You could feel the darkness in 16 Shetland. Grandpa painted everything brown. I hated saying there as a preschooler. The toilet seat and bathtub always scratched my bottom because the brown paint was peeling off. I was never comfortable there. Children didn’t count. I don’t remember anyone speaking to me. There was no affection there. There was only something I think of now as emotional survival in the face of poverty—not just financial poverty but also a constant resistance against a crippling self-loathing, an unrequited longing for light in a dark place.
I swear to you that everything was brown or a hue thereof. The pantry in the back of the kitchen and any surface that required painting was brown. It was an interesting brown, enamel most likely for it had a rich thick look to it. It was less milk chocolate and more like what made me reluctant all these years to change a baby’s diaper.
I don’t think I was ever sad that after Grandma Angela died we never stayed overnight again. I remember the morning I woke up at 528 Halcomb and found my parents gone. I was four. Grandma Chalmers said, “Your Grandma Cutuly died.” She then went downstairs, and I was left to contemplate this on my own. Several days later, my mother, father, and I went into Pittsburgh to something called a funeral home. I was a bit apprehensive and asked my mother, “Will Grandma have her bones on?” I had been a skeleton the previous Halloween, wearing my outfit from the 5 and 10, all black with bones painted on it. But what happened to Grandma Cutuly was different.
I wonder what Grandpa thought. Yawgin said that the kids always liked it when they were little because their mother had a very sharp tongue and could take Grandpa down with a lash of it.
When I think of Grandpa’s three trips back and forth to Italy before Grandma finally came, I wonder: Did Grandpa miss something in Italy or was he disappointed in America. My father always said that Grandpa was bitter because he lacked the American entrepreneurial spirit and could not make all of his intelligence and knowledge count for anything. Why did Grandma ever marry such an angry and disappointed man? Or was he not always that way? Was she just longing to get out of rural poverty? Did she long for adventure in the New World. Was she running from something in Maierato? Why did he keep going back and forth? Was he madly in love with Angela? Why didn’t she return with him on his final trip? Did they write letters back and forth? Why didn’t we have the Italian heritage that was full of music and family, hugging and love. I wonder if there was something that drew my grandparents together that was a longing for something that became me . . . you . . . all of us now named Cutuly....
Once when I was 10, I wanted to talk to Grandpa. I can’t tell you why, except that I remember being drawn inside where he was sitting on the enclosed back porch off the kitchen, working his math problems. There was a huge festival going on in the playground out back of the houses on Shetland. It was a time for pinning money on a particular saint. I have also since learned there is an Italian festival in mid-August called Ferragosto, a festa that began with the celebration of the Emperor Augustus and changed over the years through the different periods of history according to what the Italians of different times and faiths wanted to celebrate. It ended in the Feast of the Assumption.
The celebration was fantastic as the entire Italian neighborhood was outside eating, singing, laughing, talking with the festa going on before us. It was the first time I had Neopolitan ice cream. And spumoni. There was food everywhere. As evening fell, the neighborhood settled into song. I remember the rendition of Santa Lucia sung in Italian that still to this day lifts me into a sublime spirit of life. To me, the moment of that song is what being Italian means. There was something communal and spiritual . . . something very sensory yet transcendental . . . something that I now think of as being as wordless as the mystery of what happened in my cells and soul to make me who I am. Of course, I couldn’t articulate this at the time. It’s how I remember the feeling of that moment.
Why this feeling led me up the steps into that back porch, I will never know. I suppose my grandfather fascinated me. In some odd way he was like Grandpa Chalmers, in his own world that was different from the world of my parents. Where Grandpa James liked the adventure of physical travel, Grandpa Domenic took the interior journey into math and Dante. While Grandpa Chalmers was the essence of optimism, Grandpa Cutuly ventured into the shadowy places of the mind. Maybe I wanted to go with them.
However it happened, I walked into the back porch and said hello. Grandpa invited me to sit down beside him on the brown sofa. It was mid August. Hot. Even so, Grandpa was wearing his hat. He showed me how to do a math problem with letters. This interested me, that letters could add up to something like numbers, although I did not understand how this worked. The book was brown. The pages were yellowed. It was a very nice book with the different but same look of a wise old grandfather. Grandpa said, “Do you understand how to work the problem?” I said “Yes,” but did not. I didn’t want to disappoint him. He handed me the book and some paper and a pencil and told me to do the next problem. I could not. He closed the book, got up, and left me sitting there alone. I went outside. The festa now seemed sad.