This is my story. I was, from birth, an American girl. Only in America can a girl tell such a story, and only here will her story be acceptably distinct from the next.
Initially published in the 1950’s, “AMERICAN GIRL” was a magazine intended to help lead the nubile female through adolescence – her self image soundly indoctrinated and properly refined. But, that was the 1950’s. I was born too soon.
Raised by a strict subculture, its roots in sectarian Fundamentalism, I was never a subscriber to “AMERICAN GIRL” or any magazine intended solely for female teens. And, that is only the beginning.
Though born in 1957, post – 911 profiling in the United States and abroad was no news to me. I had effectively known it my entire life. Rather than systemic racism or any of its tangents (prejudice, bias), what I knew was that the way I looked consistently misled nearly everyone.
As a child, all I needed do was enter a room to be visually assessed. At maternal family gatherings, I didn’t look like any of the other cousins. While bearing inherently many of their traits – talkativeness, musical aptitude, a bit of clamoring – I would never have been named as among them by most outsiders unless one looked past the obvious.
The obvious was that my skin was a degree of brown. In those days, the term was “olive”. Neither the warm tones of the American southwest nor the African cafe au lait, it was a cooler hue given to darkening quickly under the sun’s rays and sallowing in winter.
The reason for my immediately distinct appearance was, at that time, simple; my mother’s side populated the extended gatherings, and hers was a mix of paternal Anglo-Saxon and maternal Danish/German. My father not having been raised by either parents or relations, his Napolitan/Sicilian people were never represented in my sphere. We visited them once, when I was five.
When I was just a toddler, mum would braid my long, nearly black hair. Having already borne a brilliant male child and birthed another soon after me, she might have argued too busy to dote upon her daughter with the expected buttons and bows; rather, corduroy overalls and sunsuits were the order of my apparel, mixing into the boys laundry with practical propriety given one, single exception: Sunday dress. Here, Mum’s premiere dressmaking skill shone, every even seam topstitched with rick-rack, every smock uniformly tooled, each elastic, cap sleeve unbearably scratchy with only occasional, stiffly starched lace. Perhaps for this reason alone I would grow to dread going to Meeting, what for the sheer lack of physical comfort being costumed afforded.
Once grown, I would carry a structure of frame and face that distinguished me from all who knew me well. But, those who did might have missed its significance.
Our northwestern Pennsylvania community having been founded first by Irish port fishermen and, a bit later, German machinists, its ultimately large Italian population would take claim on the city’s west side; however, my father having hailed from Boston, none of the Italians on that side of town resembled him or, more importantly, called him family. They were mostly Sicilian or Calabrese, hair black, faces round, skin not as dark, many with blue eyes. To every Italian who lived either there or on our east side, dad was “swarthy” – bearing the aquiline nose and angular jawline less familiar to their ilk.
I would inherit these features. Interestingly, Mum’s father’s nose was also regally aquiline – but, his parents being from the Cornwall coast of England, their heritage was Roman influenced. None the matter; strangers increasingly thought me a pure Italian, even first generation Rome, and nearly every one of them was sure I had been raised Catholic on the west side.
Nobody ever saw the W.A.S.P, though the revelation would sting many with surprise. My behavior never fit the image I bore. Only expressing the occasional Italianate gesticulation, my Puritanical, closed off social limits left many scratching their heads. I carried a Bible. I shunned dances, and parties, and anything likely to tempt the average teen. Mine was a life of Godly fear, and compliance was the order of my carriage.
Of natural course, college education at a nearby New York institution offered me welcome respite; there, blending remarkably well with those from “the city” or “the island” I no longer appeared odd, resembling many. And, higher learning on one of the country’s most liberal, secular campuses meant that none were judged by appearance alone. I flexed my stunted wings, learning far more than the arts and sciences, and grew to both relish and celebrate every aspect of my heretofore anomalous self.
In my case, childhood may have been one of mistaken identity; in adulthood, I now proudly represent the culmination of nature and nurture informed by as random a set of features as the melting pot will bear.
And, for that, no magazine is required.
Who is the American Girl? Allow me to introduce you. Properly.
© 8/25/2020 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in part or whole or by translation, permitted without written permission of the author. Thank you for your respect.