The Song of All Saints by Michael Campagnoli

New Orleans, 1952

And Grandmother said:

“He has that way about him," and her face turned into a sour knot. “You know what I mean? They all do." She was talking to my mother about my father, and my father’s family. Mother just shrugged. “They’re . . .different than we are," Grand continued, “Don’t you think?" She straightened up and gave mother an imperious glare.

Mother couldn’t meet that glare -- cowed by Grandmother for many reasons, not the least of which was marrying a man Grand despised, and eloping with him at that:

one hot summer evening when she was just a girl of sixteen, literally climbing out her bedroom window at the appointed hour, down a ladder to where the young Marine stood with bated breath in his dress blues.

“Oh," Mother would say, “but he was a handsome man." And she’d look up with a glow in her eyes, pausing, remembering, I assumed, that muggy August night so full of stars and dreams and expectations.

But now, while Grandmother Gertrude worked on her, she could barely lift her chin. She fretted as she moved the needles, head bowed, mouth pursed, and nodded submissively.

Grandmother swelled. She knew how to take advantage. She disliked my father. Had always disliked him. She had her reasons -- some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t know, but would find out later, and some, I suppose, that she took to her grave. She was an old lady, even then, when I knew her as a boy, and never very charitable.

(Winter Dreams. . .)

In half-light, I pull covers to my chin. Shadows lurk. Darkness is a greasy film cut by a single sliver of lightÍ a refracted slash that expands but grows weaker the further it stretches from the barely cracked door. Down the hall, I hear a television (a Western it sounds like, with Indians shouting and cavalry shooting their guns). Each time we watch High Noon, Nonno tells me he wants to go West, get a horse, become a cowboy. An Italian cowboy. Gary Cooper, he is not. The grey light flashes, flickers in the hall, and I hear Nonno snore.

His real name was Michele (pronounced with a hard “c" and a long “e", like “Mee-KELL- lay"), Alfredo Mee-KELL-lay Cantata. For much of my short life, I’ve feared him, shamed by his dark skin and broken speech, but in time I will come to call him Nonno, like the Italians.

His house is strange. Not like the apartment I share with my parents. There everything is neat and clean, spartan and sun-drenched. Almost ascetic. A furious white Calvinist light pours in on bare polished floors, hot and uncompromising, filling every corner, every creviceÍ leaving no penumbra, no shadow, no place to hide. The receptacle of all that which is comfortable and familiar and certain, but so unremittingly grim and judgmental.

Nonno’s house reminds me of the Catholic Church where he took me once: dark, foreboding, lighted by candles, full of shadows and colored light, the frightening priest in his black dalmatic robes, the clank and smoke of the thurible.

He lives on a narrow street in a neighborhood of working-class houses similar in design and shared proximity. A modest grey structure, outwardly plain and unexceptional, but inside a welter of intricate detail.

Thick maroon curtains cover the windows. Old stuffed furniture (saturated with dust) engorge small rooms. Enormous lace doilies refuse to lay flat, crowd tables and shelves. The walls are cluttered with pictures of people with almond-shaped eyes and olive and yellow skin: Mary and the baby Jesus, Victor Emanuel, GaribaldiÍ also cathedrals in Florence and Venice, the invisible glory of Il Duomo. Then there is a cross with a sad and suffering Christ. This Christ looks Oriental, Semitic and mournful. Not like the one at the Baptist Church where my mother takes me. There the Galilean is pale and smiling, looks something like Tyrone Power with blue eyes and long hair. (“Ours is not a DEAD Christ hung on CRUCIFIX," the Reverend Longsleeves cries, “HE IS RISEN! Our cross is EMPTY. PRAISE THE LORD!") And there are odors in Nonno’s house, strong and unfamiliar: rich cheeses, dark wines, garlic (sometimes he kisses me on the nose and the stench fills my nostrils for hours, for days it seems like), and the stale smoke of stogies and pipe tobacco.

And the old man, himself, is strange. Exotic. Not like other adults. Even the smell of him is something somehow alien. There’s the manly smell of sweat and rich black earth (that from his garden), but something more. . .a faint, elusive emanation, a kind of ethnic incense that rises up from deep within. You can smell it when you’re close or sometimes on his clothes later. An animal musk. A DNA. It insinuates knowledge. Not wholly offensive, but it stings me. A sort of initiation. An ancient odor--wild, pagan, profane--full of strange incantations, intimations, tainted with the ritual and violence of blood.

It is late at night in winter and the television hums static. I taste the grit of my own strangeness and dream of lives unlived. And in the living room, dreaming of horses and cattle drives and barroom brawls for meager wagers, the Italian Cowboy snores.

