How my sister wanted to be a WASP
I am often asked about my ethnicity. People say, “You look Italian, but there is something else I can’t put my finger on.”
“I’m half Greek,” I answer, usually causing the inquirer to nod in agreement.
I was proud of my heritage growing up and I’m still proud to carry the genes of my ancestors. My Italian grandparents lived right down the street from my childhood home and I spent as much time at their house as I did my own. As a little girl, I loved visiting them, often walking barefoot to their house in the summer.
My bare feet would drive my grandfather Antonio crazy. He grew up on a farm in a small Italian town called Arce. When he scolded me one day for walking around without shoes, I asked my grandmother why he was so angry. She explained that my grandfather was worried I would catch some kind of disease from the dirty pavement.
Italians always wear shoes outside. Bare feet are not even allowed inside. Most Italians remove their shoes and put slippers on upon entering their home. The only place bare feet are allowed is in the shower or the bed.
My mother’s parents lived in a city neighboring ours, about 20 minutes away. They spoke only Greek, so I could not effectively communicate with them or forge any close relationship, even though we visited them regularly when I was young.
My mother was one of eight children born in the United States after my grandparents emigrated from Greece. She was fluent in Greek and her ability to speak an entirely different language at will always intrigued me. I learned a little Greek when I was growing up — how to count to ten, how to say “hello” and “how are you,” how to say “go away.” And for some odd reason, I still remember the Greek word for “tablecloth.” But that was about all the Greek my mom taught me.
The prevailing attitude when I was young seemed to scorn Americans who spoke any language other than English, so my mom was not encouraged to pass her gift on to us.
My mother loved Greek food, but when she married my dad, his Italian mother taught my mom how to cook Italian dishes. Even though most of the food we ate was inspired by Italian recipes, we loved it when my mom made Greek dishes, roasted lamb and potatoes, lemon orzo soup, spanakopita, and egg biscuit cookies with sesame seeds.
We grew up with both cultures, but the Italian side was dominant. We attended both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox christenings. I remember being shocked when the Greek priest dunked one of my cousins into a huge brass baptismal font and plunged her tiny body into the water three times, head and all. Piercing screams reverberated through the church as all the adults smiled and cooed. The Roman Catholic ritual was much calmer, with the baby remaining fully enveloped in lace and silk while the priest dripped some holy water on the baby’s head.
Those events anchored my sisters and me to our immediate and extended families. They helped define who we were as individuals and strengthened the ties to our heritage. The cultural traditions we were exposed to in our formative years provided us with a firm sense of self. Or so I thought.
My parents had four daughters. We all grew up and went in different directions, and many of the family traditions lingered in our lives. For some reason, though, one of my older sisters started emulating the stereotypical WASP after college when she entered the financial world. She suddenly demanded we refer to her by her full given name instead of the shortened version we knew her by her entire life. While I understand her more familiar name sounded a bit informal for a financial professional, I was baffled when she began hiding her Rhode Island dialect. I didn’t think her professional advancement as an accountant depended on annunciating every “r” or “ing.”
The Kennedys were one of the wealthiest families in the country and John was elected President of the United States, yet they never discarded their heavy Boston dialect. They did mimic a Waspish lifestyle, but culturally, they remained Irish Catholics, not Boston Brahmins.
At first, my sister’s affected speech pattern was amusing because she would often revert to her natural way of speaking when she was not around people she hoped to impress with her new language style. The way she said something seemed more important to her than the substance of a conversation. Then she began mocking people who spoke the way she always had. It became a chore to talk to her.
As time went on, she became increasingly obsessed with all things associated with being a stereotypical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She talked incessantly about old money and Ivy League pedigrees while disparaging anything ethnic. She seemed determined to network with every walking dollar-sign she could find to try to get a leg up in the business world. She started collecting monogrammed, silver serving pieces even though they were etched with someone else’s initials. She was driven to find the right house in the right neighborhood surrounded by the right people. She was morphing into a person I barely recognized.
Many years ago, my husband and I met her and her husband for lunch as they searched for a weekend house in the country. Since she thought it was very “top-drawer” to own a second home, she had to have one. As we sat at the table in a small converted house eating comfort food, my sister filled me in on her plan to send her husband into what she described as the “Waspy” enclave to introduce himself and talk with the locals. He grew up in a tenement building in the Bronx but happened to have an upper-crust-sounding English surname. My sister used her own Italian last name professionally, but since it had that pesky little vowel at the end, she would remain in the background for this mission. Would a single vowel in the wrong place nix the deal? She thought so.
“Are you serious?” I asked. She said, “They don’t like ethnic-sounding names around here.” It seemed she was willing to deny her own ancestry to gain her White Anglo-Saxon Protestant bona fides.
She had the white part down. But the Anglo-Saxon protestant bit was hard to fake. Living among the people she aspired to be, even if they based their acceptance of others on bloodlines, became her religion.
She toyed with the idea of changing her last name, claiming it was difficult for Italian Americans to advance in society. Had my sister been living under a rock? Countless Italian Americans found success in this country. How could she hope to accomplish anything if she lived her life wallowing in shame and resentment about her roots? I’m sure Nancy (D’Allasandro) Pelosi never apologized for her ethnic background and she is the most powerful woman in American history.
My sister and I were hanging out one day when she told me about a magazine article she just read that spotlighted an extremely wealthy New York family. My sister was going on and on about how they accumulated such a vast fortune. She was nearly salivating over the assets on their balance sheet when she declared, “They are such a good family.”
She equated money with virtue. I was puzzled. I didn’t hear her mention good deeds or whether the family demonstrated any interest in the betterment of society. To my sister, the mere fact that they had boatloads of money proved they were people who deserved respect and admiration? What would she think of the late Jeffrey Epstein, whose great wealth and social entrée accompanied a life of depravity?
Her climb up the corporate ladder caused her to leave the essence of who she was at the bottom rung. Her blue-collar background stood in the way of her blue-blood aspirations.
My sister was unable to embrace her rich heritage because she believed her true background was just not good enough. She thought diminishing her ethnicity would raise her stature in society. She did not think she could succeed and celebrate her uniqueness at the same time. She opted out of our Italian and Greek heritage in search of greener, non-ethnic pastures.
Striving to succeed in life is no crime. Hoping to be secure, healthy, and happy is the dream of every human being. When we each embark on our own journey, we discard things from our past as we move further away from our childhood. We question the need for certain elements in our lives that were staples of our parents’ lives, like strict adherence to religious tenets, particular political affiliations, or the inevitability of having children after marriage.
There’s no running away from our DNA. Our heritage is something we carry with us to the grave. When you try to co-opt someone else’s history, you end up living a fraudulent life. Wishing your relatives set out for America from England instead of Italy or Greece is foolhardy and won’t make you a more worthy human being. It is a shame my sister never recognized the value of simply living an authentic life.