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Sunday, December 23, 2012

#4: Grandpa, Grandma, and the hell of getting to paradise

                                                                                                                        November 2011

(pre script...all this may be way more than you want to read. The emails have become my journal that I'm emailing to myself so I don't lose it. I do apologize for the email clutter, which I send without expectation of your reading it or commenting. I suppose that in a way, sending this to all of you is a way of maintaining the illusion of security and connection in the face of fears and doubts expressed here)

When I used to go backpacking in the Southwest, we used to say that if there wasn't one point on the trip where the challenges were so difficult that you wished you'd never left home, the hike wasn't worth it. Well, I have arrived at the point of fear, doubt, and fatigue. 

First, to dispel unduly high expectations that I will be speaking fluent Italian upon returning home, no. When I say I'm talking with friends, it's very elemental stuff, the equivalent of those first college parties. What's your major  blah blah blah.

Yesterday, I said that I was going shopping to look for something with birds for the woman eating my cats. Then at the Billa supermercato, I was confident enough to get in the line where the cashier is quick but has the personality of a double-edged razor blade. For some reason I still can't fathom, she wanted me to give her 5 euro in coin for a five euro bill. Since it didn't make any sense, I had no idea what the hell she was saying or what she wanted. It's impossible to explain how utterly humiliating it feels to have a long line of people wanting to go home but are being held up by an idiot reduced to having a cashier picking coins out of your hand as if you were five.

However, the ultimate weirdness is that I finally got my plane ticket to Calabria. Ryanair is cheap but getting through the website was crazy. They wouldn't accept my first credit card. I thought I needed to print a confirmation which I couldn't do using my iPad. Plus the school connection is crap and very slow. So my conversation tutor and the secretary at the school were using the Italian website. They were clicking away in Italian all the AGREE boxes on pages that shouted out in red !IMPORTANTE!! I was almost relieved when the ticket was not confirmed.

Every day the prices go up. So I rushed back the apartment to get another credit card and went to an internet cafe where I didn't want coffee at 4:30 p.m. and the hot chocolate had gluten so I had to buy a fruit and vegetable drink for $8. It was great, but my iPad wouldn't connect. A guy who has an iPad tried to help but no luck. So I went to Internet Train, a wifi place where I paid another $4 for an hour to work in an environment of loud music that felt like the equivalent of Italian rap. The iPad is so small that when I selected things with my finger from the drop down menus, I would inevitably get the wrong info. It took half an hour to buy the damned ticket.

I fly from Pisa to Lamezia Terme in Calabria,  about Thiirty minutes by bus to Maierato. I had to leave next Thursday instead  of Friday an d don't get back to the Pisa airport until midnight Sunday. At which point I will take a train to Florence. It's really insane. 

Meanwhile, I can't call Polma because she either doesn't keep her phone on, or mine can't reach her. I did call in Italy and know the phone works, at least here in Florence. She could be dead for all I know. And here I am going to a rural town with minimal connections and no hotel, and where they speak a dialect that is different from  what I am learning and really can't speak.

It's a helpless feeling not to be able to discuss complications in English. Especially when someone at home may be eating my cats. Yesterday, I was trying to philosophize with my tutor about all this but couldn't think of the word for quest. My teacher, whose English is ok but merely functional, did not know the word. So I had to describe it to her as an adventure of the spirit. 

But to be honest, for the first time in my life, I have finally had enough of that kind of adventure. I think there really is nothing to know. The mystery is immense and grand and unknowable.  I have been thinking that my grandmother and grandfather probably left Calabria for the same reason I made this trip. They were looking for something. Something that probably doesn't exist except in the hearts of those who don't know how to be satisfied with anything. 

We speak of the immigrant experience in the abstract. They want a better life. Or in the case of my students who fled Cambodia and Vietnam, they wanted a life. Grandpa made two trips back and forth before he finally returned to America to stay. It's pretty certain that when he did stay, he never found what he was looking for. Or found it too late. Clearly, my thoughts are all fuzzy on this. I'm scared of going alone to a rural village and am wondering why I didn't take a guided tour of Rome instead.

