Thursday, April 30, 2015

Unrequited Memories

Unrequited Memories  
      When just a lad, I recall going fishing with my father at our summer home in Vermont.  Little brooks and dammed beaver ponds held an abundance
Domenic and Mercedes
of speckled trout that were a treat to catch.  We would leave early in the morning, while the house still slept.  There was one time in particular though, when our normally quiet departure was punctuated by a rifle shot.

      For some time, we'd been receiving unwelcomed visits from a neighbor.  The neighbor in question wasn't from the house next door.  No indeed.  Instead, it was some creature-life from the nearby forest, that made repeated visits to our home in the dead of night.  We could hear sounds of scratching under the house.  It wasn't long before mom had had enough and insisted that dad do something about it, get under there, and literally, get to the bottom of it.  His response was to set a trap for the creature, whatever it was.

      So it was on the beautiful dawning morning of one of our fishing expeditions, while my mom and two sisters slept, that we opened the hatch to the crawl space beneath the house to see if we'd caught anything.  To our surprise, we'd trapped the intruder.  To our added amazement, it wasn't a raccoon, as we'd speculated it might be, or even something approaching a valuable mink.  No, nothing of the sort.  Instead, it was a shiny fury specimen of the family Mephitidae, Pepé La Pew himself, a very much alive skunk.  We realized with this turn of events, that we hadn't thought this all the way through.  What to do now?

      Our exit strategy was clear—grab the poles, the can of worms, hop in the car, and head out.  As nice as that would have been, we just couldn't leave it there rattling the chain like some spirit of Jacob Marley.  Even in the Vermont woods, social responsibility, if not noblesse oblige, especially toward family, still existed.  We decided to shoot the interloper.  It would have to be a precise shot.  Thinking about it, but only briefly, we decided that if shot in the brain, it might prevent the skunk from discharging its unpleasant, reeking load of perfume.  Actually, we hadn't the slightest idea what would really happen, but at that moment, it sounded good.  Taking careful aim, dad did the deed.  Unfortunately, he missed the intended target, instead putting our black and white visitor out of its misery with a shot, of all places, to the stomach.

      The erupting smell was overpowering and sickening.  The boom of the report hadn't awakened anyone, so we took off like a spooked flock of nervous pigeons.  Hopefully, when we returned with a stringer of trout, it would help soothe any upheaval.  That was wishful thinking and another instance where we hadn't thought things through.  Collateral damage had ensued.  Upon our return, we sensed it immediately, both nasally, and to our surprise, visually.  The skunk's noxious aroma had worked its way up through the interior of the walls and had brought the sleeping clan abruptly awake, no doubt bringing heretofore pleasant dreams to alternate bad endings.  In self-defense, mom had administered globs of Vicks Vapor Rub to all their sniffers.  As funny as it looked, it wasn't a good time to joke.  It didn't take my Captain Midnight Ovaltine decoder ring to decipher their body language, which at high volume, spoke volumes.  Our token of appeasement, the fish, hadn't helped in the least.  We lived this way the remainder of our vacation that year.  Each day the odiferous offense receding ever so slightly, though its memory persists to this day in family lore.

      In a similar vein, I see my dad in Italy.  My mind's eye sees him sporting his black Stetson Homburg Fedora, its brim rounded up along its edge as if the agate of a roulette wheel might orbit its edge, safe from spinning off, walking the streets of Calitri with me.  I best recall him wearing his fedora as he'd stand along the sideline watching high school football games.  He'd been quite a footballer in his day, and over the years, the old-timers in town still recognized him for his achievements on the gridiron.  It was like living with a celebrity.  The Calitri paesani (villagers), many his age, sitting in groups at convenient spots along the street, wouldn't know this.  Though he'd try his best in his primitive Italian to explain, they wouldn't catch on that he was talking about American football, if they understood anything at all.  I'm sure most of them had never seen the American brand of football.  Any mention of calcio (football) would immediately be interpreted in reference to Italian soccer.  It was hopeless, bordering on comedic to observe, but dad, who insisted on trying, was on his own.  I wouldn't say dad was ostentatious per se, but his hands did fly while attempting to communicate.  According to my theory, I perceive that while Italians flail their arms, British expatriates, accustomed as they are to holding an umbrella, and thereby limited to the use of a single arm, are far more reserve.  As such, they are not quite sure what to make of passionate, hand-flailing Italians, who in many ways are similar to Yanks, or maybe I best constrain myself to that smaller subset, Italian Yanks.

