Clawing My Way Out
by Donna Scrafano
I was raised in a family with three brothers. I was the only girl. Our cultural norms were those of our predominantly Italian community in the West Ward section of Easton, Pennsylvania. We all knew each other, and all the parents treated the neighborhood children as their own. Everyone attended the local Roman Catholic church. Doors were never locked. We played outside. And if I got into a fight with one of my brother’s and my parents were at work, our next-door neighbor, Josie, would jump the railing between our homes to break it up. I recall feeling safe and loved by all.
I attended the local Roman Catholic school until the sixth grade. But in the middle of that year, I told my father that if he didn’t allow me to go to what was then Easton Jr. High School for seventh grade, I would run away. I was done with that school. The nuns were awful. Some of them treated us in ways that today would be considered child abuse. Evidently, my father took me seriously because he allowed both me and my younger brother to transfer. Two of my cousins later followed.
I was so entrenched in Italian and Roman Catholic cultural norms that I once believed that if you were Italian, you were Catholic and if you were Catholic, you were Italian. I remember the dismay when I went with my new “Italian” friend to a function at her church only to find out that it was Methodist. I was only ten-years-old and was afraid to walk into the building, for fear I’d be struck down by lightning or something. Fifty-four years later we are still friends and still laugh about that moment. I still kept going to the local Catholic church, though, and the sense of safety in my family and community continued as well.
I believe I was born with a personality that is direct, assertive, and non-conforming—the complete opposite of my parents. My mother would tell stories of times when I was very young, when she would hold her breath in anticipation that I was going to say something to someone that would embarrass her. When I was three, I told my grandfather, who had what they called a lazy eye, “Pap, look at me when you talk to me.” One of my mother’s pieces of advice to me throughout most of my life was, “Donna, will you please think before you speak.” It’s no wonder.
As I entered my teens, I began to explore who I was, what I wanted in my life, and who I wanted in my world. I wanted to become my own person. And I began to feel constrained by some of the messages I had received as a child. Messages such as: girls don’t act that way; girls do the household tasks, not boys; girls should be quiet and “lady-like”; girls don’t need to go to college; girls will have a husband to take care of them; and so on. Such messages came from my family, from my teachers, from other adults, from the whole community. It was a box, closing me in.
Although I loved the security I received from my family and community, I realized that this came with prejudices and stifled mindsets that limited me and would’ve continued to stunt my personal growth, my personality, me finding “me.” I needed to claw my way out. So I became a bit rebellious. I was outspoken and neither quiet nor lady-like. People called me “mouthy.” I had no regard for rules. I would take my father’s brand-new Chevy Nova, pick up friends, and ride the strip—without having a driver’s license. My long-time friends still cringe at the thought that I actually told my parents we were going to frat parties at Lafayette College, at the mere age of 16.
Throughout my teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and sometimes even now, I continue to feel the need to claw out of a box—out of the Scrafano box, out of the female box, out of the society’s view box, out of the single woman’s box, and out of all the other boxes that prejudices and narrow mindsets invent just to keep you in place. There’s always something new to conquer, something new to learn. But if you continue to strive for what makes you happy, for what makes you “you,” the clawing becomes easier along the way. Sharpen your nails and feel the relief.
Photo/art credit: all from deviantart – In a Box by Amanda Grazini from Sao Paolo Brazil; In a Box by Rhodri McCormack from Australia; Box by l.z.szabo from Hungary.
Donna began her journey in Human Services in 1983. During the next 35 years she held various positions and formally retired in 2018. She writes on an array of social issues. Donna’s relaxation time includes walking her Lab, Roxy, having fun with her six grandchildren, writing, spending time with friends, and applying self-care. Her current full-time position is care-taking her 90-year-old father.