THE SMALL BLACK HAT
The days passed and Sunday arrived. I asked about the church and the schedule for masses. The Church of the Sacred Heart, the famous one constructed by Italians, where the parish priest was Italian, was very close to our house.
Early one morning I got ready to go to mass. I put on my simple cotton dress with red and green flowers. I grabbed the black lace veil, my prayer book and my Rosary. I took a look at myself in the mirror, I fixed my dress and I was ready to go to mass. My aunt walked into the room…she looked me over from head to toe, stepped back and looked at me from a distance. I started to feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know if she approved or not. Finally she said, “Everything looks good, you’re just missing a hat.”
I burst out laughing. A hat? For me? I though she was joking. Instead, she went into her room and she returned carrying a round box. She opened it, dug around inside and pulled out a black velvet hat with a black feather and a veil. She moved nearer to me and gracefully put it on my head, straightened the feather, and put the veil over my eyes. She stepped back, admired me and said that it was perfect. I stood perfectly still…
and stared incredulously at her. I grabbed the hat and took it off. My aunt was irritated and forcefully pressed the hat on my head again, saying: “Here we’re in America and you go to mass with a hat!” I would have liked to protest that I didn’t like it, that I wouldn’t wear it. But instead I gave up. Before leaving Italy, my mother had urged me to obey my aunt. My mother would have made me obey the cat as long as nobody complained about me.
My cousin Lenny arrived, my Aunt Giovanna’s other son. Lenny was a handsome boy of about 18 and he promised to accompany me to church for the first time.
Before going out I would have liked to take a glance at the mirror, but I resisted for fear that I wouldn’t like what I saw reflected in the mirror and I wouldn’t go to mass. I had no idea how well the black hat with the feather looked on me, but I felt like a black bird with ruffled feathers. Once we arrived at the church, Lenny escorted me to the bench; I kneeled to prepare for the mass. Lenny went to sit somewhere else. The kneelers were covered and padded. It didn’t hurt at all to kneel.
Actually, it was so comfortable that I almost felt guilty. The Holy Mass was celebrated in both Italian and English. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. Once the mass ended, I couldn’t wait to go home so that I could take that ridiculous thing off my head. I went out in a hurry and walked rapidly. At the open space outside in front of the church, the friends that had come to church before me came up to meet me. There was Giuseppina, Giovanna, Nilde and some others. I was filled with happy emotions to see them all dressed so well and… look at this…even they wore hats!! We all greeted each other warmly.
They told me that in the following days they would come to the house to get me and take me around to see the city. By this time, they all felt like veteran experts. After all, they had already been here for six months. Then each one set out towards her own house. All of them, like me, had come first with their fathers and they lived with their aunts. And like me, they had all left their mothers, brothers and sisters in their home villages.
As soon as we got back home, I took off the hat and gave it back to my aunt. I saw that Lenny had gone up to his mom and talked with her in a whisper. She would nod and every once in a while would steal a glance in my direction. They spoke English so I didn’t understand anything, but I knew I was the subject of their conversation. They finished talking, but didn’t say anything to me.
I got the table ready for Sunday lunch but I was tormented by the desire to know what my cousin and aunt had said about me.
I even smiled thinking that perhaps they said good things. Perhaps they had said how pretty I was with my flowered dress and my high-heeled shoes.
After lunch, my aunt called me into her bedroom. Calling a girl into a separate room from everyone else was something very serious. It could be good or bad – it depended on the situation.
I went over the events of those few days since my arrival in my head to see if there was something so serious as to warrant such a meeting in the bedroom. Nothing serious came to mind. In the room, my aunt made me sit on the edge of the bed, next to her. Her face had assumed a serious expression and I started to feel uncomfortable. Unnerved, I looked at her questioningly. My aunt began: “Look,” she said, “Lenny says that you have to change the way you dress, especially your shoes. No one dresses like you. You have to dress more like an American teenager. Lenny is embarrassed to be seen with you. His friends made fun of him, saying that you’re such an “off the boat”, someone who literally just stepped off the boat into America.
“Off the boat” was the degrading nickname that was used to describe the ignorant low-lives (according to the Americans) who had just arrived on board a ship. When I heard those words, I went stiff.
I felt humiliated, I felt my face get red and burn like it was on fire. I would have wanted to scream that my dress and my shoes were in fashion in Italy and that my mother had used all her money to have them made for me. I clenched my lips and with a rasping voice, I said that this was the fashion in Italy, that I was lucky to have a mother and a grandmother that had put so much work into having nice, fashionable dresses and shoes made for me. And as far as Lenny, she could rest assured that I could very well go to mass by myself.
Surprised by my hostile response, my aunt didn’t say anything more. But I knew things wouldn’t end there….
Delia Socci Skidmore