Loose Lips Can Float Ships

For the first two days of 7th grade, my friends (with whom I’d been thick for three years) ignored me. They literally did not speak to or interact with me for two school days. Confused by the treatment, but afraid to ask why they were snubbing me, I pretended not to care and sat with others in the cafeteria, while my former friends looked on.

During lunch on the third day of 7th grade, my friends invited me to their table. One said, “We weren’t going to talk to you this year.” I nodded as though I understood but wondered how they might ignore me for an entire year. Studies on human behavior show that being shunned is a universal fear. We all want to be accepted by our peers. Middle school seems to be the place where we experience both.

Over the next two years, I shunned and was shunned, bullied and was bullied, made some friends for life, and gossiped incessantly. (Perhaps that’s why my friends shunned me.) Looking back, I see my gossiping as a way to get attention and gain friends. Instead, it made people avoid me or want to kick my ass. As I came of age, even into my 20s, my loose lips continued to get me into trouble. I had to take a good look at myself and see my fingers were pointing in the wrong direction.

As I got into writing, and made friends with other writers, I discovered we are a gossiping bunch. We love to get to “the truth,” find out what goes on behind-the-scenes, and tell stories, which are good things. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s safer and often more powerful to tell stories about myself and the dumb things I do. Some of my favorite comedic writers, Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, John Mulaney, and Conan O’Brien, make fun of themselves. Laughing at our humanity brings us together.

The older I get, the more I want to preserve my friendships. I try to share positive gossip. Who got a job? Who got married? What’s going on in town? I also try to think before I start yammering on. I’m far from perfect but am commited to working on this part of my personality. If we can’t invite others to our table and make connections, why are we even here?

 

Where Are You, Gen Xers?

My current job, working as the Senior Writer/Editor for a foundation at a land-grant university, involves sharing stories, Tweets, photos, and more on various social media. Most recently, on #GivingTuesday, I was checking out articles on LinkedIn, one of which mentioned “how to get Millennials to donate.” Since two of my children are Millennials in their early 20s, and I volunteer for another local foundation, I clicked on the link.

About 2/3 of the way into the article, I came across a paragraph that compared Millennial philanthropic trends with Baby Boomer trends. I kept reading, waiting to see how Gen Xers felt about philanthropy. Guess what? There was no mention of Gen Xers in the entire article. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So, I became curious. And like a Millennial, I went to Google and typed in Generation X.

Suddenly, a whole new world opened to me. I was born in 1968 and have always considered myself a Gen Xer. With a brother born in ’66 and one in ’75, I’m also the middle child. Coincidentally, Gen Xers are called the Neglected Middle Child, mostly because there are 70 million plus Boomers and 70 million plus Millennials, and there are only 50 million plus Gen Xers. Why the discrepancy? Well, lucky for us, even though the hippies were having a lot of sex, in the early 70s, birth control and legalized abortion helped them have fewer children.

After visiting a few more websites, I found conflicting information regarding the specific dates that designated a person as a Gen Xer. My theory holds at this: Gen Xers were born in between the early 60s and the early 80s. And, similar to astrology, if your birthdate straddles those years, you are said to be on the cusp, or a cusper. So, my uncle John, for instance, who was born in 1965, probably has Boomer and Gen Xer traits.

When I think about my being a Gen Xer, I think about being a child of divorced Boomer parents who needed to “find themselves,” walking everywhere by myself, and being raised on or by television. I often joke that my father (a single parent until I was six) used the TV as a babysitter. Through my research, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Many, if not most, Gen Xers were left home alone with little more than the TV and their siblings to keep them company. It’s probably why we love pop culture!

On a positive note, Gen Xers are independent, resilient, hard-working, and have a sardonic wit. I remember bristling, years ago, when I heard us called the “Slacker Generation.” WTF? When I was 12 I got a paper route. And from that moment on, my father gave me no more spending money. So then I worked as a babysitter. Then as a lifeguard. McDonald’s manager. Nursing home diet aid. Retail sales. Bakery cashier. Then, when I was 20, I joined the navy to get the G.I. Bill because my father wouldn’t help me pay for college.

I’m happy to report we are the generation responsible for creating Hip Hop and paving the way for ethnic diversity. When I think of my childhood, I think of Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and the Electric Company, which we watched in second grade as part of our curriculum. Also, with my father, I watched shows like Good Times, What’s Happening, Laugh In, and the Sonny and Cher Show.

On a negative note, Gen Xers, because we were almost always left alone, referred to as the “latchkey” kids, and were often physically and sexually abused, have become the “most devoted parents in American history.” Some folks call us “helicopter parents.” Guilty as charged. Both of my adult daughters failed out of college, although they grew up watching me bust my butt to earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA, all in writing. I did that without parental support. My daughters have oodles of support. Have I killed their ability to stand on their own?

