Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Immigrant Anniversary: A Vignette

The room was only half filled, and the stream of people coming up the stairs showed no sign of abating. Smiling and happy, they embraced the old couple at the head of the receiving line and wished them well. "Another fifty, Uncle Tom. Congratulations. Congratulations. Happy anniversary. Oh, Aunt Bertha, you look wonderful, just wonderful." At the long table on the dais at the front of the room the grandson looked around curiously. He estimated that there would be about two hundred guests when the room was full. He tried to pick out familiar faces from the throng, comparing those he thought he recognized with the pictures of much younger faces that he carried in his memory. The waitresses were busy setting up service on the buffet table, the great ice sculpture in the center --- a fish or a dolphin --- sparkling in the festive light and melting slowly. Three little girls, cousins from the Rinaldi side of the family he guessed, skipped chattering among the tables on the floor ignoring their mother’s threats. "Joanne! Nancy! If you can't behave yourselves, I'll call your father! Carolyn, that goes for you too." The men clustered around the bar, joking, laughing, touching. His wife took him by the hand beneath the table to get his attention and spoke close to his ear. "My God, but there are a lot of you. Do you know all these people?"
He smiled and leaned toward her, though he kept his face turned toward the bustle on the floor. "Most of them are cousins," he said, "second and third cousins at that. I've never even met half of them. Those I grew up with have changed a lot over the years." Earlier, walking around among the first arrivals or standing at the bar with his father and his uncle, he had found it necessary to ask, "Is that Richard or Albert? And who's that? Ted? Bill? God, the last time I saw Bill he was thirteen and skinny."

The grandfather was Sicilian, from a town not far from Palermo, a small man in his late seventies, quick to smile, still autocratic and independent, as self-contained as the island of his birth. His father, a shoemaker after his father before him, had died in an outbreak of typhus, an incidental casualty of the war, in the seventy-second year of his life and the fifty-fifth of his marriage in a house five down from the house in which he had been born. The one brother, Ernesto, the eldest, had gone to the mainland in 1920 just after that same war, and settled in Turin. He made a  small fortune and lost a somewhat larger one. In the fifties he retired to a house in his native town, a house two streets over from the street on which he had been born and his father had died, there  to make his peace with God and quarrel amicably under the Sicilian  sun with any and all passers-by. Three of the sisters had fallen happily into the ordinary rhythm that is the destiny of simple peoples: they had married, spawned with religious profligacy, had grown old and fat and indelibly maternal after the ancient manner of women of their town, and at last divided their declining years among their grandchildren, their memories, and prayer. The fourth, Carmella, had accompanied her widowed uncle Giuseppe, his three sons, and his daughter-in-law to America in the early twenties. A year later the grandfather, Gaetano (only the grandmother called him that now) brought his new Neapolitan bride across the great ocean to join his sister and his uncle and his cousins.
He had done well. When the depression hit, his small family prospered. (A son, the first child of the new soil, had been born three years earlier.) The grandfather was a tailor. He had opened a small dry cleaning shop, and in those hard times there were many suits and dresses to be cleaned and pressed and patched and altered. It was in those years that he bought his first new car. He paid cash for it.
Giuseppe, who dealt in produce, also prospered. In the early years he worked hard nursing his hopes for the future from the back of a secondhand truck. Later he would oversee a flourishing wholesale business. In time, his other two sons married --- Italian girls from the neighborhood in which they all lived in those early days. Nino entered business with his father, Fabrizio and Carlo worked their way into the construction trades. Carmella, too, married, although very late for women of that community; a shy girl, she found that her attachments to her native soil were stronger than she had believed. She alone of all the family never learned to speak English comfortably, and it was no great surprise when, in the early sixties after Armand had died, she left the small apartment in the Italian community where they had lived since their marriage and returned to the harsh Sicilian landscape and the vehement Sicilian light for which she had yearned almost since she had left them.
In the early thirties the grandmother's sister and her husband and their three children had come over. The grandfather's business was strong (many of the customers who first came to him in the depression were still coming to him three years ago when the family finally persuaded him to close the store), and he was able to help them settle into the odd pace of the new land. His own family had grown again; the daughter was born in '31 and though from the first she had seemed a frail child they had not worried. She died of pneumonia at ten, and the family grieved for a year. When the father told the story he said that it was the only time in his life that he had seen the grandfather cry. The grandmother had stopped her yearly visits to the cemetery only last year, when the grandfather's health had deteriorated so badly that he could no longer drive her. Even now she kept the spare bedroom furnished in French provincial and decorated with the most delicately feminine lace curtains.

