Another Saturday was approaching and I was anxious at the thought of seeing that boy again, the one who had so struck my imagination; maybe…just maybe…my cousin would invite me out with them. And that way, I would see what “going out together” meant. He had told me that when they went out on Saturday nights, they often went to eat pizza. It seemed like a food that everyone liked.
They went to the movies, then they went for a “ride” in the car. They got back home around midnight. Midnight!! The thought of a girl staying out until midnight seemed so distant and unreachable that my mind refused to even grasp its meaning. I had seen friends of mine in my town, and this was after their engagement and with a wedding date already set and not even they were allowed so much. “Midnight”, the word resonated in my head like a ringing bell. The social mores of these two cultures were in such direct contrast that it scared me a bit. Well, I told myself, “I would be more than happy to even come home at 11.”
While I was absorbed in finishing my Saturday morning chores, my cousin arrived. He had just gotten up. He gave me his dress shirt to iron, which I always did. The shirt was a light pink color and I told him that the color would look better on a girl. He arched his eyebrows, he murmured something between his teeth and he sat down to wait. He never forgave me for that comment and even to this day, he claims that I treated him like a little girl. In any case, we would pick on each other constantly. We cared for one another, but he wanted to be the boss, which didn’t sit well with me; and so there was some conflict.
While he was waiting for me to iron his shirt, he surprised me greatly by asking if I liked the boy with the blue eyes: John. Surprised by the question, but not wanting him to notice that I had liked John from the beginning, I answered: “Not much really!” I lied.
He continued to talk about John to me, that was his name. He told me that John and his girlfriend disagreed about everything and they fought often. They would leave each other for a period of time and then they would get back together. But this time, he said, it was really over between the two and John wanted to go out with me. I said, “OK” without letting my cousin notice that I really liked the idea and that I hadn’t expected it. I ironed his dress shirt with much more care, paying particular attention to the wrists and the collar. I only told him about all my feelings years later, at a family reunion, when we talked about those easy yet difficult days.
Once I finished my chores and had lunch, I sat down to rest a bit and to daydream.
I was excited to go out with John that night. Who knew…Who knew what this mysterious “going out together” was.
Aunt Giovanna came to sit next to me. Together, we drank some American coffee, which I now preferred to Italian coffee. From the way she smiled at me, I realized that she already knew about the plans for that night. It was obvious, naturally Lenny had told his mother before saying anything to me.
She gave me the usual speech that a mother gives her daughter and she said that even the other girls in the group had been asking for quite some time if I could go out with them.
Then she told me about another aunt that would be coming soon to take me around the city a bit.
She told me that this aunt was born in America of parents that came from a small town in the province of Latina. She became part of the family when she married my uncle Jerry. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I sensed a bit of hostility in my aunt’s tone of voice when she talked about aunt Josy.
After a short while, an elegantly dressed woman arrived. She had a beautiful dress, white gloves and a hat. Short reddish-brown curls popped out from under her hat. She smiled at me and called me “Della”; that’s how people who were born in American said my name. It was a “nickname” that I didn’t like much; I liked my name the way it was, “Delia,” but they weren’t able to pronounce it well. My new aunt tried hard to speak our dialect, which she, along with so many other children of Italians, believed was the real Italian language. After introductions and greetings, she told me that my uncle was waiting downstairs; they wanted to take me for a ride in the car. A ride in the car? They had come to take me for a ride in the car? I asked myself, intrigued and surprised. I thought maybe it was a manner of speaking, or that maybe my aunt didn’t say it well and had confused the words in dialect.
I couldn’t believe that I was so important that they had come such a long way only to take “Della” for a ride. But I liked the idea; I’m also important, I would repeat to myself.