The April before my grandfather died in August 1963, the family went to see him at Easter. He was sick and in bed. It was the first time I had ever seen him without his hat. His hat was just a man's brown hat with brim. The house itself was pretty much brown. If there was something that could be painted, Grandpa painted it brown. Even  the bathtub. When I stayed there as child, I hated to take a bath because the paint was peeling off the bottom of the tub and it hurt to sit down. Grandpa was educated by the monks. It must have been the more strident intellectual Dominicans, not the Franciscans whose leader was the popular and genial lover of nature and people. 

Grandpa was angry. Arrabbiato. I'm not sure about what. But probably because he was highly educated and deeply intelligent, but merely a shoemaker. My father told me that doctors, bank presidents, and professors adored him and gathered in his shoemaker shop to talk. But my father also told me that when he sat in the shop and tried to talk to his father, Grandpa behaved as if his son weren't even there. My father graduated from high school at 16, but Grandpa would never look at his report card with all A's. And he wouldn't allow Grandma to speak English. 

When we visited Grandpa, it was more like a ritual that a visit. He would answer the door, and we filed in to the brown house, always dark and cold. Even in summer. Grandpa had a white mustache, flawless skin on his face, and round pink cheeks so that in the dark house, he looked like a nightlight. We had to kiss him, and the whiskers bristled against the lips. Actually, as I think of him now, he looked like that little guy in Monopoly that tells you to go to jail or get out free. The visits were more like jail. Everyone sat stiffly at the kitchen table while Grandpa philosphized, usually about the state of the world. There was not enough attention given, for example, to math. Grandpa did complicated math problems for fun.

When I was nine or ten, there was a grand festival in the playground behind the house at 16 Shetland Ave. It was an Italian neighborhood, and in backyards aligning the playground, families gathered to eat, drink, and sing. Toward evening, strains of "Santa Lucia" rose toward the lavender pink summer sky. I'd had my first Neapolitan ice cream. Three flavors in one! What a miracle. But in my usual quest mode, I wandered away from the familial into the cold dark brown house. There was Grandpa working his math problems. I wanted to talk to him. He fascinated and terrified me, much like those mythological creatures we read about in Homer. I wanted to get to know him. As usual, Grandpa was working math problems and showed me how to balance an algebra equation. He asked if I understood. Wanting to please, I said yes. But then he handed me the book and told me to do the next problem. The search for the unknown was beyond me. He took the book, snapped it shut, got up from the brown sofa, and left me sitting there in the brown room.

When I was eighteen and in college, the first thing Grandpa asked me at Christmas was whether I was taking any math. I was not. I was studying writing and literature. Grandpa said my dress was too short and went on to discuss all the reasons why the Soviets were going to destroy us, the most important reason being our poor math skills.

Then he gave us all our Christmas gifts, the same thing he always gave us. Two dollars each in a holiday bank envelope inscribed with our names in that elegant script he had learned from the monks. Dad, Mom, Laura, Mary, and I — we each got two bucks. We gave him cigars and Old Spice, which he never opened while we were there.

I was twenty the Easter before Grandpa died. He was in hat. He looked very little. He reached out his hand like a child to my father and told him to get a box from the closet. It was one of those boxes that department stores used back then to send home dresses or suits. In the box were presents. Not envelopes with two dollars. Real presents. There was a wide tie with a giraffe on it for my father. For my mother, a big gold watch like Alice's white rabbit used. My sisters got a geography game, except it was so old that Oklahoma wasn't even a state. Nothing for me. It's not that I wanted a gift exactly. I just thought Grandpa was disappointed in me and felt sad.

