Write of Way by Mary Lou Sanelli

Monday, May 01, 2017 1:05 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)



Different Time, Same Story


It’s hard to explain to people today, when it seems that everyone wants to be Italian, that our neighbors once targeted my family. 


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, “kids do crazy things.”


I didn’t believe it was a kid at all, but I didn’t argue. Not on your life. My opinion was called talking back. So I kept silent 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 Second World War. But he didn’t carry 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 slur on our door, as if part of his dream had been ground out like one of his cigars. As if 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, “a joke.” And then he got out the hose and a scrub brush.


And now I wonder: do we all 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 but obvious cruelty into something much bigger?


That night, I heard my dad cry for the first time. I felt his tears would wash me away. I buried my head in my pillow.


My mother cried too, but I was used to that.


There was another clue that my father was a little less secure in our new neighborhood than he let on. He likes to say 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 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 one of the strongest.


Mary Lou Sanelli

Sanelli works as a writer and speaker. Her latest book is A Woman Writing. For more information, visit www.marylousanelli.com



   

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