Anyway: this post is a plea. If you’re a Gen Xer, I want to hear from you! After all, peers are more important to us than parents. I plan to continue my research. If you want to share a story with me, please email me at cindyjoy68@gmail.com.

Ciucio: Corner Girl or College Girl

Fesso chi fa I figli meglio di lui.
(Stupid and contemptible is he who makes his children better than himself.)
–Italian Proverb

When the Gifted and Talented Program instructor asks my daughter Josefine to wait in the hall, I sense that our meeting will end badly.  It was I, after all, not Mrs. Somers, who recommended that “Josie” test for the GT Program.  I follow Mrs. Somers into a classroom lined with bookshelves, crowded with tables, the walls a collage of colorful posters: Refuel with fruits and vegetablesGet Caught Reading!  I sit, knees shaking, in a tiny chair at a small round table.  Across from me, Josie’s second-grade teacher Mrs. Cunningham sits with her arms crossed.  Mrs. Somers takes the seat beside me and greets me in that patronizing tone often used by elementary school teachers.  Josie, who is seven, calls this The Barbie Voice.

“Good morning, Mrs. Hollenbeck,” says Mrs. Somers, reaching for my hand.  “So nice to meet you.”  She is a thick-waisted blonde who wears black eyeliner and several coats of mascara.  She straightens the stack of papers lying before her on the table.

My stomach stirs.  I am nervous for Josie, nervous for me.

Mrs. Somers looks at Mrs. Cunningham, then me.  “Let me begin by saying,” she nods and raises her eyebrows, “that Josie is really smart. . .  She scored very high in every category.”  Mrs. Somers showcases the top sheet of the stack, a page marked with boxes, pyramids and percent signs.
And though I know the test standards are set by the state of Idaho, not Mrs. Somers, I feel I am at her mercy.  “Let me add,” she says, brow furrowed, “that Josie had a very difficult time during the testing.”

I nod.

“When the tests became more challenging she became visibly upset and anxious.”  Her hands are fists.  “You could just see her getting more and more tense.”

I imagine Josie in blonde pigtails and a striped shirt, jaw clenched, body shaking.  When she gets nervous, her eyes water and her cheeks turn bright pink.

Mrs. Cunningham, who wears a cowl neck sweater, stares silently.  She has dingy brown hair pulled on top of her head in a bun and one of her front teeth is gray.

Mrs. Somers continues: “You’ve got a smart girl there.”  She places the page with the check list for entrance into the GT program in front of her, a paper lined with categories: Academic Achievement, Intellectual IQ, Creativity, Motivation.  Mrs. Somers points to the percentile boxes: 99, 110, 115, and so on.  “Josie needed to score in the 110th percentile,” she says, “in three out of the four categories in order to qualify.”  She smiles faintly.  “We’ve decided that she will be challenged enough in the regular classroom.”

My stomach rumbles.  I start to babble.  “But she scored above average on every one of the Idaho state standardized tests .  .  .  In language, math and reading.”  My voice cracks.  “I think it’s important that girls in our society be smart.  When I was a girl I always felt stupid.  I want Josie to know she’s smart.”

The teachers stare at me dumbfounded.

My neck and ears burn.  “I want my girls to know they need brains to get through life.”

Mrs. Somers speaks softly.  “Josie’s going to succeed no matter what.  .  .  Look.  She scored really high on general information.  That’s the part of the test where I ask what the student knows about the world.”  She tilts her head.  “Obviously, she has parents who talk to her and teach her things.”  She leans back in the chair and rests her arms on her belly.

Common sense.  What I’ve relied on most of my life.  But I want Josie to have book smarts.

“I’m new to the GT program,” Mrs. Somers says.  “I’ve been teaching here for years, but this is my first year in GT.  So, of course, I tested my own daughter.”  She brushes her bangs out of her eyes.  “Wouldn’t you know it?  She only scored in the 97th percentile.  I was like, aauugh.”  She nudges my knee.  “Every parent thinks her kid is brilliant, huh?”

Mrs. Cunningham looks at me with a half-smile.  “I’ve asked Josie to read books during Choice Time.”  She closes her eyes while she speaks.  “We have a program called Accelerated Reader.  The children read books from the shelves and then take tests.  Josie has done none this month.  .  .  I’ve also asked if she wants to work on science projects during indoor recess.  She says no.”  She stops smiling.  “I cannot force her to do extra work.  She has to want to.”

Is she telling me that my daughter is lazy?

Mrs. Somers stands, prompting me to do the same.  “Well,” she says, “again.  It was nice to meet you.”  She shakes my hand.  “I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.”

