the sea queen
Looking back at my last blog post from more than a year ago, I am somewhat bemused by the dramatic "my whole identity has been upended" tone of it all.
Yes, I will admit that when my My Heritage results came back as zero-percent Italian ancestry, I was quite taken aback.
Growing up, I was immersed in everything Italian - food, sayings, superstitions, and people. I was raised by my second-generation Italian grandparents who in many ways were more like Italian immigrants. My grandmother spoke Italian - mainly to her friends when she didn't want us to know what was going on - and she baked and cooked all the foods that her own mother and grandmother had made back in Southern Italy. My grandfather, like his Neapolitan ancestors before him, loved working outdoors with his hands, growing his own tomatoes on a borrowed sliver of soil. And while my grandfather was not bilingual, his off-color, slang Italian still weaves itself within my own vocabulary to this day.
Growing up, I also identified as Italian because in doing so it was an implicit and maybe not-so-implicit rejection of everything from my paternal side. Irish? Yeah, I guess I'm technically half Irish, I would say, but I am really Italian.
When my DNA results came back, not only did Italian not come up under my Ethnicities, very few of my DNA Matches had Italian surnames. Instead the surnames most matched with me were Miller, David, and Smith - an additional blow to my childhood "really Italian" claim.
Another surprise was that I am (at least according to My Heritage) 14.3% Jewish. My reaction to this was more "eh, that feels right" especially because it allows me to fantasize that I am a direct descendant of my all-time favorite painter Amedeo Modigliani.
After I received my DNA results, I got in touch with a few of my maternal cousins. In speaking with them and doing subsequent research, it makes sense that my heritage would come up as Greek and Iberian instead of outright Italian. Naples, where my great-grandparents were from, was settled by the Greeks in the 8th Century BCE and for two centuries starting in 16th century was ruled by Spain. In addition, it's possible that at least some of my family - perhaps 14.3% of them - came to Italy with paintbrushes in hand as part of the Spanish Inquisition.
Who I am has changed. That's undeniable. But who I am has changed not because of some early morning swab of my cheek sent off to a DNA lab.
Instead, who I am has changed because of a slow unfolding and release of what has defined me. I am Italian. I am not Italian. I am not Irish. I am Irish. I am Catholic. I am Jewish. I am a mother and a wife. Without sons at home, I am no longer the same mother. Nor am I the same wife. And, maybe most importantly, like my newly-imagined paisan Modigliani, I am a creative. I am a sculptor. I am a painter. Maybe not as good as my forefather, that's for sure, but I am both of these things nonetheless.
Mitzi is still in the house. But with her now are so many other people - some from far-away lands long ago and some closer to home waiting to be discovered.
When I was little my grandparents didn't call me by my given name,
For the first few years, they called me Dee, presumably because that's the only way my brother - a scant 20 months older than me - was able to say my name when I was born. But even after my brother graduated to polysyllabic words, my grandparents still wouldn't call me Judy. Instead, I was Mitzi.
Now, the on-the-surface, thoroughly ironic explanation for this was that my grandmother loved the actress/singer/dancer Mitzi Gaynor so much she was hoping by some weird namesake osmosis that I'd inherit some of Mitzi's long-legged beauty and talent. (The truth for my name rejection, as it turns out, was sadder. My maternal uncle was left at the altar by a woman named Judy, and the name was a hurtful reminder, especially for my grandmother.)
Even as a little kid who didn't find out the truth until much later, I knew there were holes in the nickname explanation. My grandmother was absolutely gaga for Rock Hudson and yet the only thing she ever called my brother was Joey. But more than that, what I was told just didn't ring true instinctively, and because of this one day I put down my very ungraceful, very chubby foot and and insisted in a very non-melodic voice that everyone, including my grandparents, call me by my real name. To my surprise, they agreed.
In a flash my identity changed. And even though I was the one who initiated the change it was unsettling. Who I was and how I viewed myself my whole life became instantly just so different.
Flash forward more than four decades to today and I am experiencing an identity crisis all over again, thanks to something I once again initiated; I insisted my husband and I do a MyHeritage DNA Kit just for fun. Now with the results in, I am unsettled. I am unsettled because everything about who I am and how I have viewed myself my whole life is just so different.
Until next blog post....
