Wednesday, July 22, 1998

Mrs. Padrone's Boy Nino

          Joanne felt a panic attack coming on.  I should not have come, she thought.  She glanced quickly around the room.  "I don't remember anyone," she said softly.

          Bill Caplan came up behind her and put his hands over her eyes.  "Guess who," he said.

          She turned to him.  "Bill!" she said with relief.  "How the heck are you!  At first I thought I was at someone else's 25th high school reunion.  I don't remember a soul!"

          "Sure you do!" he said.  "Give yourself a few minutes.  We'll come drifting back to you!"

          "I've stayed away too long," she said.

          "True!  We've missed you, babe!  Where's your mate?"

          "Paul couldn't be here," Joanne said.  "He's in Europe on business."

          "Whoa!  Sounds like you two have hit the big time!"

          "No, not really.  Bill, is it okay if I sit at table with you and your wife?"

          "Sure!  You remember Annie, don't you?  Annie Carstairs.  She was three years behind us.  We met again at Penn State.  I was a senior, she a freshman.  I swept her off her feet.  She never did get her degree.  We were married her sophomore year."

          By the time dessert was being served, Joanne felt she belonged again to Eastwood High's Class of  1970.  She searched the room for Nino's face, but to no avail.

          "Bill, whatever happened to Nino Padrone?" she asked.  "He's not here tonight, is he?   Paul and I were married right after graduation from Pitt, and moved to Los Angeles.  I lost touch."

    "You mean JOHN Padrone?  Oh, yeah, that's right -- you always called him Nino, didn't you?" Bill said.  "Why?"

          "His mother called him that,"  she said.  "It's short for Giovannino.  Giovanni is John in Italian, and I guess Giovannino is the diminutive.  We've known each other since kindergarten, and he's always been Nino."

          "You didn't hear what happened to him?" Bill said.           

          "Hear what?" she asked, but just then Sheldon Miller, the class president, called the room to order.  

          "Fellow Classmates, let us begin!" he said.  "Let's all stand and sing the Alma Mater."

          Joanne, feeling foolish, stood with the rest.  Suddenly she knew why she had been absent from the reunions all these years, but she sang nevertheless, and was surprised how she remembered every word so well that she could allow her mind to wander.  Heard what? she thought, What's Nino been up to? 

          She smiled, remembering how funny he had been.  Almost every day, for twelve years, four of them had walked to and from school together -- she and Nino and Patty Gormly and Artie Carson.   But it was always Nino who, with his zany antics and funny stories of his mom, held center stage.   Nino's mother, although in this country since she was twenty, had never become fully americanized.  Nino used to joke to his friends about her Old World accent and ways, and the seeming disloyalty of it all made Joanne uncomfortable.  Still, at Mrs. Padrone's expense, she would laugh until her sides ached.  Nino was a master at mimicking his mother.

          Suddenly it was as if it were thirty-five years ago and they were all again eight-years-old and in Artie's kitchen.  It had started out as one of Nino's pranks, but it escalated.  Nino had phoned his mother from Artie's, and held the receiver out so that Joanne and Patty and Art could hear.

          "Eh, hello?" his mother said.

          "Mrs. Padrone?" Nino said, putting his finger to his lips for them to stop giggling.

          "Eh,'sa me.  It'sa Mrs. Padrone."

          "This is St. Joseph Hospital calling, Mrs. Padrone."  He had a handkerchief over the mouthpiece.  "Your little boy Johnny has been hurt."


           "Madre di Dio!" she said, wheezing so hard that Nino realized he had gone too far.  Suppose she should have a heart attack?   His hand shook so that it caused the handkerchief to slip from the mouthpiece.  

          "Uh...don't be scared," he said.  "He's not hurt bad."  Quickly he put the handkerchief back in place, but it was too late."

          "Oh, yeah?"  The wheeze was gone from his mother's voice.  "That right?  Sure!  Nino, this you?"

          It was Nino's turn to wheeze.  "No, Ma.  This is St. Joseph's Hospital.  Your little boy....."  His voice dwindled.  He knew, and they all knew, he had blown it.

          "I give you St. Joseph Hospital!" she said.  "Wait when you get home, bad boy!   I gonna kill you!"

          "Aw, Ma!" Nino had said, and left right away for home.

          "Why did you do that?" Joanne had asked him later.

          "I just wanted to see if she loved me," he said.

          The speeches ended about the same time the coffee cups were being cleared.  It was time to gather around for the taking of the class reunion photograph.  Spouses were excluded, so Joanne stood next to Bill.  

          "What were you going to tell me?" she asked.

          "About what?"

          "About John Padrone.  You said hadn't I heard?"

          "Oh," Bill said.  "He killed himself.  I'm sorry to have to tell you.  Funny you never heard.  He just put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger."

          Joanne's knees felt wobbly.  "But why?"  