Mrs. Cunningham does not move from her chair.  The small amount of tolerance I had for dissolves.
Mrs. Somers walks me through the classroom and out to the hallway where Josie sits with her hands folded, the book Mrs. Somers had offered closed on the chair beside her.  Josie’s eyes are wide, her cheeks red.

Mrs. Somers says, “Well, look how good you’re sitting there.”

I want my daughter to be more than good.  I want her to be accepted.  Better than ordinary.  And I want her to be smart—a future college girl.

Josie ekes out a smile.  Mrs. Somers disappears into her safe little room with Mrs. Cunningham.

“Did I get in?” Josie asks.  Her hair is kinked from sleeping in braids the night before, and one section has been twirled into a spiral, a habit she started as a baby.

I sit in the chair beside her.  “The good news is,” I answer, “your teachers say that you’ll be challenged enough in the regular classroom.  That was my main concern.”

“But did I get in?”  She grimaces.

I shake my head no.

She covers her eyes with her hands.

I start to cry.  “We said we weren’t going to do this.”  I pull her hands away from her face and wrap my arms around her.  No seven-year-old should have to deal with this.  How could I have been so stupid?  To trust a group of strangers to judge my daughter’s intelligence?

“Are you upset with me for putting you through this?”

She shrugs one shoulder.  “I don’t know.”

I don’t know means yes.  I ask, “What does this mean to you?”

“I’m smart,” she says, wiping her face.  “Just not smart enough.”

“No.”  I grab her shoulders.  A father walks by with his child and looks at us.  I pretend not to notice.  “You are smart enough .  .  .”  But then I’m at a loss of what more to say.  To feel.  Just what is it that I am protesting?

I walk Josie out to the playground where other small girls in pigtails and tights play hopscotch.  Josie twirls a lock of hair around her finger.  I kiss and hug her goodbye, turn to shuffle back up the hill to my office in the English department at the university where I am a graduate student and English Composition instructor.  When I arrive at my small space—two windows adorned with tie-dyed linens, a shelf stuffed with textbooks and student papers, poster of John Belushi wearing a sweatshirt that reads College—I sit at my desk to think.

Every parent wants to do what’s best for his or her child.  But ultimately, is everything we do for us?  Are we merely attempting to make up for the mistakes our parents made?  Trying to heal wounds that have long since scarred over?

Barely an hour after what I call “the GT fiasco,” I think this need for Josie to be accepted had little to do with her.  Was I trying to make up for my own feelings of isolation?  Inferiority?  Trying to reconstruct my past?  I have felt stupid my entire life—the Italian school girl from New York known on the playground for reciting dirty jokes and showing her panties.  The preteen relegated to “retard math” in seventh grade.  The senior in high school stuck in geometry with freshmen and sophomores.  The twenty-year-old navy woman forced into mandatory study sessions during Apprenticeship school.  The community college student who took algebra three times.  The creative writer who still confuses Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.

Everyone feels stupid sometimes, but for me it’s as natural as breath.  While I attended a lecture in graduate school in Bellingham, Washington, one of my professors joked, “I know you’re all sitting there thinking, ‘How did I get into this program?  When are they going to discover that I am a fraud?’”  Everyone in the room laughed, but I just knew she was talking about me.  And I was so afraid of being “outed” as a dummy that I toted defensiveness around like a textbook.  One sneering glance from a classmate and I spun a rhetorical argument praising common sense over book smarts.  I defended popular culture and television, assumed that everyone was more well-read than I.  But if I really was so stupid, why had I been accepted into graduate school in the first place?

I know now that my attitude has much to do with growing up in an Italian-American family who defines itself through a steadfast blue collar work ethic.  A family who looks with disdain on the educated, the “elite.”  Just who do those high-falutin’ college graduates think they are?  A family who sees college as leisure, not work.  A family who prefers gossip to discussing politics or current events.  A family I both resist and embrace.

For the first nine years of my life, the Stilloe side of my family, originally from Naples, called me Chooch—a derivative of the Italian word ciucio.  The story goes like this: when I was a toddler, chubby-cheeked with straight brown hair and brown eyes, I did something careless, perhaps spilled a glass of milk during dinner, or tripped over my shoelaces.  My grandmother called me a ciucio and everyone laughed.  The name stuck.  From then on, I no longer went by Cindy—I was Chooch.

For years, I thought the nickname was a term of endearment, like the French phrase mon petit chou chou (my little cabbage) that I had learned in a Basic Conversational French book I bought at a yard sale.  “Chooch!” my father would call.  “Get me a beer, would ya?”  Or, “Chooch.  Turn down the TV.  Chop-chop.”  As one of thirteen grandchildren, having my own nickname made me feel special, and, I thought, elevated me above my brother and cousins.

