First Person / Me and Elizabeth Warren
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In the summer of 1955, the big buzz at my grandparents' house was the upcoming picnic put on by the Sons of Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini Lodge. I had been hearing about these legendary get-togethers since I could first remember. And that year, for reasons arrived at by some adult reasoning, we kids got to go.
There was live music by a band of men who had played together when they still lived in Italy, so it was the real deal, not some local dance band squeaking out a rendition of the Tarantella.
My grandmother and Great Aunt Angelina baked for a solid week. A huge vat of my granddad's homemade wine was wheeled out of the cool, vinegar-smelling cellar underneath the front steps.
The grownups were really excited about the food -- homemade breads, cheeses, meats and some mysterious thing called a pig roast. There were prized figs from backyard trees that had been carefully smuggled across the Atlantic after being dug from small plots of land lovingly cared for in little Italians towns these families would never see again.
We had heard stories of there being all the candy a kid could want. I hoped it was more than the tough Torrone nougat candy in the little boxes that appeared at Christmas. And a pony for kids to ride!
I could not sleep the night before. We kids got up early but we were never early enough to beat Grandma. She said she had to get up before dawn to make her pasta before it got too hot and humid and the noodles would stick together. I think she just loved the peace and quiet in a house full of sleeping kids.
When I did go downstairs, I peppered her with questions about the upcoming occasion that promised to rank right up there with Christmas! She ordered me upstairs to dress. I really wanted to look special.
I still remember the pink seersucker "pop-over" one-piece my mom had bought for me just for the picnic (my sister's was blue). I thought it looked great with my blonde hair and blue eyes. I spent at least a half-hour struggling with my long, scraggly hair until I got it tied just right with the ribbons my grandmother kept in the top dresser drawer in the "girls' room" where my mom had grown up. I was barely tall enough to see my head in the mirror, but I thought I looked marvelous.
Let me say here that my brother and sister and I did not look the least bit Italian as did our cousins. My blonde, blue-eyed grandmother was from the north of Italy. I must have heard a thousand times about some German sneaking over the Alps.
None of us looked recognizably Irish, either, like my dad. Complete with red hair and freckles, he had "the map" on his face, as the old-timers would say of people who, by eyeballing alone, were pronounced of obvious Irish descent. I also heard a lot about how the milkman could have been our real father.
My poor mom had prayed that out of five kids she would get one redhead. Most parents check the newborn's fingers and toes; in the '50s my poor ether-fogged mother wanted to know what color head was crowning.
The day had arrived. We were piled into the back of Dad's Packard. I still can feel the scratch of the wool seats.
We drove to a huge "grove" on the outskirts of town and walked forever through a dusty field. I ran off, letting go of my grandmother's hand, not willing to wait another second for the picnic/Christmas/Italian wedding/food-fest/kiddie wonderland that would unfold before me. I tripped over my own feet, not used to the new pair of sandals bought for the occasion.
Suddenly a huge shadow loomed over me. I could smell wine and a whiff of the Parodi stogies my grandfather smoked. But when I looked up, it was a glowering, red-faced old man yelling at me in Italian, and he was not at all like my gentle granddad or uncles.
I was terrified. He yanked me up to my feet, held a big chunk of my even-scragglier blonde hair in his hand and bellowed at me, "Whadda you name"? I burst into hysterical sobs and looked around for a familiar face. "Whadda you name?" he asked again.
In other words, he was asking me what I was doing at such a thoroughly Italian place. I clearly understood that he was judging me by my looks.
Finally, my Uncle Guilio heard my cries and came to my rescue. He picked me up and patted my head and murmured "S'okay, little geel." Unfortunately, at that sweet moment he turned in the direction of the cooking and I caught sight of a giant pig rotating over a raging fire. My terror only grew. I shrieked even louder.
Well, that was the end of the festa for me. I was banished to home. How quickly a day-from-little-kid-hell had burst upon me.
Of course, I heard about it for seemingly my entire life. Recalling the tale, the adults made a buffoon out of me, never understanding that the ugly questioning about my name, the stark challenge to my identity, had so terrified me.
Elizabeth Warren, I know your pain.
First Published October 27, 2012 12:00 am