That summer, before my senior year at Pitt, I went out west to work at Zion Canyon. Grandpa was in and out of the hospital. He asked one day where I was. Dad said I was working out west for summer vacation. Grandpa said I belonged in college and that he was going to save four dollars a week so I could return. When I got back from Zion, I went to Atlantic City to visit a friend working there. The day I got back, Grandpa died. 

A monk came to the funeral home. He wanted everyone to pray. But no one in the family knew how. My cousins and I fled the scene and found our way into the casket room where we lay in the caskets and laughed. When it came time to close the casket on Grandpa, Aunt Mary threw herself over Grandpa and wailed. She'd cared for him until the end, despite years of abuse. The stories were terrible about how she would get home from work as a teacher and stand in the doorway holding her books as he beat her. Aunt Mary was way ahead of her time as a teacher. She wrote to Colgate and got free toothbrushes for her elementary school students and taught them good dental hygiene. She had wanted to marry Mr. Didiano. But Grandpa said no. She never married.

When I was in my thirties and Aunt Mary was living with Aunt Carrie, Aunt Carrie was going on vacation to visit my cousin Sara. It was decided that I should stay with Aunt Mary because she wasn't well. During that week, we went shopping for the famous bread at Rimini's bakery. Across the street lived Mr. Didiano and his wife. They were all now in their seventies. Mrs. Didiano was all in black and barely spoke. She sat in a corner and sulked that dark Italian sulk. Mr. Didano wanted to show Aunt Mary and me his garden. It was wide and lush. I hung back, watching as Aunt Mary and Mr. Didano talked quietly. He would touch the leaves of the vegetables gently. Aunt Mary's toughened demeanor softened. I have rarely in my life seen anything at once so beautiful and so sad.

Another of those moments in my life was shortly after Grandpa's funeral. Aunt Mary found in his dresser drawer, a yellowed holiday bank envelope with my name inscribed in that elegant but shaky script. In the envelop were forty rumpled one-dollar bills. Dad recalled that Grandpa had said he was saving money for me to go back to college. They'd thought it the ramblings of a dying man. It had been ten weeks from the time Grandpa made that promise until he died. There were the forty dollars.

I used the money to buy the books for the first semester of my senior year. Yes, those were the days when a nice paperback of Moby Dick cost 95 cents.

And oh, on that last Easter visit to Grandpa's, we found that he'd covered up the brown with orange. Even the kitchen sink was orange with an accent of magenta enamel around the kitchen door frame.

When I first started writing this, I was thinking that if I can't get in touch with Polma I might just bag the plan to go to Maierato and lose the money for my nonrefundable ticket. Or I would go expecting the worst and after a day, I could just forfeit the return Sunday ticket and fly back on Friday.  I do know that I have at last lost my desire for adventure and the quest To Know. It seems that I have come all this distance away from my true home and spent quite a bit of money to discover the meaning of what was entrusted to me almost fifty years ago in that envelope with forty rumpled one-dollar bills. Grandpa would translate The Divine Comedy for fun...or was it the challenge. Or part of his quest to get through the dark woods Dante enters at the beginning of The Inferno? I truly believe his gift to me was the belief that I could make it through to Paradise.

Grandma didn't go to America with Grandpa. She followed him with Aunt Mary. I can't imagine her going alone in those days from Calabria to Naples where she boarded the ship to make the long trip to be with that troubled man with a mind dark and marvelous as myth. Perhaps she is the heroine of my existence. I wouldn't be writing this if she hadn't hadn't had the courage to take on the journey. Random or destiny? I suppose that's what I wanted to know about my life.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so afraid of finding my way alone with an auto-immune allergy to gluten to a remote rural village where Polma Cutuli  is only a letter with a promise to help me "find my origins" and a voice that phoned me from a far in a language I couldn't really understand except for the words,  "I hope you come to meet me." But I am scared. Really scared. 

I wish I were going home where I could watch a funny movie in English with my cats. But today I will continue to work on gammatical comparisons...stupido...piu piu stupido...,conjugate verbs and then go to the Uffizi to see Venus on the half shell.

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