Monday, November 27, 2006

In Squaw Valley Park With Alex and Ben

Assignment: Write about a small joy

For sheer bliss
It gets no better than this:
Two grandsons,
Two swings.
Alex, ten,
Pumps his own.
I push five-year-old Ben.

The swings go up,
Go down,
And up and down again
While the boys,
Beatles fans, both,
Raise voices to the sky
As into the air they fly.

She's got a ticket to ride …
sings Alex
She's got a ticket to ri-i-ide ...
echoes Ben
And in tandem
To song's end,
They sing as they swing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

A Cursed Incident Abroad

It happened one dark night in Milan.  We were in a gelateria, my daughter and I, and had barely had a lick-a-piece on our cones when a beggar came up to me and, in a manner most rude, demanded: 

“Signora, comprami un gelato!” 

I ignored him.

“Signora,” he said again, “comprami un gelato!”

Again I ignored him.

“What’s he saying?”  my daughter asked. 

“He wants me to buy him an ice cream.”

“And are you going to?”

“No,” I said.

Then, right in my face, he made a chant of it:  “Comprami un gelato!  Un gelato!  Un gelato!  Comprami un gelato!”

With the back of my hand, I waved the air at him, shooing him, and said, 

“Via!  Lasciami stare!” (Go!  Leave me alone!)

A vague anxiety gripped me as I saw him make a ‘vee’ with the middle and index fingers of his right hand, and spit through it.  Then, with lip curled, he said, “Alora che tu tenga i tuoi maledetti soldi e che presto tu sia la più ricca signora nel cimitero!” (May you keep your damned money, then, and may you soon be the richest woman in the cemetery!)

“What did he say to you?” my daughter asked.

“Oh, nothing much,” I said.  No need to upset her.  Bad enough that he had me quaking, imagining I saw him already stomping in triumph on my grave.

I only hoped that by ‘soon’ he had meant not really too terribly soon – perhaps some very indefinite time in the future – which is about as much notice as any of us poor mortals can hope for anyway.  

In the meantime, I try not to dwell on it.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Essences of Erin

Notes on Ireland

Erin Countryside From On High

Magpies soar over the fields,
Patchwork shades of green 
Here and there, tiny yellow blooms 
Of a bramble called gorse 
Can be seen.

Ireland’s Side Of The Story

Henry of England did decree
That Ireland have no king but he
And all erstwhile Irish kings
Mere lords should thenceforth be.

Later Cromwell, just to be cruel, 
Made roof-less churches Erin's rule
And left her Catholics in the lurch
Praying in a rain-filled church.

Language Lesson

For the word storyteller 
The Irish say chantakee,
Which, you see,
Every Irishman just for fun
Is one.

On Erin’s Shores

The Wolf of lore is no longer there. 
The Golden Eagle, too, did disappear. 
While the Fox and wild Mink, I think, 
Remain in abundance galore.
But the Rabbit, alas, is no more. 

If the facts above should prove untrue, 
What would you have me do? 
I am not to blame, you see 
For they were told to me
By an Irish chantakee. 

Magpie Alert

If just one magpie you spy,
Straight away home
To your bed you must hie,
There to pray the livelong day
That sorrow not come your way

However, if it rather be
Two magpies you should see,
With joyful voice rejoice
For luck and love
Will surely come to thee.

Whereas, permit me to say
If you are in a family way,
Try to spy four, or three,
According to whatever
Your preference may be.

For concerning the magpie, 
Irish legend doth decry:

        One for sorrow
        Two for joy  
        Three for a girl
        Four for a boy

Rx For The Common Cold 

Potcheen, that potent Irish brew,
Cures the common cold, 'tis true. 
Ofttimes it's used as liniment, too, 
And tends to befuddle the likes of you. 

So instead of the usual whiskey,
Take potcheen if you dare.
Most scandalously frisky
It will render you, I swear,

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


She never thought about being pretty, because no one had ever told her she was – until that fateful afternoon.  Playing quietly with her doll in a corner of the room, she heard her mother’s visiting friend say  Your little Pamela is a beauty.  What adorable dimples!

