I wrote this piece a few years ago and have a friend who references it every once in a while. I realize that if those $99 DNA kits had been around then and I’d shared this story I could have made A LOT of money but I have this memory of a conversation with my mother which is worth more than any amount of cash.
“38%!” It took me a nanosecond to realize it was my mother on the other end of the line.
“Is that the chance of rain?” I come from a weather-obsessed family.
“No! Did I tell you what your Uncle Joe was doing?”
If you know my family, one of many quirks with which you’re familiar is that we can move from topic to topic with insane speed and yet seem to resolve all topics by the end of the conversation. It may seem like we’ve abandoned some story, some fact about an experience, flailing, a beaten up plastic bag pushed on the breeze and wind of passing cars, tossed under yours so you faithfully check the rear view until you see it behind you undoubtedly wondering what would happen if it did get stuck. Would it burn? The plastic melting to the undercarriage you’ll never understand? And then a good song comes on or a bird flies by and the bag is forgotten.
Except in my family, we get back to the bag. Distractions aside someone is going back, pulling over, and resolving that bag’s existence, even if all that means is putting it in the trash. Whether or not the seemingly random reference to my mother’s second youngest brother was a tangent or part of the story didn’t matter, it would all be resolved in the end.
“I don’t think so; didn’t he used to be a math teacher?” I was driving home from work, my brain still analytical and probably not ready to jump right into a conversation with my mom.
My mother is Italian. Like most Long Islanders of Italian descent she is VERY Italian. Any time I talk about her being Italian this song plays in my head. Her mother made and hung pasta in the kitchen, Sunday’s dinner reaching into the dining and sitting rooms like an invasive vine – the more family anticipated around the table the farther it reached. She injects Italian into regular conversation although she doesn’t speak Italian.
When I was in first grade we had to make a Thanksgiving recipe book. I wasn’t the only kid with one full of Italian food recipes. We were pretty much split between traditional American and Italian. I, however, was the one with the worst spelling for ingredients. Example: Mootzahdale. Because that’s how my mother pronounced it. My mother’s Italian is butchered. Brutally. It might actually be fake.
But she is Italian. “Garlic runs through my veins,” That’s a favorite when people ask her background.
Since I was a child it has been pointed out, regularly, that I don’t look very Italian, especially considering that my mom’s family is Sicilian. My dad’s family is Polish. I have fair skin which is about as Polish as I look. My hair is dark, my eyes are hazel, I have coloring like no Italian or Pole I’ve ever met but I figure with the clash of cultures there’s just some recessive gene stuff going on. I had a stylist who insisted that I had Italian hair without any conversation of heritage.
My Uncle Joe, my mom and their sister don’t look terribly Italian. They don’t look unItalian, but you wouldn’t picture them when someone tells you about the crazy Italian wedding they went to. I can’t really describe what they look like, but not Italian. My mom’s skin is more sallow than olive, but she does get a beautiful tan after only about 30 seconds in the sun. Her siblings, all except the youngest, have the same deal. They are fairly small and light in stature.
My cousin’s coloring is Irish. She gets that from her mom although she does have very dark, very curly hair. We look a bit alike in features although nothing about me is Irish. We’ve often mused that we don’t looks as Italian as we are. Especially since we each have one parent who is 100% Italian.
Since retiring from the FBI my uncle has developed an interest in learning more about my family. We are an interesting clan with a storied and, at times, Lifetime movie quality history. There’s my grant aunt Josephine (the most famous character in my family), and political intrigue. There’s a vineyard and some gangsters. Unfortunately, there are many gaps in our oral history so with an aging population of elders my uncle has decided to take on the task of collecting both first and second hand accounts from my living relatives and using outside help to fill in the blanks.
“Your Uncle Joe did a DNA test,” despite my brain going there I knew it couldn’t be paternity or some sort of criminal charge, “it tells you your ethnic makeup”
“Wait, what are you 38%?” I almost joked that she was was still overwhelmingly —
Silence. I could hear it, the crumbling of my mother’s personal identity. And I knew that while we were laughing she was also lost. Italian is who she is. Or was.
“Shit. What’s the other 72%?”
“Middle Eastern,” she began matter-of-factly, “Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey,”
“Ma, you’ve got centuries of empires coming and going, of course no one is going to be purely anything, well, except Naomi,”
This didn’t help. My mom and my Dutch exchange student had forged a bond which I attributed to Naomi’s being as 100% Dutch as my mom was Italian, “And everyone in your family knows the Italian heritage because they’re all there. That’s what makes you Italian. Just like what makes me American is that it’s where I and most of us are.”
“I guess,” she chewed on that a little, needing something to grasp onto. Her entire family is all from (and still in) a tiny village on Sicily. They are as Italian as Italian can be. It’s all they know.
The conversation was uncharacteristically silent. I had no clue where to go next although my urge was to make a ridiculously off color joke about my sister. She once prided herself on pointing out that technically she was not Polish (latching onto the Polish people are dumb stereotype) due to her being adopted.
“Maybe this is why I like Middle Eastern food so much…?” She grasped at straws, “I love that Wild Fig.”
“That makes sense.” I gave it to her.
“DON’T tell your sister,” I laughed and let it go; I could hear the guilt behind the 38%-serious comment.