      Both my parents, Domenic and Mercedes, were in their late 80s by this time.  It had taken a few years to convince them that they could make it to Italy with us and see why we were so excited about anything Italian.  "Italy, Calitri, that's all you ever talk about" was the familiar retort we would hear from them.  Persistence, however, did pay and they eventually came around and agreed to come with us and experience the emotion that is Italy.  For our part, we promised to keep the pace down, and in way of protection, just in case, we bought trip insurance.

      Our first stop was Milan, a city which to this point we have not visited, beyond its outskirts, thanks to nearby Malpensa Airport.  No Mercato di Viale Papiniano on a Milan Saturday, the remains of St. Charles Borromeo in Milan’s Duomo, or even the grand sight of Teatro La Scale.  No, not this trip.  Instead, we headed west, skirting the side of Lake Como before turning toward Lago Lugano to arrive at Cadegliano, a zig-zag climb up from Ponte Tresa.  Cadegliano is home to my dad's Italian side of the family.  As best we can tell, my grandparents and great grandparents originated there.  How far back, we just haven't researched, but for now 1845 is good enough.

      In and out of Switzerland for a time, we arrived without much difficulty.  In fact, crossing the border the last time into Italy, the guard just waved us through like VIPs, which in a way we were.  Dad was eager to get there.  For him, it was more curiosity than a sense of homecoming.  Other than his older brother, who had been born there, dad was the only additional member of his American family of eleven brothers and sisters to ever return to his ancestral home.

      The first reference to our heritage we came upon was the fountain in the small town square.  Our family name, Monico, could be seen prominently displayed across its substantial basin.  A little later, we discovered a plaque presented by the grateful people of Cadegliano in 1911.  It was dedicated to my great grandfather, Cavalière Francesco Monico.  The inscription referred to him as a worthy citizen, and depicted him in bronze relief.  I was struck by how much I looked like him.  All I'd need to do was grow my mustache a little longer, and handlebar the ends.  It seems that his fame all had to do with water.  In preserving his memory, the plaque went on to indicate that he had been the very first mayor of Cadegliano and was responsible for introducing acquedotto (water system) and apparently lavatoio, which I'm guessing meant indoor water service to town homes.

      As far as we could tell, we no longer had any living relatives there.  Those we could locate resided together in the local cemetery.  It was there that we located a towering stone mausoleum, topped with an imitation wind-blown flaming torch, dedicated to our family.  Over the gated entry door, flanked by stone columns on either side, a pair of broad wings, like pilot wings, greeted those who were about to enter.  The imagery evoked an icon closer to home, the torch held by Lady Liberty in New York Harbor that greeted so many Italian immigrants, my family included.  The wings recalled the pair I'd worn on my uniform most of my adult life.  This is where it had all begun for us, home to our heritage and the simple adage, "Remember who you are and what you represent", that my dad would council, and which to this day echoes in my mind to help keep me on the straight and narrow.

      We returned to the shores of Lago di Como later that afternoon to the hearth and home of Albergo Rusall.  Maria Elena and I had stayed there many times and here was our opportunity to show off its breathtaking views out over the lake.  Along with other distant villages sprinkled along
Albergo Rusall, Tremezzo
the shoreline, Bellagio sparkled by night like a string of twinkling Christmas lights.  In addition to panoramic vistas, there was also the hospitality and la cucina (cuisine) of the Rusall.  Dinner, preceded by a buffet, was thankfully as spectacular as any we could recall.  One buffet item, explained to us as Carciofi in Umido (slow-braised artichoke bottoms), was the hit of the antipasto table.  It was a toss-up on which dinner entrée to select, for both said, "Choose me".  There was the choice of Risotto con gli Asparagi (Asparagus Risotto) consisting of tender green asparagus sautéed in butter in a creamy batch of Arborio rice.  But then, also contending for my attention was Annello al Forno con Patate e Pomodori (Braised Lamb with Potatoes and Tomatoes).  Ah, no ordinary meat and potatoes.  If I had my druthers, I'd have opted for both, but after dithering only momentarily, I settled on the lamb.  I need only add that after a full day and filling meal, it was early to bed for all.

      We have driven directly from the lakes region to Calitri in the past, but we thought it would be more relaxing for my parents to go by train.  It certainly proved to be novel.  After all, we lived in a country that, if truth be said, had lost its train culture.  Like the buffalo, it too was disappearing.  These days, what remained was reserved more for moving freight then moving people.  But then, the novelty continued because part of our trip was aboard an older intercity train.  It was a surprise to find this kind of rolling stock still in service.  It was an added surprise we even found this old train, what with the confusion over the exact binario (track) from which to board.  But then Italians are known for rarely throwing anything away, least of all train cars.  The proof lies in trying to find a thrift shop or used furniture store anywhere in Italy.

