Daddy had the taste of a Mafioso. He wasn’t in the Mob, but he seemed to have a gangster’s appreciation for glitter. He admired luminous women in mink stoles, gold cufflinks, and high-end automobiles polished to a shine, with hubcaps so clean you could have turned them over and used them to dish out a nice minestrone.
This fascination with shiny objects explains his choice of a gift for me, on the eve of my departure for college.
We had been eating supper, our last meal together before I left home for good. The table was carefully set and Mother had served my favorite shrimp dish. The dessert plates had been cleared. Daddy reached under the table, and told me to close my eyes, just as he used to do when I was a little girl.
“Okay, you can look now,” said Daddy, handing me a small white jewelry box.
“Oh, thank you,” I said, beginning to pull at the ribbon.
“It’s from both of us,” Mother said quietly, “But your father chose it.”
I opened the box and stared down at the satin padding. In the middle sat a large gold watch, encrusted with a few diamonds. It wasn’t a typical round watch, meant for the wrist, but a gigantic lozenge-shaped object intended to be worn around the neck. A heavy gold chain was attached. The watch itself was about the size of a thick matchbook, with a bold face like the clock at Grand Central Station.
I must have sat frozen for a second or two.
“It’s quite extraordinary, don’t you think?” said Daddy, beaming.
I nodded and gulped. Who could wear such a thing, I wondered. An operatic diva? A Las Vegas showgirl?
“Try it on, honey,” said Mother.
I doubted that Mother had helped to pick it out. Unlike Daddy, she eschewed the Rococo. She liked simple, classic things. Rosenthal china with a subtle motif. Tasteful leather pumps. A silk scarf knotted in the French fashion. Knock-offs of Chanel, in beige. Nothing flashy. She preferred to erase herself into the background.
But Daddy was flamboyant by nature. With his suave black hair, his custom-made suits, and his carefully tended mustache, he was a bit of an Italian dandy. He had been a violinist, a performer, and later in life, a real-estate broker. He often had opportunities to hobnob with minor celebrities, people in the arts or entertainment industries, and he admired what he called “talent, glamour, brains, and pizzazz”.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Daddy. “Let’s see how it looks on you.”
I draped the massive chain around my neck. The gold lozenge landed squarely between my small breasts, like a roosting parakeet.
“Beautiful,” said Daddy. “It’ll look stunning when you’re properly dressed. In a sheath. Or a little black dress. Or in a suit, for work, you know, in the future.”
I was well aware that Daddy had aspirations for me. As a third-generation Italian-American, he took pride in all that he and his family had accomplished since his grandfather had come over from Sorrento in 1887 with a mandolin, a viola, and not much else. Today, his family had a nice home. A well-established work ethic. Educational and cultural opportunities. It was the 1960s. Yes, Italian-Americans were still excluded from the local golf and social clubs. A friend’s mother regularly referred to me as “the little dark-eyed guinea”, and my brother was once called a “wop” by a professor at his Ivy League college. Prejudice against Italian-Americans was real, but doors in America were opening wider and wider.
For Daddy, the sky was the limit.
He fully expected his daughter to continue to climb higher and higher up the rungs of American society. What did that upward mobility look like to him? I don’t really know. But whatever his dreams were, he obviously thought my future life would require a diamond-encrusted pendant watch.
Mother didn’t question Daddy’s choice, at least not aloud. But I’m pretty sure that neither Mother nor Daddy saw the watch in the way I did. As a ridiculous choice for an eighteen-year-old girl with clearly bohemian tastes, who spent most of her time in jeans. A girl who dragged boyfriends to Greenwich Village on the weekend. A girl who wore black turtlenecks and fancied herself the next Simone de Beauvoir.
I was about to attend a college which had been described as the most progressive, politically radical educational institution in the country. There would be plenty of sit-ins and protests, but no occasions calling for ostentatious jewelry.
“I’m not exactly sure when I’d wear this,” I said, hesitantly.
Mother raised one eyebrow, but said nothing.
“I mean, it doesn’t quite fit with my look,” I continued.
“A watch like this. You’ll have it forever,” said Daddy. “With your brains, you’ll go all the best places. You can wear the watch at your job, at nice dinner parties, with your future husband… you’ll look like a million bucks.”
I already knew many of his assumptions about my future and how it would unfold. Break up with the current high school boyfriend. (If you really loved him, you wouldn’t have chosen to go to college halfway across the country) Meet a new guy in college. Get a degree or two. Get married. (I’ll give you the most beautiful wedding in the world) Work only until the first baby.
And now there was a new assumption. That I would wear this immense piece of jewelry around my neck for the rest of my life.
Right before we left for the airport in the morning, Daddy asked me to put on the new watch. He smiled and kissed my forehead.
“My little girl,” he said. “I’d give you the moon if I could.”
