Uncle Jim was a cop in the !@# precinct. Big, burly, smiling Irish-American cop. He wasn’t my uncle. He was my mother’s on-and-off boyfriend for a bunch of years. He was nice to me. He brought me stuffed animals and an electronic game called Merlin. He introduced me to his two little boys. He took us to Oktoberfests and festivals with Irish dancing. He’s why I know the words to The Patriot Game and why I do a decent brogue – all that Clancy Brothers had to have an effect. He’s probably the reason my first serious boyfriend was off-the-boat-Irish.
My grandmother says that when she looks in the mirror she’s startled by the old lady looking back. She feels young until she gets a look at herself. Well, I’ve been sometimes surprised to see this dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned woman looking back at me in the glass. I think she’s nice-looking but she seems foreign to me. I sound crazy or self-loathing, but I don’t think I’m really either of those things. I’m just someone whose culture is mixed.
My palate was trained, my tastes formed, in childhood.
My father hates that. He thinks I show a distinct lack of pride in my heritage. He thinks that because I feel more American than Italian or Sicilian, that I dislike or reject those parts of me. That’s not it. What I know of it, what I’ve absorbed of it, I do love.
I love that when the Irish and the Bavarians I grew up around were chattering about the Ould Sod or telling the political history of why they had to emigrate, the Italians just quietly grew their tomatoes and figs. In tin cans on the windowsills if need be.
I love the way at weddings my father would whisk his sisters around the dance floor in some joyful spinning, skipping dance that probably has a name but nobody told me what it was. Why didn’t anyone tell me what it was?
I love the memory of reading the newspaper Oggi aloud to my Nonna. I had little idea what I was reading but I was told my accent was good.
But I can’t deny that the lack of his everyday presence in my life when I was a child means that I did not absorb my father’s culture the way he would have liked me to.
Or maybe I did. Now I think about it, maybe I picked up exactly what he wanted me to. See, my dad has no political or sentimental yearning for his homeland. He says, “This is where my family is. My children are American. This is my home.” And he means it.
But I’m just saying – a person isn’t born with a culture, she’s raised to it.