Diary of an Italian Teen

December 2, 2008
I know the look. I wait and watch for it. That look of “what the hell did I just walk into!” It’s almost always the default expression on the faces of the friends I bring with me when I visit at my grandparents house. If the three life-sized lawn statues of Michelangelo’s David, the four pots of red gravy on the stove, or Louis Prima records playing do not give it away, then the ten foot flag on the wall always does. I know that they’re thinking, “Do I need a passport to be here?”

You could say that I’m living out Godfather Part IV…minus the gunshots and “offers that can’t be refused.” Sure, there are many Italian immigrants in New Orleans, but each of us Gennaros takes our heritage…well, to the extreme?

Nonna and Grandpa’s House: Age 4

“SHHH! MEDITERRANEAN SECRET!” my Great-Grandmother Ignazia whispered in broken English as she continued to flood olive oil into our bath water. As bambinos, my cousins, brother, and I were not fond of our olive oil baths. At first, we complained of the potent stench, and how it made our hair feel as if it should be strained and placed on a plate underneath meatballs; but, we eventually discovered the fun we could make out of her peculiar cleansing methods. Whenever she removed her short, plump frame from the room to catch the phone or stir a pot, Teresa, Nina, Vinny, and I would shoot out of the water and slide naked across the cold, tiled floor.

“LEI MALO E PATZO BAMBINI,” (You ungrateful, crazy bunch of kids!)” she would yell, as we mocked her words, but we would always seem to get caught. We knew we had gone too far when our parents reprimanded us for “terrorizing our elder’s feeble and gracious heart.” However, when that next bath came, we soaked in oily suspense until she finally left the room.

Uncle Tommy’s House: Age 10

That day, my cousin Mary sat the family down and announced that she was engaged. “His name is Michael; we met up in Philly, while I was in school at Temple,” she spoke as everyone congratulated her.

“OH ‘MICHELE’! WHAT A SOLID ITALIAN NAME,” said Grandpa above the rest.

Mary continued, “Michael Harper. We’ve set the date for late October.” Silence.

“HARPER? WHAT DO YOU MEAN HIS NAME IS ‘HARPER’?” my Grandpa uttered in disgust as he sank back in his chair, the blood had left his face. That was only the second time someone in the family had married another whose name didn’t end in a precious vowel, and we all knew that last marriage didn’t go so smoothly. Mary’s wedding came, and it was beautiful. I did notice, however, that Grandpa readjusted his position a time or two when Mary spoke the name “Harper” in her vows. All is well now, and Cousin Mike is one of the best additions to the family. Nina and I have thanked Mary for paving the way for us, just in case we meet and love a man who’s not of our “superior race.”

My House: Age 15

My grandma, Nonna, has a very special place in my heart. "Quirky" just does not quite cover all the details of her personality. For example, she has a deep aversion of Chef Boyardee. There was never a personal vendetta with an employee, or a dislike for the policies of the company. Nonna simply hates the pseudo- Italian "cuisine" and believes real Italian food is always home-made. And she does not just tell us of her disapproval, Nonna takes it upon herself to personally check my family's pantry, making sure that we are not victims of counterfeit Italian food. And the worst, or best, part is that Nonna seems to always be right. One night I was feeling a bit rebellious. I wanted a quick meal, something I could heat up quickly, but something that would still fill me up. I stood in the pantry for a solid five minutes, scanning over every possible item, hoping I would not have to commit this treacherous act of Italian-treason. But, like I’ve explained to Nonna a hundred times, there was no other feasible option. I grabbed the can, threw it in the automatic can-opener, and then slid off the lid. My scream was so piercing that I think my relatives in Italy could have heard. With my finger gaping open like a stomach undergoing a C-Section, I immediately threw the can in the trash, but I had to laugh at the irony. When I look down at my scar, I’m reminded of that dreadful day when I dared to try ABC-shaped noodles. I've never crossed my grandmother since. My friends may laugh when I tell this story of tragedy, but I know the omens that the gods of Italy are sending.

I know that you’re thinking we sound like a loud, fat, and obnoxious group of individuals. Well, you’re partly right. We are loud and obnoxious, but only the best of us are fat. I’ve accepted that my family is wild, and I’m affected by them everyday of my life. It’s either, I can’t bring so and so to a dance because his great-grandfather sold my great-grandfather some bad cheese, or lets show Angela’s friends that embarrassing home video of her in a bandana, stomping grapes in a barrel with Great-Grandma Ignazia. Either way, they are my family. And if they were any other way, I’d be lost. So the next time Grandpa pulls a friend of mine to the side, starts tearing, and says, “You know, when my parents stepped off the ship they had nothing…,” and I see the perplexed look of “Do I need a passport to be here,” glaze over their eyes, I’ll say proudly, “Yes, and please check your bags at the door.”

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