My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

And Speaking of Prejudice…

Marie Gregory

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Gregory trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.