"Oh, you should have seen it," the mother said, "it was so funny." She had leaned across the father's empty chair and was talking to the son. "You know, it was the priest's idea that they make their vows over again, and your grandmother thought it would be a nice thing to do. Of course, your grandfather thought it was silly but he gave in rather than argue. Well, we were all in church and they were supposed to walk together up the aisle and your grandmother was supposed to carry the two little pitchers with the water and the wine and your grandfather was supposed to carry...oh, what do you call it...the cup with the hosts in it...the chalice."
"That's the ciborium," the grandson said, "the one with the top on it."
"That's right, the one with the top on it. Well, he got to the first step on the altar and he stumbled on it. He's getting so old. His toe just caught the step and he stumbled and the top of the..."
"...the top of the ciborium popped off and bounced down the steps and rolled right off the altar into the aisle. So your grand­father quick handed the...it..to the priest and then threw out his hands and shrugged as if to say, 'so what do you expect, I thought it was a silly idea anyway.' Your uncle was trying so hard to keep from laughing I thought he would choke."
Most of the guests had arrived and were seated now around the tables on the floor. The waitresses brought the steaming pans of pasta and chicken and roast beef from the kitchen and set them on the warmers on the buffet table. The grandmother and the grandfather stood by one of the tables in front of the long table on the dais and talked in Italian to another old woman. The grandson leaned over to his wife and nodded toward the three of them. "That's my Aunt Rosa," he said. "Well, my grandaunt, really. She was my god­father's mother. He died suddenly, very young, heart attack." The picture came to mind and he shuddered in chill dismissal. "That was something. My first experience with death. I couldn't have been more than, oh, twelve or thirteen at the time. You think this family is something when they celebrate, you should see them when they grieve. My uncles --- well, I don't know, grand cousins, I guess, if there is such a thing; in this family if they're older than you are you call them uncles --- anyway, my uncles had to hold her because she kept trying to throw herself into the grave on top of the coffin. I remember I kept thinking, if he's in heaven now why is everybody crying? She always wore black for after that."

The father had returned from the war with an English bride, the first marriage in the family to step outside the circle of the ancient blood. (In the middle 'nineties, before the first war, one of the grandfather's uncles had fathered a daughter by a young girl from the Swiss side of the Alps but he had not married her and, judged a rogue, had fallen from the family's graces and its memory,) For the first eight years they had lived with the grandfather while the father, a cabinetmaker, worked to establish himself and save for the down payment on a home of his own. The grandmother had borne a second son in '40, a year before the daughter's death, and, in the early years at least, he had been more like a brother than an uncle to the grandson born six years later.
The mother was from Folkestone, on the coast near Dover. She had met the father in London. She worked there in a munitions plant, he was in on leave. They courted under all the inconvenient circumstances imposed by war and married in a small church in Folkestone attended by a half-dozen pale English girls and upward of fifty drunken sailors. When the father told the story (on New Year's Eve, usually, several highballs past midnight and Auld Lang Syne) he liked to demonstrate how Les, the bosun's mate and his best man, had staggered down the aisle while the beer bottles that he had tucked beneath his jumper worked loose and crashed to the floor in front of the dismayed priest. The mother liked to recall the white satin bridal gown, all meticulously handsewn, and the silk stockings that the grandmother had sent over.
The grandfather called her 'polacco,' as though, by some special act of divine providence that was clear to him however obscured it might be to anyone else, the human race had been neatly and definitively divided between the Italians and the others, who, simply because they were not Italian, were collectively and indistinguishably, Polish. At first the mother, in a strange and boisterous land far removed from gentle English manners and among a volatile people who, at least half the time, spoke in a foreign tongue (because they're talking about me, she thought, and they don't want me to know what they're saying) had taken it as a slight and had allowed it to confirm the anxiety that informed her every action, her every breath. "I know it, I just know it," she said often to her husband, "your family doesn't like me, they don't like me at all." Sometimes, in the comparative privacy of their room at night, she would cry, and the father would throw his hands up in frustration and bewilderment and grope for a way to calm her. Perhaps it was the birth of her son that gave her her first glimpse beneath the grandfather's gruff exterior. She still recalled --- and had often related to the grandson --- how, when he was still a baby, the grandfather would stand over the bassinet watching him sleep, and, when he thought no one was looking, would jiggle it with his foot until the grandson woke, crying, so that he would have an excuse to pick him up and rock him roughly. "Unless he discovered that you were messy or wet," she said, "then it was strictly a woman's business. Your father was all right if you were only wet, but if you were messy he was the same as your grandfather: it was a woman's job, period."
In time she came to hear in his brusque 'polacco' an affectionate undertone. In time, too, she was no longer such a rare creature, no longer the only 'polacco' in the family. (In fact, two years ago, when her daughter --- his sister --- married, she chose a Wozniak, a genuine Pole, and the extension or the dilution of the ancient blood that was perhaps the true providential purpose behind their emigration seemed somehow fulfilled,)