For the four people who read my site, make note:
I am switching the domain to this blog to akamitzi.com.
And then come back in a few days and read why.
Peace and love.
When you descend the stairs to the Metro, you are signing a contract, invisible yet binding.
Your eyes, windows to the world, must be instantly battened down and shuttered. Do not show emotion or react - not to the woman carrying a limp baby and sign asking for food nor to the man, barely out of his teens, skeletal, strung out.
Swipe your pass and shed your true self at the turnstile. No sorrows or struggles. No joy. Especially no joy, no smile, not laughter, unless you are high and, if you are high, your contract is unique and ironclad. Follow the lead of your homeless brethren and shrink within yourself. Hide your stink, your filthy clothes.
Find your mark behind the yellow line. You are a play actor who must exist in caricature form only - the businesswoman, the junkie, the hipster.
Enter the train and get out your props. Your phone, your book. Tolerate the noise and the smell and the taste of despair as if all your senses are lost.
Whatever you do, do not break character.
Ascend the stairs only to sadly discover that the contract remains, its language more ambiguous yet equally irrevocable.
Execute the terms until you become your part. Method act until you are faceless and empty of all humanity.
Do it. Day after day after day, all the while awaiting the contract's end.
Today is my mother's birthday.
There are no balloons or cake. No gifts or decorations.
My mother is dead and has been for almost six years.
But today is still my mother's birthday.
I see the date on my computer - October 22 - and I feel a rise to my throat and I swallow down hard.
I will cry, but not yet.
First, I want to - let me correct that, need to - swim through this pain that I am feeling. I must bathe in the mixture of guilt and sorrow and sadness and loss.
I force myself to imagine what my sweet gentle mother's birthdays must have been like when she was locked away at Rockland Psych. I hear the screaming down the halls and human smells and violence fill my nose and I see her little body, not even five feet, on an iron bed collapsed into itself.
There were no balloons or cake. No gifts or decorations.
I need to feel what my grandparents must have felt on their daughter's birthday, their baby's day, year after year as she descended deeper into her schizophrenia. The pain that hits me is too real, too present. I shove it back to the past, a coward.
Instead I let self loathing wash over me for not knowing my mother's favorite flavor cake or asking her what her birthdays were like when she was a child, still free. For not flying out from California. For thinking sending sneakers and t-shirts via Amazon were the same as being there.
I swallow again.
Today is my mother's birthday. Today will always be my mother's birthday. And today I will look for her, as I have done every day for the past five years and eight months, in the skies and on the ground. I will call out to her, silently and aloud. And I will pray to God, as I always do, that she will answer.
Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.
My plants speak to me, softly yet urgently.
"Judy," they whisper as I walk by.
"Yes," I say.
But they do not seek my words. My words are useless to them, to their survival, to their happiness. So I say nothing more.
Instead I feel their need. Their thirst. Their drowning. From sunlight. From water.
From neglect and from decay.
I stand silent with them and they completely fill me with their desire until I feel their thirst, their drowning, their neglect, their decay.
Where do they end and I begin?
I caress their leaves - for just a moment - before mercilessly tearing away at any sign of death. I fill them with water or empty their vessels, dry.
I turn them toward the light or shield them from its burning.
I leave them, their rotted leaves staining my hands.
"Judy," they whisper as I walk by.
do not avert
my wounds, fester,
peel them away!
with indelicate hands
smothered marrow, dying
swim in my blood
and excise me
from this facade
We don't know how Daisy ended up at the city shelter.
But there she was, four years ago, leaning against her cage, staring, silent.
Her age was a guess as she was found on the street, a stray, maybe a runaway or maybe discarded. She was young, younger than the age on her card, as it turns out, and certainly younger than the shelter volunteer would admit.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Never tell a shelter volunteer what you are looking for in a pet. In their desperate eagerness to get the animal adopted out, they will try to convince you that the old, white Chihuahua snarling at you is in fact the young, sweet black Labrador you've been dreaming about.
I made it clear the minute I walked into the shelter that I wanted a full-grown, medium-sized dog. No puppies and certainly no large dogs. Hershey - our first family pet ever - had just died two weeks earlier and in his long, protracted dying I would have to lift his 65-pound shaky frame into my car to take him to the vet and every day I would have to clean up the mess left by his failing body in much the same way you would a gigantic sad puppy. I made a solemn promise to myself that nothing would ever make me go through that again.