(A Question of Taste. . .)

Grand rolled her eyes and frowned.

“Must he remove his shirt?" she asked, fanning herself. My father, working in the garden, held a long-handled shovel, turned clods of rich black earth, pried rocks the size of loaves of bread. He glistened with sweat (“Perspiration!" Grand would have corrected). His broad shoulders rolled, the tendons in his arms twisted and pulled.

“In this heat, Ma," my mother answers, “it’s more comfortable."

Grand rolled her eyes again, large eyes and expressive, but wherever they momentarily rest, they immediately thereafter return to the narrow waist of father, sweat dripping from his black curly hair, down his forehead, off his nose. Her head shakes. She smiles at me--a fake china-doll smile that invites complicity. “What can you do?" she says, sweet like some poisons are sweet, as if that lean figure in the garden were not my father, but some sort of lower primate.

When Momma and Poppa were courting, Momma had to sneak out of the house to meet him. Grand would yell after her, “I know were you're going---you're going to meet that dago. Well, don't bring him around here. I forbid him to step foot in this house." After Momma and Poppa eloped, Grandmother Gertrude disowned mother, would not speak a word to her, even admit of her existence for five full years after the marriage.

When I was born, my complexion was ruddy, my hair thick and black, already so long it had to be cut in the hospital. According to Momma, the nurses crowded around my crib, thought me cute, but Grand's only comment was, “He looks like a little monkey," tendered with just the inflection to make her intent unmistakable.

On the few occasions when Grand was compelled to be in the presence of my father’s family, she spent the entire time with a horrified smile frozen on her face. The discomfort was palpable.

She’d hover over my grandfather, a bronze-olive skinned old man who could barely speak English, as if he were feeble or moronic. When he quite sensibly resisted her attentions, she’d roll her eyes, shake her head, and smile regretfully.

“What can you do?" she’d say.

(About Grandmother Gertrude. . .)

“You ask too many questions," Mother said.

“Did she have brothers and sisters?"

“I told you."

“How old was she when her parents died?"

“1907, I think. That was her father. Her mother died when she was little."

“How old?

“Oh, I don’t remember all that stuff. Maybe 16."

“When her mother died?"

“No, her father. If you’re not going to listen, I’m not going to tell you."

“But you said she got married when she was 16."

“That’s right."

“The same year?"


“Pretty quick, wouldn’t you say?"

“Don’t be fresh. She was an orphan. Didn’t have anything. No one to protect her."

“But still. . ."

“She got a job. Then she met your grandfather."

“Where’d she work?"

“D.H. Holmes. Then later, Maison Blanche."

“What was his name?"

“Walter LeFurge. French. Isn’t that pretty? It’s not good to get married that young, but back then, they did it that way."

There’s a family picture of a petite, round-faced salesgirl standing behind a counter, staring back at the camera with such blank and innocent intensity, as if she were searching for a smile.

Once, not long after Grand died, I found a box of pictures in a lower drawer. Inside, tied neatly in lavender ribbon, was a packet of letters. Love letters. I didn’t get very far before my mother stopped me, but I read enough to know (even as a young boy) that Grand was not the prude her daughters were.

She liked to have a good time. Right to the end, she took “excursions with her “friend," Charley (“Cholly," she’d say) Kruger. A tall, big-bellied florid man with a red-bald head and the booming gravel voice. He was a tugboat captain. When asked what he did for a living, he’d grandly point to the huge barges moving up and down the Mississippi and announce, “I keep this town alive." It was an occupation, to a young boy like me, of considerable romance and charm. When he was younger, he told me he was a bootlegger. “I’d run a launch across Pontchartrain down in the Industrial Canal and out into the Gulf where a schooner from Cuba would wait. Raw alcohol. We’d bring it back to the Eye-talians and they’d turn it into bourbon and scotch.--That’s when he’d pinch me on the cheeks until they almost burst and call me “Pasquale."

“You don’t think they stayed in separate rooms?" my father would ask.

“Don’t be disgusting," Mother would answer.

Unlike my Baptist mother and her Baptist sisters, Grand played cards, danced, and was not opposed to a cold beer on a summer’s day. And she had a laugh. A hearty laugh. A lusty laugh. She came of age in an era when the tinkling bells of horsecars still filled the streets of New Orleans and she considered herself a “lady," no matter how tough and pragmatic she needed to be or how powerful her appetites. Her relationship with God may have been uneasy, but she believed in manners. Manners were her morality. The way a gentleman bowed or a lady held a fan. She was a person accustomed to certain prerogatives.

