A candid shot of me on Jan. 20, 2013.
For most of my life I’ve wondered who my Mom was referring to when she’d look at me as if seeing something unusual and fascinating in a shop window and remark, “You must be a throwback to someone on your Father’s side of the family.” This remark usually preceded a lengthy lecture as I was growing up on the need not to retreat from life but meet it head on. Sometimes my Dad joined in the chorus as well. I sat and listened as they tried to find out why I was so understated in my dress and mannerisms especially as a teenager.
My maternal Grandmother, Josephine Muro Serrapede circa 1929-1930.
The New Utretcht High School Yearbook photo for the Class of 1971. I resembled my Grandma Josie when I was 17 years old.
I had grown up surrounded by Aunties, Godmothers, Grandmothers and neighbors who were dressed suitably and always in good taste. I think today their style would be called, “stylish”, “modest”, “conservative”, “understated”, “elegant” and “timeless”. Preferring Barbie dolls to Betsy Wetsy and Chatty Cathy I quickly expanded my preferences in dolls to other teen fashion dolls like Tammy and Tressie. I dreamt about dressing just like them and being like the dream girls in all the songs popular in the late 1950s – early 1960s.
I looked forward to growing up from the age of 5 and onwards. There wasn’t a day that passed by when I didn’t think about how I would dress up when I was as was termed at that time, “a junior miss”, or a “junior petite size”. I wanted to have a cute boyfriend and dance on American Bandstand. I’d go to college and graduate, working for a few years as a private secretary to a very wealthy family. And then, as little girls dreamt at that time, I’d marry a good looking young man who made enough money so we could travel to Europe each Summer. Unlike other little girls, I had no interest or dreams about having children. Life was going to be all romance, travel, elegance.
To achieve that dream, I had to be very strict with myself and watch who I was friendly with and which boys I expressed an interest in. I would not at all want to be known as a flirt, a runaround or a fast girl. Growing up in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood such thoughts about the merits of being a “good girl” and the dangers of being a “bad girl” were encouraged. The so-called bad girls had lots of fun for a few years but were put aside by their families (meaning rejected or cast out) and passed over by the boys once it came time for them to consider engagement and marriage.
When the sexual revolution of the mid-1960s was in full force I secretly hated the mini-skirt. In Dyker Heights boys thought nothing of honking the horn as they cruised by in their cars along the side streets when they saw a girl alone or with another friend hoping to get her attention. Sometimes the car would slow to a crawl and the boys would make kissy noises or say something they hoped would get attention. At 12 years old going on 13 I couldn’t cope with the shift in how I was treated and found great comfort in oversized, bulky sweaters. After school I changed into a pair of boy’s Levis as I was two years away from getting a difference between waist and hips. I wore a boxy pea coat and tried to de-emphasize my legs by wearing dark mini-skirts with dark tights. For a while it all worked marvelously until my Mom one day hid my mohair, bulky sweaters.
She told me she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t “normal” the way she was as a teenager. Why wasn’t I dating? Why didn’t I have any boyfriends yet? My Dad also told me I should be confident and not ashamed of being slender in contrast to the more full figured girls in my class and on the block. I was so confused by their concern that I not feel insecure about my own weight and shape. A the same time couldn’t figure out why they were pushing all this on me. They often commented how fast the girls around me were developing and told me not to look at what others did. At 12 years old I still had fashion dolls and had bought a Francie doll that I planned to sew little outfits for.
When I was 14 two girls at junior high school got pregnant. One was my classmate and the other was a lunchtime friend. I will go into this more at another time. My parents, to keep it short, told me in no uncertain terms I’d be a disgrace if that happened and my life would be ruined. My main concern was to get into college and try to get a scholarship.
The pressure to get good grades was what motivated me to consider that my main achievement. The next goal was to have a few good friends that I could trust and my parents would approve of.
My paternal Grandmother Blanche “Bessie” Flashenberg Torregrossa. This 1951 photo was taken at the Silver Anniversary celebration of her marriage to Grandpa Al.
A 2009 photo of me. As I’ve matured I look more like my paternal Grandmother. I wonder how much more I am like the Flashenbergs as the years go by.
One Saturday, my Mom almost forced me to go to a birthday party for one of the neighbors whose son was a sophomore in college. My Dad came home from work early that night so my Mom stopped pressuring me to go that night. I went up to my room and stayed in bed reading “Bullfinch’s Mythology”. That Sunday, I broke down while at my Grandma Bessie’s house. I told her about it all–my friend who got preggers, her baby’s death and then her return to school, my fears about making out, my fears of distractions causing me to lose my B+ average, and most of all my fears about losing my friends if I was caught doing something “fast” or “nasty”.
She told me she’d take care of it and make sure I wouldn’t have to cry about such things. Many times my Mom would push me in the direction of a certain boy she thought was cute or from a good family when my Dad wasn’t at home. That’s what happened when she tried to get me to go to the birthday party I’d been invited to. I just didn’t want to go. That boy’s family had many problems and I knew their son liked me mainly as someone to talk to. I always felt drained, bored and tired after we hung out on the stoop together.
I know Grandma Bessie spoke to my Dad about it and after that all pressure from my Mom just stopped flat. He also changed the way he approached the topic of my appearance and didn’t tell me to consider appealing to boys, but to present myself in a good way so that teachers and other students would know I was a girl with good taste in clothing and who had her total act together. My Dad started talking about the need to dress correctly when at 15 years of age I began a part-time job at the company where he worked. I didn’t always go to the office because many weekends I could do the clerical work from home. but when I did go to the office my Dad always said the staff had a very good impression from me.
Other relatives would say they weren’t sure who I looked like. Sometimes they was a glimmer of my Grandma Josie or a little of my Father. Many times my Mom’s Aunts would pause and say, “It’s too bad you look like her…” and I thought it was Grandma Bessie, but then they’d change the subject.
Some friends have commented that DNA tests can be upsetting because they can make you feel unsure of your identity once the results come in. I don’t have such concerns. I think ethnic identity is something that remains because you grow up in it, are part of that community and it’s such an intimate part of your life there’s no denying it. In terms of things like food preferences or holiday celebrations I fall within the Italian-American community. In many more ways, though, I do not. As an individual I think it would be good to know what the mix of DNA consists of. Which side of the family dominates most. I think that DNA testing can give one an idea of where the ancestors migrated from and how they moved across continents over time. It can’t tell me who I’m a “throwback” to but I might get some idea of which part of the family dominates over the rest. And for that reason I’m going to start saving to get the DNA test from Ancestry.