It’s funny—I made quite a few promises to myself before I had a kid about the things I swore I’d never do as a parent. Above all, I promised I’d NEVER embarrass my kids the way my parents embarrassed me. I’d never be so strict—I’d let them live their lives, do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. I wouldn’t kill time over a stove, make them eat gross Sicilian peasant food, or do anything cringe-worthy in front of their friends. In other words, I’d be a Cool American Mom.
Luca is only six months old and I’m already apologizing to my younger self for certain parenting decisions I know will let her down. Because I realize now that the things I hated most about my family life growing up are the things that made it so wonderful. We were close. Our house overflowed with culture and a love for the things we just, well, loved. Our tight family vacuum meant our decisions weren’t spoiled by the worry of what other people might think. At least, that was the case until I met other kids at school and realized just how weird we were.
For your amusement—and mine—here is a list of things that embarrassed the hell out of me as a kid. As much as they tortured me at the time, looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And while I don’t plan to duplicate everything here as I raise Luca, I won’t be as quick to ditch my parents’ mortifying immigrant ways as I once thought I’d be. I want to expose him to the foods and traditions that surrounded us as kids, even if it means he falls in love with things that gross out his friends. And maybe it’s not so bad to be just a little out of touch if it means making time for your family. Oh, if only sixteen-year-old me could see me now. She’d kill me.
1. Loving internal organs. You may have read about this recently. There are quite a few things I loved to eat growing up that I later realized were weird to other kids. Internal organs are one of the biggest. It’s true: most little girls didn’t go giddy over grilled hearts, liver, and kidneys. Siblings fought over things like the last chocolate chip cookie, not who got to eat the lamb’s brain at Easter dinner.
2. Having parents who didn’t “get it.” I tried. I really tried explaining things like Girl Scouts and sleepovers to my parents. How they were things normal kids did with friends. And that yes, kids hung out with other kids who were not their siblings or cousins. It eventually sunk in by around middle school, but until then, I spent a lot of time with my brothers. We’re still pretty close. It’s cool.
3. Eating rabbit. I can go on and on about the things we’d eat that I never knew were unusual. I’ll tell you more about our rabbit-eating ways soon. They involve olives, capers, tomato sauce, and yes, bunny rabbits. I was happy to see rabbit on restaurant menus over the last few years. It’s nice to know there is a world of rabbit-eaters out there! But growing up, I would. not. dare. tell my friends about this. I had a feeling it would go over as well as if I’d said I liked to eat puppies and kittens. There are just certain things about yourself that you don’t tell other little girls.
4. Having parents whose first language was not English. This mostly worried me because I didn’t know whether my parents realized that they didn’t always speak English. Were they mixing languages in the same sentence on purpose? Or did they just not notice? In kindergarten, anyone who wanted to buy lunch had to bring their money to school in an envelope. The parent was required to write the kid’s food order on the envelope. I was so desperate for my mom to let me buy lunch. Just once! I finally convinced her—just one day!—but then the reality of the handwritten envelope hit me. My big worry: Did she write my order in English? Would she even know what language she used?? I couldn’t read, so proofreading her note was beyond me. I was so worried and mortified; I chickened out when it was time for everyone to pass their lunch envelope to the teacher. I faked sick, said I wasn’t hungry. And I never asked to buy lunch at school again.
5. Explaining to my friends why I always had to be home for dinner. Sitting down to dinner as a family every night was a non-negotiable thing in our house. This got especially annoying around high school. If one of us had something going on after school, we turned into pumpkins at 5pm. If we were going out with friends on the weekend, we could choose: either before dinner, or after. Of course, there were special exceptions, but 99% of the time, dinner was a set-in-stone family event. But what if all my friends were meeting at Wendy’s? Pizza at Cheryl’s? Nachos and Cinnabons at the mall? Tough. We could meet up with them after dinner.
6. That I’d never eaten a TV dinner until middle school. While at a friend’s house I was invited to choose a TV dinner from the freezer as an after-school snack. It was a very nice gesture, offering to share her snack stash with me. But I froze. I didn’t know what to do. Do I tell her this is, like, a super big deal? I’d actually always wanted to try a TV dinner, but they weren’t exactly embraced in our house. Now here I was, oh-so-casually picking one out for the first time. Just another afternoon….. But I played it cool. I didn’t want her to know what a dork I was for not ever having eaten one. I picked out fried chicken and mashed potatoes. It was greasy, and tasted mostly like the container it came in. It was glorious.
7. Pig’s feet on Sundays. Another one to file under “Embarrassing Childhood Favorite Foods.” Every Sunday we’d go to my Nonna Venera and Nonno Sal’s house after church and eat pig’s feet (among other things, but who cared about the rest?!). My Nonna still likes to tell the story of how one day at church (I was around two years old), I was so fed up and bored that I stood on the pew and announced to the whole church, “I can’t wait for this mass to end so I can go to my Nonna’s house to eat pig’s feet!” I’m told this is a true story. Thankfully, I said it in Sicilian so most churchgoers probably just brushed me off as an annoying toddler. But then again, Bensonhurst was overflowing with Sicilian-Americans in the early eighties, so perhaps my declaration didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears.
8. That we never had the new video games everyone talked about. We were only ever allowed new toys on our birthdays and Christmas. Even then, we got one each. That means we were woefully behind when it came to things like Gameboy and Nintendo. We never did make it to owning a Gameboy. And when we got Nintendo, my parents felt it was enough for us to play the games it came with. So yeah—I became an expert Duck Hunter. And Super Mario Bros 1 still plays in my sleep sometimes. We also got bored pretty quickly, which means we (gasp!) went outside, or did something else with our day. A tragedy at the time, but looking back now as a parent, I like this model more and more.
9. That our basement was stocked with jars of tomato sauce. This was our equivalent of the TV dinner stash in other houses. Every August we’d hunker down in the basement and turn bushels of tomatoes into sauce. I had a love/hate relationship with the whole thing, and I didn’t dare volunteer this info to my friends. It was bad enough I’d never eaten a TV dinner, always had to be home for dinner, and didn’t know how to play their video games. Did they also have to know we were the freaky family who stashed away sauce like we were waiting for an apocalyptic disaster that would leave the world with a tragedy of naked pasta?