[img_assist|nid=4361|title=Hair Drawing, Simona Mihaela Josan © 2004|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=151]My mother wishes for me: I wish you’d cut your hair short. I wish you had some security. I wish you’d write about real Italians. That wish came on a rainy spring Sunday after she and my father had spent the previous evening attending the decade-old play-in-a-restaurant, "Tony and Tina’s Wedding."
"Your cousin didn’t like it either. And your father —" she batted the air, "Well, nothing bothers your father."
Not true, of course. Wool bothers my father, wool and the entire sad history of mankind and any and all humiliations to the human spirit big or small. Earlier, he’d stood in my living room contemplating the rose window in the church across the street. Then he turned toward us slowly, looking as though he’d just had a long talk with God, and announced that he wasn’t coming with us to the annual Philadelphia Flower Show.
He wanted to watch a golf tournament. We left him in the company of Tiger Woods. By then it was raining heavily. I kept my eyes on the streets, trying to avoid the pot holes, while she, waiting for my corroborating outrage, continued to describe the play.
"It’s a satire, Mom.”
"It was mean," she said. I let that one pass. Given her exasperation, it was not the time to lecture her on the properties of satire.
"When did you ever go to a wedding in our family where they served a piece of meat meatballs hard as a rock—instead of salmon or even just a nice chicken? And when was the last time you ever saw anybody dance on a table with her—all of her top was hanging out! The clothes were awful and the language. This we paid $75.00 for? No one in our family acts like that."
No one in our family acts like that. My mother had been seduced into believing that those characters were badly-behaved members of our own family. She loved being an Italian-American. Tony and Tina had embarrassed her.
"And you," she said.
"Me? What me?"
"You should do something about it."
The parking attendant was waving and flailing at me. Lot full. I backed out onto the street. "Like what?"
"Write something good."
"Aren’t I writing a novel?"
"Is it Italian?"
I had been keeping my own counsel with this third novel because there were Italian-Americans in the work. Until now, I’d never mined the depths of my Italian-American experience, mostly because I didn’t think there was one.
My mother was already convinced she was the mother in two previous novels (women to whom she bears no resemblance, both of whom I’d killed off in violent ways). How could I tell her that I planned to showcase her in the new book? So far the writing had made me sleepy with guilt. Each time I shot an arrow aimed at the bull’s eye authentic, I hit caricature.
We found a parking space two blocks away, then linked arms under a single umbrella and ran to the convention center, where we were cast into yet another ethnic wonderland: France. Amid the lush floral displays stood a mini Eiffel Tower; a Parisian cafe; a repro Tuileries. Geraniums, blistering red and swollen, spilled out of glazed pottery. There was even a reconstructed Japanese bridge against a canvas backdrop of Monet’s garden at Giverney. Years before I’d been to Giverney and had stood on the real bridge looking out over Monet’s pond.
My father was stationed in France after World War II. For decades I’ve been running with the joke that my parents named me Denise because my father—who chose the name—was secretly fascinated with a French chanteuse named Denise. I’ve invented his French experience as romantic, clothed him in fluid gabardine instead of army fatigues, added an unrequited love to his post-war France. I wanted to account for being a Denise in a family of Joes and Marys. I wanted a reason. So I made one up.
That day at the flower show I said, "It doesn’t look like this."
But my mother was thrilled, believing she was a guest at Monet’s home. Should it matter then that the play had depicted Italians as lewd, gauche, dumb? Wasn’t it all invention? This garden in a convention center? Those actors in a wedding? My mother didn’t think so.
She believed that somewhere between depictions of Italians exerting brute force, wearing bad clothes and making wise-cracks, there had to be another portrait.
As we sampled bistro food under a striped cafe awning I began to feel shame—not for what I was, but for my obsessive efforts to banish all traces of it. I hid my maiden name: Piccoli. Gess, my married name, was short, sweet. What I’d barely admitted to myself was how much I loved its Anglo-Saxoness. I was a coward. I never wanted anyone confusing me with those other Italians.
“Where are the Italian-American writers?” Gay Talese had asked in an essay for the Times. Why so mute? Well, Italians don’t grow up with books in their houses, he pointed out. There were books in my home and magazines, yet nothing that resembled a library. I wasn’t read to as a child—I was talked to. I grew up in a family where everyone thought it was their obligation to articulate their raw emotions as if they were splinters that needed to be tended to immediately. The entire range of emotion was accessible by asking, "How do you feel?"
"Sit down and I’ll tell you."
Seated around a table with relatives is how I learned story. Sometimes the stories were funny and sometimes they were somber, but my mother was right: they were not stupid, brutish, or lewd.
After we’d had our fill of croissants and espresso, we linked arms and left the convention center. The rain and wind had died out. The sky was opaque gray.
"Italians bleed together like cheap madras," I said.
"That’s true," my mother said. She shrugged. I watched the sharp planes of her face shifting. "I’m not educated like you and your brother and your sister, but I know when somebody’s making fun of me."
On the subject of my intense family ties I’ve been from A to Z and back again, as torn up as a dirt road after a drag race when I examine their blunders, their open-hearted messiness.
"Be funny," she said, "but tell a whole story."
Hadn’t she, my first reader, always offered herself up for scrutiny? That day she was asking me to give something back, something more complex than stereotypes: real Italians.
"I’ll give it a shot," I told her.Denise Gess is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, Good Deeds (1984) and Red Whiskey Blues (1989) and the co-author of the non-fiction book Firestorm At Peshtigo: A Town, Its People and The Deadliest Fire in American History (2002). Her short fiction has appeared in the North American Review and has been anthologized in The Horizon Reader. She’s working on a collection of essays entitled Bad For Boys.