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My father casts a long shadow, but not a dark one. The most salient
fact about him for me is that he was fifty when I was born. For
this reason I spent the first fifty years of my life feeling like
I was on "free time." As I write this, I'm fifty six
and feel like I'm six years into my father's life. When occasionally
I shave my beard these days I see my father's face buried beneath
it like a long lost memory. It emerges as the razor trims away
the hairs, actually a bit younger than I remember his, because
most of my memories of him are from my teen age years when he
was already retired and well into his sixties. My father has not
been much with me recently, and I want to recover his presence.
On the surface, he was a simple man, and had a proverbial view
of life. Two of his favorites were "Che va piano, va sanno
e va lontano" and "Patienza e fortitude." The first
says "He who goes slowly will go a long way" and the
second is "patience and fortitude." Those two aphorisms
sum up my father's view of life, and they still bring calmness
to me when I think of them. He was a slow, quiet, patient man
and in his elder years (which is all the years I knew him) he
liked to sit on our black wooden slat bench on Chauncey Street
in Brooklyn and watch the neighbors go by.
His happiest moments were at the Wurlitzer spinet piano we had
in our living room. When he retired at age 65 (I was 15) he took
up the piano and practiced it patiently and with fortitude. He
went at it slowly and long and like to play andante exercises
where he could minimize the mistakes. I remember being embarrassed
by my father's piano playing and to this day I feel badly about
that. He was not trying to be a concert pianist and his tentative
self-taught playing style gave him a great deal of pleasure. My
favorite photo of him sits atop my own piano today where my fingers
grope along the keys making the same kind of mistakes he did.
He is smiling and playing an electric organ at a Veteran's Hospital
where he volunteered a great deal of his time in his retirement.
He seems contented, satisfied with this small talent, happy about
his ability to share it with others.
When I took up the piano early in my fifties I'm sure my father's
piano playing had a lot to do with it. It brings calm to me in
the same way it brought calm to him. Like him, I don't have the
talent to be a serious pianist, and like him, I make "mistakes"
regularly. Each time I hit a wrong note I think of him and feel
again my youthful embarrassment.
It is said that a young man either wants to be like his father
or rebels against everything his father stands for. I don't think
either of these extremes applies to me. Because my father was
fifty at my birth, his life always seemed distant from mine. I
could never really imagine myself being like him. On the other
hand, his simplicity and honesty about life hardly seemed material
for rebellion. I only saw him angry and violent once, and the
experience shook me and changed me. I wrote about it in this prose
poem, a part of a series I call "Traumatic Scenes from Childhood."
Something must have been bugging my father the day I asked
him for fifty cents in the upstairs kitchen, because although
he was always a sweet and gentle man and gave me most everything
I asked for, this time he turns around from the sink where he
is washing dishes and starts swinging at me fronthand and backhand,
again and again, his face contorted with a rage I never saw before
or again. I shrivelled into the chair by the kitchen window sobbing
and begging this stranger to stop. Eventually he does, and the
silence of the rest of our lives swallows the moment forever.
It's hard for me to associate that moment with other memories
of my father, yet it's the image I remember most vividly. That's
because it has to do with feeling, which my father showed me little
of. I know he was exasperated and troubled about my mother's illness
(she suffered from what we now call manic depression) and probably
felt as helpless as I did to do anything about it. Yet he had
an extraordinary patience about it. I saw this patience as passivity.
I wanted him to get upset when she went into one of her tirades;
I wanted him to tell her to shut up, to stop her relentless hysteria,
but he took it all calmly and dispassionately.
To understand my father I needed to travel to Apulia, the heel
of the Italian boot, that he left at the turn of the century in
search of a better life. His family, what I know and remember
of it, was large. He was the oldest of five brothers and three
sisters. His brother Frank, closest in age to him, came with him
to America and later his sister Mamie also came. The three of
them all settled in the Bushwick-Bedford-Stuyvesant section of
Brooklyn and all lived within walking distance of one another.
His other brothers-John, Anthony and Michael (Giovanni, Antonio,
and Michele) all remained in Italy, although Antonio later emigrated
to Venezuela where he played the violin for the Caracas Symphony
Orchestra. His sisters Anna and Graziella remained there also,
and Anna to this day lives in the village of Gravina di Puglia
near Bari where I visited her several years ago and learned the
story of my father and mother's courtship. None of the rest of
my father's primary family is living.
