The ultimate compliment in our family was “you look Italian.” The words pretty, stylish, even stunning carried no weight: Italian was the adjective that mattered.
The seeds of my mother’s religion (thick black eyeliner and thick black belts, Italian leather heels, devil-may-care décolleté) were sown 1952, when she lived in Rome for a year as a young girl. She and her parents moved there from a little town in West Virginia. From pastel sweaters buttoned to the neck and “sensible” shoes, my mother landed in a country of impossible curves and Salvatore Ferragamo heels. Post-war Italy was ravaged and hungry, but gorgeous, always gorgeous. The country was trying to stay alive, and the beauty of women like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren helped.
From the moment my mother arrived back in small-town America, her mission was to be mistaken for an Italian woman.
I came of age in suburban Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. In our private girls’ middle school, the uniforms were about as far from a Southern Italian goddess of curves as you could possibly get. Tops had to be white and simple, skirts a uniform plaid, and kneesocks pulled all the way up. My mother couldn’t fathom it. She bought tapered blouses for me and asked the principal for permission to cinch her daughter’s waist with something—anything!
I hated her and I hated Italian women. I wanted shirts with little pink Polo horses on them, untucked. I wanted moccasins that were smashed down in the back so it looked like I was just too cool to put my shoes all the way on.
My mother bought me brown leather Bruno Magli pumps to go over my thick white kneesocks.
“Ooh look, Katherine’s got MAG-ly’s!” cruel popular girls shouted at me in the hall, using a hard g instead of the soft Italian lyee. The mispronunciation hurt almost as bad as the taunt.
I begged and pleaded with my mother at home. “How about penny loafers?” I cried. “I’ll supply and insert the pennies myself!” But she wouldn’t hear of it. “Those twits don’t have any idea of staayle.” Her long Appalachian diphthong of a y made me want to strangle her.
Adolescent rebellion is expressed by some in the form of piercings and tattoos. Mine came in the form of Banana Republic khakis and baggy sweatshirts. There were great, screaming fights over the Gap, Limited, J.Crew. I stuck to my guns. I would not be forced to look like a sultry post-war Italian in the middle of suburbia.
I went to college far from my mother. There, I quickly tired of fleece and flannel— what was the point of covering my shape if I couldn’t saunter around in front of Mama watching her cringe? I bought a belt, and then some black eyeliner. Little by little, I started to look like my mother’s daughter again. Every time I went home, though, I made sure to throw on a sweatshirt over my outfit before the train arrived in Washington. Mother would not get the satisfaction of seeing me look Italian.
I guess it’s not surprising that after college I was drawn to Italy. I went to Naples to do a three-month internship in the American Consulate, and after a few days met the man who would become my husband. I’ve lived in Rome now for almost 20 years.
My mother came to visit recently and we walked the cobblestone streets near the Pantheon, both clip-clopping in our leather heels. (She is over 70 and has never owned a pair of flats.) A man approached her and asked nonchalantly, “Signora, come si arriva a Piazza Navona?”
My mother’s Italian is rusty, so she turned to me for a translation. “He’s asking you for directions, Mama. He thinks you’re Italian.”
She smiled, and in that moment I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my entire life.
Katherine Wilson, a writer and actress living in Rome, is the author of the memoir Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law.