Sunday, September 8, 2013

Foggy Morning in Pittsburgh Town

Just at dawn, across the Highland Bridge I go.

Gone from view is the mighty Allegheny,

Kidnapped  without a trace,

And I, invisible in fog dense and eerie,

Feel anonymous and somehow merry,

Now and then, 

Droplets from the mist break free,

And like gentle Irish rain,

Stain my many-pocketed vest.

I lift my face to their caress.

Then at first dimly I begin to see

Approaching auto lights

From farther off than previously.

The river below has returned to view.

Bridge signs are visible anew.

With decorum, anonymity gone,

I walk on.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Joe and Adele

Prologue:  While using a Venn Diagram to compare my father's personality with my mother's, I decided a more  worthy memoir task would be to describe their lovely relationship for posterity.  I didn't want to be maudlin about it, though, nor did I care to go into great, boring detail.  What I finally came up with was the following.  I don't know if it works or not.

Tara-barala, tara-barala

Il prete la suona,

La serva la balla

"What's that you're singing?" my daughter Ann asks from her wheelchair in her family room.  It's the end of March, 2010, and she's recovering from knee surgery. I am at her house, nurturing her, like in older, happier times

"Oh, it's just a nonsense little song your nonno, my dad, used to sing,” I say, 

“... usually  just to get your nonna's goat."

"What does it mean?"

Having finished cleaning up her kitchen after lunch, I wipe my hands on a tea towel and come into the family room to join her.  "Well," I say, "tara-barala, tara-barala is just a musical incantation, sort of like 'tra-la-la'...  And il prete la suona means the priest plays it, and la serva la balla means the servant girl dances it.  When my dad used to sing this, I always imagined a priest in white-collared, long black frock belted with a rope, and a servant girl in country dress and apron, dancing and swinging together.”

"The whole thing goes like this," I say, remembering:

Tara-barala, Tara-barala.  Il prete la suona; la serva la balla.

E quando non é piú buona, la serva la suona; il prete la balla."

"Which means?" Ann asks.

"The last part?  Oh, it just means:

And when it isn't any good anymore, the servant girl plays it; the priest dances it."  

"So why did it get your mother's goat?" Ann asks.

"I don't know.  I think maybe it had a double meaning.  Maybe something   naughty.  Anyway, I loved to hear him sing it.  No, I guess what I really loved was the little smile that quivered at the corner of his mouth when my mother would scold him with:  Joe! You know I don't like that silly song!


Yet, come to think of it, even as she was reprimanding him, my mother's eyes hinted at a smile as secret as his.  It was like that with the two of them – he an impish tease, she a proper lady, involved in a private joke between them.  A love affair, no doubt about it, and my two sisters and I, growing up in the aura of their love were darn lucky.  At the time, though, we just took it all for granted."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Three Haiku

birds tipsy in flight
leaves in free-fall from the trees
autumn's dance

bridge hangs in mid-air
over the Allegheny
early morning fog

sunbeam punctures cloud
spotlights Pittsburgh skyscrapers
huddled in the rain

Joey and Me

The big red brick house on 84 Stetson Street in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh, half-way up a high hill overlooking West Liberty Avenue, has been sold. My Aunt Mary's family and mine shared the house for the first eight years of my life.  Then we moved, and her family stayed. It will ever be my house, though, and I like to think its spirit will always hold within its walls, a little part of me. 

Aunt Mary was my father's sister. Lawrence, Anita and Joe were my cousins. Joey was four years my senior, and so much more intelligent than the rest of us that he had few friends his own age. Alack for him, of course, but lucky for me. He and I got along great. He was my mentor, and I followed him around like a puppy dog. I thought he knew just about everything in the world there was to know. 

