Two for One

Angelo and Domenica.  They arrived in the United States from Sicily in the early 1920’s, passing through Ellis Island.  He had a fourth grade education, at best, and drove a cart for a living.  She had been the daughter of a vineyard manager, bootlegging an education with the vineyard owners daughter, until she was fourteen.  It was unheard of for a peasant girl to have so much schooling.

Settling into the milltown of Methuen, Massachusetts based on obtuse familial connections, they both worked in the sweatshops.  Their only child, Alfio, was born in 1923.  It was that extra bit of schooling that drove Domenica hard.  She would not settle for less for her son.  “Formazione!” (Education).  He was going to school.  He would not face a lifetime in the mills.

She lived to see him graduate with a degree in Engineering from Northeastern University.  But just barely. Packing his possessions into a trunk, he headed off to Detroit at 22 years old.  Certainly, she must have been proud as he entered the elite corps of ‘junior management trainees’ for Ford Motor Company.

It was cancer that got her.  Breast cancer, which wasn’t particularly treatable in the late 1940’s.  Alfio, an only child, left his promising start in Corporate America, and returned home to care for her.  As she was dying?  His father was overwhelmed at the prospect of losing his wife.  He took his own, breathing his last breath in Alfio’s arms. 

My father, Alfio, buried both of his parents before he was 25 years old.  Alone.  He regrouped, re-entered the workforce, and found purpose for his life.  He understood the meaning of the word “onward”.

Domenica and Angelo

Alfio, First Communion

Mal Occhio

Growing up in a Boston tenement in the 1930’s, my father was immersed in the immigrant experience.  The old world customs slammed headlong into the harsh realities of life in the industrialized new world.  In early 20th century Sicilian immigrant culture, the church provided communal bedrock.  One of his stories from his childhood demonstrates the process of assimilation.

He spoke of one of his earliest memories – what he called a spiritual pinning point – that involved the neighborhood witch.  He was a boy of perhaps four or five years old.  His mother became convinced that he had fallen under “Mal Occhio” – the evil eye.  She dragged him through the streets in a panic – seeking The Strega. 

He remembered the old woman.  Herbs, incantations, incense… His mother presenting him to the woman, with no explanation – she knew why the child was before her.  He remembered being a little frightened, but knowing that it was for his own good.

They left the house of The Strega, they stopped at the church on the way home.  His mother had him light a candle.  Kneeling in prayer, he told me that he felt protected and safe.  No need to understand the mysteries of the moment.  He was loved.  He was cared for.  There were things beyond him that maintained order.

Much like the Catholic imperialism in South America, the willingness of the church to allow integration of pagan cultural customs was both a kindness and a strategy for expansion.  Where has this tolerance gone?


No “Joy of Sax”

During my two most  recent visits to The Park, i made a  concerted* effort to locate the missing tenor saxophone that Dad’s mother bought for him as a child.  It is a large instrument, with a case that is at least 4′ x 2′.  Beyond just cluttered, Mom’s house is small.  There are only so many places it could be – none of which bore instrumental fruit.  i (sadly) remain convinced that it’s ‘wandered off’ and been sold…

i sent an e-mail to the rest of the clan when i realized it was gone, letting them know that the sax was MIA.  At the same time, i put out an all points bulletin for two other missing instruments.  First, the alto sax that my sister, T, played in high school – that i’d fixed up for The Girl, hoping she’d follow the path of Lisa Simpson.  Second, the flute that i’d bought for The Girl when she made it clear that she would not be following in Lisa’s footsteps.  Both of these items had been delivered to my niece, DQ, for potential use by her daughter, DQ, Jr. 

No leads from anyone regarding Dad’s saxophone – just protestations along the lines of  “It has to be there” and “None of us would take it” from my oldest sister, S.  The alto was located, as was my flute.  This was as a result of some mildly annoying exchanges with S.  She has both instruments and is “using” them.  This means displaying them in her basement, alongside an old Casio keyboard, some lame-assed print with musical notes on it, and calling this her “music nook”.  (sigh)  That’s not using them.  That’s decorating badly with them.  But i told her i was happy to know the flute was still accounted for and would like it back someday.  Disposition of the alto sax was between her and my sister, T….

i’m generally not much on “things”.  It’s just stuff.  But musical instruments aren’t quite in the category of “stuff”.  Despite the fact that the first guitar i bought has imploded – i paid a whoppin’ $70 for this 3/4 size classical guitar in 1975 – the neck is cracked, keys broken and it’s not repairable.  But i can’t (yet) bring myself to get rid of it.  There is something deeply intimate about an instrument**.

You hold it in your arms.  You work together, learning nuances of touch and response.  The relationship can deepen over time, or lose fire – much like relationships with humans.  Another instrument comes along and the old one can be displaced.  Cast aside, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not…

The idea of displaying perfectly good instruments for no purpose other than to fill space in an unused corner of a basement causes an involuntary eye roll.  So it’s with that thought that i’m hoping Dad’s tenor sax has, in fact, been spared this fate.  If it found it’s way into a pawn shop, perhaps someone wanted it.  Someone bought it.  And i can only hope it’s helping some other young soul earn money for rent while he beats his way forward in life…

Gene Ammons, tearin' it up.

Gene Ammons, tearin' it up.

* oh sometimes, i’m just such a card… “concerted”?  *cackle*

**NOT a euphemism, you perverts…

Timing is everything

My father wasn’t a veteran.  He had great admiration for them, however, and it always bothered him that he’d been unable to serve during World War II.  His father?  Fought for the Italian army in World War I* – and isn’t it cool?  Posing with a cigarette…

What? Me? Drop a rifle?

What? Me? Drop a rifle?

At the beginning of the war, Dad was a freshman in the engineering program at Northeastern University.  His friends discussed the option of enlistment, and in general, the pack of first generation immigrants were ready to serve.  Dad decided to finish out the school year – although he spent lots of time playing, and his grades suffered as a result.

With terrible eyesight, he used his network of friends to get a copy of the eye-chart so he could memorize it in order to pass the physical.  As luck would have it, Dad flunked several classes Spring term – and also flunked the eye test.  They’d changed the chart.  So it was back to school…

Here’s to all who have served, and their families.  There is something powerful in the willingness to sign up to risk death for causes that may not be your own. 


* One of Dad’s favorite jokes?  Q: How does the Italian Army do training maneuvers? A: [marched past with both hands on his head].  Second favorite joke? Q: How did the Italian Admiral review his navy?  A:  Glass-bottomed boat.

Eighty Five Years Ago Today…

Happy Birthday, Dad.  August 30, 1923.  Oddly enough, during my visit to The Park Friday to take Mom to see an estate planning attorney, she gave me a box of “stuff” from her recent excavations.  Among dusty story books i wrote when i was 9 years old, my Girl Scout uniform and the linens Dad’s mother made for her marriage bed?  Dad’s last drivers license and the ID card for his years teaching at the applied technology college… 

Rather than try to write something meaningful – while i remain up to my nipples in boxes and crates – i’ve dusted off the eulogy i gave at Dad’s funeral.  Not my best work – done in an overnight frenzy while i was frantically assembling illegally downloaded tunes for the visitation and service… The best words?  They are his… i had the first two rough chapters his own memoirs as a guide…

April 21, 2001 – In a Methodist church filled with about 150 thoughtful humans…

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