It’s hard to explain to people today, when it seems that everyone wants to be Italian, that our neighbors once targeted my family because our last name ended in a vowel.
We’d only lived in Connecticut a few weeks. Because, by God, my father wasn’t about to raise his kids in the big, bad apple.
And then, in broad daylight, someone painted “DIRTY WOPS!” on our garage door. I think the way in which I perceived myself changed the very moment I saw those words.
My mother thought it was one of the neighbor kids. I remember her saying something like, “When you’re young you do crazy things.”
I didn’t believe it was a kid, but I didn’t argue. Not on your life. My opinion was called talking back. So I kept still about a certain neighborhood grownup who shook his head whenever our car drove by. Even at my young age, I could detect his contempt for all the European problems he never had to face. And for all the Europeans he did.
My father has said that imagining the “American dream” was the only thing that got him through the war. But he never carried the streets-paved-in-gold generic illusion. He defined the “dream” as living in a peaceful country. I’ll never forget the look that came over him when he saw the Italian slur, as if part of his dream had been ground out like one of his cigars. Like he’d finally witnessed something he’d been afraid of all along.
It was a different time then, of course, when lots of us still believed that the police always did the right thing, and so my father might have pretended to agree with my suggestion to call the police, but he never did. “It’s nothing,” he said. And then he got out the hose and a scrub brush.
And now I wonder: do we all, even those who survive a World War, see what we want to see, or can handle seeing, and make light of the rest just so we don’t have to turn a small cruelty into something much bigger?
That night, I heard my dad cry for the first time. I felt that if I let in his tears, they would wash me away. I buried my head in my pillow.
My mother cried too, but I was used to that.
And there was another clue that my father was a little less secure than he let on. He often says that everybody in this country loves to eat, but nobody wants to farm. He was proud of his garden, yet he planted it in our new shady backyard, not in the sunnier front. See, all of the men in our neighborhood wore suits to work. My father left the house in overalls. He still does.
And today, with all the renewed discriminatory rhetoric we face, well, I hope something else my dad likes to say is true, this too shall pass.
It’s the little memories that have the largest effect.
I have my reasons for why I didn’t change my name once I married. But the memory of my father scrubbing our garage door is the strongest.
MARY LOU SANELLI is a poet, speaker and author of nonfiction. Her collection of essays, “A Woman Writing,” is available from Aequitas Books. She can be reached at www.marylousanelli.com.