Pamela was fluttery with joy, but pretended to be unaware of what had been said, hoping against hope to hear more.  Not in front of the child  her mother said.  I don’t want her to grow up conceited.   When the visitor left, Pamela hurried to stand on the very tips of her toes and smile at her reflection in the bathroom mirror.  Her mother, walking by the open door, caught her in the act and said  Go ahead, keep admiring yourself in the mirror, missy!  But don’t be surprised if some day the devil himself looks back at you!   In an instant, fear supplanted Pamela’s delight, and the joy she had felt so short a time ago was now a solid block of ice.  In unexpected moments from then on, when the far-off wail of a train echoed through rain-heavy air or when a siren wakened her in the night, an undefined foreboding lodged in her chest like a stone. 

That fall Pamela entered first grade and Mary Ellen’s family moved in next door.   Mary Ellen enrolled in the same school, and even though she was three years older than Pamela and already in fourth grade, they became best friends.  Almost from the onset, Mary Ellen was her confidant, the sounding board against which Pamela tested her worries and fears.  Sister Emelda called me out of class today and asked me why I always look so sad  she said.  Do I look sad, Mary Ellen?  Mary Ellen said  I guess mostly you do, but what’s it any of her business?  You don’t have to pay attention to everything the sisters tell us, Pammy.  Pamela asked her mother that evening if what Mary Ellen had said was true, and her mother said  You pay attention to everything the sisters tell you. missy!  Don’t be listening to Mary Ellen.  Someday her sauciness will get her in trouble!   

The end of the school year brought a long, happy summer for the girls to spend together.  One day while they were jumping rope, Mary Ellen taught her a new chant:  Oh the girls in France, they wear tissue paper pants.  And the boys in Gaul, they don’t wear anything at all.   They repeated it over and over just to make themselves giggle, and that night at dinner she repeated it for her parents.  Her mother said  That implies impure thoughts, and impure thoughts can only lead to sin!  Promise never to recite the likes of it ever again!   Pamela promised.  And stop spending so much time with that immoral little creature next door!   Pamela was silent.  Promise! her mother said again.  Leave the kid alone her father said.  There’s nothing immoral about Mary Ellen.  Stop filling our daughter’s head with your righteous nonsense.  The next day Pamela asked  Mary Ellen, do you think we will go to hell for impure thoughts?   Mary Ellen said  Of course not!  Pammy, you just have to chill out, okay?  

Mary Ellen and her family moved to Texas, and Pamela had to muddle through the teen years without her.  Pamela was a very comely teen and soon boys by the dozens came calling, asking her to the movies.  Her mother said  Movies are okay, I guess.  But no drive-ins!  They’re dens of iniquity.

A few years later, the young man she dated in college met with her mother’s approval because he happened to have a brother in the seminary.  Her father, on the other hand, accepted him on his own merits.  They were married after graduation, and she told herself that at last she was happy.  The only problem was that because she felt unworthy of such happiness, a complicated covenant compelled her. Certain things had to be done in a precisely prescribed way to insure against disaster. Towels out of the dryer had to be folded just so.  If one seam showed beyond another, the towel had to be refolded, sometimes several times, before she placed it in the linen closet.  All the table knives in the silverware drawer had to be placed with the cutting edges facing the same way.  Each pillow, hers and her husband’s, had to be set atop the sheet and blanket exactly the same distance from the edge of the bed.  So many rules!  Almost weekly, she came up with a new one to suffer under.  Often she was sorely tempted to forget the whole thing, but was afraid of what might happen should she disobey.  What do you mean by disobey?  her husband shouted at her in frustration.  They’re your own stupid rules, aren’t they?  I swear to God you need psychiatric help!  His words stabbed at her, and although she knew it was wrong of her, she struggled a long time before forgiving him.  Afterward, as penance, she was constrained to blow a kiss before she retired at night, to each religious artifact in the house – the print of The Last Supper that hung over their table, the picture of The Child Jesus in the Temple in the room they hoped would someday be the nursery, and the white plastic figurine of Michelangelo’s La Pietá which they had brought home from their honeymoon in Rome.  This ritual, though burdensome, was manageable enough until one fateful evening along about eleven o’clock when she was almost asleep, she remembered her Sunday Missal, a book that contained the liturgy for all the Masses of the Church year.  Depicted, too, throughout were many holy scenes – one tableau after another.  It would have taken her hours to blow each one a kiss.

