14-Growing up Italian-American: Attitudes about dating

A busy street in Rome, summer of 1976.

Introduction

This posting focuses on the culture shock I experienced during the first week in Rome in the summer of 1976. My maternal grandparents and I were in Italy to visit relatives in Rome and our ancestral hometown of Agropoli. I was not prepared for the flirtatious nature of the men in Rome. I was even less prepared for the conservative attitudes about women who wanted to be out and about on their own.

Rome 1976: A young woman needs to be accompanied when she goes out

Our first week in Rome brought me into contact with many good looking men of all ages. They flirted and winked when Grandma Josie, Italia and I went out sightseeing and shopping. “Bella, Bella!” they often said. Grandma Josie was amused. Italia was not.

I had expected Italians to be more liberal in their attitudes about dress and interactions on the street. In Dyker Heights many girls wore short-shorts and halter tops when going out on a hot summer day. An attractive girl would be rated by young men driving down the block. They’d honk the car horn a few times. Sometimes they’d open the windows and go “Hey, Hey, Hey!” This was followed by a thumbs-up as they drove past.

Italia spoke very animatedly to Grandma Josie. She explained that it would not be acceptable for the older generation to see me only in shorts once we got to Agropoli. If we were going to the beach they were acceptable. Otherwise it would be best if I wore lightweight cotton slacks or dresses with the longer hemlines that were becoming the rage in Europe.

Italia took us to a lovely boutique where the sales help brought one dress after another until we found two that fit very well. One was a short sleeve sheath that wrapped around and tied in the front. It had no zippers or buttons. The cotton fabric was cool and the black and creamy white print was very sophisticated. Another dress had short flared sleeves with lace insets. It was made of cream colored, soft handkerchief linen and made me look so graceful when the flared skirt swayed as I walked. Italia also selected a pair of white slacks and a navy pullover. A belt made from straw completed the look.

The next time we went out the young men might have looked but the enthusiastic “Bella! Bella!” was replaced by “Bon Giorno!” When we got to Agropoli, Italia continued to accompany me everywhere even when Grandma Josie was with me. I did not mind being chaperoned at all. Grandma Josie was pleased that all the relatives found me so agreeable. In 1975 another young, single relative had visited from America who did not like to be chaperoned. She rented a car to drive along the coast on her own which created much gossip in the town that embarrassed the family. I didn’t think that renting a car was a bad thing to do but given how strong the conservative values of the older generation were, I thought it best not to say what I was really thinking.

I liked having so much company when I went out. It helped me overcome my homesickness. It also helped me better understand that part of the Italian experience was in losing my American sense of individualism. It was more important to merge into the collective identity of the family first. This experience helped me grasp what having a different sense of self is like. I found that when the way I identified included a sense of the family, as well as myself, the sense of being was heavier and the ability to make decisions about my own gratification were delayed. I found myself thinking “If I do such-and-such then the family will be respected and happy.” There was a sense of obligation and honor involved in how one behaved. This included a new experience for me: first seeing myself as others would see me rather than just seeing myself as a separate person getting the fulfillment of whatever she wanted at that time.

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday February 15, 2015 11 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Relationship Notes: Sabato and Josie (nee Muro) Serrapede were Sammy’s parents and EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandparents.

Emily Leatrice Serrapede was Sammy’s sister and EmilyAnn’s Mom.

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Uncle Sammy and I discussed the patterns of socializing, dating and courtship in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY during the 1930s through the 1970s. Uncle Sammy came of age during the 1950s and married his first wife in 1965. I came of age in the mid-1960s to early 1970s. I started dating later after college in the late 1970s.

1930s: Josie and Sam get married

Josie and Sam were introduced through family and paesanos who immigrated from Agropoli and were now living in Wilmerding, PA and Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Josie and Sam never told the story of exactly how they met or their courtship with either of their children. When my Uncle and I look at the beautiful wedding photos we can’t identify any member of the bridal party.

Given how beautiful the wedding was we now wonder why no stories were ever shared. When Josie and Sam celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, the trip to Italy often came up in the conversation but not their wedding day or honeymoon. In the future we will be posting photos from this wedding in the hopes the descendants of the bridal party will find it on the internet and contact us.

What we do know is that Sam sent the word out that he was looking to settle down and wanted to meet a young, compatible woman. He already had the engagement ring and had saved enough money to pay for the entire wedding ceremony including the rental of tuxedos and the bride’s gown.

Many marriages among single people within the first generation of Italian-Americans got together through such introductions. Socializing took place under the watchful eyes of the older relatives but some time alone might have taken place if the couple broke away from the family gathering or community event they were attending.