The first time I visited Gravina in the early 1970s I was accorded
a hero's welcome. At that time, Graziella and Michele were alive
also, as well as some of my mother's relatives. Michele still
lived in the house my father grew up in. There was no electricity
in it. His sisters Anna and Graziella lived across the street
and brought him his meals. Michele was a painter and suffered
from a lifelong melancholy. He lived a spartan, asetic life in
this dark 15th century house. His brooding paintings hung everywhere
in it. He took me on a tour of it and showed me my father's initials
carved on the roof ledge: SM 1899. It stunned me to see this as
I tried to imagine my father as a boy of twelve standing in the
very spot I was standing, scrapping these letters and numbers
into the stucco.
Sooner or later men become their fathers. Here I am now six years
into the time of his life and his face hovers beneath my beard,
his fingers trace mine on the piano keyboard, his mouth sips at
the tomato sauce I make each summer. With each year I live I feel
more the Father, some archetypal provider who will take care of
things. Maybe that's moving from father to grandfather,
a grand father figure that knows what the right thing to do is.
This is one of the illusions of male life, since both fathers
and grandfathers are only men, and the patriarchal roles assigned
to men are a burden as well as a pleasure
My father was a good and patient man. I keep saying "patience"
when I try to zero in on the quality that most characterized him.
One of the things I remember about him that illustrates this patience
is his refusal to move from our family house on Chauncey Street
long after the neighborhood had turned into a black ghetto. When
I sold the house after my father's death, ours was the last white
family on the block. He used to say "Prejudice is absolutely
forbidden-it's against the law." He was referring to the
1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation. Yet on Chauncey
Street, he watched the neighborhood move from a mixed ethnic area-primarily
German, Irish and Italian-to an all black ghetto that erupted
in riots following the death of Martin Luther King. My father
died shortly before King was assassinated, but he stayed put on
Chauncey Street until the very end, while all his neighbors sold
one after another to "Block Busters," realtors who used
scare tactics to bring down property values and buy houses cheap
by telling white families that they'd better sell immediately
after the first black family moved into the neighborhood.
There is so much I don't know about my father. I'm struggling
here to get inside his psyche, understand his perennial calm.
Or was it calm? Sometimes he seemed absolutely self-negating.
My sister told me that when he was dying and was rushed to the
hospital with a bleeding ulcer he told my brother-in-law that
he was sorry he was causing so much trouble and inconvenience.
I can hear myself saying the same thing. I don't like to trouble
anyone with the exigencies of my own life. So maybe now, at age
56, to find my father I simply need to find myself, and that's
no easy task. Edward Dahlberg, a writer who was kind of a surrogate
father figure to me, wrote "At eighteen I was a stranger
to myself; at thirty I set out to discover who I was; at fifty
I realized I would never know." Identity, like all of human
pretense, is written on wind, sculpted in sand, painted on water.
But a man's identity has to be tied up with his father's and that's
where I'm looking now, not quite accepting the futility of Dahlberg's
I am the son of an Italian immigrant from Apulia who delivered
ice, who owned an ice business, who studied mechanical drawing,
but never worked at that profession, who worked as an Insurance
Salesman for the Equitable Life Insurance Company for many years
and then finished his work life working in a copper factory. At
least I think these things are true-I'm really not certain about
my father's work history. I do know he was an ice man and an insurance
salesman. I remember finding a set of mechanical drawing tools
in a closet in the basement and asking him about them. He said
at one time he studied architectural drawing. I have memories
of him coming home from his last job tired. Going down into the
basement and hanging his coat in the wardrobe there. He brought
home small copper lamps and ashtrays sometimes. I remember going
down into the basement and fishing through his coat pockets for
loose change. I can still smell the mustiness of the basement,
where he kept a wine press-from early days before my time when
he grew grape vines and made wine from backyard grapes.
One startling thing I remember. I remember my ex-wife Sheila telling
me that my mother told her that my father was a wonderful lover-something
I could hardly imagine. Of course this is double hearsay, but
I also remember Sheila telling me when we made love that I must
have inherited that from my father. When I look at pictures of
him in his younger days the lover aspect becomes easier to imagine.