The father was standing in front of the long table on the dais. "Ronny," he said (he did not notice that the grandson's eyes narrowed at the diminutive), "you remember your cousin Sammy."
The grandson stood up, leaned over, and extended his hand across the table. "Oh, sure. Hi, Sam, how are you?" The picture of a much younger face flashed across his memory, and he discarded it and replaced it with a picture of the face before him now, older, heavier, fuller.
"My God," Sam said, "I didn't recognize you at all with the mustache and everything. You've put on weight, too. God, it must be what? seven, eight years since I've seen you?"
"At least," the grandson said. "It was before I went away to school."
"So where've you been? What are you doing with yourself?"
"We're living out of town now, in Cincinnati. I'm teaching. We just flew in for the party. You?"
"I'm an accountant now, working for Keller and Smith. I don't suppose you know them, but they're a pretty good sized firm here in town. I just got married last year."
"I know. We got the invitation, but it was just impossible at the time."
"Oh, sure, we understand. It's like that now. This is your wife?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Susan, my cousin Sam. Sam, my wife Susan."
"How do you do."
"Nice to meet you," Sam said. He smiled at the wife, then turned toward the father. "Hey, Uncle Pete, it looks like you're about to be a grandfather."
The father grinned. "Yeah, my first. Isn't it great. Of course, they've got to live three hundred miles away, the rats, just to keep my grandchild away from me."
The grandson laughed. "C'mon, Dad, I told you how it is."
"I know, I know, you told me. But they got schools here, too, you know, lots of them." He grinned again and turned to Sam. "Hey, it ought to be your turn next."
Sam laughed. "Please, Uncle Pete, not for a couple of years yet. Let Jeffy and Anne take their turns first."
"What are you talking about?" the father said. "A couple of years. For what? You got a good job."
Sam laughed, then turned toward the grandson. "Listen, stop over to our table for a drink, eh? We're over there, by the dance floor. Stop over, really. We should see more of each other. It's too bad, you know." He waved and moved off. The lines were passing through the buffet, and the waitresses were beginning to serve the family at the long table on the dais. The mother leaned forward to her husband. "Get your mother and father," she said, "we're ready to eat."

In the fifties there had been deaths. Giuseppe was first, then Vittorio, the grandmother's sister's husband, then, as the decade was ending, Armand, Carmella's husband. In the fifties, too, they moved out of the old neighborhood and into the suburbs, a fine, big house newly-built on a bright street planted with seedling maples. (Now they were trees large enough to provide a modest shade; in another ten years they would arch high over the street to form a translucent tunnel.) There were many Italian families in the new neighborhood, but mostly they were second generation, and they greeted one another on the street or across their fences in English. The father and the uncle spoke both Italian and English, but the grandson learned to understand only snatches of Italian ("Just enough to know when they were talking about me or about something they didn't want me to know about." ) Years later, in college, he would take it to fulfill his language requirement. He would be able to manage only a C plus.
In the middle fifties the father at last moved his family into a home of its own in a working class neighborhood a few miles from the neighborhood into which the grandfather and the grandmother had settled. Most of the children with whom the grandson went to school had names that ended in a vowel, but at play after school they would all don the imitation coonskin caps that they had begged from their parents and construct endless variants of the life of Davy Crockett or they would gather on the empty lot at the end of the street for a game of baseball.
The early sixties were perhaps the best years for the family, the years when its rhythm was easiest and most natural. They gathered to celebrate the birthdays (there were at least two a month throughout the year) and for all the important holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Easter. After dinner the men would gather in the kitchen to play penny pinochle, and the women would sit over drinks in the living room gossiping about the affairs of their neighborhoods or reciting the litanies of their children's difficulties and accomplish­ments or talking about the new range or the new dinette or the new living room furniture that they had talked their husbands into buying. The children --- nineteen of them now when all the cousins were present --- played in the basement or in the backyard. In '65, when Joe, Rosa's eldest and the grandson's godfather, died, the celebrations stopped for almost a year. Energetic and efflorescent, Joe had been the sparkplug of the parties, teasing, arguing, joking, leading the laughter. (Then, too, his widow, Agnes --- she was not Italian --- took his death very hard, and there was an ugly business for a time while the family argued whether she was still stable enough to care for Rosa's granddaughters.) In '68 the grandfather suffered the first of his heart attacks.

