Susan Scutti Out of nowhere, I’d suddenly begun to wear my hair, my unruly curls, pinned in a tight bun. At the same time, I became a fan of a peculiar shade of purple lip gloss and heavy eyeliner. I wore jeans and over-sized shirts with button-down collars, which I bought at the co-op. My uncertain style amounted to a common-law marriage of punk and preppie — but I was neither, I was just another financial-aid student fumbling my way through Yale.
Of all the places to study on campus, I preferred the L&B room in Sterling Library. I felt drawn to the luxurious green leather armchairs, the antique brass lamps, the casement windows and the huge oil-painting hanging above a fireplace. Now this is Yale, I’d thought the first time I wandered into the room. By comparison, the contemporary plastic style of Cross Campus Library seemed ordinary, familiar.
One evening during the Fall semester of my Junior year, I pulled my notebook out of my book bag, rushing to write down all my thoughts that came in a sudden gush and just as quickly ran out. As I closed my notebook, the syllabus from my history class slipped onto the table top. I was taking American History that semester, 1865 to Present, and under the heading “Additional Reading,” a couple of sociology titles were listed on the syllabus. I put my backpack on my chair to save it and went to the card catalog.
I took an elevator up to the stacks. I found each book on a separate dusty shelf, then returned to my armchair in the L&B room. I opened the first book, which exuded a delicious scent of old paper, and began to read. My attention quickly drifted from the words on the page. I put aside one book and picked up another, skimming along until I came to a comparison of Italian and Irish immigrants. My attention focused. The book said Irish families felt comfortable with a mother working outside the home (the familiar Irish maids of the early 20th Century). But in Italian families, the mother generally stayed at home. This gave rise to women doing piecework from their kitchens, and frequently becoming seamstresses. (Uncomfortable, I shifted in my chair. My grandmother’s treadle Singer sewing machine still sat in her living room.) Although these differences were established before WWII, some sociologists attributed their prevalence after the war to other causes, including internment of Italian-Americans.
Puzzled, I re-read the last sentence. Internment? I opened my history book, read the table of contents, the index, then skimmed the text, but found nothing other than the usual facts and dates surrounding America’s entry in World War II. I sat up, vaguely wondering as I glanced around the room. All the chairs were filled with students striking the familiar poses of study. I stood, stretched, walked to the card catalog. I searched and found a few titles. I took the elevator into the stacks, and found one of the books. I sat down right there in the aisle, opened the book, read the table of contents, found the right page, and began to read.
After Pearl Harbor, America had declared war on Germany and Italy as well as Japan. Most Italians had arrived in America in the period between the world wars. Several hundred Italians who were legal immigrants but not yet citizens found themselves in an internment camp in Missoula, Montana. (Reading, I felt the pulse of my blood at different points along my body.) Similarly, alien Germans were placed in internment camps, one in New Jersey. A total of about eleven thousand Germans from the states as well as parts of Latin America were interned. Two thousand were traded back to Germany for American Prisoners of War. (An ancient-looking man, who looked at least six and a half feet tall from my vantage point on the floor, turned the corner and nearly fell on top of me. I pulled in my legs and mumbled a shocked apology before re-reading the sentence he’d interrupted.) The numbers of interned Italians and Germans were not as large as the number of Japanese, but in the case of Italians on the West coast, the government took additional steps. Fishermen had their licenses revoked and Italian families whose houses sat on coastal property, were forced to move to the interior. Radios were confiscated, neighbors warned and frightened.
I felt a kind of ringing, both a sound and a sensation, in my ears. I read everything again, then carefully placed the book, like a brick filling a gap in a wall, back on the shelf.
Why didn’t I know this?
Outside, the carillon bells began to ring and I glanced at my watch. I’d be late. I took the elevator downstairs, rushed to the L&B room, assembled my notebooks and pens in my backpack and left my chair, which was immediately taken by a waiting Asian student. (My Japanese-American roommate had informed me the term “Chinese” was frequently incorrect and “Oriental” completely unacceptable. I listened much more than I spoke to my Japanese roommate, who grew up in a wealthy town less than sixty miles from my own.) On my way out of the library, a security guard checked my backpack, then I pushed open the massive door, heavy, built for the strength of a man.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” It was Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I’d arrived home for the break just two days after I’d read about the internment camps. We sat at the dining room table, my parents facing one another from opposite ends, Nancy, Ann, Jim and I were there. Dana and Teresa were living on their own by that time, they were not.