The youngest picture I have of him shows him wearing a bow tie,
a formal top coat (with a hankerchief in the breast pocket), and
carrying a pair of gloves. He wears a pinky ring on the small
finger of his left hand. He has a full head of dark brown hair
(something I never saw-he was always bald headed with a short
rim of grey hair around the sides all the time I knew him). He
is standing in front of a friend, who is dressed similiarly, and
his younger brother Francesco, who came with him to America. I'm
sure this picture was taken in Italy, some time during the early
years of the 20th century. He looks strikingly handsome in this
picture. Square-jawed, serious, penetrating eyes. This must have
been taken at someone's wedding. He and the man next to him were
probably members of the bridal party. This is a man I never knew,
but recognize. My father-over thirty years before I was born.
A second photograph is dated March 11, 1919 and the place is indicated
as "Moutier St.Jean, France." My father is a uniformed
soldier in World War I. He fought for the United States Infantry.
This is another aspect of his life I know little or nothing about.
Here he is, a young man of 32 years old, having recently emigrated
to America, returned to Italy, eloped with his sweetheart, returned
to the U.S., started an ice business, and begun to raise a family.
The first Fred and my sister Lucretia were born by this time.
The photo is a postcard and on the back of it is inscribed "In
segur di affetto....Baci, Stephen." It was probably sent
to my mother who was taking care of two small children back in
Brooklyn. The pose here is contrived, right arm bent, fist resting
against his hip, left hand leaning on a tree stump. His right
leg is bent and crossed. He stares straight into the camera, his
face proud and confidant. "Look at me," it says, "I'm
an American soldier." No longer the handsome, brash
young kid from Apulia, this is a military man, a father, an American.
He signed his name Stephen, as he did throughout his life, rather
than Stefano, which is surely what appeared on his birth certificate.
Except for the photo of him playing the organ, none of the images
of my father in my family album pictures is an image of the father
I knew. But they are images of the man he was at different stages
of his life, before I was even a proverbial glimmer. They help
me to see him in a fuller and clearer light as a man with a history
that in many ways is fuller and more remarkable than my own. I
can imagine that he left the village of Gravina di Puglia early
in the century because he felt stifled and limited by conditions
there. Apulia, at the time my father left it, is described by
an historian as a "land of chronic massacres," the only
region in Italy in the first part of the twentieth century to
produce a peasant revolt and an organized labor movement. The
land was controlled by the latifondisti, proprietors of large
estates that dominated the region's agricultural economy. An exploitative
system of tenant farming was the only way for non-propertied workers
to survive. This system created an endless cycle of debt. An Italian
parliamentary report issued in 1909 offers this grim view of life
in the region: "The Apulian peasant is born in debt, and
lives and dies the same." Was my father a part of this? Was
this one of the reasons he left?
He and his younger brother Francesco decide they are going
to transcend these limits and make a new life for themselves.
But he is in love with the lovely Nina Toriello, who lives in
a spacious house on the other side of town. The Toriellos own
property and Nina's father is a judge. A stern, uncompromising
man, he insists that his daughter have nothing to do with this
laborer's son who has no means to provide for her in the manner
to which she is accustomed. Nina and Stefano see one another surreptitiously.
They meet in a grotto just outside the village to make secret
plans and a pact. There are skulls and bones scattered across
the ground where they meet. He will go to America and make his
fortune in the new world. He has heard stories of men who have
become rich in no time at all there. It is truly a land of promise
and opportunity. It is the future. America-they roll the word
over their tongues-but Nina is frightened. Will she ever see him
again if he leaves? He holds her close. They kiss in the dark,
damp cave and he looks deeply into her eyes. He promises he will
be back for her-she must wait for him and give herself to no other.
Her beauty takes his breath away. He will do anything he needs
to do to make her his wife.
The next week he gathers his meager belongings and begins the
long overland journey in an open horse cart to Napoli where the
ships leave regularly for America. There are a dozen other young
adventurous men in the cart including his brother Francesco. There
is also a shy married couple who sit with the driver. The trip
takes five days. They sleep on the side of the road wrapped in
blankets on the way there. When they arrive in Napoli it is another
world entirely from the wheat fields and sheep farms of Apulia.
This is a magical city. "Vide Napoli, e poi mori," the
saying goes-"See Naples, and then die." It is glorious.
My father and his brother are excited. The harbor is bustling
with energy. Ships seem to be gliding on the water; the whole
scene is shimmering with light. They see a large crowd of people
with trunks and baggage and suitcases all around lining up in
front of a pier entrance. This is it. This is the place. The gateway
to the New World.