(Semper Fi. . .)

“I heard about Uncle Norman."

“What about him?" Mother asked.

“You know. That time Poppa beat him up."

“What?" Mother said. “When was that?"

“You know. I heard you talking to Aunt Evelyn about it once."

Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it getting beat up."

Norman was Grand’s favorite. The first child. Her baby boy. But he thought he had a right to slap the girls around. One day my mother called my father. This was before they were married. Before he joined the Marines. He worked in construction, played football for the Stapleton Indians, boxed semi-pro. He had heavy hands, like stone, big-shouldered and thick-necked. He yanked Norman from the house. Taught him about consequences.

“Oh, Norman was just a big tub of lard," Mother said.

“I know, but big. Wasn’t he 6 feet 4?"

“Violence never settles anything."

“Did he hit you again?"

“Your father should be ashamed."

“Why? He didn’t tell me. He didn’t say a word. It was Johnny Keller."

“Oh, that Johnny Keller. He should keep his mouth shut. Just one bully beating up another." Grand was outraged. She tried to have Poppa arrested, but the judge said he’d drop the charges if Poppa decided to join the Marines.

(On Sunday afternoons. . .)

On Sunday afternoons, Nonno gave me a quarter to crank his old Victrola. The music was strange, but I didn’t mind the cranking. He’d direct, how fast, how slow. He’d hum, gesture, motion to speed up as the music soared. “Veloce! Più velocemente!" would come the command uttered with eyes shut tight, the veins of his wiry neck swollen, and one hand extended.

Not a big man, but, even in advanced age, strong. A body capable of tremendous leverage.

His hands were large, muscular, deeply creased. Dangerous hands. Even in repose, they carried the threat of violence. Once, I saw him knock a stranger out with a single blow. The stranger was taller, but the punch broke his nose like a rock crushing a biscuit. There was the crack of bone on bone, the snap- crackle of collapsing cartilage. The stranger’s eyes rolled up in his head. He fell to the ground with a thud. There was shouting. People running. And blood everywhere.

But as I cranked, the unquiet hands would be at ease. Amid the rise and fall of Verdi and Caruso, he’d soak peaches in his wine, dream about the Old World and a wife already dead from consumption. A thick, calloused finger would trace the outline of a black, gilt-framed photograph and he'd tell me of summer nights when he was young, courting Nonna Raffaela beneath a moonlit Florentine window, playing a borrowed mandolin, singing “Che Gelida Manina" and “Maria, Mari!" Or the passionate, “Una Furtive Lagrima." Serenading. As his father before him, and his father, and his father’s father. The scratchy music would play. Nonno would lean his head back. The white mustache would shine in the receding light. The sad, dark eyes would close. And he’d look old, fine-boned, and frail.

Respighi now, I think. A favorite. The music would sail and the old man, would dance and sing along in a raspy thin Italian. . .

Dell'aere ai morsi crudi
gli addolorati tronche
offron predgando i bronchi

How cold I am! How alone
through the grey sky
a sigh flies up
from the dead.

It calls to me: Come,
the valley is dark.
Oh sad, unloved one,
! Come!

His crooked figure would sway gently in the dying light. The hardened, ominous hands would gesture plaintively, delicately, with a wild, knotted, sinewy grace. The final crescendo would burst, pierce the air, followed by a solemn coda.

“Basta," the old man would whisper, “basta."

When it was done, I’d wait. I would not move or speak.

Those hands, those dangerous hands, would be poised an arm’s length above me. Head bowed, I’d close my eyes and feel his gaze upon me, the intensity of his heart. A moment would pass and I’d look up, tentative, silent, almost mournful, until, neither he nor I, could stand a moment more, and the old man would grab me in a rush and send me squealing in the air.

(Fuoco: Into the Fire. . .)

“And do you know what I said?" he says.

It’s a summer night and I’m very young. We’re sitting in lawn chairs out back by his garden, watching the shore traffic below on Route 61. It’s hot and he’s drinking wine from a long-necked bottle. I don’t like it. It scares me. My mother has filled me with stories of what happens when men drink. I have a Cott’s Cream Soda with ice, served in a tall glass that once was a jelly jar.

“And do you know what I said?" he says again.

I know what he said. I’ve heard it a thousand times.

In the dark of night, the S.S. Anglia glides past Battery Park, approaches the Lower East Side. Below decks, a young man peers from the black steerage into the black of night. His wife and infant child huddle nearby. Before them sprawls a catacomb of tangled streets, crowded tenements, airless sweatshops, a panoply of factories belching heat and light. The young man looks at his family and thinks of Dante as they enter the rain-wet New World.