Suddenly anger boiled up in her.  Enough!  she said aloud, even as she wondered whom she was addressingGod, perhaps?  Fear clutched at her, but she stubbornly refused to repent.  She was sleepless most of the night.  With dawn came an unbearable fear that because of her disobedience, the day ahead augured disaster.  She tried to shake off her dread and said a fervent prayer for forgiveness, but worried that maybe it was already too late.  Depressed and preoccupied, she went about the business of dressing for work.

 As she turned off the main highway onto the road that led to her office (a busy, two-lane road bearing traffic in each direction) she realized she had no recollection of how she had driven from home to there.  Resolved to begin paying attention to what she was doing, she glanced in the rear view mirror to acclimate herself.  Suddenly, superimposed on the mirror’s reflection of the car behind, she saw a horrible horned and leering countenance that flashed for an instant and was gone.  In panic she veered the car sharply left into what she thought was the passing lane.  Unfortunately, she forgot that she had already exited the six-lane highway.

The sound of impact was heard for blocks.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Summer Visitor

In those distant days before air-conditioning, I would fling wide my bedroom window to catch whatever coolness the night provided, and lie awake, listening to the sound of crickets, and the sound of leaves ruffled by warm breezes, and most of all, the sounds of adults when they thought me fast asleep.  Sometimes late at night, I imagine I hear these yet, and memories of summer evenings of my childhood come rushing back to me.

I  remember Mr. Giovannini, my father's friend.  "He's a farmer without a farm,"  my father once told me, "but he is, still and all, a farmer."  I guessed it was something that was inescapable, like what Sister taught us in religion class about Catholics who didn't go to church anymore. "They are still catholic," she had said, "because once a Catholic, always a Catholic."  So when I would hear Mr. Giovannini coming  to visit, as he often did in the summer, I would lie in bed and think to myself,  once a farmer, always a farmer.

Although she never said as much to me, I don't think my lovely mother, product of  catholic finishing school and the very soul of refinement, quite approved of him.  "He's so loud," she said to my father.  But my father, who enjoyed people as he found them, said, "He's loud because he's hard of hearing."  He liked Mr. Giovannini, and so did I.   He was ruddy-faced and tall, with red hair and the hint of a chuckle just behind his big voice.  "He likes his wine," my mother said.  Well, he liked my father's wine, too, and drank enough of it when he came to call.

His wife's name was Olivia, and it was a wonderment to me that she, gentle as she was, had noisy Mr. Giovannini for a husband.  She kept chickens, and I often was told to stop by their house on my way home from school when we needed eggs.   "A half-dozen, please, Mrs. Giovannini," I would say, handing her the few cents my mother had given me in the morning.   Carefully and slowly she would place six brown eggs into a paper bag.  "Now don't fall with these, dear," she would say in her whispery voice, "and be sure to give your mother my greetings."   

Mother, I knew, would not have minded if Mrs. Giovannini came to visit, but she never did.  She just stayed in her neat, clean little house and kept chickens and raised four children and let Mr. Giovannini go off to see my father on a summer evening.

          Through the open window of  my bedroom, I would hear him come up the steps to our back porch and rap, rap, rap on the screen door.

          "Hello, Peter," my mother would say, polite in spite of her reservations,  "Come in and sit down."   Then she would call my father to come into the kitchen.  My father's salutation was always the same.  "Red!" he would say, "good to see you!"  As I slipped off to sleep, I would hear Mr. Giovannini's jovial voice and my father's muffled laughter, and I knew they were having a good time.

          One night I awoke and looked at the big-faced alarm clock on my dresser and saw that it was ten minutes after twelve.  All was still, very still.  Then I heard my mother, from the top of the stairs, say, "Joe, has he finally gone?  Thank goodness!  I thought he would NEVER leave!"

          After a long silence, I heard Mr. Giovannini say, not quite so boisterously as usual,  "No, mam, I'm afraid I'm still here, but I'm just leaving now.  Goodnight."

          I remember how I hunched my shoulders under the sheet and covered my mouth with my cupped hands.  Daddy will be SO mad, I thought, as already I was drifting back to sleep.  Mr. Giovannini won't ever come here again.  He won't be Daddy's friend anymore, and so where will we get our eggs now?