          "A note to his mother said he never felt he was loved.  There've been rumors that he was gay, and that was why he did it, that he felt his parents wouldn't understand.  But I'm not buying that.  I just think he was never very happy.  All those years we were growing up together, I guess his clowning around was just an act."

          The photographs were to be mailed to each classmate.  Joanne received hers about a month later, after she was back home in L.A.   She slid it from its envelope, and seeing her stricken face in the photo, tore the picture in half, and then in half again.

          "Oh, Nino!" she said.  She hurt, but she could not cry for him.  Why hadn't she just stayed away and never known?

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

Beyond a Lifetime

          The ocean sparkled with diamonds of sunlight.  A warm breeze stirred the ends of the towel draped across my shoulders.  I stood just beyond where the sand was wet by the tide, and heard the lap-lap of waves as they diminished onto the shore.  I watched his head bob like a distant beach ball in the water.

          "Daddy!" I called, "don't go out so far!  Daddy!"  But the sea noises swallowed my words.

          I watched and worried until he turned and started to swim back to shore.  I saw his arms alternate above the water in quick, powerful strokes.  Only then did I spread my towel on the sand and sit down to catch the rays of sun.

          He was smiling as he stood and shook his arms to dry them, and climbed up from water's edge.

          "Che volevi?" he asked.  ["What did you want?"]

          So he HAD heard me after all.  I suspect now in retrospect that my concern pleased him, although he feigned indifference.  I can still see that little half-smile of his, as though he had a secret known to him alone.

          Oh yes, I know my worry for him pleased him.  I also know that he knew I was proud of him as he was of me.  I was reared at a time when daughters were seldom given reason to think they knew anything or were much to look at.  "Don't tell your girls they are pretty," I once heard my grandmother tell my mother, "or they'll grow up conceited."  I think it was the prevailing philosophy of the time -- keep them humble.  Thank goodness my father did not subscribe to it.

          When I was very young, he liked to show me off.  How my poor mother must have cringed at his inflicting my performances on friends!

          To this day, I remember in its entirety, the Italian Christmas poem he taught me when I was no more than three or four, and I remember, too, how he delighted in my reciting it.

          I see the scene still.  It was summer, and I wore a white and red sundress and little white shoes.  Louie and Sis were visiting for dinner.  It was a warm evening, and we were to eat on the back porch.  While Mother prepared the meal in the kitchen, Daddy perched me on the table on the porch and had me spout poetry.   Louie and Daddy were best friends.  I knew this even then, because Sis and Louie had given me a maple highchair when I was born, and in those Depression Days, a highchair was no mean gift.  Mommy had said so.  They were such good friends, in fact, that they smiled as I recited on and on.  "E Natale.  Si!  E Natale....,"  ["It's Christmas.  Yes!  It's Christmas...."] and Daddy, dear Daddy, was oblivious to their boredom.

          Reminiscing about my father makes me smile.  I remember the year, my eighth one, that he taught me to ride a bike.  He bought me the bicyle a few days before we drove to Ocean City, New Jersey, for a week-long vacation.  As he strapped it on our old green Chevie, I didn't say so, but I figured it would take me the whole week to learn, and that we wouldn't have any time left to ride the Boardwalk together.  "Maybe next year," I thought, but I was wrong.

          The trip to the Jersey Shore was up one mountain and down another.  The scenery was lovelier than the turnpike trip of today, but it took a good ten hours.  Mother never learned to drive, so Dad drove the whole way, with me and my younger sister sometimes singing, sometimes fighting, sometimes sleeping in the back seat.

          The very next day, Dad wakened me at six.

          "Time for the bike lesson," he said.

          All morning long, he had me ride up the alley behind our rented cottage, and back down the alley again.  "Go on, go on," he said.  "Pedal!  Pedal!  I've got a hold of the back of the seat.  Pedal!  Pedal!  I've got you!.""

          "But you'll let go," I whined, and sure enough, he did, and I went off, curvy-durvy up the alley, knocking down neighboring cottages' garbage cans all the way.

          "Keep going!  Keep going!" he shouted.  "Pedal!  Pedal!"  And of course, finally, the bike tipped over.

          I got up and brushed cinders from me.  "You said you had a hold of the seat!"  I accused.

          "I did," he said, "and then I let go.  How will you learn to bike-ride if I have to run behind you holding the seat the rest of your life?  Now come on.  Set those garbage cans straight and come back and we'll do the same thing again."

          And so we did, over and over and over.  Soon I was knocking down only every third garbage can, and finally, none.

          "Okay," Dad said, "I'm proud of you.  Tomorrow morning at six we ride the Boardwalk.  I'll rent a bike for me for the week."

          The next morning, my tail-end was so sore, I could hardly get back on the bike, but I did, and it was worth it.  My father and I rode the length of the Boardwalk and back, and then stopped for breakfast -- just the two of us.  We did that every day, the rest of the week.


          There are many other stories about Dad that surface in my mind, and I relate them often.  So long as he lives in memory, he lives.  If this is the sum and substance of immortality, isn't that enough?