Everyone I knew called me Chooch.  It was the 1970s in Binghamton, New York, and my father owned a shoe-repair and head shop called The Leather Shoe Shop.  During the day, while my brother was at kindergarten, I sat in the back of the shop where my father crafted and dyed all types of leather goods—saddles, purses, hats, belts.  I used small brass tools to stamp my name onto scraps to make key chains: C-h-o-o-c-h.

Salespeople or friends often stopped by and chatted with me while my father waited on customers or replaced shoe soles using barge cement and a hammer.  Long-haired men with beards wearing T-shirts and bell bottoms, older men in business suits, hair oiled and combed away from clean-shaven faces.

“Hey, Chooch,” Steve Arvin asked.  He was the ex-boyfriend of my aunt Josephine, for whom my daughter is named.  “What’s going on today?”

I’d shrug and go back to my leather scraps.

I can still hear the gravelly voice of Andy Tierno, the son of an Italian millionaire who had earned his money fixing shoes: “Chooch.  Tell your dad I’ll be back tomorrow, okay, honey?”

Then I’d go back to stamping the leather.  I loved my nickname.  To me, Chooch sounded Italian.  And I was raised to be proud of my roots, raised to believe that being Italian was the best ethnicity one could be.  My father used to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Italians, and those who want to be Italian.”  He’d even asked his girlfriend at the time to paint an Italian flag in the three-foot space above the door jamb at the front of the shop.  My name was Chooch; and all was right in the world.

Several years later, while I waited to skip rope on the playground at St. Thomas Aquinas, my elementary school, someone called out, “Cindy!   Get in there!”

I lifted the hem of my plaid jumper and hopped into the swing of the braided rope.  “Call me Chooch,” I said, not missing a beat of Changing Houses.  “That’s my nickname.”  Several kids looked at each other and laughed.

Chooch?” Amy Coutant said.  Her pale brown hair was tied back into a ponytail showcasing her freckled face.  She was one of the “smart kids,” and her father was a local judge.  “What does that even mean?”

I kept jumping but my face flushed.  “I don’t know exactly,” I answered.  “Little cutie or small one.  Something like that.”

That evening, after dinner, I marched into my father’s den, a spacious room with pumpkin-orange walls, a Playboy Calendar, and a shag carpet in shades of cream and brown.  My father’s hair was black and wavy and he wore glasses.  A Marlboro Red smoldered in the ashtray on his desk.  In front of him lay an open check register.

When my father saw me, he set down his pen.  I crawled into his lap and kissed him on the cheek.  “Daddy,” I said, “one of my friends at school asked me what Chooch means.  Do you know?”

He looked at the ceiling for several moments, as if trying to remember, the overhead light reflecting off his lenses.  “Ah,” he said, scratching his chin.  “It’s Italian for.  .  .  jackass.”

I slid off his lap and stood in front of him, my hands balled into fists.  “Jackass?”  I gritted my teeth.  Jackass?  I turned on my heel and stomped into the kitchen.  “No one can ever call me that again.”  My mind shifted to the scene in Pinocchio where the wooden boy, after drinking beer and smoking a cigar, sprouts ears and a tail, and bellows, “Hee-haw!”  That was what my family thought of me?

I stormed past the sink, the breakfast bar, the telephone on the wall.  Then I walked through the doorway to the hall and yelled, “Ever!”  I stomped up the stairs to my bedroom and shut the door.  A jackass!  I flopped down on my bed and fumed.  All around me hung 8 X 10 posters of hunks from Teen Beat: Scott Baio, the Italian-American who played “Chachi” on Happy Days.  Chachi sounded like Chooch.  I wondered what his name meant.

Memories crept into my consciousness.  Had I lived up to my nickname?  Was I a ciucio?  I thought of Easter Sunday, when I was seven, during the annual egg hunt at my grandparents’ house, I found the coveted prize, a large goose egg covered with stickers and stars, buried under leaves below the trellis where my grandfather raised grapes for homemade wine.  I grabbed the egg and rested it in my basket, ran to the back yard to show my brother and cousins.  Later, after opening the bag full of prizes—butterscotch candy, a doll with shiny blonde hair, and chocolate bunnies—I cracked open the egg shell and took a bite.  It tasted bitter.

“You don’t eat the goose egg, Chooch,” my cousin Colleen said.  “That’s gross.”

All my other cousins and my brother let out a collective moan.  I blushed.  I had never been known for my brains—I was more known for being able to shove an entire hard-boiled egg into my mouth.  For being able to eat an entire jar of Spanish olives.  For always being last to leave the dinner table.  And for spilling my milk.

