In the 1990s, I was coming of age, or at least I should have been. I was a teenager, so you’d think I’d have been searching for love in all the wrong places, sneaking out of the house, and doing all the other rotten things for which teenagers are notorious. I never did any of that. I don’t regret it. It just wasn’t in my nature. Besides, hanging out with my family on a Friday night seemed like a lot more fun to me than carousing with my peers. Hey, my family is cool. Really. Anyway, my relatives recognized my innocence and disinterest in the typical ways of a teenager and seized upon them. Thus, began my brief career as the sex gestapo.
Right about now, you’re wondering what is a sex gestapo? Well, as the name implies, I had to stop people – namely my slightly older, unmarried cousins from having pre-marital sex. While this job seems antiquated by today’s standards, you have to understand that the practice goes way back in my family, not to mention the Old Country. I’m about to shock you, but it’s the truth and it should be told. When my grandfather was alive and his children were getting hitched, he wanted to see the wedding night sheets to make sure there was blood on them to prove the bride – his daughters or daughters-in-law – were truly virgins. Atrocious, no? It only gets worse. When I recounted this story in dismay to my mother-in-law, she informed me that everyone of his era did that in southern Italy. In fact, she told me, families would hang the sheets off their terraces, so the townspeople would know the woman was indeed a “good girl,” too. Ewwww…
My own father, who grew up in Ischia, had to chaperone his older sisters when they would go to the piazza to get courted by young men. If any of the men spoke to my aunts for more than 10 minutes, my father had to move him along. If that didn’t work, then he had to kick the young man’s shins. True story. There’s even a famous Neapolitan song, Renato Carosone’s “Io, Mammeta e Tu”, all about bringing your relatives as chaperones on dates. Women, who didn’t have chaperones or hung on the words of a man for too long in public, could get a bad reputation, which was the worst possible fate in those days. So, their fathers did everything to protect them. This is not to say that there was a free-for-all when it came to the men. My aunts and grandmother did their part to keep my father chaste until marriage; they even busted up a few romantic moments with young ladies when he came to the United States and had the chance to date.
Everybody was having sex before marriage. We’re Catholic and most of the Catholics were doing it despite what the Church suggested, which is pretty much how it has been for centuries and continues to be today. But my family – like many others in Old World Italy – was really strict about the no-sex rules and they were pretty uneducated, too. My grandfather had my aunts terrified to look in the direction of men. They never got “the talk” as us Americans have. There was no sex education at school. Anything you learned, you learned in the piazza. This might account for why some of those “good girls” were four months pregnant when they walked down the aisle. Then again, for some, fear of God – or more likely papa’ – was enough. For goodness sake, my aunts thought they could get pregnant from kissing someone. Seriously. The point is that sex was not to be discussed or done until after you said, “I do.” Period.
The funny thing is once you took your marital vows in front of God, you were expected to give it up all the time. My grandmother would tell her girls on their wedding day to be “a maid in the living room, a chef in the kitchen, and a butana in the bedroom.” Yes, that was the language she used. While chauvinistic and shocking for today, it was typical of the women of her time. It was what was expected of good, Italian wives. Her words weren’t at all jaw-dropping back then.
Fast forward to the 1990s and my stint as the sex gestapo. My cousins were born and raised in America, land of the free and home of the sexually repressed who wanted to experiment nonetheless. Despite “my work,” I have no idea whether they had sex or not before marriage (unless they told me, of course) and it’s none of my business anyway. Frankly, they are still the best people I know even if they did. So, fuggheddabout learning that information from me. And I want to be clear. My aunts and uncles never came out and said I was to prevent their kids from having sex either. Instead, they would just send me along with them when they wanted to go on dates that would last past midnight (because, after all, nothing good happens after midnight) or if they wanted to go on a trip that would have them together for days (and nights) at a time.
Essentially, I was charged with being the third wheel. My aunts and uncles would tell me it would be good to get out of the house and keep their kids’ company and get to know this person they were dating. They would tell their kids they were doing me a favor, I imagine. Ultimately, we all knew I was tagging along because my mere presence would prevent any funny business and by funny business I mean S-E-X. This went on for a number of years, while I was finishing high school, during college, and even a bit after I graduated.
My “career” ended when all my cousins started getting hitched to these people, who I vetted and approved of becoming part of the family without even realizing that was part of the gig. All I’m left with now are the memories of those “dates” and “romantic getaways,” which always seemed to include me looking out for police (when somebody whose name won’t be mentioned was making illegal U turns to get home, for example). Aqua under the ponte now, right? The irony is that the minute the wedding vows were spoken, these same aunts and uncles, who employed me as the sex gestapo, started begging their kids to have sex, so they could have grandchildren. But, to be honest, getting married hasn’t stopped my cousins from making minor traffic violations or stealing rocks and plants (somebody else – you know who you are – ran off with a Smithsonian tree and had me running faster than I had ever run before) that force me to look out for the police every once in a while still. I guess some things never change.
Di Meglio uses the written word to help families create memories and stick together. You can follow her on Facebook at Francesca’s Newlyweds Nest and on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.