My father didn’t answer me, didn’t even look at me, silently continued to eat.
“You didn’t think it was important to tell us that the government took away Uncle Dom’s fishing license?” I asked, my voice catching in my throat.
Her fork poised above her plate, my mother said, “Who told you that?”
“I told her. And Dana told me,” Nancy said.
Twirling his spaghetti, Jim said, “What happened?”
“Pass the cheese,” Ann said, nudging Nancy.
My mother cast a withering glance at Nancy, then pronounced, “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters a lot,” I said to my mother, then turned to Jim. “The government took away Uncle Dom's fishing license during World War II.”
Frowning his next question, Jim glanced at my father.
My mother sighed and turned her attention to my father. Following her gaze, I remembered the time — I was watching him change a lightbulb in the cellar — the one time he told me he never learned English until the white kids beat the Italian out of him at school.
Without lifting his eyes from his plate, my father said, “America was at war. We did what we had to do. I don’t want to hear any more of that crap you learned at that liberal college of yours.”
Finally he looked directly at me and I saw the anger flash through his eyes. My jittering leg jerked to a stop beneath the table.
After dinner, washing the dishes, my mother said, “It’s the past, Emily. There’s nothing you can do about something that’s in the past.”
Nancy rolled her eyes at me. I said, “Oh, Mom, that’s what you always say.”
“It’s the truth,” my mother said with a sigh. Then, she told me that in Newark, German men never walked the streets alone for fear of being beaten up by gangs of Americans. “One of your grandfather’s cousins was badly hurt,” she said shaking her head.
- I withdrew my hands from the warm, sudsy dishwater. “Are you serious?”
- Nancy nodded. “Grandma told me that, too.”
“It was the same during World War I. Your grandmother’s neighbors stopped talking to her. Their parents told them not to play with the German girl. That’s what they did in those days.”
“That must have left a scar,” I said.
Nancy snorted, picked up another dish to dry. “I’m sure it did.”
“What about you, Mom? What happened to you during the war?”
“We were living in Florida, then, in a small town. No one bothered us. It’s not like anyone suspected us of being a… terrorist cell or something.”
Nancy laughed, spinning to open the cabinet with the dinner plates.
I said, “Nance, you never heard about the internment, right?”
She shook her head. “Dana told me she remembered something about it from history class senior year in high school. But I don’t. Ann doesn’t remember learning about it either.”
“I know we never learned that. We learned about Japanese internment, but never Italian or German. They must have rewritten the books by our years.”
“What does it matter?” My mother said.
“Dad always says that quote about ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”
“Santayana.” Nancy said, filling in my knowledge gap.
“I mean, what if you never even learn your history? What if it’s been… deleted? How can you help but to repeat it?”
My mother frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s done, gone. Forget it. You can’t do anything about it.”
In that moment, for the first time, I thought of myself as a kind of child of war. Not a baby conceived before battle and delivered by Red Cross nurses, but the result of two people who gut understood one other because they had been similarly defined by a nation at war. My parents met just one month after my father returned from serving in World War II. He must have felt both grateful and intensely happy that night as he walked through the shining streets. The downpour had just stopped when he saw my mother stepping off a bus. He followed her to the same dance he was going to himself and after watching her for a few minutes, he stepped up and introduced himself. Later, when she gave him her number, he didn’t write it down. My mother told me although she thought he was good-looking, she assumed he was just another “smoothy” who had no intention of calling.
“Just after we got married,” my mother said, interrupting my thoughts, “Your father’s mother visited. The entire time, she refused to sit. She stood in a corner of the room. No matter how many times I asked her, she wouldn’t sit down! After that, we always went to her.” Shaking her head, my mother turned on the faucet, rinsed her hands, then wiped them on her apron.
Feeling her gall, I glanced at Nancy, who widened her eyes. “Oh, Mom,” I said, placing my hand on her back. “She was just…”
“She was impossible!” My mother said.
Not even five feet tall, my Italian grandmother had warm brown eyes and a sweet smile. Yet in public she always remained utterly silent. How quickly the stories of internment and interrogation must have passed through her Italian community. Just as quickly my grandmother learned that words in imperfectly accented English might cause trouble, that a meek smile could be her only response.
Despite his own Italian-ness, all his life my father thought of himself as American, only American. Well, why not? Like Alzheimer’s Disease, which empties the mind of language, memory and culture, assimilation is a process of forgetting.