In my grandparents’ house there is a swinging door that separates the dining room from the kitchen.  During holiday meals, we kids sat at a small table with metal chairs in the kitchen, while the adults gathered in the dining room at a large wood table.  Once the meal began, the swinging door stayed closed, not to be opened again until after everyone’s plates of clams and spaghetti, deep-fried scallops and stuffed squid were clean.  While I sat with my brother and cousins, gritty clams scraping my molars, the laughter and muffled gossip on the other side of the door left me curious and seething with jealousy.  I wanted to be with the adults.  To hear their conversations, understand their jokes, be a part of the world behind the swinging door.

But then I would spill my milk.  One flick of the wrist; and over it went.  The knock of glass against Formica sent my grandmother into the kitchen.  “Jesus Christ,” she would say, dabbing the table in front of me with a wet rag.  A voice would sound from the dining room, “What happened?” to which my grandmother would answer, “Chooch spilled her milk again.”  Then I would start to cry.

But after that evening in fifth grade, no one called me Chooch anymore.  I imagined my father telling his siblings that weekend over full plates of homemade ravioli, Italian bread, cucumbers and tomatoes soaked in vinegar and oil.  Like many families, mine has a tendency to laugh away troubles, make light of any situation.  When my father explained to his brothers and sisters what had occurred between us in the den, I imagine eye rolls and chuckles.  And after all these years, I can still hear them laughing.

My family is a working family—wise from life experiences—who separates education into two categories—street smarts and book smarts.  In the southern Italian-American family in particular, there has always existed a salient division between laborers and intellectuals, the corner boys and the college boys.  The corner boys were a tight-knit ghetto group, the kind of people you might see hanging out in front of the local deli, people like my grandfather, and my father.  Corner boys did not move out of their parents’ homes until they married.  They privileged family loyalty over socioeconomic mobility.  If they were to make money of any sort, it might come from gambling or charging kids a nickel to cross the street.

College boys were immigrants who wanted to assimilate into American culture.  They rejected their families in order to rise above their stations.  College boys all but cast off their Italian roots to make better lives for themselves.  These were the Italians who attempted to challenge the stereotypes that defined them as members of a macho, uneducated, unruly lower class—people whose only role in life, it seemed, would be to work in shipyards, pizza joints, cobbler shops, or the mafia.

The old-school Italians believed that too much education damaged a person’s moral fiber.  If a child was overly-involved in books and learning, he or she was not invested enough in family.  Besides, during early immigration, children were merely seen as assets: workers who could bring money into the household.  Educated children were seen as a threat—they might get too smart and leave the home, become something better than their parents.

By 1930, only eleven percent of Italians who lived in New York had graduated from high school.  My Naples-born grandfather, who was twenty at the time, was part of that majority, had quit school in seventh grade to work at a shoe factory.  Overall, it seemed as if the first-generation Italian immigrants would forever be relegated to the working class, the life of the corner boy.  But their American-born children, like my father and his siblings, most of whom did, at least, graduate from high school, strived for more.  The Italian-Americans born after WWII were mainstreamed into the middle-class by programs such as the Montgomery G.I. Bill—the very program that funded my entire undergraduate degree.  If I had never joined the navy, higher education might have eluded me.

When I graduated from high school, my father asked, “Do you want to go to college?”

I nodded, but had not seen myself as one of them, the college girls—the princesses from my Catholic high school with their cherry red convertibles and preppie clothes from the Limited.  Girls who, I imagined, had known since kindergarten that they would attend college and that their parents would pay.

My father handed me a loan application to the local bank.  All the pages and questions and forms intimidated me.  I decided it would be easier and less frightening to keep my shift-manager position at the local McDonald’s.  I was following in the footsteps of every family member before me—the shoe-repairmen, the factory workers, the painters and roofers —foregoing the college experience to work as a laborer.  I knew of nothing else and thought making $4.25 an hour was a decent living.

Less than a year later, after my twenty-one-year-old brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I realized that my life consisted of little more than work, partying and sleep, I came to new awareness.  Life had made me no promises, but there had to be more.  And if I wanted an education, I would have to work for it.  I enlisted in the United States Navy, not content any longer to be a corner girl.  Somehow, someway, I would get into college.

One year after my discharge from the navy, where I had worked as a computer operator at a weather center in Monterey, California, I moved with my husband to his hometown in eastern Washington.  When the marriage ended, I enrolled full-time at community college.  I was a twenty-six-year-old divorcee and single mother of a two-year-old, on welfare (just as my father had once predicted when I was eighteen and hanging with the party crowd) who collected $600 a month from the Montgomery GI Bill: not necessarily the college girl you might see in a brochure, but nonetheless, a college girl.

