Taste of Home: An Essay

A New York transplant comes to grips with leaving her family behind for a new life in Washington.

Photo via iStockphoto.

Nice Italian girls from New York and New Jersey aren’t supposed to move away from home, like I did when I came to Washington, DC. That makes me somewhat of the family rebel, even though I’ve never put a joint to my lips or a razor to my scalp. Check my body for tattoos; you’ll find none. But move away from all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and paisans? Miss out on mom’s Sunday sauce and meatballs? I’m no better than Fredo Corleone.

But I have to think Fredo would have eventually regretted turning on the family. It did get him whacked, after all.

Maybe that explains an incident not long ago at a Dupont Circle deli that claims to sell “NY-style bagels” and baked goods—a euphemism at best and a bald-faced lie at worst. The man next to me reached across the counter for a clear container filled with Neapolitan cookies, my father’s homemade specialty. As a little girl, I called them rainbow cookies: three layers of dense dough that he dyed the colors of the Italian flag, almond-paste bunting that he separated with thin coats of jam and sandwiched between two more layers made of chocolate. These cookies looked nothing like my father’s careful handiwork. I stared at the neon garishness of the food coloring, the unnatural thickness of the chocolate. Globs of sprinkles stuck to the top like shards of glass. Sprinkles! An abomination.

I turned to the man, a stranger whom I had no business judging despite his clear lack of taste. “My dad makes those,” I announced.

The words must have come out strangled, because it was getting harder and harder to breathe. It felt not unlike the time I had a panic attack at a job interview, when two crusty, veteran Washington reporters asked me to summarize the entire trajectory of my journalism career thus far. In a testament to his fine sense of character, the stranger did not judge me for the intrusion. “He must be a special man,” he said.

He is. But he’s two-hundred miles away.

I left for Washington when I was 18, when I was too young to know what it meant to give up spontaneous family get-togethers, when all I wanted was to get out of my parents’ house. I’ve never looked back until now. The older I get, the more it seems like I’m missing out on a birth, a baptism, a Holy Communion with God that invariably involves a deejay and an open bar. There’s always a meal on the table at mom and dad’s requiring nothing more from me than a fork and a hunk of crusty bread to wipe my plate clean. I would venture to say that after nine years in the District, I’ve given almost as much of my money to Amtrak as Joe Biden.

At 27, I have an appreciation for my family—especially for my parents—that I lacked when I left home. There’s nothing like their camaraderie, their love. But does that mean I should move back? How far away is close enough? Is Manhattan acceptable, or do I actually have to inhabit my childhood bedroom until I find a nice Italian boy who wants to marry me? (Shudder.)

The more I think about it, the more I bristle. Look at all I’ve worked for in nearly a decade away from home—the career, the friends, the decidedly not-Italian boy who maybe wants to marry me. In Washington, I answer to no one but myself. I’ve earned my keep in the halls of the Capitol, notebook in hand. I’ve toasted my youth in neighborhoods with names like Adams Morgan and U Street, Jameson in hand. Often, I’ve found myself typing and drinking as one day turns into the next. I’ve created a home here, my own life, not the one that seemed preordained. And I’m proud of that.

So is my family, to an extent. My parents never fail to tell everyone from their closest friends (the aforementioned paisans) to the receptionist at my grandfather’s assisted-living facility about my latest achievements. Even so, I’m sure they would still rather have me in shouting distance for supper. Where does their pride end and disappointment set in? Where does mine?

Earlier this year, an online literary journal published my very first personal essay. Shortly thereafter, my mother posted the following loving but grammatically incorrect message to Facebook: “Congratulations Christine …We are so proud of you xoxoo So when are you moving back home? lolol” Facebook, forgive her, for she does not know what she’s doing in a public forum.

Friends and family began clamoring for my return. “I love you all but hold them horses,” I wrote, completely serious.

“We’ve waited long enough!” my best friend since the fourth grade replied. I couldn’t help myself from clicking the “Like” button, even though I’m not sure how much I would like giving up what I have gained for what I left behind.

Instead of making up my mind, I damn near throw temper tantrums in public like the same little girl who could hardly wait for the rainbow cookies to cool. Maybe there’s a happy medium, but I haven’t found it yet. Whenever I return to Washington with containers of my father’s finest creations, they don’t taste the same as they do back home. They can only stay frozen for so long.

Christine Grimaldi is a writer delayed on the Red Line in Northwest DC. She is pursuing an MA in creative nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Talking Writing magazine and in 140-character bursts on Twitter.