Mamma throws open the window, blasting hot air into our apartment. She twists the knob on the radio, and Italian music threads its way onto the gray streets of New York. Abruptly losing all self-control, she breaks into a dance. Hips swaying, fingers snapping, lips humming. Her mouth forms the unfamiliar lyrics like she has heard the song all her life.
Wrapping an apron around herself, she bounces over to the kitchen, inhaling sweet fruit and salty nuts. The oven opens, and I spy my favorite dessert on a rusted metal tray. Delicately sliding it out, Mamma whirls around and shoves it in my direction.
“Panforte?” she offers thoughtlessly.
“Nah,” I answer, my eyes still fixed at the window. She sets the tray down on the table, stepping carefully over the bench and seating herself across from me. I bite my tongue to the point of blood because I can’t resist the dessert. Mamma raises a single eyebrow, a talent I wish I had, and glares at me with those deep brown eyes. “Non,” I correct myself, my shaking hand pushing the tray away.
Avoiding her eyes, I clumsily stand and make my way to the window. I can feel her frown burning on the back of my head. Blistering heat prickles my arms. I ignore it and look down at the silver city. One last time.
Apparently, Mamma wasn’t done scolding. “You speak English too much, mio cara, just like all bambini italiani these days. Soon italiano will be your only language. Stiamo andando a casa!” She continues mumbling to herself about Italy and Italian children and how we aren’t being brought up the traditional way. I tune out almost immediately.
Gazing out the window, I see the little park across the street. It has chain-link fences and grass sprouting in one area. It is my favorite park—probably the thing I’d miss most about New York. Parco delle Stelle is what I called it as a child. Park of Stars. I had named it that because someone had littered the park with large metal stars that shined in the daylight. The stars look like they were from a baby’s mobile.
I unfocus my eyes and see myself in the stained glass. Mamma calls me bellissima all the time, but I don’t think I’m beautiful. Besides, it doesn’t count when mothers say it. I stare into my own dark eyes, curling a long finger around my hickory colored hair. Although I’d never admit it to anyone, I don’t like being Italian. I wish I was fully American, with American parents who wouldn’t be forcing me to move back to my home country. I knock my head against the windowpane, shutting my eyes and hoping everything I know will disappear.
But everyone knows life doesn’t work like that.
“Mirabelle,” Mamma sings, tapping her foot against the floor. “Stiamo andando a casa! We are going home! Come sit with me.” It was a command.
I back away from the window, exhaling slowly. Slipping back into my seat, I purse my lips. “Sì.”
“What is wrong, mio cara?”
“Mamma!” I exclaim, slamming my hands down onto the table. “Can’t you see? I don’t want to go to Italia!”
Mamma blinks and in one swift movement grabs my wrists. She pins them onto the table. “Mirabelle. You do not speak like that to your Mamma!” The veins in her forehead pulse. Her grip on my wrists tightens. My fingers start to throb. “It is tradizione di famiglia! Every child of our family starts in America, then they move back to Italia because that is their home. Are you saying you do not want to go home?”
With my jaw set, I lock eyes with her. “Yes.”
Her breathing quickens. She stumbles up from her seat. Swallowing visibly, she makes her way over to the door. “Mia figlia è pazza,” she mumbles before turning the doorknob and tripping into her bedroom. She slams it behind her.
My daughter is crazy. I cradle my head in my hands. ‘Italy is my home’ is what I want to say. The lie tastes bitter in my mouth.
Car honks and loud voices drift through the window. I let my eyes wander, curiously searching out the window for anything that could cheer me up. I see the corner of Parco delle Stelle. Moving towards the window, the entirety of it comes into view. Toddlers are grabbing at the metal stars, allowing the sharp edges to scrape them. They glint in the peach afternoon light. Those small, soft fingers are collecting all the stars. Anger pulls at the ends of my hair. These people and their toddlers obviously aren’t from around here. Why are they taking the stars? Those stars have been there for twelve straight years.
Hey! I want to shout, Control your children! But I can’t bring myself to do it. After all, I’m about to leave this place anyways. Everyone’s touched one of the stars at least once. I can’t be a hypocrite.
A wave of regret washes over me. I shouldn’t have spoken to Mamma like that. She sacrificed everything to raise me. My heart aches and forces my feet forward. Step by step, and suddenly I’m at her door. I knock before entering.
The room is a walk down memory lane although I’m in it almost every day. A mattress lies on the far side, a blanket spread over it. The walls and floors are bare, with only a small pile of clothes in the corner. There is one window that has a view of a reddish brick wall.
Mamma is lying face-down on the mattress.
“Mamma,” I steady my gaze on her. “Mi dispiace.” I’m sorry.
She rolls around and finally settles on her side. Her face is smooth stone—expressionless. “That didn’t take long,” she says. I gulp. Her eyes flick to mine. “Going back to Italia is what our family does. Generations of our family have started in America then ended their life in Italia—” she cuts herself off, her face twisting with confusion. Finally, she sits up in bed. “What am I saying, Mirabelle? If you want to stay, I do too.”
I take a small step back. “Che cosa?”
Mamma smiles slightly at my surprise but then frowns at my Italian. “Speak English, my dear. Besides, you’ll want to practice it more because we’re staying.” Her accent is thick but it welcomes me.
“Yes, Mamma, yes!” I cry, and dive into her bear hug. I tangle my hands in her hair and rest my chin on her shoulder. “Thank you!”
Mamma giggles. “Your English is better than mine, my dear. You will have to teach me more.”
Chuckling to myself, I pull away and sit on the bed next to her. Taking her hand, I see her glancing at the smile playing on my lips. She squeezes mine affectionately. “Thank you, Mamma,” I repeat. “Now,” I stand, “let’s go celebrate our staying in New York by devouring your Panforte!”
“Yes,” Mamma agrees, and follows me out of the room.
By then, I could already taste the nutty sweet confection swirling inside my mouth.