Mid-Late 1940s: Emily Leatrice Serrapede

As my Mother grew up she had a freedom that I do not think her parents ever enjoyed. Most of her cousins were also her closest friends. The socializing with male and female relatives created a very comfortable world for her to mature in. In many ways, this enabled my Mom to be more mature than I was at 15. She already had a part time job and was studying secretarial and business practice. At 16 she got a job as a junior secretary for a lawyer and was dating my father whom she met on a blind date through her best friend at school. My father came from almost half a mile away from where she lived and her parents knew nothing of his family at first. I do not know if they had any reservations about the relationship, especially that my Dad’s mother was still Jewish, but they did not interfere. Such freedom, I think, would not have been possible if my Mother were coming of age in Agropoli.

Mom told me that among the first generation Italian-Americans a young man was always considered as a possible husband-to-be. If the young man showed an interest and came to call on a steady basis he had to state his intentions. The family discussed things like his health, education and profession, his parent’s marriage and social standing in the community. Coming from the same faith and background made the relationship richer and easier to begin but it wasn’t the only factor. A prospective partner from outside the Italian-American community was not encouraged but if the person came from a successful business family that part of the relationship was praised in public. What the parents thought was spoken of only amongst the family. To further complicate matters, dating someone from a different part of Italy or Sicily came with its own challenges. For example, someone from Naples might disparage a potential boyfriend from Calabria. The thinking was that the further south you went, the poorer the region and families from it were.

Late 1950s-Early 1960s: Sammy

Uncle Sammy related how Josie and Sam had tried their best to match him up with the daughter of a paesano who was living in New Jersey. The young woman was going to attend Trenton State University and Sam and Josie wanted Sammy to study there as well. He finally met the young woman and they went on a few dates. Her parents were doing their best to persuade her to consider my Uncle as marriage material but the two sat down and discussed what was going on. They both were mature and confident enough to know the attraction wasn’t there and they discontinued meeting each other.

My Uncle eventually met his first wife through the combined efforts of his mother, my mother and the delivery man from a bakery who had a pretty daughter for whom he could not find a suitable boyfriend. All participants in the matchmaking were Italian or Italian-American. At first my Uncle continued his social life with best friend George Gambino while his parents worried if he’d ever meet any girl to settle down with. He finally agreed to meet Annie when at the last minute he needed a date for a social event and at that time no other girl had come through. The first date resulted in Annie getting home over an hour and a half past her curfew but the following week when Josie had called Annie’s family to make sure everything was ok the fuss was over.

Mid 1960s-Late 1970s: EmilyAnn

As a teenager, socializing with boys and dating took the form of group activities with my girlfriends. Some had older brothers and some had younger brothers. We would visit each other and pass the time listening to the radio or going on walks together. One of my best friends had a father who was a member of the Knights of Columbus. We would attend the dances there or at St. Bernadette’s church. Kidding around with the boys and playing an unending game of hard to get were about as far as things went but there was never any pressure to select a boyfriend from a specific ethnic background. More attention was given to what kind of a family he came from and whether or not his mother was a good homemaker.

My Mother tried to match me up with a neighbor’s son who also came from an Italian American family but that met with poor results and she eventually gave up after I made a big to do about finally taking school as serious as she wanted me to. When I told her I’d forego boys and dates in pursuit of a B+ average she couldn’t push the issue anymore. Besides, her choice turned out to be a cheapskate. And that while I was in high school was the last thing any girl from any background wanted in a boyfriend.

After graduating college in 1977, I began dating men I met through co-workers or through my parents. I was working now and was able to share expenses on a date. The ability to split the tab between a man and woman on a date was unheard of and unacceptable during the 1960s. It created a great deal of stress for the woman when it turned out she did not care to see the young man again. In many ways it created a feeling of obligation that was hard to undo and often caused disappointment amongst the relatives who arranged the introduction. Since I liked the trends in dating that arose in the 1970s I acted on them.   I preferred treating the first meeting as a kind of look-see.  This was always a positive experience, even if I didn’t care for the man that much.   The men I met felt free to speak their minds and express their points of view. The meetings were kept simple and often took place at coffee shops or pizza parlors. I rarely had the man pick me up by car or take me home by car on those first dates. If we decided to know each other better there would be a few more meetings before we began to see each other seriously. After that sharing expenses sometimes took place and at other times we’d treat each other. It all depended on the situations and places we went to. If we went on a group date, the check was divided equally.

Concluding Thoughts

The values from Agropoli carried over into the first generation here in America. It was based on a familiarity and certainty that comes only from years of living in a stable community. Romance could not be as extravagant since you would know straight out what the background of the person was. I consider this a very positive side to that experience. You’d know right away about the prospective partner’s heritage, health, profession and attitudes he grew up with to a certain extent. Romantic illusions could be replaced, if there was a genuine attraction, with a deeper sense of confidence.  I don’t think you can always enjoy this kind of confidence today since people move around so much more.   It’s rare that families live on the same block for more than a few years before selling their house to move up to a better one.  The concept of community and commitment has been destabilized and replaced by ideas that treat houses as a commodity instead of a home where one puts down roots.

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