Act of Necessity
Chapter 3: Being Careful
I talked to Francesca on the telephone during the week. My main objective was to find out what kinds of things she might enjoy on our dates. I discovered she was a big fan of the Vancouver Canucks. That ticket was a little out of my reach, but we could go to a junior hockey game for a lot less.
Francesca loved the junior hockey games and the atmosphere at Queen's Park Arena. The game was a sell-out, the crowd was lively. There was lots of scoring for an early-season game along with the usual rough and tumble antics. The management of the team really went all out to entertain and make families feel welcome. The team was new to the area and had quickly became popular.
I looked up the theatrical plays at the various playhouses in the city and made a couple of suggestions to her. She jumped at the idea, so I suggested we plan to go on Saturday night.
"My parents used to go to live plays all the time," I told her as we discussed other options. "One of the plays is at a dinner theatre. If you'd like, we could go there, have dinner and enjoy the play."
"That sounds wonderful, Dal. I'd really like that."
With that kind of enthusiasm, I set up the tickets and the reservation and planned to pick her up at her home at seven. The play would begin at nine and was a two act mystery that would last almost two hours. It wasn't inexpensive, but I was determined to see just where I could take this relationship with Francesca. I wanted to impress her with something other than the usual dinner and a movie.
After our third date, we had progressed to a little more intimate kissing, but I was being very careful not to push my luck and turn her off me.
"I have a favour to ask of you, Dal," she said as we sat with our arms around each other after a bout of kissing.
"Go ahead, ask away," I said quickly.
"Would you come to dinner at our home this Sunday?"
"Sunday? At your home? I thought that was your family day ... or whatever."
"It is. But ... I'd like my family to get to know you better."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No! Why would you think I'm kidding?"
Oh, oh. Now I was treading into dangerous ground. You see, in my mind, beautiful Italian women naturally would want to be involved with handsome Italian men. So, if Francesca was taking me to meet the family, I wasn't going to fit. Unlike her brothers, I don't have a dark Mediterranean complexion, but rather an ordinary pale one. I don't have black hair, mine is just kind of brown. My eyes are blue and I don't eat pasta every day. Hell, I'd never be welcomed into their family. I don't know a word of Italian, either. I had nothing in common with the Mariani family.
"Uhhm, they hardly know me." I admit, that was pretty lame.
"That's the whole idea, Dal. They want to get to know the guy who's dating me. That's not unusual, you know. Is there something else that's bothering you?"
"Well," I tried again, scrambling to come up with something coherent. "I'm kind of out of your ... neighbourhood, you know. I mean, I come from a different part of town."
"You mean my parents' wealth intimidates you," she said, looking a bit annoyed.
I was silent until I inexplicably said what was really on my mind.
"I thought Italian families wanted their daughters to date Italian guys."
"What?" The look on her face was one of incredulity until it melted and she began to laugh.
"Do you really believe that crap?" she finally gasped as she got over her laughing spasm.
"Well, I thought it was pretty well known," I replied, sounding even more lame.
"You've been watching The Godfather too many times," she said, this time with some irritation. "Yes, our family is from an Italian background. Yes, we all have Italian names, and yes we all speak Italian. But we've never been bigots. The only way you'll find out about our family is to spend some time with us. Oh, by the way, we aren't connected to the Mafia," she said with a disgusted look. "I'm offering you the opportunity to get to know us. Are you going to accept?"
I felt about one inch tall. I'd fallen into the stereotype trap. I had this idea that Italian families wouldn't appreciate non-Italian boyfriends. I should have remembered the first time I met her mother, father, and brothers. They were polite and friendly. There was no sign that I wasn't welcome or that I didn't belong.
"I'm sorry, Francesca. Of course I will be pleased to come to your home on Sunday. I feel like a fool for my ignorance. Please forgive me."
She was frowning at first, but that gradually changed to a soft smile.
"I forgive you. But you have a lot to learn about us. Just be yourself, Dallas Larson. That's the guy who caught my interest. You may get a surprise on Sunday afternoon."
Francesca's comment was quite correct. I did get a surprise. When I knocked on the door at the appointed three o'clock, I could hear children running and laughing. The big doors swung open and three children, two boys and a girl, each between three and five years, stood staring up at me.
