Our proposal began like a dream, with two lovers gazing into each other’s eyes over a candlelight dinner, but quickly morphed into a Greek tragedy starring Italian actors.
Getting married in an Italian family is not only an event between the bride and bridegroom but also an occasion for them to establish relationships with each other’s families. The success of many Italian marriages often depends on whether the family accepts the proposed mate.
My boyfriend, John, innocently asked me when would be the best time to meet with my parents to tell them that he wanted to marry me. My immediate response was, “Never.” He smiled and told me that he would drive home from work with me the next day.
Now, to the average parents the thought of an eligible young lawyer asking for their daughter’s hand in marriage would be good news, especially when that daughter was divorced and living with them with her 4-year-old child. In my mother’s eyes, however, she had not only gotten her daughter back home but was also blessed with the additional bonus of an adorable baby to love. My Italian mother lived for her family and hated the thought of any of us leaving her. So I suspected that John would not get the reception that he was hoping for with his announcement.
I woke up the day of the big meeting thinking of the many ways I could delay the confrontation that I knew was coming between my parents and my boyfriend. I didn’t have the money to escape to a foreign country, and jumping off a bridge seemed a little extreme. My hours in the office flew by, and before I knew it I was in John’s car on the way to my parents’ home.
I tried for the last time to convince him that he didn’t actually need to ask them for their permission to marry me, but since he was half Italian he knew the rules and couldn’t be dissuaded. We went into the house.
My boyfriend had spent many evenings sitting at the kitchen table being stuffed with food by my mother. She fed her family as an expression of her love and was happy to extend that hospitality to everyone who entered her home. When we came into the kitchen the night of the announcement my mother briefly glanced up from her cooking and told us dinner would be ready in a few minutes. My boyfriend told her he wanted to speak to my father and her first.
There were two things that were immediately working against us that night. One was that my mom and dad were in the middle of one of their “we’re not talking to each other” fights, and the other was that we had asked my mom to delay her dinner. My dad was down in the basement in his recliner watching television and wouldn’t come upstairs. This was not a good start.
I finally got my dad upstairs and seated at the table. My mom was at her station in front of the sink. My boyfriend began his speech. He got as far as the words “I love your daughter and want her to marry . . .” before the first pot hit the floor. My mom would never think of throwing something at a person but the floor wasn’t off limits. This action was accompanied by her screams for John to get out of her house. Throughout all this my dad sat silent, as if stunned by my boyfriend’s words. I hustled my boyfriend out the door. In the background I could hear my mother and father agreeing, “That boy had some nerve.”
“Well, I think that went well,” said John, and with those insane words he drove away, saying he’d see me tomorrow. I tossed and turned all night, troubled by alternating visions of myself as an old maid or the wife of a clearly delusional husband.
The next day after work John called to say he’d pick me up as usual. When I got in the car I realized I didn’t know where we were going as there was no way I could imagine taking him home with me. “I wonder what your mom is cooking tonight,” John asked, apparently not on the same wavelength as me. Although I threatened him and begged him not to go home with me after the prior night’s craziness, John kept driving.
As he purposefully walked through the door, he wrapped his arms around my mother and said, “Hi, Mom, what’s for dinner?” My mother said, “I made your favorite pasta for you tonight. It will be ready in just a few minutes.”
I think my mom respected John and figured it was better to add another person to the family than to fight what was obviously going to be a losing battle. My mother and John enjoyed many hugs and pasta dinners until the day she died.
Sandy Camillo, a previous contributor of “Guestwords,” spends her summers in East Hampton.