I THOUGHT YOU ITALIAN GIRLS WERE SUPPOSED TO BE SEXY
Many years ago, my mother told me the story of Nonnie and Poppie, my grandparents, as a newly married couple, one in which their sexual tension was suggested to me as a young child. My mother liked to share stories about conflict and tension, the telling of the drama a kind of catharsis for her. She often smiled after telling this, laughing to herself. Had my grandmother told her, passing down her own love of telling uncomfortable stories?
Nonnie wore her full white nightgown, buttoned all the way up her throat, a hem to the floor, white cotton like an angel, modest, proper, prude. The outline of her body was not suggested by this long-sleeved affair, which covered even her wrists. Her breasts could not be seen through it, nor her fully girdled underwear. It was like a suit of armor that nightgown; a man or woman could have worn it, their gender never revealed.
A virile young man, my grandfather was frustrated by what he saw as a wall to overcome, before his desire could be met. I never saw or thought of my grandfather as a sexual being, but he was the father of six children, and loved to give big kisses to the whole family in the most friendly way, on the lips with lots of slobber. “One day a boy is going to do that to you, and you are going to like it,” he said to me when I was in elementary and then junior high school. I was certain he was wrong.
To me he was harmless, even goofy; I didn’t see him as a ladies’ man, but he was a man all the same, and when he fell in love with my grandmother, I am pretty sure that physical attraction played a large part in his sudden proposal when my grandmother was just seventeen years old. She had sung Salve Regina beautifully for the All Souls Day celebration at their high school. He fashioned a ring made of a paper straw and said, “I’m going to marry you.”
He was Irish and Dutch, and his mother wished for him to have a nice Irish girl, a pretty blonde-haired daughter-in-law. When she heard the name Concetta and saw the dark-hair and the regal Roman nose of my grandmother, she disliked her on sight. An Italian. Everyone knew the Italians meant trouble. After all, the same year my grandfather proposed, 1941, was the year that the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into war with the Axis Powers of Japan, Germany and Italy. What a disgrace. “Guineas”, “dagos”, and “wops” they were called. My grandmother’s own brother-in-law, Filipo, a man that was more like a father who raised her, was called ugly and laughed at by her Irish classmates, because his skin was dark and ruddy, his nose large and he spoke with a prominent Italian accent. “They wouldn’t know what beauty was if it bit them on the nose,” she often said crying.
But that didn’t stop my grandfather from loving my grandmother. His courtship lasted two years, even as she became bedridden for a year with trichinosis, and he had to take a long bus ride every week to her home out in the Columbia County, New York countryside. He saved up his money through his job writing for the Knickerbocker News in Hudson until he felt he could provide “a few dollars” to start their life together. In short, he waited a long time to be able to finally embrace the woman he loved. He had overcome years of obstacles, including my grandmother’s own initial hesitancy and fears. “You’re crazy! I’m only seventeen. I won’t marry you. I’m going to go to school to become a nun or a nurse!”
When she was nineteen years old and he finally had her standing in front of him as his wife, (his wife, he could finally have her, the woman of his dreams!), he saw how much further he had to go to truly have her. With that doggone nightgown covering up her body.
“I thought you Italian girls were supposed to be sexy,” he said half joking, half prodding her into a reaction.
“Well you thought wrong,” my grandmother replied, trying to appear less catching. She stood with her shoulders slouched, which made it more difficult to see her body, and she did not make eye contact. She was not going to undress for him if that is what he thought. The way the story is told, it is as if my grandmother is playing a sort of cat and mouse game. Or could it be that she was nervous and unsure or just didn’t want to open herself up?
I do not know how long this went on. Was it that the buttons were too difficult to unbutton or did my grandmother resist his advances? Or did he just get so frustrated that he decided not to bother with the buttons? He didn’t want to see that nightgown ever again, if he could help it.
So he reached out and ripped it right off of her body.
This is how my mother described it. I never asked if the nightgown was in shreds, or just torn. I do not think he was angry or my grandmother afraid, by the tone of my mother’s voice in the telling, whimsical like a child’s. Was he shocked at himself? It could have been by accident if she moved away when he grabbed it. These things are never clear. My grandmother gasped, but the way my mother tells it, this was purely for drama’s sake. How this played out exactly, I will never know. The story is told as a humorous one, not a story of violence or horror. There is no shame in its telling. I have not allowed myself to imagine my grandmother standing there with her breasts exposed, what she may have said, what happened afterwards. Did she scream? Did they kiss? Did they laugh? Was it just understood that a wife did not refuse her husband? Wasn’t this a right of marriage? I write this with some sarcasm. It wasn’t as if he forced her, that wasn’t my grandfather’s way. This act was out of the ordinary, a thing of legend, perhaps not fully true, exaggerated. As a child being told this, what did I think? I merely saw the images that were spoken to me and nothing more. I was not aware of any tragedy. It was more of a comedy. But what I did understand was that this was okay, a natural outcome of a man’s frustration to be with his wife. The only way to break the tension was to laugh about it.
I wear a nightgown of my grandmother’s that is now missing its buttons and the part that covers the neck cannot be closed. It is so aged and has been washed so many times, it is practically see-through. I look like a rag doll when I wear it, disheveled, wrinkled, worn out. My children, young girls, tell me to throw it away. It has had its day. But wearing it reminds me of my grandmother who as a young woman, hid herself, kept herself covered, resisted until she was finally exposed. All her children came after that first nightgown came off, one by one, a gradual loosening of the covers, a letting go, a loss of resistance, and maybe years later a declaration of desire, or a simple, “Not tonight, Walt.”
Elizabeth Marquis~Mayorca received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU, where she received the Rod Marriot Playwriting Award. Her poem “A rock shaped like a house, found in the mountains,” was the 1st prize winner of The Poets for Human Rights Award. “Sewing in Syria” was published in New Monologues for Women by Women, through Heinemann Drama. With her sister Francesca Greene, she created Sister Symmetry a book of original poetry and paintings. She edited and wrote the introduction and afterward for Sea of Images (The Collected Poems of Walter John Hawver: Soldier-Patriot-Poet).