An excerpt from my memoir, “The Dreams that Break Your Heart.”
’E pariente so’ cumm’ ’e stivale:
chiu` so stritte e chiu te fanno male.
Relatives are like boots,
the closer the tie, the more they hurt you.
- Napolitano proverb
One afternoon, for some reason, perhaps with thoughts that he would give her money for the chore, my grandmother Addolorata goes to Carmine’s home, her estranged husband, my grandfather, to clean it. It’s August 1947. The war is just a few years ended, and the Germans who occupied the areas of Avella and Baiano have gone, leaving only the haunts of their presence in the minds of the people. For the Southern Italians, nothing has changed. It was struggle before the war began, struggle during, and struggle still. Addolorata goes to clean Carmine’s house, and she ends up pregnant with my mother.
My mother felt no love for her father. When she saw him sitting in the piazza, she would turn and walk the other way. She would go home and tell her mother, “Aggia vista chillo d’Avella”; I saw the one from Avella. She never called him papa.
“Not once have you addressed me as ‘papa,’” he would say to her when he was an old man.
“Not once have you behaved like a papa,” she would snap in reply.
She does not name any of her children after him, spurning the custom. She tells him never will one of her children bear his name. When my brother is born he is named Anthony, after my uncle. When my mother is pregnant with me my grandfather tells her, If it’s a boy, you name him Carmine, after me. If it’s a girl, Carmela. She named me Addolorata. He scoffed at my birth name. You named her after that worthless woman? About my brother’s namesake, he snapped, After il muzzone! After that little man.
My mother is a child, maybe seven, maybe eight. She has holes in her shoes. She throws a fit and demands new ones. My grandmother tells her to go to her father. He has money, she says. He can buy them for you. But my mother knows that her father will not give her anything freely; if she needs something, she has to live with him as if she were a willing daughter, and she hates to go stay with him. He is a cold, volatile man reared in il tempo antico, in the old way. He sleeps on loose hay scattered upon the floor. He carries a switchblade, and knowing it is hidden somewhere on his person, that he can flip it open with the flick of a wrist, makes her nervous. It is like visiting with a stranger, a dark, loveless thing that breathes but is never warm. He takes her to the bars where he plays cards for hours, and she falls asleep at his side sitting upright, until people hiss at him to take that poor child home and put her to bed. But in need of new shoes, my mother hatches a plan she thinks foolproof: She will go stay with him for a few days, get him to buy her new shoes, and once he does she will leave with them and return to her mother.
My mother, center, hiding her busted shoes.
He does buy her shoes. Oh but it’s even better than that! He buys her a pair of pants, too, which in the mid ‘50s, in Southern Italy, for woman or girl, is a rarity, a precious novelty. He buys her a coat. She feels like she sparkles in those new clothes. She cannot wait to return to her village so all the other kids will see how stylish and well heeled she is. She looks down at the shoes; they gleam, shiny patent leather against the dusty streets of Avella. Then the pants, she can hardly believe her eyes. And buttoned atop all of it, a new coat! She will return triumphant.
Her father does not want her to leave. A girl child is meant to be at her father’s side, a surrogate for a wife if the wife were to die, or, in rare cases, as with my grandmother, up and leave. A girl child is meant to keep house, scrub laundry, cook meals for her father. She is meant to serve him out of love and devotion, but my mother feels neither, so my grandfather keeps her like a hostage, as if love and devotion are things you kidnap.
My uncle Antonio rides his bicycle to Avella. When my mother hears his voice she rushes out the doorway and throws her arms around him, kissing him, tears gathering in her eyes. Antonio plucks his baby sister into his arms and sits her on the handlebars, then pumps the pedals until the wind cuts a howl through their ears and their cheeks flap backward like rippling water. Her pant-covered legs dangle; her glossy new shoes sway as they ride back to Baiano. My uncle will rescue her this way more than once. Throughout his brief life, he will be the stern but loving father she never had.
Now my mother has it all — the shoes, the clothes, and she is back home. The neighborhood children surround her. They have to get down on all fours to touch the hem of her pants. They marvel at their reflection in the polished patent shoes. They run their little hands down the arms of the coat, thinking that her father must really love her, and they are envious of this love.
Soon, there is a knock upon the door. One of my grandfather’s neighbors stands in the doorway. He has been sent on my grandfather’s behalf to take back the shoes, take back the pants, take back the coat. My mother waits helplessly in the middle of the room, hemmed in by the dank walls, and weeps as the man gathers the items. It feels as though, with each item he lifts into his arms, the color is being stripped from life layer by layer. By the time he is done, her life is back to black and white. My grandmother is afraid of my grandfather; he takes her to the village court when my mother refuses to stay with him. She is scared of his hot hands and of the money he has that she does not, scared that somehow the combination of the two will snatch her daughter from her. She does not stop the man from taking the clothing.
