My PhD in Italian History Fixed My Relationship with My Father

My father: a calculating, numbers driven, and taciturn banker. Myself: a loud, creative, and expressive history enthusiast. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we did not always see eye to eye. Like many individuals, since childhood, I had a complex relationship with my father. There was always this distance, this gap that separated us. We loved each other, of course, but that sense of awkwardness and slight disquietude never dissipated.

He bore the burden of working to support our family, so he was rarely around. I maybe saw my dad for an hour a day; he left for work by the time I woke up, and came home shortly before my bedtime. He was also the disciplinarian; I knew I was going to be in big trouble when I heard the classic line from my mom: “Just wait until I tell your father about this.” In the Home Depot with my mother, my six year-old self was steering the shopping cart when I crashed it into a very expensive toilet display model, which my mother had to pay for; I instantly begged her not to tell my dad. This is our little secret even today, as I approach my twenty-sixth birthday.

The space between my father and I was due to more than just his work and parental role, however. He had been in finance and banking all his life; he loved numbers, data, and science. On the other hand, I was a walking poster child for the humanities. Even as a kid, I only wanted to read historical fiction and fantasy books and write stories; for a while, I ran a family “newspaper” out of our home office, the Andino Gazette. I was the editor, designer, and lead reporter, of course. I had a love for expressing myself through whatever projects I could dream to cook up; I started my own beauty company at age 8, mixing everyone’s shampoos and soaps in the bathroom tub to make custom hair care products. This creativity and energy ,which I carried onto into adulthood, seemed to continually chafe against my father’s innate quiet, reserved, and thoughtful personality.

The gap between us grew larger during college. Although I ended up attending the same university as both of my parents, I was not following my dad’s plan for how he defined success. He always preached to my brother and me the benefits of going into something like accounting, finance, marketing, or business. Understandably, he hoped that one of his children would choose the same path he did. I knew, however, given how terrible I was at math, that the history was my calling. Ever since a trip to Colonial Williamsburg at age eight, I loved the subject; I wanted to ask interesting questions about the past and be able to contribute new knowledge to the world by interpreting the past. I initially thought I would go into American history, but by coincidence, I ended up falling in love with Italian and gender history. I took a class about women in the Italian Renaissance because it was the only history class I could get into as a freshman. All of my prior history classes in high school had focused on the great white men of history; there was this whole other half of the population I had never learned about! The complexity of women’s history, as it intermingled with the rich cultural and religious traditions of Italy, became my focus.

Throughout college, my dad pushed back against my choice of major, questioning how I would ever get a job after graduation. I remember one contentious dinner my senior year; I said I was applying for PhD programs in history, and in response, he remained stuck on a continual loop: what are you goals, I won’t pay for grad school, how will you support yourself, don’t you know how hard it is to get a PhD? All these would be valid questions from a parent, but the tone of the questions was not a sincere concern about my future career, but a refusal to accept what path I had chosen for myself. Initially, I was frustrated that even after I explained my goals and desires for getting a PhD, he kept hammering away at these questions. It felt like he was not only not listening to me, but also questioning my abilities and skills. After several years of this back and forth, I stopped engaging with my dad in these types of conversation. When the subject came up, I did not even entertain his doubts; I assured him that I would get into grad school and take care of the financial side of it myself.

I ended up following through on these promises, enrolling in a fully funded MA/PhD program the following year. About a semester into graduate school, something began to shift between my dad and me. He suddenly became more interested in my academic and research interests; he started asking me questions about the courses I was taking on Italian history. My dad came from an Italian family and had a great fascination with his family’s immigrant past and Italian culture and food. He had learned the language in college, but had forgotten most of it as the years went on. As I started taking Italian classes to acquire the ability to do research in the language, he started listening to Italian learning tapes and religiously watching Italian TV shows. Before, in undergrad, our phone conversations were brief, shallow, and surface level- he always seemed to be in a hurry to pass the phone off to my mom instead. Now, we talked for extended periods about the intricacies and complexities of Italian’s grammar and vocabulary.

We finally had an interest in common to talk about. For once, we were on the same plane: both trying to learn something that was important to us, albeit for different reasons. My dad, as a highly intelligent person, had the tendency to become slightly condescending, which caused no small amount of consternation on my part. I had been taking Italian for a longer period of time, so in an unusual role reversal, I was the person with the greater knowledge in the conversation. He even started to engage with me about history, something he never talked about with me before. As I answered his questions about why Italy took so long to become a unified country (it didn’t happen until 1870) and why the South was much poorer than the North, I felt so relieved to have a conversation about history with him that was not along the lines of “what are you going to do with your life?” He was actually investing in a subject that I was passionate about, so it felt like he was investing in me.

What started as a mutual interest in the Italian language soon blossomed into a full-on travel extravaganza. After my father acquired a good working knowledge of Italian, he and my mother started to take trips there regularly. Since I was often in the country anyway for research, I tagged along. Growing up, on family vacations, my dad’s word was law; he made the decisions and my brother and I had no option but to follow his lead. Now, on these trips to Italy, he treated me as an equal; I made suggestions about what to do or where to go, based on my knowledge, and he took my ideas into account. This was not merely a case of me getting to have input, but actually being treated like an adult, with valid opinions of my own and being taken seriously as such. I am glad I got to share special experiences, like visiting Pompeii and taking a cooking class with a sweet old nonna in Lecce, with him.

One of the many Italian hill towns we visited

Italian continued to strengthen our bond even when I was back in the U.S. He joined an Italian conversation group for practice, and brought me along when I visited home for the holidays. My dad has never been much of a show-off; always humble and modest, even when it came to his children. However, he displayed me like a trophy to that conversation group. After the group concluded, he praised me to his friends, bragging about how skilled I was in Italian and they agreed. He talked on and on about how I did research in Italian in archives in Italy (something that was just a fact of life to me, but apparently quite impressive to him). Did I care about the compliments? Not particularly. But did it feel utterly wonderful for my father to display pride in me in a public fashion to people he knew? Absolutely.

Growing up, I always considered my relationship with my father to be fine: he loved me and tried his best, and so did I, but I came to accept that we just would never be that close. We cared about each other and wanted each other to be happy, but we could not seem to scale the wall that our extreme differences in personality and interests had erected. It was only with the introduction of Italian into our lives did we begin to break down those barriers.

This experience has made incredibly grateful for my PhD program; even if I never get a good academic job, at least it’s enabled me to deepen and transform a fundamental relationship in my life. I know that everyone’s relationships with their fathers are different; even my own brother’s is vastly different from mine. I also am cognizant that I was lucky: my father was always present and in my life. I hope that my story evinces the potential capability of these relationships to change. My father and I were both in a state of inertia for a long time; on the surface, nothing was horribly wrong in our relationship, so we did nothing to change it. It only took the introduction of a foreign language to start us moving in a new direction. The smallest gesture or mutual interest can set two people on a path of greater, more profound connection.

Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook