Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cen'tanni to a Family Gypsy

Cent’anni, to a Family Gypsy

Drawn to a line about memories and photography in the short story Clean Sweep by Joan Bauer, I am reminded that I often reflect in silence over photographs of my ancestors. In the story, the narrator, Katie, says, “you can hold a photo of a person you loved, but it isn’t alive.” In isolation, the line is sobering and cold; however, it does not change how I feel about my family photographs. It only makes me cherish them even more.

In them, I see my grandparents and their tired postures but content and happy eyes. They pose side by side, forcing themselves to stand without ache or fatigue, but it is there. Yet, joy radiates from these Italian farm people turned into new American city people. Having food and opportunity had that effect.

True, photographs are not alive, but that does not diminish their power to remind me, to make me painfully aware, of my life, how I continue to live it, and the people I come from.

When I look at a previously unknown (to me) photograph of my young aunt, Conchetta Quattrone, in a modest white traj de flamenca, I see a part of her I never knew. Sitting on a wrought-iron railing, her gypsy’s posture and wickedly fun smile compliments the hint of bare leg exposed beneath the ruffled dress hem.

A single image—a thousand unuttered words—gives me pause, and makes me miss her.

Like a mosaic, we are all made up of many pieces.  The best any of us knows of another are only fragmented, single pieces. It is what makes long-lasting and committed couples so special—they grow to see the myriad of colors and shapes take form—they see the entire portrait of pieces the man or the woman in their life.

Of my aunt, I knew the fragments of her only from when I was born (1968) until she passed (2005). Looking back, her portrait is one of great contrasts.

She helped raise me. Lunch waited for me as I walked to her house everyday from elementary school—we did not stay at school for lunch. Often, she toasted tomato sandwiches with a little vinegar and oil soaking through the hard, crusty bread.  When I returned home for the day, later in the afternoon, she sat on a folding chair on the front stoop and watched for me in the distance through the traffic, brick, and asphalt of city streets.

I knew the sad parts of her, living alone in a row house that once bustled and burst with the noises of five brothers and sisters along with the aromas of herby, Italian cooking—I remember seeing her white hair as she sat alone at the front window as I shot bottle caps or swung a broomstick at a rubber ball with friends. In her 60s, she passed the hours completing crosswords or watching the passersby until family returned to the house.  Now, I see her as the young woman on the railing who simply grew old passing the hours between meals when she would rejoin her brothers, nieces, and nephews around a table of good food.

I knew the active and selfless part of her that volunteered for politicians she believed in, and good causes that moved her. She wanted me to find a record of Happy Days are Here Again so she could play it again and again and again when a fellow Italian, Frank Rizzo, was re-elected for a second term as mayor. Oh, would she have loved to share a braciole with him!

I knew that part of her that argued with her brothers, and that same part sometimes grew sour at me and my mother.

I knew the piece that protected our loving cousin, Josaphine, her neighbor, dearest friend, and closest loved one. They ate at least one meal together every day for more than fifty years.

I knew the part of her that aged and that loved the color red and always embraced her loyalty to the United States Navy and the United States Marines where she made a career, friendships, and a brief marriage.

I knew her when she spoke her mind or sometimes spoke without any mind at all—her bawdy outbursts making a room of family simultaneously blush and burst with tears. I knew that part of her because it was so bright, and red, and gleamed with her name and face. That part of her is forever washed onto others—that part of her still makes family remember her with wry smiles. We remember her for being able to make us exasperated and amused—and that made us feel very alive in our skin. She was honest as daggers and as loyal as a book.

And I knew the part of her who spoke hard and pointed words aimed right between the eyes, and her stubborn, tough Italian shell, impossible to penetrate--but the complimentary side of her was there too.

I love having lived to see the fragment of her that I saw smile, genuinely happy to see family, often around a meal around two tables pushed together around neighbors popping in and being invited to sit and join us around her yelling over the cinder block walls of her yard, to her neighbors, and passing plates of pasta and meat, sharing what she had made and served to a house full again—she loved that—around and around and around—food and family, family and love, and the power of sharing what you had and passing it on to everyone and anyone, around and around and around.

So, I am not quick to dismiss a photograph—any one photograph could be a fragment of her that I did not know, a fragment I can polish and set into place in my life with the other colored stones of my memories.

Otto Frank once said of Anne, “I only came to know my daughter through her diary.” Similarly, a photograph is a diary entry—a thousand unspoken words. In this case, those words are captured above in soft grey, satiny white, and a smile.

We are more than the sum of the memories of others—we are the shattered fragments spread throughout all of our relationships—no one person can sweep together all of our shards and dust of life into one complete portrait. Yet, this photograph of my aunt is an artifact I am proud to hold and read and wonder and love.

Translated, Cent’anni means a hundred years—often used as a toast, loved ones say it as a wish that they may share another 100 years together. With writing, I toast the memories that my family shares of our aunt, and I toast the fragments of her still alive within us as we walk our own paths across the countryside and around the world.

With eyes wide open, I understand that I too am a varied and complex collection of fragments—some in the form of words as I continue to grow as a writer. And, like the joy in my aunt’s face, I spread my written fragments willingly and freely without regret or fear. Cent’anni, Conchetta—Cent’anni.

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