      An added bonus was that the passenger coaches were compartmented.  Each car came complete with a number of separated compartments that could each hold six passengers.  With their large glass picture windows, opposing bench seats, and sliding doors, entering one of these paneled boxes was like entering the nostalgia of an old movie.  The romance and mystique of the Orient Express, gleaming in art deco, but hopefully absent any Agatha Christie intrigue, came quickly to mind.  Pulling our luggage along behind us in the confines of a narrow corridor, we passed many already taken by what appeared to be families.  While searching for seats of our own, we passed many compartments already occupied.  It seemed the cabin atmosphere was license to make yourself at home and break out the food, even before the train left the station.  A few more yards and cabins later, we came upon one still vacant, and settled-in.

      With four of us, and our luggage soon spread about the empty cabin, we managed to discourage other travelers from joining us as they inspected our cabin while passing.  There had to be a psychology to it and we thought we'd hit on it.  We were soon proved wrong when, an iffy few minutes later, as the train pulled away, our door slid open to the sight of a backpack-toting young couple.  Students we presumed.  The girl, an almost colorless blond, was gaunt to the point that my dad wanted to give her €10 to get something to eat.  I recall him actually doing things like that.  Almost a lifetime ago, sitting in the car once, I remember watching as he surreptitiously deposited a frozen turkey before a needy someone's door.  He would often size-up people, as for instance, a family who might appreciate a turkey during the holidays.  In the case of our two travel companions, companions only to the extent we all sat in the same compartment, his appraisal was not at all flattering and approached the worst of his verbal condemnations, "They'll never make it."

      It was, however, as though they had never joined us, for between their naps, ear buds, and some sort of cell phone button-pushing game, we hardly knew they were with us.  Our only disturbance came when the capotreno (train manager and ticket inspector), making his rounds, checked that we had tickets, but more importantly, that they had their vital convalida date and time stamps.  God and your bank account help you if they don’t!  We had made the costly mistake of not getting this requisite stamp in the past.  It had been only once, yet costly.  No ticket complications this time.  As the barely legible marks on the tickets made known to the inspector and the world, we were knowledgeable tourists, no longer greenhorns, or worse, freeloaders, when it came to Italian transportation.

      In the brave new world of connectedness, most modern-day travelers would find this antiquated mode of travel a nuisance and a relic of the past.  With its ungenerous luggage racks, short of any electrical outlets to service energy hungry apps, and absent any crawling map showing our precise whereabouts along the line at every moment, why put up with it?  Apparently, it was important that they kept in touch.  We instead enjoyed being embraced by the past.  My mother especially loved it and actually thought I'd planned it all.  I had no objection, whatsoever, with letting her continue to think that.

      Finally, now with planes, cars, trains, and buses behind us, our intrepid group arrived in Calitri.  While it had been a long day, spanning just about the entire Italian peninsula, most of it had been while seated.  Even so, the walk into our Borgo home was all she wrote that day.  We filled the next few days settling-in and resting.  We gave my parents our bedroom.  It is larger than the guest room, in addition to being closer to the bathroom.  We suspected that that would matter to them.  The bathroom, as small as it is, also took time to get accustomed to.  For instance, they had to be very careful not to slip while standing in the shower basin.  At long last unpacked, rested from the trip, and trained on where to find things, we were ready to move about town.

      My dad enjoyed his beer.  From as far back as
A Beer with Dad
I can remember, he'd come home from work each day with two bottles of Schlitz in a paper bag.  Over the years that hadn't changed much even on advice of his doctor.  In Calitri, he really enjoyed himself sitting outside Paldo's Bar along tree lined Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Without any Schlitz available, he more than made due with labels like Nastro Azzurro premium larger; Peroni, an Italian mainstay; and a birra (beer) promoted by a mustached gentleman on its label, Moretti.  Later stops on other days, farther uptown, at Double Jack's Pub, introduced him to equally enjoyable, though new, German labels.  It was also a treat for me to share in his experiences.  All these stops and beers, gave true meaning to a saying of his: "You can never truly buy beer, only rent it."

      The rhythm of mom’s day included making the rounds about town with Maria Elena.  Market days were especially exciting for her.  She was enthralled by the outdoor vendors selling everything from pots and pans to underwear, with baccalla and olives thrown in for good measure.  Not since she was a child, well before the advent of the large supermarket chains like Stop & Shop and A&P, had she seen the likes.  Yet beyond the abundance of stalls, with their noisy hawkers, she was enthralled by the pleasant nature of everyone she met.  It was difficult to advance even a few steps before Maria Elena would stop to chat with someone new and introduce Mercedes.  Piacere di conoscerti (nice to meet you) flowed like wine, the townspeople just as interested in my mother as she in them.