“No, what did you say?" I say, pretending.
He looks off, far into the evening sky, above rows of houses, the endless lines of cars and
grey exhaust.

“Non so come," he says, “si puo vivere in questo fuoco."

And he waits, knowing that I will ask. Does he forget that he’s told me so many times? Or
does he like that it’s become a ritual? Our ritual. So, I ask. “What does that mean, Nonno?"

He looks at me gravely. “I do not know how," he says, “it is possible. . .to live in such fire." He shakes his head.

I shake my head, too.

And the two of us sit, the man and boy. (“Ah-meddy-ga. . .")

This is the pamphlet they handed Nonno when he got off the boat:

A Welcome to Immigrants & Some Good Advice

In America you need not be rich to be happy/ and respected. In other countries the people/ belong to the government. They are called/ subjects. They are under the power of some/ Emperor, King, Duke, or other Ruler. If the/ Common people of other countries had faith/ in each other, there would be no Czars, Kings/ or Kaisers ruling them under the pretext of/ Divine Right. In America there are no bosses./ The People are the boss. You need only to be/ honest and honorable, decent in your talk, and clean in your person./ Those who behave/themselves will have no problems./America will welcome you.

Nonno Michele came to this country in 1908. He was educated. An artisan, the member of a guild. He did not believe in the stories of easy wealth and streets of gold. But he did believe in the promise, the dream, the sogno bello. What he found was the jeers of “dago" and “wop" and “greaseball." He was handed a shovel and called a “giny" ditch digger. Eventually, he practiced his craft (in diminished capacity) as a carver of gravestones, water fountains, the sarcophagi of rich people’s mausoleums.

My father told me about the day he watched Nonno, eyes fierce and brokenhearted, tears cutting his cheeks like acid, as the cold chisel edged the names of his wife and only female child. A week apart. A bleak December day. Though America broke its promise to him, he remained faithful. He pronounced it, would always pronounce it, Ah-meddy-ga, with a certain gossamer lightness, as if the word itself, “Ah-meddy-ga," were dream enough.

(The Secret. . .)

“Efva you be-a-gude boy," Nonno tells me, beleaguered by a vowel-deficient language, “den-ah-ma goan to buy you a pony." He tells me this when he thinks I’m about to get restless. His eyes shine when he says “pony" and he smiles like a young boy. I smile too.

We’re in a bar called the Royal Cafe. I'm five, maybe six years-old and the bar scares me. These are workingmen. Tough. Hunkies from the docks. Pale, not dark like Nonno. They wear layers of clothes, flannel shirts and long underwear, King-Imperials, -- The Aristocrat of Overalls. They call the bartender, “Murphy," but his real name is Hymie Zelkowitz.

They like Hymie and they like Nonno, too. They smile, buy him rounds of drinks. Nonno nods, returns the favor. We can’t stay long. I’m glad. The Royal is dark, dirty. It has a pool table and jukebox in back.

Out in the brightness of the street, we walk maybe half a block before a cablecar stops to give us a ride. The conductor won’t take Nonno’s money. He shakes his head, “No suh. Not good heah, suh.2 He calls Nonno “The Mayor of Decatur Street." We stop in front of the Silver Fox. Inside are pine paneled walls and much more light. There are tables and chairs and women, too.

"Such a doll," a blonde one says, approaching us. Her skin is clear and very pale, but not pasty like the others. It almost glows. Her green eyes are flecked and transparent. She wears dark eye make-up heavily applied and her coarse, semi-bushy hair is left unkept. It’s as if she tried to brush it, make it nice, then pushed it to one side and said, “Ah, the hell with it." When she smiles, I can see that one front tooth is chipped and the other capped. But she’s nice, attractive, in a damaged way, and I like her.

“Nippo-TEEN-no," Nonno says. He pronounces it as if the word has volume, texture, ripe like a juicy piece of fruit.

“You can sure see the resemblance," the blonde answers. Her name is Carol. She brushes back my black hair, chucks my cheek. “Looks like Dondi," she tells Nonno. I blush from shyness. I’m not used to the attention of strangers. I sit on the bar between them and close up, it’s clear Carol didn’t sleep too much last night.

“Hey, Paradowski," a deep male voice calls from across the room. Carol turns. She squints to find it. He’s a husky brown-haired man in a frayed blue work shirt and heavy boots. “One’s higher than the other," he calls, one hand cupped to his mouth, then both cupped on his chest. Carol looks down and checks herself. The men laugh. They all laugh.