"Please," the grandson said. The waitress removed his cup from the table, filled it, and replaced it in front of him. The tables had been cleared, and the level of chatter increased throughout the room. In the corner, the band, which had been silent throughout the meal (the grandfather had sent the grandson over with the curt instruction, "Tell ‘em be quiet with those junks until we finish eating") began with a pretty melody in a slow tempo. The grandson sipped his coffee and shifted his gaze to his right and left. There were fifteen at the table: the grandfather, his two sons, the six grandchildren, the grandmother, the mother, and the four wives. Almost sixteen, the grandson thought, smiling at his wife, almost four generations. He looked at each of the men at the table, at their dark features, their insolent eyelids, their strong noses. His wife was blond and fair, with a small, pert nose, and, although his own mother's features had showed up most distinctly in his sisters, he wondered what this latest of the family's genetic experiments would reveal, wondered how far his son's face (he was confident that it was a son) had moved from the rough style of the faces around him.
The wife took his hand beneath the table and leaned close to his ear. "Could we step outside for a minute?"
"Are you all right?"
"It's nothing," she said. "I just need a little air."
"Sure, fine," he said. He leaned to his right toward his father, who was talking in Italian with the grandmother. "We'll be back in a few minutes," he said. "We're going outside for a little air."
"Is everything all right?" the father said. "Susan's all right, isn't she?"
"She's all right. It's just getting a little close in here. She could use some fresh air."
The mother pulled her chair back up to the table between the father and the grandmother and asked, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," the son said. "Susan just wants a little fresh air."
"Maybe you should go back to the house," the father said, "maybe she should lie down and rest for a while."
"She'll be fine if we just go outside for a minute."
The grandmother leaned toward them and spoke to the father in Italian. He answered her in Italian and English. "Niente," he said, "Susan's stomach is just, ah, a little upset, and she wants some fresh air."
The grandmother smiled in their direction. "Shu," she said, "at’s right. You go outside for a while. At’s nice."
Outside the air was refreshingly cool. There was a white wrought iron bench flanked by flowerboxes at the front of the building, and they sat down and watched the traffic rushing by on the street in front of them. "That's better," she said. "You know, I really like your family."
"They're good people," he said, "a little hard to live with sometimes, but good people. It's really funny the way they are. Everything is family, you know? I mean it's all fathers and sons and aunts and uncles and cousins. That's what you are and sometimes I don't think they ever see anything else. They see that, but they don't see what changes. You're a son once and you're a son forever. To them it's all that really matters so in a way it's all that you ever really are. Did you notice that my father still calls me Ronny? I'm almost thirty. I even told him about it once, but he can't seem to break the habit."
"He doesn't mean anything by it," she said.
"No, I know that," he said. "He doesn't mean anything by it. Or else he doesn't know what he means by it. Or he knows and he can't understand what I object to."
"Your grandfather is cute," she said.
"He's getting old now," he said. "Some of the pepper is still there, but a lot of it is gone. He doesn't say anything, but I think he feels the time now. You know, it's funny. I was sitting in there thinking that when he came over his family was Italian, then it was Italian-American, now it's American with Italian blood. In the end it will probably just be American.  I wonder if he knew it would be like that or if it was something he just had to do for better or worse." He put his hand on her stomach and felt the baby stirring. "We'll probably never know which it was, better or worse, until this one is a grandfather. Him, inside there in the hall, he'll never know it. He just came over and did it and wore himself out doing it and he'll never know one way or the other."
They sat and watched the traffic for a while. Overhead, a few dozen stars were visible through the city haze. "All right now?" he said.
"Fine now," she said, "I just needed some air."
"Me, too," he said, realizing suddenly that he had been uncomfortable, almost suffocatingly so, in the dense air upstairs. "Let's go back in."
Halfway up the stairs he stopped and turned toward her. "Hey," he said, "when we name the baby, let's give him a name that you can't add a 'y' to."

