Written by Tanya Tecce, told by Daniel Damodar Cordua
My grandmom or “mom mom,” Frances Cordua’s family was from the fishing village of Carini near Palermo, Sicily. Her family settled in South Philadelphia at 12th and Catharine streets. Although they spoke Italian, they wanted us to assimilate, so they didn’t pass the language on. But the work ethic – that, they did! The idea of coming here to America to make a better life, and the hardship and discrimination that goes along with that, forged in them strength and resilience. I learned from my father Peter how to work hard with heart, serve others, appreciate things, and not take anything for granted.
Mom mom was very salt-of-the-earth – Catholic, devotional, and simple in a very inspiring way. I think because of that, my dad and I get to be very much in the world as men with what we do, yet carry an appreciation passed on from the “old country.” I love being hard-working and enterprising in the world, yet still able to be simple-hearted and present. Workaholic tendencies are still there, and that is what led me to explore the balance available in yoga, coaching and self-growth work.
Beautifully, there are a lot of cultural principles that cross over. When I first started practicing yoga, I was part of a group of Italian-American yogis! I’ve been to India many times, studying with great teachers, and the similarities often remind me of mom mom. I remember being infatuated with her rosary and the religious iconography, the prayers she’d recite as well as the effect her devotion had on her heart. I still visit the garden at Epiphany of Our Lord in South Philadelphia, the church she attended, and meditate on her memory. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever met, always thinking of others. Her heart thread runs deep through our family. I’m the oldest and first grandchild, so I had the blessing of being around her the most and spent days at a time with her. As soon as I’d enter the door, the most important thing for her was to show love and care. Of course, that always involved food!
The first thing was always, “Sit down. What do you need to eat?” It didn’t matter if it was 7 a.m. or 3 p.m. In hindsight I really appreciate this priority of pausing, taking time to be together, connecting and breaking bread. The same thing happens with my dad now. We make it a priority to take the time to have a meal together. In yoga philosophy it’s the idea of prasad – you offer your food up to something bigger and it’s sacred, like saying grace. We’re connecting to something bigger, and each other, through this experience. It’s such a contrast to grabbing something quick at a drive-through. To paraphrase the yogi Swami Vivikenanda, “time is relative to the quality of our attention.” Italians pay quality attention.
In the face of an ever-quickening society, some of these old-world Italian ways feel revolutionary. Eating in a conscious way, taking time to pick
out the fruit and vegetables and be present with each other, nourishes our souls. When we’re not connected in community our actual physical health is compromised. The Italians know this.
Even though we’re all so busy and everyone works, my extended family still gets together for meals – this communal heart practice. My aunts have a little notebook of my mom mom’s recipes. We often eat some of the same things our ancestors ate. The tomato pie from the old neighborhood tastes exactly the same. It’s like a time machine! It goes back to that idea of sacred rituals that snap us back to what’s important, bridging generations through food, while connecting us with our deepest sense of the present.
My wife Rachel and I split our time between Tucson, Arizona, and my beloved South Philadelphia, living right on the cross-streets of where mom mom and my mother lived. The contrast reminds me how much I love the passion of Italian Americans, how expressive they are. As a teacher and coach, it’s such a big part of me. I realize I feel like I’m not alive when I’m not around that, it profoundly inspires me.
I was a quiet kid and fluency in emotional intensity has proven important. My coaching work with others revolves around emotional intelligence and communication skills. The Italian ability to not repress and to live in the moment can be so healthy. I’ve learned to be fully in an emotion while at the same time not becoming the emotion; i.e., being “controlled” by feelings. This delicate balance is a skill that informs my coaching and life. I work with individuals and couples to help them connect deeper to themselves, each other, and their potential.
Damodar is the name given to me by my yoga teacher. The story is about the gift of devotion a mother has for her son, and the divine – the sacred. My mom mom’s presence is echoed even here.
Daniel Cordua is a relationship and empowerment coach, and founder of Empowered Connection Coaching, helping individuals and couples connect more fully to themselves, each other, and to something greater. He is also co-owner of the organic herbal remedy line created by his wife, Bhava Wellness (bhavawellness.com) and co-founder of Palo Santo Yoga + Wellness in the East Passyunk neighborhood of South Philadelphia. He’s also a renowned yoga teacher, leading trainings and workshops regularly, and is the host of the Empowered Connection podcast. Learn more at empoweredconnection.me on Instagram @empoweredconnection.me and on his podcast at empoweredconnection.me/podcast
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