The new shoes, the pants, the coat, my grandfather gave to his niece.
So it was back to the old pair of busted shoes for my mother.
When I knew Carmine, he had a swollen nose and gray vines of hair shooting out of his puffy ears. He never lost his acerbic character. It did not peter out with old age and reflection. There were no apologies to my mother, no mea culpas. On a visit to Italy when I was a little girl, my brother Anthony, sister and I found him playing cards in a little trattoria near the piazza, and we had to introduce ourselves. The trailer he lived in smelled of urine; it was dirty and dilapidated, and my mother brought him back to America with us. A father was a father, brutta bestia he may have been, and this was something a daughter was trained to acknowledge, love or no love.
This did not last long. From the moment he stepped foot into our home, he started spewing his trouble. My brother Dominic had stayed behind in New York as we went to Italy. When Carmine walked through the door, my brother, a 17-year-old muscular beauty of a young man, lifted my mother into his arms and hugged her to welcome her home. Carmine did not know this grown grandson of his, and he hadn’t even made it into our kitchen before he beat his cane against the floor and hollered, “Take me back! Take me back me to the airport this minute!”
He turned to my father.
“What man can stand here and watch his wife be embraced by her cumpàre?” By her lover.
If she left the house during the day, when my father returned home from work Carmine told him that my mother had been out all day with her boyfriend. If she spoke on the telephone, he told my father that in his absence she had been on the phone with her cumpàre. If my father had been another type of man, there would have been trouble, but he laughed and humored the old man.
Carmine smoked a pipe all his life and tobacco bits fell into the folds of his necktie. He hollered at us when we played Nintendo, demanding we turn off the ants on the television screen. He chased my brothers around, waving his cane in the air, threatening them for whatever infraction he had imagined they’d committed. Soon he was shipped back to Italy.
My mother told me this story:
Before my parents were married, my grandfather went into a coma. He lay like that for two days, unmoving, not speaking, no machines, just his body in the hospital bed. The doctors informed my mother he was going to die, and he would not make it through the night. In those days, you had to pay to transport a body from a hospital back home, where the dead were laid out for viewing in the beds they had slept in, and the doctors, knowing my mother had no money, urged her to take him home that very night. Instead she left my uncle Mario, my father’s brother, to stay with him until she could plan his burial. She went home, and in the morning, she was going to make arrangements for his funeral. In the morning, a neighbor came over to tell my mother that my father had called to relay a message: Carmine was awake. When she got to the hospital, my grandfather was sitting up in bed, eating a tray full of hospital food. He lived another 25 years. He died when he was 92.
L’ ’evera male non more maie, my mother says; bad grass never dies.
* * *
Each year my mother receives the handed-down school uniform from a neighbor girl who is a year ahead of her. The uniforms are different in color for each grade, so when the neighbor gets her new smock for the new school year, she gives her old one to my mother. This arrangement works well until the beginning of the fourth grade, when the neighbor girl is left back, and needs the uniform for herself.
For several weeks my mother goes to school dressed in plain clothes. The other children arrive in their clean, identical, pressed smocks, big bows tied elegantly around their necks, and she sits among them in the classroom in an old blouse, a skirt whose seam needs mending, and those broken shoes.
“Where is your uniform?” the maestra asks.
My mother answers, “The seamstress is making it.”
This lie can only stave off the inevitable for so long, as eventually the uniform will need to be produced. Each day the maestra, standing before the entire class, tapping the thin wooden pointer against her palm, asks her again.
“Dov’è la tua uniforme?”
And my mother says, “The seamstress is making it.”
After school my mother goes home and yells at my grandmother and cries that she needs a uniform. Of course, there is no money to buy one, so in plain clothes my mother returns to school and to the same banter with the maestra, humiliation accumulating with each passing week.
“But what kind of uniform is this seamstress making you?” says the maestra one day. “Is it made out of gold it’s taking so long?”
From somewhere, my mother manages to get hold of a ragged, torn and patched school apron. When she puts it on the next morning, buckling the broken shoes over her feet before skipping out the door into the thin, cold autumn air, she feels it will be a victory, just as her return in the new clothes, before they were taken away, was a victory. To her, the fact of what she looks like is obscured by the hope that buoys her. She hopes the apron will silence the teacher, and she can get on with schooling, sitting in the classroom just like the other children. Instead, when she arrives, the maestra stands before the class and loudly and clearly says, “Is that the uniform you paid a seamstress to make?”
My mother halts her path to the little wooden desk.
“You were robbed,” the maestra says.
The kids erupt into laughter. My mother looks down at herself. The sound of their laughter chases away the hope, and she sees the fact of what she looks like.
My mother comes home and says to my grandmother, “If you don’t buy me a uniform, I’m not going to school anymore.”
My grandmother says, “Fine. Then don’t go anymore.”
And that is the end of my mother’s schooling, and the beginning of a life of factory lines and punch cards.