Sunday, May 23, 2010

House on Sixth Avenue

This is what my father-in-law told me happened to him, “When I asked my father for a dime, he picked me up and heaved me against the living room wall.” His father had worked hard in a cement factory, long hours in the cold. He was an immigrant from Italy, having come over with a wife and one child in 1903. The family grew quickly to include nine children in a tiny row home on Sixth Avenue in a small town. Like other families in the town, the small back yard was all garden,  tomato and pepper, and zucchini plants, fruit trees, grapevines and herbs. There was always dinner on the table when the man of the house came home and took his rightful place as lord and master of his domain. However meager and inadequate his kingdom might be, it the only place he could demand respect and deference.

The hill towns of Italia had become a vague blue green mist of memory in a new world without the warmth and familiarity of old--the native language, the villages and an extended family for support. In the old world at least there were the beauty of landscape, blood ties, and evenings with friends before a hearth fire with a toast of wine made each year from  grapes outside his door. Maybe there was a song to comfort, temper and deepen a young soul. 

Here in the land of opportunity, there was only work and worry.

My father-in-law was the youngest of the nine brothers and sisters. He never spoke a word against the father who had raised him to have respect (what I called fear) for this proud, hard-working, uneducated man who had lived his short life as best he could, fulfilling his responsibility to provide for his family. The provisions were for the bare physical necessities of food, shelter and warmth. That is all that this brute of a father and many other men could manage in their lives, if they were lucky, and, considering the hardships involved, providing the necessities was a deed in itself. Uneducated, unenlightened—probably moving swifty unawares from childhood to adulthood sometimes without even the barest of necessities—let alone self-awareness, he struggled mightily day after day to bring them to his own family.

Everyone else assumed their parts in the drama, too. The wife's to bear children, to work day and night to care for and feed them; wash the cloths and sheets by hand; keep the house in order; tend the garden, put up harvest for winter; and wait on the father when he was in the house. There was no realization or understanding that children were individuals with their own experiences, minds, desires, hopes and potential. Rather, they were hungry mouths to feed and sturdy bodies to be put to use.These are the impressions I had from the stories my father-in-law told over and again through the years, as subconscious burdens no doubt, to bear through a lifetime. 

I heard no other stories to displace the tales of brutality, which contained not a glimmer of warmth, although there were warm and fond memories and feelings for his mother. There was only this equal and opposite weight to balance them: a father whose life was such that any transgression on his part toward his wife or children could be rationalized in that context of the hardships of existence.

Years after the hard-working man had crossed the threshold from earthly trials to whatever lay beyond, my husband and I had taken my father-in-law, now already in his later years, along with Rosie, one of his widowed sisters, to the oldest living sister’s house. There was a warm welcome, a huge meal, and later time to reminisce with laughter and tears. The topics turned from childhood memories of the neighborhood, to their early married years with young children, to long-ago holidays spent all together at the house on Sixth Avenue. Then the topic inevitably turned round to Carmen, the youngest brother who had died at age sixteen.

There are always memories or stories which are told ritualistically in families, some happy, some tragic, which have a way of casting a certain mood or unseen image which fills the inner and outer space of a gathering. This was such a one.

I had heard about Carmen many times, but now I heard about him from Rosie, who interwove it with her own burden of being a little girl in that house. I felt it was also the first time her brother and sister heard about her recollections on this subject. Rosie was a sweet, delicate women, almost bird-like in her movements and child-like in her demeanor and speech—an open, generous soul. She became somber as she began her recollections surrounding Carmen's death, with a look about her now reminiscent of a grieving madonna painting.

On a day, almost 60 years ago, she was getting ready for school. It was a bitter cold morning, and the innocent, young girl was doing what girls do joyfully, combing her hair and singing a song. Her father stormed in and shoved her out of the bathroom. Carmen was still asleep, having been very ill the night before. She remembered that he was shaken and dragged out of bed by his father so he wouldn't be late to walk the distance to the dairy farm, where he worked ouside all day.

That afternoon, walking home from school, Rosie said she heard a voice, “Who do you want to lose, your father or your brother?” As she got to this part of the tale, her face transformed into the confusion and pain she must have felt at that very moment so long ago, when she responded in her characteristic way, “Ooo,I can’t choose between Pop and Carmen.'”  She didn’t have to.

When she got home, she found that Carmen had died that day of pneumonia. Rosie didn't say what that questioning voice may have been: her conscience, her fears, her wishes to have family harmony, ESP, or even the prophetic voice of God. She just relayed the story, as we all listened—me stunned, trying to comprehend the effects on her of that experience, carried through a lifetime. Nothing was said in response to Rosie’s apparently clairvoyant moment of the questioning voice. For a moment, my father in-law and the others seemed to honor the memory of their lost brother as the mood, meaning and images evoked by Rosie quickly faded.

I had the sense that my father-in-law had to dismiss the implication that his father was as cruel as the facts of Rosie's story confirmed, and that his sister, as well as the other siblings may have been as deeply affected by her childhood as she seemed to be during the telling of it.  I wondered what it had meant for them to never have allowed the relationship of Carmen’s illness and death to being forced to work on that bitter cold, last day of his young life to rise to level of consciousness. It certainly meant that no blame was attributed 
in order to preserve the family mythology.

Whatever may have transpired after Carmen's death, I have no knowlege of, but I do know that people, in general often do not question the what, how and why of their lives and maybe it is better that way in some cases. Still, I can only wonder and hope that there were moments of tenderness, love and remorse felt in the heart of that head of the house on Sixth Avenue—felt by him, if not seen by others— even if only a brief moment of doubt before sleep, or upon waking--
the way a small shaft of light and warmth edges its way into a dark room through a door left slightly ajar.

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