Essays on Love and Family From America’s Best Teen Writers

Snapshots of life at home.
April 9 2013 6:45 AM

The Culture of Secrets  

An alphabet of Italian food, family, and pride: An essay by a Scholastic Writing Award–winning high schooler.

Note: Slate is proud to publish two of this year’s winners of the Scholastic Writing Awards, honoring the best teen writers in the country. This piece, which was part of a gold-medal-winning portfolio, is by Anthony DeSantis, a senior at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.

Author Anthony DeSantis.
Author Anthony DeSantis.

Photo by Emily Allen

You can read Isabella Giovannini’s “Death of a Sunflower,” part of her gold-medal-winning portfolio, as well.

Anthony
From the Latin Antonius. I never believe Papa Nicki, my great-grandfather, when he tells me that my name means “worthy of praise.” I tell him too many people are named Anthony for it to mean anything special, and yet, he has a way of saying the word that’s different than when he calls any of the other Anthonys in our family by their name. This is especially true now that we both knew that he’s dying.

“Anthony,” he says to me from his hospital bed. My great-grandmother cries in the corner, but only he and I exist in that cramped room. He grabs a limp hold of my arm and tells me to have many children—preferably sons. My family has told me this all my life. “We need you to continue the family line,” Papa Nicki says, “to not let it wither away in this country.” I only bring myself to tell him I love him.

Biscotti
An Italian dessert, also what I think of when I think of marriage. Grandma Della puts two of her homemade chocolate biscotti on a plate for me alongside a glass of milk. My grandparents’ house is quiet enough for me to hear the rigid cookie crunch in my mouth as I chew. I eat my biscotti with my grandfather as Grandma Della cleans the kitchen. He tells her what she could have done to make dinner better and asks her to pour him more coffee. When I fall in love, this isn’t what I want it to be like.

Connor 
First boyfriend. He has rich, Charlestonian blood in his veins and so I make room for one more in the closet. “Please, my family will love us both even more when we come out,” I say. He asks me when I think that’s going to happen. “Soon,” I say, “real soon.”

Della
Grandma Della tells me that the Vietnam War hadn’t even lasted a week before she and my grandfather rushed to a courthouse somewhere in Brooklyn to get their marriage license. She now loves him so much that she cooks perfect meals for him, does his laundry with precision, and cleans his house with the knowledge that he won’t always say thank you.

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English
One day while we shop through the cleaning supplies aisle of Publix, my sister asks our parents why they’ve never taught us to speak Italian. They explain that they never learned it themselves. Our grandparents can’t speak it, either. Their parents could, but only because they had to serve as translators for their parents, the first of our family in America. I realize howtrapped I feel in three generations of English.

Soon after, I purchase a book of Italian grammar and begin to flip through the pages. A boy I’ve had a crush on since grade school sees me conjugate the verb “negare” and asks me why I feel I have to teach myself Italian. I don’t answer. They he asks me what “negare” means and I say, “To deny.”

Family
 I have it all figured out once. I will marry my preschool sweetheart, Catalina Bernadini. We will have 10 children, all sons, and name them all Anthony. That would please Papa Nicki. After my parents pull me out of Catholic school and dump me into a public school, though, plans change. Thank God.

Gay (An obvious choice, but hear me out.)
 “So at that art school you’re going to,” my grandfather says over Sunday dinner one summer afternoon, “what are you going to do if, you know, one of those gay guys comes up and asks to see your salsice?” Because clearly gay men are only after thesalsice.

I tell my grandfather that I’ll say, “Sorry—not interested,” and he laughs.

“Hey that’s my guy,” my grandfather says, “My guy’s not a faggot.” I don’t sleep that night. 

H
H is silent in Italian.

Immigration
Francesco Gaggi came to America with $7 in his pocket and spoke no English. How he became one of the most prominent barbers in Long Island is a mystery. Francesco’s son is my Papa Nicki, and he tells me about how his father regularly took his whole family to see operas in Manhattan. Each of the five children received private piano lessons, prided themselves on the fine quality of their clothes, and never questioned the process of Americanization. “That’s how we got to where we are now,” Papa Nicki says. I regret never asking him, “Where exactly do you think we are?”

J, K, W, X, Y
In Italian, none of these letters exist.

L’amore
One of the first things I learn while trying to teach myself Italian is that love is a difficult word to translate. The concept itself is usually referred to as l’amore, but the action can either be amare or volere bene, which literally means, “to like well.” I sometimes spend long and pointless nights in an F-150 with a boy I know will later call what we did “unclean in God’s eyes.” The Italian word for such a thing is still unknown to me.

Mother
She’s a confident Irish woman who says Connor is her favorite of my friends after the three of us and my father go out to eat one night. I think that obviously, she didn’t see us hold hands under the table. One day Connor forces me to come out to her. I curl up in a corner of my mother’s bedroom and try to stop myself from crying while she and Connor sit on the bed and laugh at how overdramatic I can be.

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