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.