This morning, I used one of my dad’s old t-shirts to make my hair curlier. He would have been proud. When I was younger, I hated my hair. It was a clumpy afro that was full of frizz and knots. My mother, not being Italian, would keep my hair cut short or in pigtails just so she didn’t have to hear me scream every morning when she tried to comb it. My grade school classmates constantly made fun of me because I didn’t have the long flowing waves that were so popular. That, coupled with the apostrophe in my last name, helped to make me an outcast well before my nerd tendencies developed.
My father was first-generation Italian, so I had the typical mass of aunts, uncles, cousins, and the matriarch great-grandmother who had married and re-married every time she outlasted her husband. Each union brought more people into the group until you couldn’t remember everyone’s names. Weddings and funerals were like a reunion, and if you didn’t kiss Great-Grandma Maria first, you were put on A List. My mother, being blue-eyed with her hair dyed blonde, didn’t look like she fit in and my dad’s family made her feel it every chance they could. She used to sit with the wives who were some sort of “other” European stock. She preferred it that way because those ladies were a lot more fun.
Up until the end of high school, I looked like a cross between my dad and his sister. I had olive skin, big brown eyes, and the ever-present afro. I didn’t have any obvious traits from my mother, but I wanted to look like her so badly. When I would help my grandma make pasta or bread, she would tie my hair up in a white dishtowel. I would dance around the kitchen with my “beautiful long blonde hair” until she would yank it off, angry I wasn’t proud of my brown-black mess. She would complain to my mother that I didn’t embrace my heritage. This, of course, was because my mother would let me eat raviolis from a can whenever I was at home. My mom would nod, and then roll her eyes when my grandma turned her back.
Because my mother’s family lived all across the country, I didn’t get to know them until much later. I thought I was stuck with my dad’s relatives, with their ignorance and in-fighting. We were constantly caught between one cousin’s war with the other. If you picked a side, both of them would turn on you once the fighting was done. Family gatherings caused a lot of anxiety because I never knew what terrible tricks my cousins would play on me. After one particularly scarring incident, I wailed to my mom that I didn’t want to be Italian anymore. When she asked why, I told her I didn’t want to be crazy.
Once my grandma and dad’s sister died, our little three-person unit stopped going to the family parties. We hung out with a small select few from that group, but even they turned eventually. We replaced them with friends and created new bonds with my mom’s family. I started to learn about my “other side.” Some of them were also crazy and hurtful but there were even more who were interesting, fun, and loving. It was around this time I started to look more like my mom. I straightened my hair and dyed it red, much to my dad’s dismay. He didn’t understand that my hair was a connection to all that crazy from my past.
Eventually, my dad reconnected with relatives from my grandpa’s side. That group had moved all around the country when my dad was a young man, and he had lost touch with them. These were people who had gone to school and dared to marry people who weren’t from The Neighborhood. It took me until my twenties to finally meet cool Italians who made me wish I had embraced that heritage a little more. I finally understood where my artistic side came from, why I hugged strangers when meeting them.
I’m getting married in three weeks, and the thought used to give me anxiety. Not because it’s a huge commitment, but instead because of the expectation I would invite all those terrible people from my past. I was afraid that my husband-to-be would flee after staring my bloodline in the face. I was ecstatic when my mother told me that we were only inviting the people we love, the people who inspired us. When she married my dad, they were forced to include people they had never met. There was almost a war because my mother wanted ham and chicken instead of sausage and peppers. My mother, not knowing better, acquiesced to become “the good wife.” My parents vowed I would never go through that. My wedding would be what I wanted with only one or two traditions thrown in because they actually meant something to us.
Instead, the room will be filled with friends who are family and family who are friends. They are people who I admire and who make me laugh. There will be Dean Martin playing in the background because I love his music, and I will be stuffing my face with linguine because it is delicious. The best part will be my bouncy mass of hair, each curl a tribute to my dad.