Thursday, November 22, 2018

Poem: The Italian Pilgrim

You have probably seen, if not played a role in, a school Thanksgiving play.


In the old photograph, we are standing
in front of PS18. Charlie Linfante, handsome,
athletic, blond, I am standing next to him.
We must have been in a play. We are dressed
as pilgrims, he in a hat made of cardboard,
and I in a long skirt, a frilly apron, a white
blouse, a paper Pilgrim collar. My hair
reaches my shoulders, my face long and narrow,
my eyes enormous in my thin face. Charlie,
who is Italian but doesn’t look it with his
blond hair and blue eyes, could actually
have been a pilgrim but I look ridiculous.
I look foreign. My head is bent.
I look up at the camera as though
I am drowning.

I am the only Italian pilgrim you’ve ever seen.
I looked like I have just stepped off the boat
from Italy. Whose idea was it to turn the class
of immigrant children into pilgrims? I hate
to have people look at me but there I am.
One teacher must have said hold out your apron
and I did. I look like I’m about to curtsey.

Oh, you poor inarticulate dolt, how you wanted
to be an American, though even you in your naiveté
could not have thought you could be a pilgrim.
Years later, you will fall in love instantly with the man
you would later marry, his blond hair, his large
gray eyes, the high cheekbones of his handsome face,
but I wonder now, looking back,
if that was part of the attraction, his educated parents,
his large white colonial house like the ones
in the Dick and Jane books. Did I think he would
turn me from that Italian girl I was into an American,
that no one would notice my Italian face,
my lower class accent, my long curly hair
that frizzed up in the rain?

How I wanted to erase everything about myself
that I hated. I had my nose done, needing to get rid
of my Italian nose, believed if I could just have a small
nose all the parts of me that didn’t fit would vanish.
It would be years before I’d recognize all I’d lost
in trying to leave behind the Italian that was
in my blood, electric and necessary,
and a part of me
I could never change.

by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

This poem originally appeared in The Place I Call Home

Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow  and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter . Her collection of poems along with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is

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