Every morning, I dropped my daughter off at daycare and sat in cozy classrooms crowded with students of all ages, desperate to better their lives.  I felt invigorated.  After classes, I finished my homework at the campus library, drove my daughter back to our two-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town where I worked thirty hours a week as a grocery clerk.  At the time, I had no idea I would eventually earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA.  I only knew I was trying to make my life, and consequently the life of my daughter, better.  Going to college allowed me to spend more time with her, and gave me a goal—I wanted to become a writer while working as a professor of English.

I am on a two-week visit to Binghamton with Eric, my husband of two years.  It’s 2003.  My father, bare-chested and sipping a Coors Light, sits in a folding chair before a 1000-piece puzzle in his den.  It is eleven in the morning.

I stand beside the file cabinet in the left corner asking, “Which?”

“The middle one,” my father says, pointing.

I open the drawer to three plastic grocery bags, their tops tied into tight bows.  Each is labeled in black marker with the names of my siblings and me: Tony, Jack, Cindy.  I am pleased that my father is a pack-rat who never throws anything away.  He still has a paint-by-number portrait of a mouse holding a daisy that I painted for him when I was four.

I lift my bag from the drawer and drag it into the living room where Eric watches the History Channel.  “I can’t wait to see what’s in here,” I say.

The bag is lumpy and light.  I dump out a pile of letters from high school, my tassel from graduation in 1986, a stack of senior pictures.  There are notebooks and handouts from when I attended Apprenticeship school in the navy.  And when I dig closer to the bottom, I unearth my New York State standardized tests from 3rd grade.

I kneel in my father’s living room, the test results wrinkled in my hand.  I scan the categories, Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies, and see that I have scored above average in every subject.  For a few moments, I allow myself to be seduced by the lure of the standardized test.  Above average.  The very thing my family has never expected of me.  I have no recollection of ever having seen this test before, want to run into the den and ask my father, “What the hell?”

But then I think: if my father would have told me then that I was above average, would I have tried harder?  Would I have stopped telling stories about my crazy stepmother on the playground and sat in a quiet corner to read?  Would I have studied on weekends instead of watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island?  Would I have read classic literature instead of Teen Beat and Mad?  Would I have preferred Mozart to the Rolling Stones?  To say yes seems idealistic.  Frankly, I adored being the class clown, welcomed the undivided attention of my peers as I stood on the playground imitating the voices and mannerisms of my teachers, shared anecdotes about my boisterous Italian family, told the latest joke from Playboy.

But now I am a parent.  I know my daughters deserve better.  And I want more for them.  I am not content to see them merely “get by.”  I want to go against Italian tradition—I want them to be better than me.

I am the first member of my family to attend college, the only member to have earned a graduate degree.  Often, when I visit my family back in New York I wonder what they think of me.  When we sit around the table in my grandmother’s kitchen lamenting about times past, talking about family gatherings, sharing gossip, I wonder how they see me.  Do they think that I think I am better than they are?  That I’m some kind of hotshot?

When I am with my family, just as I resist regaining my east-coast accent, I resist the people I love, loathe what they discuss: which relative pissed off whom and why, which local retailer “screwed” one of them out of fifty cents, which client cheated one of my construction-worker uncles on his latest job.  Sometimes while they are talking I want to holler, “Thomas Hardy was an architect before he became a poet!” just to see the stunned looks on their faces.

When I am with the Stilloes, I avoid talking about the things I know—literature, creative writing, philosophy—because I would hate to appear snooty, as if I were somehow “above” them, when I don’t feel that way at all.  And frankly, I doubt that any one of them would be impressed.  In the presence of family, I feel as if I am little more than the messy-haired girl who used to wipe boogers on the arm of Grandma’s good chair.  The gullible ninny whose older brother talked her into eating eggshells because he said they were more nutritious than the egg.  The troubled teen who fell in love with every hapless loser in Binghamton because she hadn’t yet realized she deserved better.  But what adult doesn’t feel like a kid in the presence of family?

Every day I ask myself, corner girl or college girl?  I have the degrees, but cannot release the stranglehold my Italian family has on me.  If I called myself an “intellectual” in front of any of them, they would laugh me right out of my grandmother’s mint-green kitchen.  But am I being too hard on them?  I mean, maybe they are proud of my accomplishments but just can’t bring themselves to say it.  I feel as if I am both of them and against them.

The last time I visited my father, we sat in his kitchen while he helped his girlfriend fill out a job application.  As I sipped coffee beside them, they repeatedly asked me how to spell certain words—punctual, diligent, astute.  I smiled and said, “Don’t you have a dictionary?”  But secretly, I was flattered.  My father rarely, if ever, allows himself to be vulnerable enough to ask me for help.  That gesture, small as it may seem, showed that he might think my education was worth something.  That I am more than a ciucio.  It also showed that I am still, after all these years, seeking his approval.