The ship they sail on is called the Nina di Christofero, named
after the first of Columbus' vessels. My father sees it as an
omen. It is named after his sweetheart. The Nina is taking him
to America. The passage is difficult and long. The journey takes
18 days. He and his brother have booked 4th class tickets. They
sleep in cots lined up on the ship's lowest deck. The deck is
crowded with poor Southern Italians, the food is terrible. My
father is sick for most of the voyage and so is his brother. The
only thing that sustains him is his dream of bringing Nina to
When the two brothers arrive in New York they are detained
at Ellis Island for three days. Again conditions are deplorable.
Here they sleep on long wooden benches, waiting for their name
to be called. They have given their names as "Stephen"
and "Frank" because they have been told that American
customs officials are impatient with foreign sounding names. These
are the names they take with them into their American life. When
they leave Ellis Island they make their way to Little Italy in
Manhattan where they have been given the name of a "padrone,"
Antonio Napoletano, a man who had been secretary of the farm worker's
union at Barletta in Apulia and now runs a large ice business
in lower Manhattan. They, along with the others from Apulia who
came with them, have been promised work delivering ice. Napoletano
has devised a system. The immigrants rent a horse and delivery
wagon from him, buy the ice wholesale, and are on their own to
make what profits they can from it. My father and his brother
spend weeks canvassing Manhattan neighborhoods trying to drum
up customers for ice delivery. But the market in Manhattan is
glutted. After several months they only have a handful of customers.
They are losing money and their small stash is dwindling. Just
as they are beginning to despair, they hear that the new bridge
and elevated train lines connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn have
created an economic boom in Brooklyn. It is called the Borough
of Gardens and people are moving there in droves. Frank and Stephen
one morning drive their horse across the new bridge and begin
canvassing in Brooklyn Heights. Before long they have dozens of
customers and begin turning a profit. But it's a long haul by
horse from the stables in mid-town Manhattan to the Brooklyn route
they've developed. And they're paying too much money to Napoletano
for the horse and wagon. They find a stable in Brooklyn's Bushwick
section where you can pay off a horse over a period of time. It's
a new concept called "installment buying." They sign
a contract to buy a grey white wagon horse who has been already
trained as a produce deliverer. They expand their route into the
Bushwick area getting ice from a new supplier in Brooklyn. They
are making money at last, and my father's dreams about Nina are
becoming more vivid and real. All this time-it has been two years
now-he has been writing letters to her via her sister Philomena,
who was married and no longer lived in the family home. Philomena
would smuggle the letters to my mother who would read them alone
in the Grotto just outside the village where they said goodbye.
She read my father's love letters among the skulls and bones.
But things in America were getting complicated. My father's
father, Federico, arrived with his daughter (my father's sister,
Mame) to see how his sons were doing in the New World. Federico
hated the voyage across the sea, hated New York, and had hardly
arrived when he began talking about returning to Gravina, which
he did within two weeks. But Mame pleaded with him to let her
stay-she would take care of domestic chores for her brothers.
Federico was reluctant, but finally agreed and the three Moramarco
siblings set up house together in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
This was a remarkable time, Mame making orichiette and cavatelli
for the two brothers, who loved to invite other Southern Italian
friends over to impress them with home-cooked Italian food right
here in Brooklyn. One of these was a handsome, young violin teacher
named William Chironna, whose family came from the neighboring
village of Altamura. He would serenade Mame as she rolled the
cavetelli, and the four of them ate, drank wine, and laughed together.
It was not long before it became clear that Mame and William were
in love. And it became clear also that the Moramarco brothers
were going to need to locate both domestic help and female companionship
Frank also had a sweetheart back home, the talented Theresa
-------, but that situation was complicated by the fact that his
brother Michele, the moody and mercurial artist in the family,
also was in love with Theresa, and he was still in Gravina where
she was. The situation had created a lot of tension between Frank
and his brother back home. Now they were no longer in touch and
the letters from Theresa were cryptic and guarded. Both the brothers
want to return to Italy to bring back a wife, but they can't both
leave the ice business at the same time. They agree that Frank
will go first for Theresa because that situation seems tenuous
and will probably deteriorate if more time passes. Stephen will
work double-time on the business and will go back for Nina after
Frank returns with Theresa. This becomes an elaborate plan that
they work out in great detail before Frank leaves. Frank leaves
and returns with Theresa as his wife (they were married in Gravina
before she left), all within two months, but there is one small
complication. She is already pregnant and Frank confides to Stephen
that the child is not his, but Michele's. The secret is buried
in the family for years until it is discovered by Theresa's daughter
Lucretia over a half-century after her birth.
