(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
If you go
What: Sons of Italy in America Italian lessons.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays.
Where: Felida Fire Station, 11600 N.W. Lake Shore Ave., Vancouver.
Vancouver resident Barbara Blair, 61, grew up in the San Jose, Calif., area surrounded by Italians and Italian-Americans who loved to play bocce ball and then argue over points with animated gesticulations.
So, when Blair watched a match of the age-old game at the Sons of Italy in America Labor Day picnic Monday at Lewisville Park north of Battle Ground, it reminded her of the Italian family and community she left when she moved to Vancouver in the mid-1990s.
“It reminds me of family gatherings when I was growing up,” Blair said. “We used to go on big picnics to Calistoga (California), and there was singing in Italian and everything.”
Blair founded the Vancouver chapter of Sons of Italy in 1995, about 18 months after she moved to the city for her husband’s job. Since then, the club has grown from 24 to about 60 members. At its pinnacle, it had 100 members. They include Italian-Americans and people who are interested in Italian culture.
In addition to its Labor Day picnic, the group holds monthly meetings to organize activities, fundraisers for charities and monthly dine-out events. It offers a book club that focuses on Italian authors and subject matter, as well as free Italian lessons. The activities all help to preserve Italian culture and heritage and to give a sense of home away from home, Blair said.
The Vancouver chapter is one of 19 in the Order Sons of Italy in America Grand Lodge of the Northwest, which includes Washington, Oregon and Idaho, said Tony Anderson, the lodge’s president. In total, the lodge has about 1,400 members, Anderson said. The organization was founded in 1905 to provide assistance to Italian immigrants in adjusting to their new lives in the United States. Many, such as Blair’s mother, left behind family and friends in Italy and needed a support group to help them navigate the systems and customs of their new country.
“My great-grandpa immigrated here in 1909 because my great-grandmother’s brother was in Tacoma already, so he sponsored them,” Anderson said. “They only had enough money to get to New York, so they had to save money before they could get to the (Pacific) Northwest.”
Blair’s grandfather, a bricklayer, had a similar struggle. He moved to Eureka, Calif., in 1912, but it took him more than seven years to save enough money to bring over Blair’s grandmother and their two daughters, Blair’s future mother and aunt.
Blair founded the Vancouver chapter for the same reasons her mother joined Sons of Italy after she moved to the United States in 1919 from Lago di Como, Italy.
While Blair’s mother was new to the country, Blair was new to Vancouver, and she started the local Sons of Italy chapter in Vancouver to re-create her sense of home. Blair had belonged to the Sons of Italy in California since she was 20.
“When I moved here, I didn’t know anyone here, and I wanted that connection,” Blair said.
Hockinson resident Quinto Forlini, who was referee for Monday’s bocce game, said he immigrated to North America in 1958 at age 11, but his gatherings with Sons of Italy continue to revive memories of his childhood in Italy.
Bocce could be compared to lawn bowling. Participants divide into two teams of four. Each team gets either red (rossa) or green (verde) balls and rolls them on a 10-by-60 bocce court toward a target, a small white ball called a pallino. Those who throw their green or red balls closest to the pallino get more points,
“It brings back a lot of memories from there of family and friends,” Forlini said. “But back then, I didn’t get to play bocce. I had to get the balls for the bigger people. Now, I get to play.”