Hey cumare!


Growing up Italian, you learn that nobody’s gravy is better than your mother’s, and also, how to use the word “cumare” correctly to reflect its proper meaning. A cumare can be many things.

If your mother had a cumare, the word meant “very close friend.” You had to be special to be a cumare. We had a Cumare Jean in the family. She was never referred to as Jean, always Cumare Jean. During the first 10 years of my life, I thought cumare was Jean’s first name. She was a lovely and gregarious lady. One time she called me while I was on the air at WIP doing a sports talk show and she said, “Hi, Tom, we’re so proud of you. This is your Cumare Jean from Yeadon.”

The Urban Dictionary claims that cumare meant “godmother” among the people of southern Italy. That may be the case, but Cumare Jean was not my godmother. My godmother was named Mary, but was never referred to as Cumare Mary. Mary took her role as godmother very seriously, so much so that for my birthday she always sent me a money order for $5 tucked inside a birthday card. That might not sound unusual, but Mary kept sending me that $5 money order until I was in my mid-40s (the money orders only stopped when Mary died peacefully in old age). The annual money order was not the most impressive thing about Godmother Mary. I always felt the thing that stood out about Mary was she stopped talking to her husband not long after she was married. They refused to separate because neither wanted the other to have the house. Mary continued to live with Angelo for 40 years without a word passing between them. Family rumor had it that Angelo was a cheater, but the man could do anything in the house. As my mother said, “Angelo has hands of gold.”

The masculine version of cumare is cumpare (refer to the dippy Julius La Rosa song). If you are a cumpare, you are a special male friend. Back in the day, cumpares didn’t hang out in sports bars wearing Brian Dawkins jerseys, eating chicken wings and downing Bud Lights; usually, they played cards together or went fishing.

My father didn’t have a cumpare, but I believe my grandfather did. I don’t remember the man’s actual name, but everybody loved him. His distinguishing feature, as I remember it as a boy, was that I never heard him speak anytime I was around him, which was mostly during the holidays. He suffered no disability along those lines, as far as I knew. He always had a smile on his face and just seemed happy we remembered to invite him to family gatherings. I always felt that he would’ve been the perfect partner for Godmother Mary, you know, not speaking while living in the same house.

My father-in-law had a cumpare by the name of Dominic. I know this because every time my wife and I walk down Wolf Street, she reminds me that Cumpare Dominic used to live on the street. Sometimes I beat her to it and remind her that Cumpare Dominic lived on the street just to annoy her.

My wife can’t explain why, but my father-in-law’s closest friend Sabatine was not called cumpare. Sabatine was a delightful man with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes who was prone to still wear the original sneakers he was issued during World War II. Sabatine (nicknamed “Reds”) did not believe in discarding anything that was still useful. At the Shore one time, Sabatine was sent to the corner store to buy paper napkins, but somehow returned with sanitary napkins. He didn’t have a clue as to what all the fuss was about.

Right about here, I ought to alert you that there is a big difference between the usage of cumare and cumpare. If a man has a cumare, the word means mistress. Fans of “The Sopranos” will remember that Uncle June had a cumare (I believe he stashed her in Boca). Back in the day, married Italian women were not supposed to have a lover, hence cumpare was not used in the same way when it came to an illicit affair between a married woman and a man.

Between my wife’s family and my own, there were a number of uncles who kept a cumare on the side. One such uncle always had a “card game” to attend on a Saturday night while his wife feigned ignorance. The rest of us knew there had to be a cumare in the picture because he religiously never missed a card game. His wife always lobbied for family functions to be held on another night of the week, which became awkward when Christmas fell on a Saturday.

I’m not sure how the word cumare evolved from being a close friend to a mistress to today’s meaning of “old-fashioned.” If you are a woman who is not stylish, other Italian women will typically say to one another, “She’s such a cumare.” It isn’t only how you dress, but how you carry yourself that makes you a cumare. Eliza Doolittle was a cumare.

Regardless of how you may feel about their politics, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are cumares. Nancy Pelosi, Anne Coulter and Sarah Palin are definitely not cumares. 

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.