I felt a real sense of “having arrived” at a status level reserved for adults. Then doubt would pop up again. “What are you thinking,” I would say to myself, “You’re just a little girl.” We went downstairs. A beautiful blue car was parked in front of the door. My uncle got out and hugged me very warmly, with tears in his eyes; he said “You look so much like my sister!!” I looked at him with a puzzled expression. He explained to me that he was my mother’s brother; he had left my mother many years ago when he was young and came to America. An avalanche of thoughts and unanswered questions flooded my mind. I realized just how large my family was, how many aunts, uncles and cousins there were that I didn’t know. I thought about how many times the family had been separated from their parents, their brothers and sisters, from everyone and everything they held dear, to cross the ocean in search of a far-away and mysterious land. Poor dear grandmothers had become widows and by themselves had raised two large families with numerous brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and even grandchildren. How they must have suffered when they were separated from their young children that perhaps they would never see again. They said goodbye to their children, blessing them without letting anyone realize what profound pain they felt inside and how it was tearing them apart. You are my heroines, my dear grandmothers. I don’t think anyone noticed the fact that I was a bit upset. I got in the car; the car was big and spacious, like everything else in America. It could have easily accommodated either 4 or even 6 people.
We set out to see the streets of the city. Streets that I had not yet discovered. With my window rolled down, the rushing air filled the car and relieved a bit of the afternoon heat. We reached a street with a lot of traffic.
My uncle parked the car in a covered parking garage, where many other cars were already parked. The parking spots were marked with yellow lines. In front of us, there was a huge building that was all white.
In front of the building, attached to the wall, there was an enormous letter “B”. The building had two glass walls. From the outside, you could see many lights and mannequins that were displaying elegant clothing. The mannequins were so beautiful that they seemed real. I thought it was some place where shows were put on, perhaps a theater.
We entered through a revolving glass door. As soon as we stepped inside, a show of lights, flowers, marble floors and mirrors opened before me. The hall was enormous. Here and there, there were long lines of women’s dresses. On the dress labels, you could recognize the names of famous French and Italian designers. The center of the immense hall was full of brightly shining glass displays of jewelry, perfumes, hats and beauty products. Even with all this, there was enough room in the hall to be able to move freely from one display to another. As with everything else in America, even the BLOOMINGDALES* store was spacious, comfortable, neat and elegant.
My aunt pointed out a line of dresses for young women to me. They were very pretty and of light and delicate colors. She said “vedi dresse pe ghella” (Look, dresses for girls) in a mix of dialect and English. It was a type of mixed dialogue (Italian dialect mixed with English) that was born out of the necessity. With Italians trying to understand and communicate with other Italians that came from various provinces and regions. Each town spoke its own dialect, which the Italians from each province or region had brought with them. These dialects were not mutually intelligible. Then, the younger generation born in America of Italian parents would speak their parents’ dialect, mixed in with Italianized American words, or better yet, I should say dialect-ized American words. I understood that my aunt wanted me to choose a dress. She had also brought along with her one of her nieces, a girl around my age, so that I could feel more comfortable. Paola, who didn’t speak Italian, took my hand and led me to the line of dresses.
There was so much to choose from. The type of dress, the color, the style. It was a difficult task to decide which ones I liked best. In the end, I chose a pink dress decorated with lace. The top part was tight and the skirt part was very large. Paola took me by the hand again and together we went into the fitting room so that I could try the dress on. She remained discretely behind the door. I tried the pink dress and I looked at myself from every angle, using the large mirrors that decorated the fitting room; I liked how the style of the dress and color looked on me very much. When I came out of the fitting room to show how I looked in it, I found my aunt and her niece waiting for me. They looked at me…they looked at each other and smiled. It seemed to me that they approved of my choice. Then my aunt handed me a large embroidered slip, decorated with lace. She gestured to me to try it on under the dress. She said “attraia attraia”, which was derived from a mix of the English “try it on” and the Italian word to say “try it on”, “put it on to see how it looks”, or “provala”.
I tried on the slip; it went very well with the new full dress. It accentuated it. Paola smiled and nodded her head. Even my aunt Josy said it looked good.
I was also very happy with the choice, that hadn’t been easy. They then showed me the shoe department. Shoes were becoming my passion. My aunt Josy told me to choose the shoes that I liked best. There were dozens of pairs, all on display on glass shelves. If choosing a dress had been hard, choosing shoes was next to impossible. There were high-heeled shoes, shoes with half heels, flats and shoes of every color and size. I tried a number of different pairs and I liked them all.
In the end, I chose a pair of white high-heeled shoes. I tried them on under the pink dress with the large slip. They really looked good. Paola smiled and so did I. My smile came from the thought that that evening I am going out with the boy I liked, dressed exactly like an American.
Delia Socci Skidmore