“Oh you!" she scolds.

“I always get her with that one," brown hair boasts. “Always."

Carol frowns and shakes a finger. He ducks his head and laughs.

“Excuse me," Carol says and sashays over. She flashes her bright eyes and damaged smile, one hand resting on a hip. The men laugh, leer, nudge each other. I begin to fidget. As we walk down the street, Carol waves from the door. A solitary figure, tiny, lost, and all alone.

(Little Palermo. . .)

Streets are lined with trees. Outdoor cafes have vined trellises and red tablecloths. People wave and smile. Vendors cry--their pushcarts full with fruits and vegetables, shiny silver-scaled fish, black mussels, clams, piles of grey oysters in their rough imbricated shells. The vendors sing-bright tenors, basso profundos.

Storefronts are draped in red and white and green. Huge rings of sienna-crusted bread, rows of provolone hang from ceilings, cylinders of “moozzarel" are stacked on shelves like an armory of high caliber artillery shells. And there are bars. “VINO! VINO! di California, di Italy-Beer and Whiskey for Sale!" The doors are propped open and I see perspiring men in the muted light, sitting at tables in shortsleeve shirts and baggy pants. They’re playing cards, drinking beer, mopping their brows with blue bandannas. When they see Nonno, they laugh and shout, greet by hugging. Some even kiss him on the cheek. They gesture with their hands, speak Italian. Gandmother Gertrude’s sigh is almost audible. I cling to Nonno’s hand. They feed me sausage and spumoni while they fight over boccie.

On the way home, we eat sticky ciambella and sweet clouds of zeppoli. “Our little see-cret, no?" Nonno says with a wink and smile. If Momma found out there’d be hell to pay. She thinks if you take one drink, you’re an alcoholic.

(On Why Momma Hated Drinking. . .)

“Oh, it was d-i-s-gusting. I don’t even like to think about it. But you should have heard him play the piano. And the organ! I-tell-you, it was something." She was his favorite. Out of six his favorite.

“But why did you have to clean up after him? Where was Grand?"

“She was asleep. It was disgusting. He’d throw up all over everything. I’d wake up and have to clean him and the bed."

“You mean he slept with you?"

“When he was drunk, he did. You don’t think Grand would let him near her then?"

But why’d he do it?"

“I don’t know.Wish I did know."

She was ironing one of Poppa’s shirts. Beside her was a bowl of water. She’d sprinkle the shirt with her fingers, then the iron would thump and the steam would hiss and rise.
“He had a very good job -- bookkeeper for the Cunard Line--then he just started drinking.
It was after the accident."

“What accident?"

“Down on the loading dock. He hurt his back. I don’t remember how it happened. Laid up for a year. And there was no Workman’s Comp in those days. Grand had to go out and get a job. Back then that wasn’t too easy, believe-you-me, for a woman to find respectable work. Things changed after that. They were never the same."

“Maybe that’s why he started to drink."

“No excuse!" The blue eyes snapped, harsh with judgment. The iron thumped and wheezed. “And then one day, he goes out and never comes back. No goodbye, no I love you. Nothing." The pain was still palpable.
“I thought Grand threw him out."

“Who told you that?"


“Ha! What would he know."

“He said Grand drove him out."

“He doesn’t know anything. I was there. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about."

You mean he just left? You never saw him again?"

“Never. . .thirteen and never saw him again. ."

“Is he alive?"

“Gerry hired a private detective, years ago--I don’t remember how that ended. Living up north, I think. Probably dead. Probably drunk himself dead. But I hope it’s something you never do. ..drink. Can’t stand it. And they act so strange. . ."

“When Poppa drinks, he gets happy."

“When’d you ever see your father drink?"

“That Christmas. . ."

“What Christmas?"

“That one that Mrs. Keller brought the cider that was old. Poppa kept shooting the bulbs off the tree with my pellet gun."

“Oh, that was different. He didn’t even know." She started to laugh. “But that’s one thing I praise the Lord: your father’s not a drinking man. People can say what they will, but he’s not a drunk. And he’s clean, very clean. I’ve always said that. He has good personal habits."

I like it when she says something good about him. It doesn’t happen very often.

(A House Divided. . .)

