I’ve always had a really close relationship with my dad. We have the same bizarre sense of humor and love of music and movies. I have vivid memories of falling asleep in front of the TV leaning on his shoulder, struggling to keep our eyes open after watching our third movie.
I was raised on prosciutto and mozzarella (in our Sicilian accents- “prosciutt’” and “muzzadell”-), stuffed artichokes and struffoli, Italian prayers recited by my nana and Frank Sinatra as ever-present background music.
This week, I read a book that has been on my shelf since last summer called The Right Thing to Do by Josephine Gattuso Hendin. It’s a 1988 novel that examines the Italian American father-daughter relationship through the eyes of Nino and Gina, who live in a Little Italy in Astoria, Queens.
In 19-year-old Gina’s neighborhood, everyone knows everybody’s business. Old Italian grandmas sit and gossip on front porches, watchful eyes surveying the summer streets.
It was pretty cool to read about characters who share a heritage I can identify with on some level. The atmospheric details were familiar, and quotes such as “the air was laced with rich smells, the odor of provolone cheese in summer, of hot bread, of sweet basil softening the exhaust fumes,” brought back childhood memories.
Nino emigrated from Sicily and had Gina with his wife Laura, raising her the traditional Sicilian way: keeping a strict watch over her so she didn’t have any improper relationships with boys, testing her with biting words, and challenging her aspirations to teach her strength, while simultaneously hoping the best for her.
Both Nino and Gina are extremely stubborn, a stereotypical characteristic of southern Italians and definitely a quality I have observed in myself and my family members. It’s hard to argue with Sicilians because they either won’t budge or they’ll make an argument so impenetrable that it becomes impossible to logically disagree.
Despite their close and caring relationship when Gina was a child, after her ascent into womanhood, Nino became more vigilant, and a sudden, incomprehensible distance erupted between them. He treated her like a little girl dressing up in her mom’s clothes when she tried out makeup for the first time, discouraging her burgeoning womanhood with less-than-subtle digs.
Nino describes his interdependent relationship with Gina as such: “I’m your father; so long as you are my daughter, what you do is my business. Only an idiot would think that his life belongs to himself. You think my life belongs to me? You live in a family with other people; what you do affects them. You can’t do anything without taking them into account.” Here, there’s a sense of collective mentality and the importance of family that is quintessentially Sicilian.
When Nino follows Gina one day, he finds her meeting a man, 26-year-old Alex. Then, their entire relationship changes. He feels like he has failed her by not protecting her from the grasp of men, but he also feels disrespected by her, as though her relationship with Alex is a personal slight to him.
Nino is overtly sexist, as taught by his upbringing in a culture of sexual conservatism, and he also has natural protective instincts over his child, heightened by the fact that she is a woman who apparently needs protection from men.
Nino blames girls who engage in premarital sex for any poor treatment they may receive from men because it is apparently “their fault for not demanding marriage first, so at least they would have respectability.”
He’s angry at her for being self-possessed, for outsmarting him. “He should crack her across the face with his cane. It would serve her right! But you only did that to a girl her age for one reason, and he wasn’t about to do that in public. Not in this neighborhood, where everyone would know what it meant.”
When Gina claims that things are different now that they no longer live in Sicily, Nino responds, “Don’t mention Sicily to me. In Sicily you wouldn’t be alive.”
Gina’s supposed failure—engaging in a consensual sexual relationship—was also perceived as a serious slight to Nino because it threatened his vanity. “He needed to be so respected that nobody would mess with his daughter.”
While reading this book, I noticed a few parallels to my dad’s life. He grew up in a small apartment in the Bronx with his father, mother, sister, and brother. Our family is from Sicily, and my grandparents initially settled in Brooklyn before moving to the Bronx after getting married. My dad and his siblings went to Catholic school.
Of course, my dad’s a man, so his relationship with his father is inherently different than that between Nino and Gina. But my dad’s sister, my aunt Susan, moved to Florida with her husband after getting married at a relatively young age. I couldn’t help but wonder about aunt Susan’s decision to move, about what prompted her to go so far away from home.
My dad’s father passed away when my dad was 19, so I never met him, and I don’t know much about his relationships to his children, particularly his daughter, or how his Sicilian heritage may have influenced them. But this book made me think about that question.
The book describes the culture clash inherent in bridging the gap from Italian to American, particularly Sicilian Italian, a culture steeped in tradition and oftentimes sexism.
As a Sicilian immigrant, Nino perceives himself to be at odds with American culture, at war with an “other” whose values conflict with his own. Nino is nostalgic for a lost time, a simpler time, an untainted hometown, a yearning which I see present in family members.
And looking at Gina and Nino’s fraught, tense relationship, I couldn’t help but compare it with my relationship to my dad and notice how different they are. I feel totally at ease with my dad. Of course, I don’t tell him every intimate detail of my personal life, but he’s a great listener and really tries to be non-judgmental, making him a solid confidante. And when I need him, he’s always there, with warmth or strength wherever appropriate.
Gina’s parents express worry about educating her. Nino says, “Who knows who else she meets in school. Send a girl to school, you send her into trouble.” Gina’s mother, Laura, comments, “My father used to say, what’s the good of teaching a girl to write. If they can write, they get in trouble writing love letters!” And I can’t help but think about my dad, about the unconditional support he has offered me in everything I decide to pursue, about how proud he is of my academic accomplishments.
After reading this book, I felt just as alienated from my Sicilian roots as I did connected to them. It could be because this book is set decades ago, and I wonder if my dad would identify more with the traditional values that Nino embodies, if not in himself then maybe in his parents or relatives.
Over the years, my family has definitely become more Americanized when it comes to traditional Sicilian cultural values. It makes me a little sad to think I’m less connected to my Italian heritage than I thought, but is that sexism and oppressive history something with which I really want to connect? Because of the decades spanning my family’s American story, can I selectively choose the aspects of Sicilian culture that I want to claim as my own, or am I obligated to own all the history, even the ugly or violent parts?
I have tried to keep connected to my italianità—studying the language in high school (where I realized that standard Italian is not the Sicilian dialect I would sometimes hear from my nana), choosing to minor in it in college, cooking Italian food all the time, even occasionally alternating between Italian and English when I text. But what does it really mean to retain a culture? How important is it? And is selective retention something I can live with?
I write this as my 98-year-old nana’s health fails, as she grows increasingly weaker with time. As I reckon with what seems like her iminent passing, I think about all the cultural knowledge that could be lost, all the things I haven’t asked her, or all the things she’s told me which I haven’t fully absorbed. I think about the tenuous connection to my origins that I try harder and harder to maintain, with less success than I’d like. And I think about how much I’m going to miss her sassy Sicilian self when she’s gone.*
*Assunta Rossi (later Susan Brancato) passed away on June 3rd at the age of 98
Image Credits: Sienna Brancato