“I know I was meant to be a chronicler.” So writes Jo-Ann Vega in the introduction to her memoir “Moments in Flight.” The self-awareness expressed in those nine words is a powerful portent for the saga of self-discovery that follows.
Vega is an author and dynamic presenter with more than 30 years of experience speaking to community and academic groups about American history in general – and the Italian-American experience in particular.
Half biography and half autobiography, Vega’s new memoir is an insightful and engaging examination of the last half-century of profound cultural change in the United States. It is equal parts immigrant saga and American tale, seen through the lens of a historian. As such, it is a rigorously researched yet deeply personal document.
Vega splits her journey into three sections. The first is a fond farewell to the days of her childhood in the Bronx. The second details her family’s relocation to the suburbs of New York and her own coming-of-age during the cultural upheavals of the 1970s. The third section opens the curtain on the present day, including her post-retirement life in Millsboro.
Although Vega would eventually come to appreciate the pastoral setting of the suburbs, her heart would constantly return to the Bronx, where the blueprint for her identity was first drawn.
“Moments in Flight” is written with a sense of forensic urgency – one imagines a detective combing through clues – yet in parts it also takes the tone of a personal confessional, particularly concerning the author’s identity.
“Throughout my life people have asked me if I’m Spanish or married to a Spanish person because of my last name. I always took offense,” she writes. “Very few, though, have taken me for Italian. I’ve been called Irish or Jewish. I’m generally pale unless flushed from exertion, excitement or cold weather. I have brown eyes and had dark wavy hair in my youth; now it’s mostly white and somewhat curly.”
The author said writing the memoir consumed the greater part of a decade’s work on her part, assembling more than 40 years of journal entries, poems, notebooks, draft manuscripts, and Italian-American educational programs into a kind of patchwork pastiche of her generation’s Italian-American experience.
But don’t let the “patchwork” fool you. The book is meticulously organized, with copious footnotes, a bibliography of sources and even a list of topics for book club discussions.
“The overarching theme of the memoir is gratitude for the life the brave and sturdy immigrants made possible for me, even though my path has not been the easiest,” she said. “Other than my mother’s father, who died before I was born, I knew the first generations of immigrants on both sides.
I have crystal clear memories of the south Bronx in the late 1950s and my famiglia, as I relate in the book. Not all of my relatives were sterling characters, but I knew I was loved and accepted. I am glad that I have lived long enough; with the skills and interests I’ve nurtured the last decades, to share and preserve their memories and cultural traditions. Once I’m gone, so are their memories.”
“Moments in Flight” arrives in print during a peak of public interest in genealogical research, helped along by the internet and typified by the popularity of web services such as ancestry.com and 23andme.com.
An essential part of the journey for Vega has been her practice of sharing expertise and insight over the years via the “Ancestry and History” presentations she makes to community and academic groups. At her most recent workshops, offered in October at Lewes Public Library, she spoke on “U.S. Census and Demographic Change” and “Celebrating Italian Americans: Lee Iacocca.”
Other topics over the years, partnering with the Osher Lifelong Learning Program at the University of Delaware, have included “Coming to America: the Italians,” “Ellis Island Immigrants,” “Cultural Inheritances: Growing Up Italian” and “Ancestry: Telling Your Story.”
To learn more about Jo-Ann Vega, her books and her presentations, visit outskirtspress.com/wolfwoman