I was raised in an atmosphere where elevating your voice, expressing anything but diluted emotion, was a serious and embarrassing lapse of etiquette. A sign of weakness. My father’s family seemed ignorant, even disdainful, of these significant virtues. They were loud, boisterous, openly affectionate. Even violent. Not unlike characters in the operas Nonno Michele loved so well. They often disagreed with sudden and frightening intensity. “Don’t be like that," Grand would tell me, “Don’t be like your father." I knew what she meant. She taught me to feel shame for my shared inheritance: dark hair and eyes, the ruddy complexion, the least display of anger. They elicited a raised eyebrow, a look of disgust, as if she could taste and smell the contamination. I came to fear the Italians--their swarthy looks, the perplexing language, musical and vaguely threatening, the puzzling village ways, the crowded, powerful emotions, the complex labyrinth of their gestures (each it seemed with a secret meaning). The existence of blond, blue-eyed cousins served only to demonstrate my obvious inferiority and a feeling of utter isolation.

(When Grandmother Gertrude came to live with us. . .)

I’d run errands for her: fill her water glass, carry her dinner tray, fetch a magazine or book, change the channel on the TV. She complained a lot. It was hard to please her. But then, there were other times when Mother wasn’t around. I’d pass Grand’s room and she’d hiss at me (a gap-toothed hiss through yellowed teeth and loose, distended lips), gesture me in. “Pocketbook," she’d say, impatient, a bony finger pointing across the room. I’d retrieve it and she’d rustle around in it (for it was an enormous thing) until she found her change purse. Casting furtive glances--first left, then right--she’d withdraw a quarter or fifty cents and thrust it into my hand.

“What’s this for?"

“Just take it and be quiet." She’d smile ominously. “You deserve it. Don’t tell your Mother." She would roll her eyes in wide arcs. A grand conspiracy. The two of us against the world. She calls mother her “jailer."

“Now, be on your way," she’d tell me and hustle me out of the room.

An hour later, I’d hear her complaining about me again. Telling mother I was lazy.

A spoiled brat.

Toward the end, she lost control of her bowels. Crazy with pain, furious with life, she lashed out at everyone. “Don’t pay attention," mother told me, “she isn’t herself." Once, before they took her away, but close to the end, she hissed at me from the darkness of her room. She looked fierce, wild, like a madwoman, smelled sour, acrid. She grabbed my arm, hard, and in a desperate whisper said, “I loved you best. . .You were always my favorite. . .Do you understand?"
Then her eyes clouded over and she fell back, exhausted by the effort. A little later, they came and took her away.

(At the End. . .)

She got bloated and pale. Her hair was cracked and dry. It stuck out from her head. And she screamed sometimes, leaning up in bed like someone was twisting her arm behind her. It started low, then got very high. It made your ears hurt. A cry that cared for nothing nor nobody, only her own pain and her own dying. That’s when they came and took her away and Momma sat around and cried all the time and Poppa looked mad. It wasn’t a good time. We lived on the Rue St. Ann and I got in a fight with an older boy named Albert and bit him in the back.

(A Force to be Reckoned with. . .)

“She’s a tough old bird," father would say and he was right. Grandmother Gertrude was a substantial Victorian matriarch--imperious, pale, green-eyed--who did not suffer fools idly. A look that withheld: approval, mercy, affection. You might receive a hurried, wet, old lady kiss but never an embrace. Her disapproval of my father’s family was more than simple prejudice. There were other, darker, reasons.

When Poppa was growing up, the Cantata’s lived above a butcher shop on St. Peter’s Street. In the late afternoons Grandmother Gertrude would visit that shop and spend a disproportionate amount of time in the back room. Nonno had knowledge of this, couldn’t help but have knowledge of it. The big mouthed German butcher, with red-soaked apron and wet rope of cigar, was not discreet.
Furthermore, Grand knew that Nonno knew. It was one more thing she held against him.
But no matter what, she was always a force to be reckoned with.

“When Grand dies," Poppa would say, “God will have to leave heaven. They both can’t be boss." She raised a family of six single-handedly (after her husband ran off with a cashier from D. H. Holmes), supported them, kept a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and clothes on their backs--even in the depths of the Depression. Obdurate and single-minded, she competed fiercely in a man’s world long before it was fashionable. Lying about her age, she worked well past her seventy-second year, conquered then only by the bumbling ineptitude of a country doctor (who mistook dyspepsia for coronary thrombosis and administered a near and ultimately fatal dose of narcotic drugs). But even then, she did not go gentle into that good night, not her, she fought and wept (her liver-spotted hands clawing the empty air) and prayed and cursed (the hot spittle dripping from her chin, spouting from her lips) and howled her rebuke at the finalities of death.

