Beef on Bread, Not Buns
In third grade, our teacher sent home a letter containing the word “chatterbox,” like those red plastic wind-up teeth that clatter and clack. The letter was opened carefully on the bus ride home, read, and slid back into the envelope, the flap re-licked with a shiver of the thought of sharing tongues with Mrs. Nelson. If ADD had become a furious fad only five or so years earlier than it had, Mrs. Nelson might have chosen the description tragically unfocused instead of “disruptive.”
Because sometimes, you just can’t breathe from the effort of everything needing to be told to someone.
That wasn’t the only letter, but it was the last letter that addressed what Grandma called that flibbertigibbet. The rest had to do with an increasingly faux-apathetic attitude, which was really just a tactic to contain all the talking, like the air from a bubbler racing to the top of a tank—stopped by the lid.
In eighth grade, the Silver Team (a color for precious metals, for medals won in races) was for the smart kids like Spino, the small, black haired Italian boy with large glasses who always wore an expression of shock as if his doctor had just told him he would stop growing, then at thirteen, and Laura, who was taller than any boy in the entire two hundred student class and the only kid, boy or girl, whose parents paid for tennis lessons.
The end-of-the-year project was a heritage report. On the day it was assigned, Spino, who sat to the right alphabetically following our surname, Pine, began to doodle the Italian flag in the margins of his giant trapper-keeper notebook while Erin Malley, to the left, raised her hand and asked if she could perform an Irish dance; she’d participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with her dance troupe The Celtic Steps. As if it wasn’t enough when Mrs. Jeffrey, our French teacher, positively crooned Maggie’s name (“Did everyone hear Miss Chevalier’s pronunciation? Excellent Miss Chevalier”); her dark hair and full lips could tell the world she was French. When it came to our past, looks gave no indication, a realization made way before eighth grade when a concerned Mrs. Gordon also sent a letter home, though still not the first, in second grade, when that self-portrait she’d assigned featured long, straight, blonde hair and blue eyes instead of plain brown hair and brown eyes. Though the portrait retained the Osh Kosh overalls.
There was never any loud sign, the Italian flag didn’t dangle from our parents’ rearview mirror, there were no flashy parties growing up at the Aquaturf Club for “The Taste of Lebanon.” There was no unspoken, mutual agreement like the weekend trips to Martha’s Vineyard that Laura and her family took together in the summers which seemed to say something like “We’re of something”; but you didn’t quite know what, just that it wasn’t you.
Our family couldn’t even be described as Wonderbread white. Dad played jazz guitar just as well as he could guzzle a Budweiser. Mom made just as good meatballs and spaghetti sauce as she did corned-beef and cabbage, which was, unexplainably, a dish favorite.
The night the heritage assignment was given, Mom boiled Kraft macaroni and cheese and broccoli florets. Standing over her, the conversation that was absolutely necessary to complete this godforsaken assignment began.
Where are we from?
Mom asked, what do you mean? You meant, where do we come from? Like before Ellis Island.
She stopped stirring the macaroni and the steam from the two pots collected under the microwave. You mean our ethnicity? she asked.
Are we Italian?
Why would you think we’re Italian?
Because everyone in our neighborhood is: the Giaccomettis, the Spinellas, the Cicchettis, the Stangos, checking them each off on a corresponding finger. Mom waved a hand like okay, she got the idea.
What kind of name is Pine?
It’s American, she says.
But Mom, this is for school. There has to be a traditional recipe and the story of how we got here, pointing at the ground, from somewhere else, pointing to a vague space in the air.
Bring in the recipe for burgers, she says, and shrugs. Burgers were invented in New Haven. They’re distinctly American. Beef on bread, not buns. You’re American and if somebody asks, that’s what you say.
She poured the packet of powdered cheese onto the macaroni then the milk into the pot—it made white paths that ran down an orange mountain.