"Are you Aunt Francesca's boyfriend?" the oldest boy asked. He was as blonde and blue-eyed as a Scandinavian.
"Yeah ... I guess I am," I chuckled. It never occurred to me that my girlfriend would be an aunt.
"Come on in," he said, stepping back and making way for me.
I stepped into the foyer, then moved to the great room just as Francesca appeared, smiling and giving me a kiss on the cheek.
"Hi, you're right on time," she said with a big smile.
"Thank you for inviting me, Aunt Francesca," I needled.
"That will be enough out of you, Dallas," she said with mock disgust.
"Who are these three youngsters?" I asked, as they walked with us.
"The blonde-haired boy is Michael, Pete's oldest. The girl is Sherry, Fredo's daughter, and the youngest boy is Fred, Fredo's son. Come in and meet the family."
The next fifteen minutes were taken up with introductions to the entire family. There were five children present. Three belonged to Pietro and his wife, Melanie. The other two were Alfredo and Carolyn's offspring. The two youngest were both babes in arms, one each for the two married sons. It took only a moment to realize that it was unlikely either wife was of Italian heritage. I don't know if my sigh of relief was audible, but I felt it, and so did Francesca.
"See, I told you," she whispered, nudging me with her elbow.
I worked hard to remember the names of all the family members. It wasn't easy. I never did remember which baby was which, but it didn't really seem to matter. One or the other of them could be found in Grandma Mariani's lap, being lovingly rocked as she sat in her chair. The look on her face was all you needed to know that she was happy in her world and this was everything she could ever ask for.
I was reintroduced to the men in the family and my reception was just as friendly as I remembered it from our first meeting. Giovanni was probably closest to my age and we had a chance to talk. His girlfriend, Samantha, was a very attractive redhead, again unlikely to be of Italian heritage. But looks could be deceiving. It turned out her grandparents were from Turin, and she fit in well with this group. The more I socialized, the more comfortable I felt.
"Well, what do you think?" Francesca asked me some time later.
"I think I'm envious. I never had this kind of family to surround me, even when my parents were alive and my sister was living at home. Everyone here is so comfortable with each other. Thank you for this, Francesca. I'm really enjoying myself."
I got a nice kiss and a big smile as I admitted just how pleasant this whole afternoon had become.
I sat beside Mama Rosina, wanting to get to know her a little better. She was very nice to talk to, but I had to listen carefully as her English was heavily accented. Her husband, Eduardo, had mastered the language much better and his accent was considerably less. None of the four offspring had any accent at all. By her appearance, I thought of her as the queen of this household, holding court over all who were present. She, like Francesca, was fairly tall and slim, with graying hair. Her posture was very upright, but it belied a very nice, quiet personality.
Little Sherry wanted to show me her drawing of the family. It was pretty primitive, with various crayon colours depicting various people. But when I asked her who was who, she knew exactly which person was represented by which figure. She surprised me by telling me that the brown stick figure on the end was me, standing next to Aunt Francesca. I thanked her very much for including me in the picture and told her it was a very good likeness. That seemed to satisfy her and she ran off to do some more colouring.
Michael wanted me to see his Hot Wheels, and just how fast they would scoot across the hardwood floor. I let him know that I had a lot of Hot Wheels cars when I was younger, but I disappointed him when he found out I didn't have them anymore. However, he did want to tell me all about the five cars he had with him and all the ones he had at home. He was just starting first grade and he said he liked it so far. He met lots of kids and made lots of new friends, except for Bobby somebody or other, who didn't like him. He didn't know why.
As I interacted with the children, I saw a smile on both Mama Rosina and Francesca. I wondered what they might be thinking. For me, this was something quite different and very pleasant. I was in the presence of family, something I missed and, in fact, something I never had. Ours was a small family and scattered around the country when my parents were still alive. A family gathering might have included Darlene, my maternal grandparents, and my mother's sister. The Mariani family was a dozen strong, not including me or Samantha of course, nor did it include any grandparents. It was hard to compare the two families, but I couldn't help but think just how different the two were.