When the end came, she sat straight-bolt upright, one palsied arm propped behind her, and reached out with her left hand, gently gesturing with her fingers, as if she were trying to grasp something infinitely small and delicate. Her sagging bloated face turned briefly coy, suddenly girlish. The fleeting averted eyes of a young coquette. Then, without warning, as if she spied some grotesque apparition, her mouth dropped into a large black “O." She screamed--a scream that raked the air like huge nails scraped slowly down a blackboard. “No," she cried, “NO!" then collapsed back upon the mattress. A half-hour later she gave one, final, convulsive quiver and was gone.

There was that girlish face, so inestimably vulnerable, ripped from the protection of her parents, educated in the ruthless and impersonal vicissitudes of an unwelcoming world at an age that other girls worried about what dress to wear, what ribbon to choose, what date to take to the social. Never enough. Love, security. Never enough. Food, care. Never enough. So with life she made sure. Her presence filled our apartment, could only be fully calculated in its loss. Each word, each gesture, each idea filtered through her critical eye. A part of everyday experience, tanglible as bread, basic as air, ubiguitious as the sun.
She was gone. Just-like-that. Gone. And at eight years old I was left to ponder the meanings of finality.

(Autumn Song: ripeness is all)

It is my sixth birthday.

A warm night for the first of November.

Mother clears the table. No one speaks. Poppa sits at the head. He stares straight before him, past Momma’s empty chair, out the open screen door of our second floor landing. His Marine Corps pose-ramrod straight, chest out, chin tucked in-stone faced. The rules of combat: no quarter given, none accepted.

Momma tries her best pretend smile, but Poppa will not be moved.

Opposite me (and the reason for Poppa’s vigilance) is Grand. Her cheeks are puffed and round, a Cheshire cat, like she’s hiding two or three biscuits in each of them. Both elbows rest on the table. Her hands are folded together, clasped to the right of her chin, her chin is tucked into her right shoulder, like Sugar Ray Robinson in a defensive crouch. It shields her from my father’s glare. She knows how to use his best impulses against him. And she’s smiling. Smiling sweetly! As if she were a girl.
She’s trying to get me to play along. If I return that smile, the conspiracy will be complete he’ll be alone in his anger. But I’m having none of it. I know what he’s thinking, how he’s feeling. “Like a bull in a china shop," he’d say, but it’s worse: a feeling like you don’t belong--anywhere. Everything she says has a double edge, meant for a certain part of his anatomy.

When the plates are cleared, Mother walks mysteriously out of the kitchen. Moments later she returns, holding a cake with candles burning bright. Momma sings, they all sing, “Happy Birthday.. Happy Birthday to YOU!" Poppa grunts more than sings, sneaks suspicious looks from the corner of his eye. Grand enjoys his discomfort. She sings gaily, triumphantly, gestures broadly with her hands, allows her thin soprano to crack. Rubbing it in: he’s not important enough for her to fear embarrassment.

The cake is put before me. “Make a wish! Make a wish!" I blow the candles out in a single breath. They applaud. “Did you make a wish?" Poppa smiles proudly, pats my head. His eyes acknowledge my loyalty. Neither woman will ever understand the irreconcilables that exist within his blood, nor will I until I’m an adult and a man, myself.

“What a beautiful cake," Grand says as Momma slices the first piece, “don’t you think so,

She’s pushing her luck and knows it. Trying hard to create an incident. He hates the
diminutive. His real name is “Alfredo." He nods grudgingly. Grandmother, her face strategically propped behind her shoulder, rolls her large eyes slowly up to the ceiling and down. A flamboyant gesture. She purses her lips. “See," she seems to say, “you can’t have a nice time around him." Poppa glares. He knows what she’s doing with her nose in the air.

Mother puts a big slice of cake before me. And we all hear a loud, “clump, clump, clump," on the back stairs. An unusual sound. No single person could make a sound like that. We look at each other. Mother stands over the cake with head cocked to one side knife poised in mid-cut. “Clump, clump-
-clumpity-clump," the noise grows louder. Already, we can tell, at the first landing and heading up. Poppa squints like he recognizes something. Then we all hear it: A familiar voice. Sometimes singing, sometimes implorative, gently urging, somewhat slurred, definitely inebriated. We sit motionless. Mother looks to Poppa, then to me. An expression that says, “What the devil ?"

“CLOMP, CLOMP, CLOMP," thunders up the final steps.

The whole house shakes. Suddenly, the screen door is flung open and the head of a full- grown horse is thrust inside. We jump and yell. The head’s enormous, fills the entire doorway: long and flat, with nostrils flared, black eyes wild with animal fear. It sneezes and sprays us all.