"Yup, she's full grown."
Anyone with an ounce of puppy experience would have seen Daisy's sparkling sharp teeth and big floppy head disproportionate to her adorable little 38-pound body and would have replied "Nope, puppy."
But Hershey was our only experience with a dog and he came with rotted teeth and a previously fractured femur that left his back leg forever dragging behind him. We just didn't know from puppies.
We didn't know from puppies and that's why, for the past four years and almost forty pound later, Daisy is out of her cage and in our home.
Her teeth aren't as white anymore and her body, stout like a barrel, is now in proportion to her head. She's only five, a verifiable five, but you can see her slowing down. She doesn't get up -- or into the car -- like she used to. There are no battered bones, just back hips beginning to betray her.
There are days while sitting on her bed next to the couch, she will lean her thick body against mine and stare, silent.
On these days I allow my hand to rest on her soft solid head while I stare back, equally silent, for just a moment.
"Don't worry, girl, there are some promises that are made to be broken."
a Robin Hood,
hiding in mirrors
reflections of youth
old, Merry Men laugh
my visage, invisible
forgive me, brother,
for I have sinned
no blood on my hands
ain't no giving
When I was 15, I had a job in a supermarket working in the back office. Even then it was unclear to me exactly what my responsibilities were, but it had something to do with gruff delivery men in thick gloves handing me inventory labels on white glossy sheets, and me putting these labels, one by one, into a large, light-colored ledger.
It was during the summer of that year, 1982, while I was busy peeling labels that the New York legislators were busy enacting a bottle-redemption law. All of a sudden, overnight (at least it seemed that way to the harried management at Waldbaum's Store #101) our supermarket was forced to act as a bottle-redemption center and, as a result, overnight, I was forced by the aforementioned, harried management to become the store's Bottle Girl.
As Bottle Girl, it was my job - in between the inexplicable label peeling - to receive "empties." For every "empty" a customer handed me, I handed them a nickel.
I could see them, the store's customers, before they could see me. I'd stand at the dutch door separating the back office from the main market, my box of nickels in a cardboard box, and I would know instantly who was going to veer left to shop and who was going to veer right with their empties.
For the most part it was not a wholly disagreeable job. I liked the people, helping them and chatting with them, and before long I had a series of "regulars". These regulars - usually older couples who found my high, bleached hair and enthusiasm for bottle-collecting endearing - would bring me just-because presents and souvenirs from their Caribbean vacations. "To the Bottle Girl" cards would read on top of carefully-wrapped Bruce Springsteen records and Abalone-shell bracelets.
Life as the Bottle Girl went on like this until one day, toward the end of one of my shifts, a man I had never seen before walked through the automated doors. I watched him, confused, unable to figure out which way he should go.
He stared ahead, then made his way to my door, his expression icy cold. One by one, he put his empties on my small counter, hitting it harder each time, staring ahead, a face of stone.
(Even as I smiled and kibbitzed with all my customers, somewhere in me I always knew how my job as Bottle Girl could be perceived: a lower-middle class teenager with a schizophrenic mother accepting people's dirty bottles. But none of my interactions had ever roused this bear of insecurity, not until this man walked in and woke it up ferociously.)
I smiled at the man, but got nothing in return. I tried saying "thank you" with each bottle he banged down, the glass vibrating from the pounding against the counter. No response. When he had no more bottles, he barked at me for his money, and something in me just broke.
"Why are you being so mean to me?" I asked, a mixture of fear and shame and sadness choking my words.
He shook his head, staring, never really looking at me. "I'm a police officer. I'm a police officer, and I shot someone today. I think I killed them. I came here... I just wanted to do something normal, to feel normal."
It wasn't me after all. It wasn't my schizophrenic mother or the fact that I lived in an apartment. It wasn't that I redeemed dirty bottles. I wasn't even there.
One by one I handed him his nickels, softly laying them in his hand. "I'm sorry," I said.
"I'm sorry," he said in reply, to me, to the man he shot, to the Universe, before walking out the automated doors, unsure which way to go.
I'm just trying to figure it out, like everyone else.