One of the best things about him was his imagination. Other kids, in those long-ago days, played cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, but Joey thought up much better games for us to act out. Sometimes we were Eskimos, and the terrace in front of the house was tundra we had to traverse in raging snow storms. When the terrace wasn't Alaskan terrain, it was parched desert we had to ride our camels over in search of water.  Just in the nick of time, as we were about to die of thirst, we would come upon an oasis. Joey explained to me all about oases. Sometimes the terrace, especially in summer, was where we sat on the grass and just talked. He told me vampire and monster stories that made the skin on my back tingle, and scared the bejebbers out of me. I loved hearing them. At night, though, when I climbed the narrow stairwell up to the attic bedroom I shared with Joey's sister Anita, I would remember those tales of his, and would have to slither up the stairs sideways, my back pressed hard against the wall, so that no monster could sneak up behind me and say, Gotcha!

One day (I couldn't have been more than five or six), Joey said, “Saturday when my mom goes downtown, I'll ask her if you and I can go to the movies while she shops. Dracula is playing at the Art Cinema.”  

In those days the Art Cinema Theatre on Liberty Avenue showed regular movies, but mostly horror films, not pornographic ones as it did in later years. I don't know how Joey got Aunt Mary to agree to drop us off at the theater the next Saturday without questioning him about what was playing, but drop us off she did. As it turned out, she finished her shopping earlier than she had expected and wanted to get home, so she convinced the theater manager to allow her to come in to get her two young charges while the movie was still in progress. As she told us later, she walked down the aisle of the darkened theater to find me hunched over almost double in fright, my hands over my eyes, and Joey mesmerized by what Count Dracula was doing on the screen. What Dracula was doing, I guess, was sucking someone's blood, but I was too traumatized to watch. Well, my Aunt Mary yanked us out of there fast, and that was the alpha and the omega of our Saturday afternoons at the old Art Cinema. 

Joey continued to invent chilling stories for me, though, and to think up magic games for us to play.

Between playtimes, Joey tried to prepare me for when I started school; he was grooming me to be the best student in West Liberty Avenue Grade School. How successful he was is definitely a matter for debate, but I remember how diligently he would grill me in arithmetic. My cousin Anita, I could tell, felt sorry for my struggle to grasp all he was trying to teach me. I so wanted to make him proud. She often stood behind him, facing me, and would hold up her fingers to me, displaying the answer to an arithmetic question he had posed. She would say, “Don't be so hard on her, Joe. She's just a little girl.”  Joey persevered, nonetheless, and by the time I started First Grade, because he had taught me how to sound out the printed word, I was able to shine in reading. I remember that one day the teacher, Miss Liepart, put the word used on the board and asked if anyone knew this new (to us) word. In my head, I sounded it out before raising my hand and answering, ǔs-ed.

Miss Liepart smiled and said, “Well, yes, there is our old-friend word us  in it, and that's very good, Mary Stella, but there is also the word use there, and so we say ūse-d.” She went on to repeat two or three times that my answer had been a good one, but I felt I had let Joey down. I remember hoping he would not ask me if we had learned any new words that day, but, of course he did – as he asked me most days. I told him the whole us-ed/use-d story, expecting him to scold me, but to my amazement, he said I had done very well. “That's how it is sometimes with English,” he said – or similar words to that effect. I was relieved.

In my eighth year, my family moved into our own house in Beechview, and I no longer saw Joey every day. I thought my heart would break, but of course, hearts don't really break and life goes on. My mother, to ease the separation for me, put me on the 42-Dormont trolley (we called them street cars then), and allowed me to go by myself to the old house, which Joey and his family now filled top to bottom. I missed that dear house so, and all the joys that living there had given me. I ran all the way up the hill from the trolley stop to Joey's house, breathless to see my aunt and all the family again, but mostly, I could hardly wait to see Joey. I had a million questions for him to answer for me.

In June, 2006, Joey died.  The house with a soul of its own still sits there on its hill, but strangers fill its rooms. And all those precious memories? They are mine to my dying day – another of Joey's many gifts to me. My regret is that in all those years, I never told him thank you.