Mother screams and drops the knife into the cake. Poppa looks ready to spring. Grand’s mouth is open so wide that missing molars can clearly be identified. Then Nonno’s head pops in the door, squeezed between the frame and the skittish, swaybacked horse.

“Buon Compleanno, Antonio!" he cries. “See-a what I bring-a you!" His voice is alive with laughter and he wears an old slouch hat cocked rakishly to one side. He sings, “Happy Birthday," in Italian. The horse stomps, snorts, starts to enter. Saliva drips, drools greasy from its wizened muzzle.

“No you don’t!" Mother shouts, recovering herself, “GET THAT ANIMAL OUT OF HERE!"

She advances on the hapless creature armed with a broom.

“Don’t hitta-da pony," Nonno pleads, “Don't hitta-da pony." He throws himself between them. But it’s no use. Momma’s barrage rains down on them both.

“I begga-you. . ." Nonno cries, retrieving his hat. He feints and dodges Momma’s relentless attack. I recognize the “horse" now. It’s Genco Cubelli’s old swayback, long retired, used at one time to deliver ice.
“GET-IT-OUT-TA. . .HERE!!!!" she roars, huffing and puffing as she swings. The noise and confusion is terrible. Neighbors lean out their windows, have gathered below. They line the stairs, peer in from the landing. They “Ooou" and “Ah" and cheer.

The terrified beast is finally extracted, but not without mass confusion and collateral damage. Even Grand is hit by an errant blow and now her hair is all pushed up on one side, pitched like the list of a sinking ship.

Out on the landing, the horse pivots abruptly. His hindquarters knock Nonno over the railing where he teeters precariously, flailing his arms for balance, watching the unforgiving ground two stories below.

The crowd roars.

Nonno catches himself.

They cheer.

Only to lose his grip, once more. They “Oh-h-h" and “Aw-w-w." He begins to slide.

They scream!

But, in the last second, catches his foot in the banister. He pulls himself up.

They yell and applaud.

The horse and Nonno perform a kind of dance, until he finally gets the mare turned around. I run to the screen door just in time to see Nonno holding the reins in one hand as he triumphantly doffs his hat with the other and bows to acknowledge the crowd. It is then that the spooked creature exacts his revenge. He butts Nonno from behind, launches him up and out through the air like an acrobat shot out of a cannon. The crowd roars again and Nonno lands in a sea of upraised arms and hands.

Momma yells, “You get BACK HERE!" as if Nonno’s departure were planned. “GET THIS HORSE OUT OF HERE!" The confused creature bumps Momma with it haunches, then snorts on her head. Momma’s eyes narrow. She reaches for the broom and threatens the horse. The neighbors prop Nonno’s hat on his head and lift him up to the second landing and deposit him with a cheer. Nonno corals the horse. Momma turns to find me beside her. “Inside!" she says, opening the screen door and pointing.

When I return to the table, the air’s so tight we can hardly breathe. Poppa bows his head. We all do. We can feel Mother’s wrath above us, her blue eyes burning, daring anyone to contradict her anger. We can hear Nonno’s singing.

Momma looks around, daring us to even smirk.
I peek at Poppa. He’s staring straight ahead. Marines know how to do this. Then we hear Nonno singing, happy joyous, receding down in the alley. Poppa forces the corners of his mouth down, rigid, and lowers his chin to his chest. I try to hold it back, but my body begins to shake. My shoulders bounce silently up and down. Mother narrows her eyes at me, still full of rage. I stifle my air. We can hardly hold it. I let out a little snort. I feel like I’m going to explode. Then Grand makes a small giggle.

“Mother!" my mother shouts and we stop. For a moment, all is silent, then we can’t help it. I giggle. Momma glares. She’s still holding the broom. Then Grand can’t breathe. She expels pent up air through her mouth. I begin to giggle. Even Poppa, who holds out to the last, expresses a great blast of air and begins to laugh, too. Finally, Mother’s anger deserts her. She starts to chuckle. We peek at each other.

And we laugh.

We all laugh-loud and full and overmuch--and the the tears come down our cheeks and the laughter ripples around us, surrounds us, travels in expanding circles, out into the ripe, warm, autumn air. And I think, why can’t it always be like this, and Nonno sings. It is “La Danza" from Rossini:

Mamma mia, Mamma mia, gi--la luna, gi--la luna Frinche, frinche,
Frinche, frinche,
La-la--RA, la-la--RA,

L-a-a. . .RA!
It is my sixth birthday, and Nonno sings.


All Rights Reserved--2007-2024