasts from family members. Italians are naturally great toasters because of our dramatic, gregarious personalities, and a toast offers a perfect stage to unapologetically express love and appreciation for one another. Thanks to years of attending Italian parties, I’ve learned a great toast evokes love, laughter and sometimes even an element of sadness. There were several great toasts this weekend.
Lastly, an Italian party requires red wine. This is by far the most important element of the recipe. In fact, members of the family will immediately leave upon realizing there isn’t any red wine to drink. It’s the lubricant for all of the emotions evoked by family, and it’s the only thing that makes your racist uncle tolerable for three hours.
My Aunt Janet’s party had all of the ingredients listed above, and it even included one more random element: the Chicago Cubs were playing to go to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
This is a big deal in my family.
In 1925, my great-grandfather, Vincent Giovenco — at the age of 18 — left his homeland of Sicily and moved to the north side of Chicago. He worked for Baby Ruth as an assembly line worker responsible for adding chocolate to the chocolate bars. Vincent met my great-grandmother, Nicasia — one of eight children — and was married in 1928. My grandfather, John Giovenco, was born in 1936 not far from his parent’s house.
“We were very poor,” my grandpa said. “We lived 24 blocks south of Wrigley Field, but were too poor to go to games. The whole neighborhood was Cubs fans. When we played stickball outside, I would pretend I was Andy Pafko and Bill Nicholson and Hank Souer. The Cubs’ first baseman Phil Cavarretta lived three blocks away from me. He was a used car salesman during the winter.”
Although the Cubs are a source of immense pride and tradition for many Chicago natives like my grandpa, they are a franchise largely defined by losing. The Cubs haven’t won a championship since 1908 — 108 years ago. There are four 108-year-olds currently alive in the United States, according to ESPN (none of them attended my Aunt Janet’s party). The Cubs haven’t even been to the World Series in 71 years. In 1945, the NBA didn’t exist, Donald Trump wasn’t alive and sliced bread hadn’t been invented. In other words, Saturday night was a huge deal to not just our family but also the city of Chicago and the entire sports culture.
Luckily, the restaurant that hosted the birthday dinner had a television playing the game. The problem was it was in the bar, which was a 20-yard walk from the dinner room. Because of this, every male member of the family was “going to the bathroom” every five minutes and not returning until the inning was over.
The Cubs got out to an early lead and entered the ninth inning up 5-0, needing only three outs to advance to the World Series — a stage they haven’t sniffed in 71 years. When the bottom of the ninth inning began, I snuck out to the bar with my grandpa, brother and cousin to witness our Cubs end a curse that’s stood since my grandpa was 9 years old.
When the final out was recorded in Chicago, Joe Buck made the dramatic television call, “The Cubs have won the pennant!” We celebrated like Italians do, with big hugs and glasses of wine. Upon returning to the party, my grandpa opened the dinner room doors and announced, “Everybody, I have an announcement to make. The Cubs are going to the World Series.”
Every once in a while, sports has a romantic tendency to connect people. When a grandfather and a grandson can embrace while their favorite baseball team — a team that has been a source of such frustration and disappointment for so long — finally breaks through, that’s a moment you hold on to. It’s a memory you relive at a family dinner because it includes all the holistic characteristics of a great toast: love, laughter and even a pinch of sadness.
With every great moment a grandson shares with his grandpa, there is a mutual understanding that these moments won’t last forever because people don’t live forever. The Cubs have given my grandpa and me another moment to cherish together, and for that, I am very grateful.