We loaded my suitcases into the car, each one tagged with my name and the campus address. A Steamer Trunk full of bedding, books, and clothing had been sent ahead to the college via Railway Express. Daddy himself had painted my last name in bold red letters on the side of the trunk.
“Now, your trunk has some pizzazz. And you can easily identify it,” he said. “Besides, it’s a good Italian name. Be proud of it.”
Daddy had put on a beautiful navy blue suit and an immaculate white shirt. His gold cufflinks shone as he held himself stiffly behind the steering wheel of his shiny Buick Riviera. We were heading to Idlewild Airport. (It was not yet named JFK.)
We didn’t talk much. Any of us.
At one point, Daddy started sniffling a bit and I think he was pretending that he had caught a cold. Seated in the back seat, I caught a glimpse of his face when he glanced up into the rear view mirror. His cheeks were damp.
Mother tried a few times to talk to me, mostly questions. Was I sure that I had my plane ticket? Had I packed nail scissors? My little leather address book?
“Yes, mother,” I said.
I looked out the window as we drove. From time to time, I touched the new watch which hung down almost to my navel. I was wearing a cotton dress, with a large metal buckle at the waist. The watch and the buckle were about the same size.
“There’s your terminal,” said Daddy, as we arrived at the airport. “Pretty glamorous.”
I was leaving from the recently opened TWA building. The one designed by Eero Saarinen.
“Wow, it looks like a bird,” I said.
I was smitten with Saarinen’s modern, winged architecture. I thought of it as the perfect symbol of my desire to grow up and leave the nest.
In my haste to get through the gate and be on my way, I must have barely said goodbye to my parents. A quick hug and I was gone.
Mother later wrote they were disappointed by my hasty leave-taking.
“We chalked it up to your excitement about starting college, but we wish you had shown a bit more emotion when you said goodbye. Daddy and I both had lumps in our throats,” she wrote, “but you took off without looking back.”
Daddy added a postscript to the jointly written letter, hoping that I was enjoying my new watch.
I had removed the gaudy piece of jewelry long before I arrived at my dormitory. At first I used it as a clock on the bookshelf I shared with my two roommates. The diamonds and gold looked completely out of place next to the common clutter that accumulated there. Things like Pete Seeger albums, laundry tokens, hair bandannas, flyers announcing the next march for Civil Rights, the occasional empty beer bottle, and industrial-strength plates, crusty with the remains of mac and cheese, borrowed from the dining hall.
I half-expected one of my new hall-mates to comment on the diamond-encrusted watch. I feared that they might make references to bourgeois capitalists, or the Mafia, or conspicuous consumption, or urge me to sell it to pay for someone’s civil disobedience bail. But no one did.
Eventually I must have taken the watch and thrown it into the Steamer Trunk.
Mother found it a couple of years later. The trunk had been shipped back home after my last semester and Mother had unpacked it when it arrived.
Now I was moving to Europe and I needed the trunk. Before I did, Mother confronted me.
“You never liked that watch Daddy gave you, did you?” she asked.
I admitted that it wasn’t my style.
“Even so. How could you be so careless with it?” she asked.
“I guess it just wasn’t me,” I said.
“You didn’t have to toss it away like a piece of junk, in the bottom of your trunk,” she said.
“I couldn’t stand that thing,” I blurted out. “It looked like something a Mafioso would buy.”
“Somewhere along the line, Gabriella, I think we failed to teach you what gifts are all about. And you certainly don’t understand your father at all.”
I hung my head.
“Daddy was devastated, you know,” Mother continued. “He vowed he’d never buy you anything again.”
Of course he hadn’t kept his word. He could no sooner stop giving me presents than he could stop dreaming dreams for me.
But he never again gave me jewelry.
It would be years before I understood that, by rejecting the watch, I had rejected so much more. About the Italian-American experience. About who Daddy was. What he valued. Where he came from. What he hoped to give to me.
Daddy died in 1999. But a cousin recently sent me a photo of my father standing next to a very young, very beautiful Miss New Jersey. She must have been doing publicity stunts in the area. My father probably knew someone in the entertainment world who arranged for the glowing ingénue to meet him.
He’s nattily dressed, with a crisp, custom-made suit, and a wide grin on his face as he leans towards the beauty queen.
It’s a black and white photo, but his gold cufflinks seem to glitter. He looks proud, and confident, completely at ease with his talent, brains, glamour, and pizzazz.
Gabriella Brand’s writing has appeared in over fifty publications. Her most recent work can be found or is forthcoming in The Globe and Mail, Comstock Review, and in an anthology published by New Salon Lit. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Gabriella is happy to live near New Haven and to hike the beautiful Connecticut countryside on the weekends. She teaches in the the OLLI program at the University of Connecticut.
© 2020, Gabriella Brand