When I mentioned the Italian proverb, Fesso chi fa I figli meglio di lui, to my father, he said, “You just described my father.  .  .  If I cooked something for him, he would take one taste and say, ‘I don’t like it.’  If I challenged his ideas, he would ask, ‘Who do you think you are?  Some kind of big shot?’  If we kids asked where he was going, he would say, ‘What are you? A cop?’  That’s just my father.”

Well, that’s my father, too.  Although I think he tries to be humble.  When I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts he sent a card with a check for $100.  Inside he had written: “I’m proud of you.  You make me happy.”

In 1908, ten percent of the Italian-American kids who lived in New York City never bothered to attend school.  More than a third of those who did were labeled “academically retarded,” mostly because they did not speak English.  They also scored poorly on standardized tests and were labeled “disciplinary problems.”  If I lived during that time, would I have been part of the ten percent?  Or would I have been willing to sacrifice family to be a college girl?  Strip off the blue collar shirt.  Break the constraints of family in order to rise above her station.

More than a year has passed since Josie tested for the GT program.  She seems to have forgotten about it.  Rarely mentions the day, the disappointment, her friends who get to leave the classroom to embark on adventures in science and math.  I watch her sit on the couch before school, reading Goosebumps or Judy Blume books, few cares weighing her down.  Her most recent standardized tests show above average scores in Reading and Language Usage, below-to-average scores in Math.  “I guess I’m just not good at math,” she says.

“That sounds like a cop out,” I say, smiling.  “You have to work at being good.”

Josie twirls her hair.

I often tell Josie and her older sister that they are in charge of their own lives; that when they grow up they can be whatever and whoever they want.  But who am I kidding?  If my children do not become more successful than I, I will feel as if I have done them a disservice.

My children have always known me as a college student who worked part-time, part of two worlds.  And now that I have graduated, work forty hours a week as a receptionist, and write part-time, I wonder if this is who I am or who my family created: a woman in a liminal state—one foot in the “thinking” world and one in the “working” world, one half on each side, traveling back and forth when the need calls, these two worlds separated by a swinging door.

This first appeared in Voices in Italian Americana.

 

Childhood Injuries: Who Hurts More?

When I was 13, while skipping stones before a lake with a dozen of my classmates, I bent over to pick up a rock when someone accidentally hit me in the face with a boulder. My left front tooth broke in half, which hurt like the dickens. I started bawling and ran back to the cabin where we were all hanging out for the afternoon. The dentist fixed my tooth, and many years later my father told me, “When I saw your fat lip and tooth hanging, I started crying.”

When my daughter Jessie was four, she was bitten by a white German Shepherd. I rushed her to the E/R where she had to get four stitches on her lip. That night, I pored over the pages of her baby book. As I stared at her beautiful photos, all chubby cheeked and pig tailed, I cried. What a terrible mother I was–leaving Jessie alone with my mother-in-law and that crazy untrained dog. Of course it bit her! I didn’t deserve such a beautiful daughter.

My second daughter, Josie, is a bit more self-destructive. My husband, daughters, and I were all living in Bellingham, Washington, when Josie ran into our duplex and said, “I just stepped on a nail.” I’m a Gen Xer, okay. So, all I could think was, tetanus shot!!! One of my grad school buddies said “calling the fire fighters was cheaper than calling 9-1-1-” so we called the fire station. Turns out it’s not the rusty nail that causes infection, it’s the bacteria from the bottom of the shoe going into the skin. But later Josie told us, “I wanted to see what it would do.”

Nothing comes close to Kid #3, my son, whom I love to the moon. He’s allergic to tree nuts. In the last ten years of his life, he’s been to the E/R five times.

1: Age one- Grandma makes cookies with walnuts. Vinny eats one and then pukes. Breaks out into hives. Left side of his face swells. Dad gives epi-pen because of peanut allergy. Takes Vinny to the E/R.
2. Age five- Teacher gives Vinny cookie from grandma of classmate. Vinny pukes. Breaks out into hives. Dad gives epi-pen. Takes him to E/R.
3. Age six- Vinny eats toffee with almonds. Lies to family and says allergy was caused from COOP bread. Mother throws fit at the COOP and threatens to notify the local media. Gets them to install allergy signs on all foods. (yay)
4. Age eight- Vinny’s best friend makes him a sandwich with “nutty bread” containing “almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and Brazil nuts.” After Vinny complains of a burning sensation on his tongue, Eric comes and injects Vinny with epi-pen, but Vinny spends the night in ICU and needs a ventilator. His entire body is covered with hives.
5. Age ten- Vinny’s home from school because of a cough. He makes a frozen dinner with vegetarian ravioli, not knowing it contains walnuts. He takes one bite, says, “I have that nut feeling.” After we read the ingredients, mother gives him epi-pen and rushes him to the E/R.

