Life in Generations
Ralph is in the bedroom of Giovanni who is sick in bed. The two men are talking – Giovanni has been in bed since he arrived home Friday, it is November, before Thanksgiving. It is now Monday morning, his best friend drops in to talk with him, about business, and seeing a doctor. It is 1934 – A cold evening –three sons are in the backroom harassing one another, Giovanni’s wife, my Grandmother, does not enter this scene. Ralph begins to speak to his friend, Giovanni at his bedside.
“Get better – and off we go to Aquafacaro to play some games with chestnuts, like the old days; remember when our Papa’s brought us both out into the fields, teaching us how to yank artichokes – our Papa’s they burnt heavy roots and long, I mean long stems to make heat for the night.”
Ralph laughed, “Don’t forget the hens, you know, I know you know: Hey, pison’ wake up – did you hear me? About hens near the fire ready to lay eggs,” Ralph paused, waited for a response, “Hey – hey you, wake up – now.” After a long, exhausting effort to get Giovanni’s attention, Ralph turns to leave as he mumbles, “Go ahead be a stubborn Sicilian, go ahead – shit you got’a family.”
In a shallow tone Giovanni said his name, “Ralph – I remember.”
“Holly crap man you haven’t eaten, drank, or talked – you wanna die or somethin’ eh’ you hear me?” Ralph could see the emptiness in his friend’s eyes. “I’m fetching the doc, picking up food, and you – drink – red home made wine, your body will be nice’in warm.” He noticed his friend moving his head, as if to say no.
To hell with him, Ralph mumbled, I’ll fetch the doctor, although, he would not overstep his pison’ and since children in the mountains of Sicily they were blood brothers. He started to talk to Giovanni, make him smile maybe – or not, but he would try. “The path from the sea to our village, we walked in so much’a heat, so hot. The last turn, before we reached home – are you with me?” Giovanni grabbed his best friend’s hand. “Good, so you remember the statue of Madonna, at her feet red carnations – our heads, nuts, we called it blood standing up in Olive Oil. The carnations were in tin cans filled with tuna oil from the sea. “We both waited for the flowers to die, placed bets, and who lost had to fetch the witches black crow.”
I knew of many witches – told to me by my Grandmother, and this custom with children in Sicily, always the one who lost couldn’t return without a witches black crow inside a cage. Witches gathered with a couple others or sat alone beneath the Olive tree near the dirt. Good witches helped you, they never had a black crow at their side, and dressed in white cloth.” On this day in Sicily, Ralph knew, he would be kneeling at the foot of the Madonna praying for Giovanni.
“Giovanni,” Ralph touched the bed-sheet, tapped on his shoulder, “We both were crazy when we said yes – followed those men, strangers, to the olive grove where they used us to bang olives from trees, and then ordered us to fill those bags. As soon as the men left we went hunting for olives then fill white bags and trade them for lemons, chestnuts; hey, don’t go to sleep, you hear me?” A hand squeezed his. When the men left, we gathered up the lost olives, filled our sacks and ran into the village to trade with peddlers. Your Mama she wanted fish, mine, loved her home made wine.” Ralph grinned.
“What do you mean, shut up?” Ralph noticed a finger of Giovanni’s right hand was touching his lips.
Ralph knew enough to lean closer to his friend, to hear more. Giovanni opened his eyes, and whispered, “You know – but, no one else, you promised me. I have trusted you since we were small boys in Sicily so now – you must be quiet after my death.” Giovanni was gasping for air as he spoke. “You hear – the life of my familia, it’s up to you.” Ralph ran his fingers through his thick crop of dark black hair, and shook his head in agreement, he was a grown man, he couldn’t hold inside tears, knowing he would be letting the entire family down as he waited for his only real friend in America, to die. Ralph agreed to keep his mouth shut, but how could he not tell Anunzieata about Friday? He glanced at their wedding photo near the bed, and thought, plans were made out of respect.
Ralph had no idea this man, his pison, his friend for life, would be strong one day and slaughtered like a piece of meat a day later. He was in the yards with him, lifting crates of fruit and loading them onto the truck – back and forth from the opened car of the train – both men crossing paths.
Before he left the bedroom Ralph swore no words would come from his mouth, but promised justice must be paid to his wife and children. “Justice, will come to pass would be a sin,” he promised his friend his wife and three sons would not be harmed.
When his back was turned, Ralph made the sign of the cross, turned back to lean closer to his friend, whispering in his ear, “You’re – my brother – we have been brothers since the old days, I won’t let you down.” He pleaded with all he had left, “You have to fight, live for your family, only once let me get you a doctor? And lift up, a little – let me fix the sheets.” Beneath the bed cover Ralph noticed fresh blood. “See, God rest your soul, but your family are being like rocks. You’re a stubborn man, like your Papa when he tended to the fire all night to keep warm while hens were pecking at his feet. He too could have found a good life, but this – he is rolling over in his grave – watching you die. Your Papa refused to chase away one lonely bird if it landed on the table near the macaroni. Do you see this,” holding up the pillow sham, “Your wife worked hard with her hand’s before you were married to bring this here, and what does it read – husband and wife. Okay, so do you love her?” Do you think she will have anything when you are gone? Tell me about your boys, three boys left without a Papa.”
“I love my family,” Giovanni managed to whisper, “Go now, go – fetch Frankie – tell him I want to see him.”
Frankie was in the back room horsing around with his younger brothers instead of helping them dress for school. They knew nothing about how serious it was for their Papa, as they tossed clothes around the room, hiding a set of underwear so one would be shiver longer – giggling, as if it were any Monday morning.
The back room, added by Giovanni one year after purchasing his home on Avenue A, within the City of Schenectady, in 1928; he waited two years to move from Carrie Street because of a City Ordinance. It could be read in the local papers, or seen plastered along Van Vranken Avenue on every lamp post; No Polls – no Blacks – no Italians, permitted to purchase property or live beyond this point. Grandmother told me it felt like the words, on the paper, were screaming at her.
It was a planned marriage, Grandmother met my Grandfather three times – first at a baptism in Syracuse N.Y., when a friend of her brother Carmen invited his friend Ralph, and told him to bring Giovanni. At the baptism, a diamond was given to my Grandmother, she told me she had no idea. The second time, one month later, without further words or letters, Anunzieata; my Grandmother, and her Papa; my Great Grandfather, met Giovanni at the Justice of the Peace, inside the courthouse in Syracuse, New York. Grandmother told me her Papa had to leave on a boat back to Sicily the next day, and he wanted to give her away. Following the brief exchange of vows, and two golden rings, the newlyweds separated; Grandmother went back to her one room apartment, her Papa left Syracuse with Giovanni who disembarked in Schenectady, and her Papa continued on to New York City – afraid he would miss the boat.
On their third, and final meeting, before they remained together as man and wife, Carmen gave his sister away at Mount Carmel Church, followed with a big Italian wedding at their home in Ashtabula, Ohio. All day and night the music played, men covered in black hoods were taking pictures, and everyone was drinking, eating or dancing. All of a sudden grandmother’s voice came to a hush, “You know, it was wrong to drink, wrong. A law, but some people knew how to get the drinks.” She smiled, when she told me her entire wedding party, strangers, except her brother Carmen, and her oldest brother Frank.