The first heart attack laid the grandfather up for a month. Three years later, in '71 (the same year in which Fabbrizio died), he suffered another, and the family called for the priest. In the following year he had a third, and the family persuaded him to close the store.
He left the house rarely now, coming out only for the most impor­tant occasions --- a wedding, a baptism. Most of the time he sat in the big, comfortable chair in the den, napping or watching television. It did not seem to matter to him what program was on or that the tint was almost always maladjusted so that the faces all had a greenish cast. He still planted a garden, as he had done ever since he had a small patch of his own earth in which to dig, putting out a few dozen tomato plants, some cucumbers, some parsley, some lettuce, and some eggplant. Now, however, once the planting was finished, the gardening chores --- weeding, watering, picking the ripe produce --- fell mostly to the grandmother, who was able to get around better than he was and who still seemed to possess enough energy for the task.
The grandmother complained that he was getting forgetful. He often wore mismatched socks, fishing them out of the drawer even though the grandmother had laid a clean, matched pair on top of the dresser before going downstairs to fix breakfast. Once he had gone to keep a doctor's appointment wearing the pants from one suit and the jacket from another. Several times he had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand and had burned a hole in the big chair in the den. (The grandmother tried to limit his cigarettes as the doctor had ordered, but he was still canny enough to hide a spare pack or two around the house.) Yet, though the grandfather could not have explained it this way --- nor would he have tried to even if he could --- none of this was truly forgetfulness. It was just that his mind was crowded now with other things, with little bits and pieces of disconnected memories spread across fifty years of family life in this strange country, above which memories, like a bird or a cloud, floated another image, not yet fully formed but pressing inexorably toward clarity, an image all light and warmth and old, old earth. After the fourth attack, just last year, it filled his mind more persistently and in sharper relief.

The room was emptying now. There were perhaps fifty or sixty people left. The band finished the last of the fast, quasi-rock numbers to which the younger members of the family had been dancing most of the evening. (Earlier they had tried a tarantella, but few of the older generation felt up to the challenge and fewer still of the young knew how.) The music ended and the floor cleared and the band played The Anniversary Waltz one last time to an empty floor. The waitresses had begun removing the tablecloths.
The grandson stood at the bar with the father. Across the room, in front of the long table on the dais the grandfather and the grandmother were arguing in Italian. The grandson smiled. "What's with them?" he asked the father.
"Oh," the father said, "just the usual. Your grandfather's trying to convince her to go back to the old country for a visit. He's been trying to talk her into that for the last six months now."
"So maybe they should go," the grandson said. "Maybe it would do him some good." He sipped his drink and looked across at the grandfather. He seemed very old. "Maybe he's got something more in mind than just a visit," he said. The father looked at him and did not answer.
The last of the guests were moving toward the cloakroom now, and the grandfather and the grandmother moved slowly toward the door to say goodbye. The grandson walked over to the table on the floor where his wife was now sitting. "Tired?" he said.
"A little. But it was a nice party."
"Yes," he said. "Nice." He looked over at his grandfather. "May your next fifty be as full as the last fifty, Uncle Tom," someone was saying. "Thank you, thank you," the grandfather was saying. Behind him, on the buffet table, the ice sculpture had melted somewhat so that its outline was now blurred. The grandson noticed how uneasy, how weary, the old man's breathing was. He smiled and said thank you and shook hands, but his eyes seemed far, far away. "Thank you," he said, "thank you," (and it was not like a bird now, no, nor even like a cloud; now it was clear and bright as the Sicilian sun, as vehement as the Sicilian light, as warm and beckoning as the warm Sicilian  earth). "G'mon, Bert'," the grandson heard him say, "I'm tire'. It's time. I wanna go home."

No comments:

Post a Comment