American customs were a huge challenge to my mom. She just didn’t get them. Or maybe she didn’t have a desire to get them.
My birthdays were a big deal to my parents. They threw me a big party every year. I’m talking 20 to 30 of their friends and all of their kids plus our family too. The parties were at night and they went on until 2:00AM. At school, I would see kids bringing cupcakes and fruit punch and Dixie cups to celebrate their birthday with the class. Hmm…how come I never get to do this, I wondered. I asked my mom one year if I could do this and she said “no”. I asked her again the following year and she said “no”. I asked her again in 4th grade. I tried to reason with her. “Mommy, please!! I’ve never gotten to take cupcakes or brownies or anything else to school for my birthday! PLEASE let me take something!” She finally relented and said “Ok”. Oh my God! I was SO HAPPY! “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mom!! You’re the best!” The morning of my birthday, just before we were leaving for school, I asked about my goodies for school. She handed me a box of Saltines and a 2 liter bottle of Coke. I was old enough to know that this was a BAD idea. A very, very bad idea. To this day, I really question why the hell I agreed to take those “goodies” to school. Needless to say, I was the laughingstock of the class (and I imagine Mrs. Conway had a good laugh in the teacher’s lounge). I went around breaking off a saltine cracker for each of the 32 kids in my class. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to cover it. Oh, and I had the Coke but no cups so the bottle came back home with me. I never asked for cupcakes for school again.
Christmas in Argentina was a huge occasion but Santa Claus was not celebrated back then. The day children received gifts in Argentina was on January 6 (The Epiphany) from the Three Wise Men. Santa didn’t bring gifts in Argentina so this was a new concept to my parents and they had absolutely no idea how it worked. My mom didn’t know that Santa delivers ALL the gifts to ALL the children in the WHOLE WORLD in one night. So Santa at my house was different. Santa came to my house multiple times a week during the month of December. Basically, as my mom shopped for gifts and wrapped them, she would put them under the tree while I was sleeping. So every morning, I would run to check the tree to see if Santa had stopped by the night before. Some mornings he had, and some mornings he had not. It was actually very cool, if you think about it because I had the excitement of Christmas morning many times in one month. And it really makes sense too. Isn’t it much more feasible that a fat man in a red suit has almost a whole month’s time to deliver gifts around the world? I think so. But it was a hard sell at school. “What do you mean Santa came to your house last night??? Yesterday was the 14th!” I probably sounded ridiculous. I probably sounded like a big fat liar.
I never got to go trick-or-treating during my childhood (except for one time while visiting my nephew's house on Halloween). My mom didn’t understand the custom of going to stranger’s homes and asking for free candy. “If you want candy, I will take you to the store and buy it.” She also didn’t really have a knack for costumes. She would just throw some mismatched stuff together and say “There! You’re a gypsy!” Which now that I think about it, why was I wearing costumes if I wasn’t going trick-or-treating?
Anyway, one year,
when I was in 1st grade, we had a Halloween parade
at school and she dressed me as a “Flower Girl”. My costume consisted of a
yellow party dress that she found hanging in my closet. She sewed some ugly,
orange silk flowers all over it; she made me wear white eyelet pants under the
dress; she put make-up on me and drew a “beauty mark” on my chin; she had me
wear white gloves and hold an Easter basket with flowers; and I had some foil-looking tiara
too to which she attached a matching orange silk flower. At school, everyone
kept asking what I was supposed to be. “A flower girl!” I was so exasperated. How did they not see
it? What I remember most about these costumes is how proud she always was of
her work. Bless her heart.
I didn’t try my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich until I was in my 20’s. How crazy is it that I can tell you where I was when I tried my first PB&J? My school lunches consisted of capocolla, mortadella, prosciutto, or salami sandwiches. They didn’t have mayonnaise either and they weren’t on Wonder bread. They had butter and provolone on a French baguette. Really quite tasty but definitely odd for a 3rd grader to bust out at lunch time. They weren’t in Ziploc baggies or wrapped in Saran wrap either. My sandwiches were wrapped in a paper towel. No matter how much I begged my mom to buy baggies, she wouldn’t budge. “Why do I need to buy bags when I can just use these paper towels? You’ve even got a napkin now!” Shoot. I would have been content having my sandwich wrapped in butcher paper. At least make it look like I got it from a deli! Once again, I was the weirdo at school with the “disgusting” sandwiches and the paper towel wrap-job. (The funny thing is that I make my son salami sandwiches for school all the time. No complaints yet.)
I also dealt with kids questioning my mom’s age. “Is that your grandma?” “Why is your mom so old?” Or just plain “Wow. Your mom is old!” By today’s standards, she wasn’t old. When I entered Kindergarten my mom was 49. When my daughter enters Kindergarten, I will be 47. But back then, it was very rare to see on older mom and I suffered the backlash for it. It also didn’t help that she stopped dyeing her hair and let it go all gray. At first I didn’t mind that she had gone gray but when it became an issue at school, I started asking her to please dye it again. But she wasn’t interested in appeasing me. She was happy to be herself.
When I think about some of these incidents, I realize how strong I was as a kid. I never backed off the kids at school. I was picked on and made fun of but I wasn’t the type of victim to cower and run. I stood up to the bullies. I was happy to argue with them when they questioned Santa being at my house before the 25th. I argued back with them when they said my costume wasn’t a “flower girl”. I defended my mom's age and insisted she wasn't old. I also never lied. I was always honest…too honest. I didn’t have street-smarts. I didn’t realize that I could just shrug off the comments about the weird sandwiches. Instead I defended them and insisted they weren't weird. I was determined to be right all the time. I was determined to get them to believe me, to see things my way. It never worked but it didn’t stop me from trying. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning life lessons. I was learning about tenacity and inner-strength. Little did I know how much I was going to need them in my adult life.