Henry Miller is waiting for his cue to go on stage. He is about to become Aiden Bennington, a condescending trust-fund brat. But before that, there is a moment in which he is neither himself, nor an... [+]
There was no sunlight that day, and flowers with banners naming the giver had no aroma. TheGodfather theme music played in Maria’s head while a cast of characters, like sepia photos in her mother’s album, stepped off the pages before her. As oldest granddaughter of the deceased Salvatore, she had helped by seeing to the funeral details. She pushed past her own sadness even as the memory of his voice still called. Warmly she greeted the Sicilians, whose bent for pasta was apparent, and who came dressed for the occasion in their finest black; faces properly grim with lots of tears and hugging.
Maria’s mother, Libby, the oldest daughter, took her place in the front row. Then came the high drama as her seventy-five-year-old grandmother, Lucia, the widow, made her entrance. She was practically carried into the room, her weight supported by two of her sons. Maria absorbed the somber moment, yet it struck her that her grandma had never looked young. She wondered if Lucia prematurely aged because she buried two of her eight children, or because six of the children survived and had to be raised. The word “sorry” hummed in the background like a Greek chorus. Then Lucia broke through it all with shrill unearthly sounds that erupted from her heart. She wailed, “Salvatore, Salvatore”; her body shook, she flung her arms, and practically climbed into her husband’s casket. Between sobs she pleaded, “God take me, take me too; allow me to join my husband in death!”
Even in her sorrow, Maria could not help but find some amusement in the emotional scene. It embraced all the passion of a black and white Federico Fellini film, Lucia almost a caricature of the Italian widow in her grief.
By any measure, Maria’s own marriage was solid, but she had never loved like that. If she admitted it, she was a bit jealous of her grandmother’s ardor. She recalled once asking, “Grandma was your marriage an arranged marriage?” And Lucia’s face had twisted with emotion and trembled when she replied, “I marry for love!”
Did this storm of feeling get lost at sea when immigrants sailed from Europe? Or did that intensity never make it, even to the cargo hold? For sure that kind of romantic fervor had skipped Maria’s generation. How many lifetimes pass before a culture’s natural flavor goes bland in the quest to become American? Grief hammered her into reflection today, and she felt disconnected from her body.
Like a camera, she quietly panned the room until she reached the widow’s sad brown eyes; was the young Lucia of the family’s love story still in there? Could she have been as sweet and naïve as told in the saga about the beginning of her grandparent’s courtship in Italy? Maria loved to hear the tender tale that was told and retold:
He was a young, orphaned seaman, slight of build and handsome, when he met with the beautiful Lucia at the home of her well-off parents. Her entire family joined them in the parlor for the evening. It was more than intimidating for the seemingly unworthy suitor, but there was a certain steeliness to him that allowed him to pursue someone above his standing. The only time they were alone that evening was when Lucia walked him to the door to say goodnight. In that private moment he managed in a hush to get in a few words and said, “Lucia, tonight when your parents go to bed, I will meet you on your balcony and we will take a little walk.”
When she returned to her family, she was confused so she told her parents what Salvatore had suggested and declared, “But Papa, how can we take a walk around the balcony? It is so small.”
Of course, that evening her father and brothers were waiting for the unsuspecting young man, and it was a very, very long time before they were allowed to meet again. But Lucia was insistent and wanted no other, so her parents finally relented.
There was always the hint of a smile in the telling, so Maria never knew if it was totally true. But the history that followed was real enough. Salvatore and Lucia married, and the era’s hardships moved in. After their second daughter was born, Salvatore felt the pull to seek a better life, a decision that would also mean leaving his family for years. Alone, he departed from Italy to pave the way to New York via South America. His journey sent him over rough seas, through lush jungles, and he worked as a palace barber for a despot prince. He survived by always moving forward toward the day he would reunite with Lucia. It took two years to save the money, get the proper papers, and send for his family. Salvatore was courage, and confidence; Lucia was courage and faith. Did it ever enter her mind that he would abandon her and their daughters and never send for them? Maria always wondered. Did he ever question that his determination would bring him his due?
Dreams that are based on wisps of a rumor can shatter in reality. New York City was its own kind of jungle, filled with tenements in slums bathing in odors to greet the newly arrived “wops.” Unfamiliar cooking smells mingled with filthy people and uncollected garbage that waited its turn for pickup. Salvatore walked past the slums head held high, teaching his children to rise above the slurs and be more perfect than the rest. He would do what he had set out to do: make a better life.
His struggle and pain along the way left an incomprehensible face in the mirror. Yes, he was gentle with his wife and grandchildren, but he could be brutal with his children. Maria only witnessed the softer side; the early morning walks when he held crushed blossoms to her nose and said, “Smell, smell how beautiful is nature’s creation.” Could this be the same man who chopped off her mother’s hair just for responding to a boy’s “hello?”
It took Lucia’s wicked sense of humor to balance Salvatore’s sternness and smooth his edges. She took pleasure in doing little things like serving him breakfast in bed or tying his tie. A gentle Salvatore would pamper her too, present her with fresh fruit, peel, slice, and feed it to her. Lucia was grateful. Sensuality was at their core, and it appeared to Maria that even throughout their old age there was a flirtation, something in their eyes that spoke of what had been and what would always be their passion.
In the grieving room of tears and the buzz of banal chatter, Maria’s camera panned once more and set on Lucia and Salvatore’s wedding photo. She saw the elegance and intelligent purpose in their eyes; eyes that anticipated “success.” And it struck her that others in the room may have witnessed the harsher Salvatore or may wonder what simmers below the surface of Lucia. But very clear to all was that Lucia and Salvatore loved deeply at a time when roles in life were clearer, and love expressed in modest ways. The camera pulled back, and the picture faded out but not to The End; there are too many children, too many grandchildren, and too many stories to follow in the wake.