When in Rome

The dinner table was silent; all eyes were on Jordan. We were waiting for him to answer my grandmother’s question. Moments before, he’d been fielding inquires about his background and was in the middle of listing various nationalities that he thought he could trace his ancestors back to—Dutch, Welsh, German—when my grandmother Nonie interrupted him to ask about the only nationality that mattered at her dinner table.

“Are you Italian?”

In one swoop, the air was sucked out of the room. Forks stopped mid-lift, chewing stopped mid-bite, and all eyes turned to the head of the table in anticipation of his response.

He looked from one wide-eyed family member to the next. In this case it was all women at the table and therefore a less forgiving crowd. A few Valenti men could have helped soften the intensity with a sarcastic comment or a charming smile. But today, he faced a crowd of Italian women and they’re the ones who set the tone for new relationships; they dictate how the rest of the family will perceive a newcomer. One slip-up on Jordan’s part and he faced a future of awkward silences at family gatherings.

This isn’t the first time Jordan was posed this question. My aunt asked him the same thing within a few minutes of meeting him.

“Hello, nice to meet you. Are you Italian?”

Without giving him time to answer she interjected with a vital piece of information that she must have thought I had not sufficiently conveyed during our courtship.

“You know we’re Italian.”

“I know,” Jordan replied.

This time, however, he had an unforgiving audience and the person posing the question carried a lot more weight. At 99 years old, Nonie was the matriarch of the family and her approval of him was essential. He knew how important my relationship with her was and therefore how important his relationship with her would be.

She waited patiently for him to respond. My grandmother, a fair woman, would treat him with respect either way. But there would be subtle differences in the way he was regarded. If he answered correctly, he’d be “in.” There’d be an unspoken but clear understanding that he was one of us. If he answered incorrectly, however, his connection to the clan would forever feel slightly off. Nonie would probably introduce him as my fiancee and “a new member of the family,” but then qualify it by saying, “he’s not Italian.”

The truth is Jordan doesn’t know exactly which nations his family can be traced back to. It’s not likely that he has any Italian ancestors but given his situation at the dinner table he decided to err on the side of possibility over probability. Besides, with his olive complexion and hairy chest he could pass as mediterranean. And just like a true Italian man, Jordan knows how to work a room of Italian women with his charm. So, using his thumb and index finger to emphasize the answer, he looked my grandmother in the eyes and with a smile he replied,

“A little bit.”

Nonie nodded in approval and went back to eating her salad while the swollen room let out its collective breath. He had made the cut.

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