      Our good friend, Teresa, tried her hand at teaching Mercedes, who went by the nickname Merce, some of her cooking techniques.  When she learned that my dad liked polenta, but that mom had never made it for him, she thought a fresh, homemade batch of polenta would someday make a pleasant surprise for him.  By all rights queens of their individual kitchens, things didn't go too well.  All we could hear coming from the kitchen was "Merk, Merk come questo" (Merce, Merce like this).  As patient as Teresa had been, to this day I still don't think dad got his polenta surprise!
     One of the best memories is of my dad at Mass at the Chiesa Dell'immacolata Concezione (Church of the Immaculate Conception).  It was during the church-service, while Mare and mom remained seated with the congregation, that I'd spirited dad up the circular stairs leading to the choir loft, following a bathroom break.  The choir was composed of a diverse group of some 15-20 people.  They'd been performing since the beginning of Mass to the accompaniment of an organist and violinist.  The organ, its brawny bellows still strong, atoned for the tiring violin that I suspected by this point had fallen victim to the catenary curves of loosened strings.

Dad had noticed the choir's evocative sound, sometimes melancholy, at other times of a chanting, repetitive nature.  He'd always enjoyed singing.  His voice, somewhere between bass and tenor, for the most part, favored tenor.  I recall him saying that with proper training, he could have been an accomplished vocalist.  Not long after we'd joined the others in the choir-loft, it so happened that they began to sing the Ave Maria, the Latin words to which dad knew well.  Without a soloist, the entire choir took part.  Dad just had to join in.  There was no objection from the choir director, who smiled and waved an arm at Domenic, encouraging him to continue.  Unrestrained, there was no stopping him.  By the third "Ave Maria, Gratia plena" (Hail Maria, Maiden mild), he was aboard.  

      While his wide ranging register caught everyone's attention, it was the strength of his voice, and its volume, that initially caused heads to turn-round, and up toward the choir loft.  A new and strong voice had emerged.  You also had to give credit to, as he'd often put it, his "big nose".  It came in handy to produce a rich nasal resonance, something Italians term imposto for that hum many singers produce verses a wavering warble that I find annoying.  After Mass and his singing debut, kudos came like buds emerging from a dormant tree.  Half a world away, Domenic had made his mark.  As a singer, he'd now achieved Italian, or at least Calitri fame, in supplement to a football prowess, that apparently, no one had understood.  They would know of him the next time he strolled Corso Garibaldi!

      And stroll they certainly did, arm-in-arm, wreathed with smiles there in the middle of the street at each evening passeggiata with the rest of the townsfolk.  Walking ahead of us, Domenic absent his fedora and Mercedes in her suitcase finery, it appeared as though they had done this their entire lives.  They were comfortable with the idea of an evening jaunt through town greeting genial passers-by, and in return being greeted with a nod or finger raised in miniature salute.  Mom was by then a common fixture about town, as was dad, although word of his singing exploits had undoubtedly added an additional distinction.  Join in Calitri's cultural traditions, meet them halfway, warm to their ways, and they will willingly embrace your attempt at being one with them.  After all, people are fundamentally the same everywhere, Calitri being no exception.

      At this point, I must come clean.  Unfortunately, as the title to my tale suggests, these are more wishful imaginings then actual memories.  I am guilty of becoming a prospector, mining for visions of what might have been.  While our nocturnal visitor, our fishing adventures, Cadegliano, great grandfather, dad's knack at singing in addition to his football prowess, were true, the nostalgia of recollecting those times inspired me to seize on self-made images.  Conflated with elastic thoughts, far short of actual dusty footfalls, trains or polenta, they are but thoughts moving faster than reality—imagined yearnings adorned by invention run amok.  My escape from reality, to the immortality of words, was most likely triggered by the realization that I have now eclipsed my dad in the number of years he lived.  How could it be, me being older than my father?  Truth be said, neither my mom, Mercedes, nor my dad, Domenic, ever got to visit Calitri.  For that matter, they never visited Italy or my mom's homeland, France (her ancestry back to 1430), during their lifetimes.  Any trip to Europe was impossible even if they had entertained the thought, or gone farther and actually compiled a must-do in life, bucket list.  Lifetimes of work to make ends meet, the responsibilities of raising a family and the passage of time, at first kept it, and eventually made it, impossible for either of them to experience Italy. 

      Worthwhile daydreams?  Nowadays, when answers to questions are only a click away, where do I go for mine?  A false history?  Certainly, but can't we write history even before it happens?  I fantasized on what might have been had my parents been along with us in Italy, better yet, in Calitri.  To hear my father sing, to see my mother smile at the wonderment of it all, that I'd imagined it this way, she and dad along.  Where that it were so for it would have been wonderful.

From That Rogue Tourist