Volume 33, Number 2


Elizabeth Alexander

They should have concocted a better story.

Daddy’s last name was hurting his practice.

His patients couldn’t find it in the phone book.

It was impossible to pronounce.

Excuse me? Obstetrics patients who, to a woman, were college–educated, spoke at least one Romance language and read Latin or Greek could not find Al–es–SAN–dra in the telephone directory? By the age of four, I detected something fishy in my parents’ explanation. By the age of six, I smelled a rat.

I heard the lie, and, over time, I waxed imperious.

I didn’t hear the shame.

My father was born in 1912, in Waco, Texas, to Nicolai and Josephine Alessandra, who immigrated from the mezzogiorno in 1906. (They disembarked in Galveston.) Nicolai and Josephine arrived, papers in order, 18 years before the Immigration Act of 1924 set an annual quota of fewer than 4,000 Italians.

Nicolai repaired shoes. As an artisan, he had a slightly higher status than the rank–and–file contadini. His son enjoyed no such advantage on the playground.

The Anglo kids poked fun at Daddy for his conspicuous nose and dark complexion. They called him swamp guinea, garlic breath and dagowop. The epithets scourged him like Nicolai’s vile invective scourged Josephine.

I loved him so much.

Daddy’s rough childhood didn’t make him mean.

It made him ambitious.

No one ever said aloud that he was Italian, but traces of Daddy’s heritage remained. He was the only father I knew who listened to opera on Saturday afternoons and voluntarily watched Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on television. Also, he had a penchant for eggplant and insisted on white bread with every meal.

He smoked like a chimney.

He admired his parents—Josephine especially—but after World War II, apprehensive about the financial and social limitations that being unambiguously Italian would pose, he camouflaged his ancestry.

He took up golf.

He joined the Baptist church but declined to sit on the Board of Deacons because he liked a gin and tonic and believed that leaders should follow the rules.

He Americanized his name (the Scottish Alexander being regarded as American, the Italian Alessandra not).

I think he overestimated the liability of Alessandra.

Perhaps I’m wrong.

In the early 2000s, I tutored a number of Korean–American children. Most had names like Soon–Bok, Gi and Kang–Dae, but a few—while they apparently had Korean names—went by Susan, Ben or Charles. I wonder if they had an easier time in school.

How to describe Nicolai and Josephine without diminishing them? They were peculiar (unfamiliar, if you will) in appearance and affect. Granddaddy had a thick white mustache that scratched when he kissed you. Grandmother had a hump in her back.

They were diminutive in height and shaped like dumplings.

They inserted uhs at the end of every other word.

Once a year, we drove from Dallas to Houston to visit them. They almost never came to us, a significant exception being my sister’s wedding in 1964.

They were not included in the rehearsal dinner (Nor was my maternal grandmother, who would have been equally out–of–place in her own way). After the reception, however, they were invited for cocktails at the home of Alet and Ruth Ellen Clark, my parents’ closest and most sophisticated friends.

Alet poured red wine. Ruth Ellen positively doted on Josephine.

That night I sensed a component of magnanimity in Alet and Ruth Ellen’s hospitality—a very small component, but it was there, and it made me sad.

My sister was born Alessandra. I started with a clean American slate and acted like it. I was bossy; I resisted sharing (at my lowest, dividing a box of animal crackers so that I got the animals and my friend got the crumbs); and I could be sadistically cruel to younger children. A neighbor, Patsy Senteny, blanched and ran whenever she saw me, because of an older kids’ game, “Be Mean to Patsy,” I had invented.

Granted, my savage proclivities may have had little or nothing to do with what my surname was or wasn’t.

I felt entitled.

Daddy’s tone was calm and his delivery commonsensical when he explained to me why Dr. Martin Weinstein had been rejected for membership at the country club. “If you take one of them, you have to take all of them,” Daddy said.

Suppose one or all of “them” had been Italian.

Among the few personal possessions that Daddy acquired before the war and kept until he died is the autobiographical We Took to the Woods, which tells about a professional couple who, in the 1930s, left Manhattan with two young children for the backcountry of northwestern Maine.

Of all books, I wonder why in the world Daddy held onto that one, the Thoreau–like Louise and Ralph Riches’ aspirations being so utterly different from his own. Perhaps there is no hidden meaning. The decision may have been prosaic (He liked the cover?), but I like to think that the staying power of We Took to the Woods reflects a carefree, adventurous side of Daddy that he valued, and we never knew.

In September 1975, he had a heart attack. Three months later, his heart arrested, and he died. He was 63 years old.

Of all the regional differences that I encountered at college in New England, by far the greatest was sartorial. At first, I could not believe my Southern eyes at my dormmates’ getups: Army green cargo shorts with polo shirts a size (or three) too large; painter pants with equally supersize rugby shirts; dun–colored A–line skirts and battered Fair Isle sweaters. Docksiders.

Albeit flabbergasted, I was intrigued. Perilously intrigued.

By junior year, to hear me tell it, you would think that I thought I had discovered the promised land in Massachusetts. You would be right.

I had long since “lost” my Southern accent and adopted the preppy look.

I wanted to fit in.

I chose to pass.