I called in at work, spent most of the day in the E/R and ICU watching Vinny get poked and injected full of Benedryl. He says his vision is blurry and that he feels weird. All I can think of is what his life will be like as an adult–when his father and I am not around. When he’s negotiating his own life–no mother or father policing his decisions, looking for dangerous foods. I start to cry.

When You Know It’s Love

Part of being creative for me means having an overactive imagination. When I was a child I was terrified of the dark. I hated horror movies, because the images stuck with me, and I believed Michael Meyers would spring from the bushes to kill me or that Jaws would erupt from the drain in the local swimming pool. As an adult, I watched the Blair Witch Project and was chilled to the core. Part of my overactive imagination also involves having vivid dreams, in color, where I can feel textures and smell odors.

Recently my best friend and I were at a scrap-booking retreat sharing stories about people who’d pissed us off, especially during pregnancy and post-partum depression, and how we’d contemplated murder. While we laughed, “Stacy” sorted the piles of photos of her pale-haired, hazel-eyed son who was born prematurely. I was embellishing a page on my scrapbook of my father the cobbler, who had thick brown hair and a large nose, like an Italian Dustin Hoffman.

That evening, I dreamt I was a serial killer. There was no rhyme or reason to my killing, and each murder was clean and quick. I propped the dead body in a wheelchair and hid them in a bathroom stall. (The retreat was at an old ski lodge). My last kill was none other than Dustin Hoffman. (For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the Freudian implications.)

So far, I had not been caught, and I was trying to pin the murders on a squeaky clean friend. In the dream, I was suddenly back at my house with the friend and no evidence to convict him. Cops were on their way, and I knew I was going to jail.

My two daughters were in the other room. My son was at his father’s house. My lab/pit bull was nowhere to be found. I turned to my Black lab/newfie Gus and said, “Momma has to go away for a long time, Gussy.” I patted down his ears. “I love you.”

When I woke at the lodge the next morning, I told Stacy about my dream. Then I told her sister and her mother and our friends. Everyone shook their heads. I said, “It has to be all that talk about murder and the barrage of photos of my father.” But what got me was my going to Gus–the first dog I’ve ever owned. Not my two daughters. It must be love.

What I Learned From My Hippie/Business Owner Father

My father was 22 when I was born. Soon after he opened The Leather Shoe Shop, a shoe and leather repair store in a plaza in upstate New York. My older brother Tony and I went to work with my father Monday through Saturday nine to nine. My mother had left us, and my father sought full custody. (Tony Danza has nothing on this guy.)

My father had shoulder-length black hair, and wore denim shirts, leather vests, flared pants, and leather zip-up boots. He smiled and laughed a lot, and was well-liked by his customers for his honesty and kindness. The Leather Shoe Shop stood among businesses, owned by 1st and 2nd generation immigrants like my father, places like Mario’s Pizza, Kaplan’s kosher deli, Haim’s barber shop, and the Gondola Restaurant, where food and services were traded for shoe repair, and deals were sealed with a handshake.

A set of wind chimes hung on the door to the shop, so my father always knew when a customer entered. He told me that was so he could worry less about shoplifters. When he sat in the workshop to take a bite of pizza, or toast dipped in coffee, or went to use the bathroom, the chimes went “brrrrring,” and he’d go running into the storefront. I tried to wait on customers for him, but I was a tomboy with ratty brown hair, and no adults took me seriously.

Mostly my brother and I hung out in the back, stamping wet hides with brass tools to make key chains and name plates. At the end of the night, my father took us to Sharkey’s Tavern where we ate fried clams or turkey on a stick, and drank Cokes to our hearts’ delight. Then, in our dingy apartment, my brother and I crawled into the bed we shared without bathing or brushing our teeth. In the morning, our father woke us up to do it all over again.

In those early days of the business, we were broke. We had a gas stove, and one month when my father couldn’t pay the bill, the company shut off the gas. My father called and told them he had two small kids at home, but they refused to turn it back on. So, he took a hibachi into our front yard, threw in some charcoal briquettes and started a small fire. Right there in the yard he put up a large sign that read, “Gas Strike.” My father cooked bacon and eggs on the hibachi. After a while, a rep from the gas company showed up in a work truck. “Take the sign down,” he said. My father told him to turn on the gas. The rep said, “No.” My father smiled and kept cooking. “Come on, buddy,” the rep said. “You can’t have that sign in the yard.” My father ignored him. By the end of the day, the gas company relented.

What I learned from my father was this: Family comes first. You work to support your family. Handshakes are as binding as legal documents. The written word can make change. Never be afraid to question authority.