          As it turned out, my father wasn't angry and Mr. Giovannini came to visit just as before, and the two of them continued to sit at our kitchen table with a bottle of father's homemade wine and two glasses.  My mother, though, never again complained to my father about Mr. Giovannini's loudness.  I think she was embarrassed.

After The War

  It was June of 1947, and the ship she had called home for ten days was slowly nearing its berth in the harbor of Genoa.  It was not much of a lady, this ship, having been hastily converted from war duty to peacetime hauling of paying passengers from America to Europe.  

The war had been over for almost two years, and slowly a semblance of world order and normalcy was returning,  yet she knew without ever acknowledging the thought even to herself that things would, for better or for worse, never be quite the same again.  

It was an exciting time to be alive and sixteen and American and waiting to meet grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins she had never known, except for sparse word from them which, sporadically throughout the long years of conflict,  the International Red Cross had sent to her father.  Excitement made her feet tingle to touch the shore of this far-off country that, through her father's reminiscences, had been a large part of the knowledge of her young and sheltered life. 

"Listen, listen, Daddy!"  she cried, leaning far over the railing, as the ship, almost docked, allowed street sounds to penetrate her awareness.  "They're speaking ITALIAN!  And so well, too!  And look!  Look!  they're just little kids, Daddy!  Why, they can't be more than four or five or six!"

Her father smiled.  "Yes," he said.  "You'll find that's the way with little Italian kids...even very young ones...they speak Italian very well.  Amazing, isn't it?"

They both grinned.  It was a good rapport they shared, and always had, and she suddenly gladdened at the thought of six months to be spent with him all to herself...well, at least without interruption of her younger siblings.  He had worried aloud to her on the train from Pittsburgh that, etc.  miss her mother, and she had in fact cried much of the night up in her upper berth, but now she longed only for the adventure to begin.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Second-Hand Smoke

          Lying in bed barely awake,  I became aware of cigarette smoke.  Daddy' s home!  I thought, and bounded from my bed and down the stairs.  I could not have been more than four years old, and already the smell of cigarettes and the joy of being with my father were intrinsically entwined.

          I could hear my parents talking and laughing together in the kitchen.  He was home from the night shift, and although I dreaded when he was on night turn, its saving grace was that I got to see him first thing upon awakening.  I remember the excitement bubbling in me as I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen.

          "Daddy, Daddy!"  I said.

          I climbed up onto my father's lap and, watching the white smoke curl from the cigarette in his hand, sighed and was happy.  Security and contentment were bound together in a lovely smoke ring with my father's name on it.

          My mother set eggs in front of him and poured steaming coffee into his cup.  My father took one last puff from his cigarette before crushing it in the ashtray.  I watched a 

wisp of smoke rise and then die away.

          "Now, honey,"  my mother said, "get down and let Daddy eat his breakfast in peace.  He's tired and hungry.  He's been working all night."

          "I don't really want to eat it in pieces," he said, and I giggled.  

          Sometimes his jokes were corny even to my young ears, but I always laughed.  I wanted him to know how much fun he was.  Even in later years, I laughed indiscriminately at his humor, and he knew and I knew that it was because we shared, he and I, a mutual admiration society.   

          My father gently slid me off his  knee, and I stood and made a pronouncement.  "When I grow up I'm going to smoke cigarettes, too."

          "No, you're not!" my mother said.  "Ladies don't smoke."

I couldn't believe the unfairness of that.  Why was it okay for gentlemen to smoke, but not ladies?  Although I didn't even have an inkling of what the word meant, what I was feeling was the first stirrings of feminism.  Yet, true to the dictates of the time, I gave no voice to my resentment. 

Actually, what my mother meant was that proper ladies didn't smoke, and indeed, in the Thirties, they did not, at least not in public view.  By the time I was twenty-one, though, not only improper ladies smoked, but perfectly proper ones too, as well as rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves, doctors, lawyers -- and Indian chiefs.  I did, too, and enjoyed it for thirty years.  Long after my father's death, with grandmotherhood approaching for my first time, and finally educated to the danger of second-hand smoke, I gave up cigarettes forever.  It was one of the most difficult things I ever did.  

          The worst of it was that in giving up cigarettes, hard as that was, I also gave up thirty-some chances per day to recapture a whiff of childhood happiness with my father, and even now, when a stray curl of cigarette smoke wafts my way, for a brief moment I am filled with nostalgia and long for my dad.