After Frank returns with Theresa, my father writes to my mother
telling her to prepare to leave for America. Her father is dead
set against any such possibility. In fact there is a scandal in
the village about Francesco's taking Theresa away and Vittorio
Toriello, my mother's father, is not about to see his daughter
whisked away from him forever. He has absolutely forbidden her
to have any communications with my father and has his eye on a
young law student as the proper match for his favorite daughter.
She has written all this to my father and he has written back
that they will elope when he arrives and be married in Napoli
before getting on the ship. He arrives in Gravina in October,
1912, nearly five years after his initial trip to America. My
mother has arranged for her hope chest and luggage to be taken
to the railroad station. My father's brothers, Giovanni and Antonio
are taking care of this-and they will accompany my father and
Nina on the train to Napoli. Vittorio finds out about this scheme
and becomes furious. He confronts my mother, and for the first
time in his life, smacks her across the face. My mother is hysterical,
but she is determined to go ahead with the plan. "Vai, Vai,"
her father booms at her. "Da questa giorno, tu no sta mia
figlia." My mother's sister Philomena comforts her and takes
her to the horse wagon that takes them to the railroad station
in Bari. My father and his brothers are waiting there for her.
Nina and Stephen see one another face to face for the first time
in five years. Hundreds of letters have passed between them, but
now they can't contain themselves. They embrace passionately.
Nina is crying uncontrolably. They are about to embark on their
new life together.
The wedding in Napoli is almost an afterthought. None of Nina's
family is there. My father's brothers and sisters are present
as well his his father and mother. My mother is confused and disoriented;
the whole thing is like a dream to her. The voyage to America
takes fifteen days this time. They travel second class on the
Reggio del Calabria. When the ship arrives in New York Harbor
my father is beaming as he points out the Statue of Liberty to
my my mother. She is dazzled and frightened at the same time.
Then as the ship docks she sees a crowd of people lining up to
greet the new arrivals. There is no Ellis Island detention this
time, because my father is now an American citizen. Nina spots
Theresa and Frank and Mame and another man she doesn't know all
waving at the ship. They all have a joyous reunion at dockside.
One obstacle remained before Stephen could feel secure in his
role as provider. He needed to find a home for them to raise a
family in. As the ice business thrived this began to seem like
a real possibility. He loved the Bushwick section of Brooklyn
with its rows of stately Brownstones, but property was expensive
there and Italians were not welcome. This was primarily a German
neighborhood, that was still resenting the influx of the Irish.
First the Micks and now the Wops. How far downhill could it go?
He contacted the padrone in the neighborhood, Giuseppe Musacchio,
who helped him find a three family house on Chauncey Street in
Brooklyn where the top two floors could be rented to help pay
the mortgage. He and Nina stood in front of the house with Frank,
Theresa, Mame and William. It was for three families, and they
could all live on separate floors. It was out of his reach, but
after much negotiation between all of them, he made the stretch.
Musacchio arranged a thirty-year mortgage with the Roosevelt Savings
Bank, and my father trembled at the enormity of the debt, took
a deep breath, and signed his flamboyant new American signature
in several places on the bank's documents.
All of this has nothing to do with memory for me. It is my imagining
the adventure of my father's life before I was born.
How much of it actually happened and how much of it is invention
is conjecture, I really can't know, but it's amazing for me to
think about my father in this light.
Let me move now from the father I'm imagining to the father I
carry with me, the man as I remember him. I remember him singing.
I remember him listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts
on Saturday. This is the longest continuious radio program broadcast
in America. It is still being broadcast and each time I hear it
I think of my father. I remember he especially loved Pagliacci,
and would sing "Ride, Pagliacci," in an exaggerated tenor
voice. I remember him cooking braciolle (a kind of herbed beef
roll made in Apulia) and giving me the recipe on a sauce-stained
index card. I remember how he would make a meal out of a peach,
some cheese, and wine.
I guess gratitude is the dominant feeling I have about my father,
and I've really not succeeded in conjuring his darker side, or
in locating any anger or resentment I feel toward him.
I think of him as a calm center of my life as opposed to the vacillating
moodiness I associate with my mother. In the early 1970s, a half
dozen years or so after his death in 1966, I had just begun my
career as a university professor and was going through a period
of fairly acute depression. At the time I was seeing a bio-energetic
therapist who believed in the principles of Wilhelm Reich, the
most important of which is that unconscious memories are physically
repressed by the body and can be released through vigorous physical
movement. During one of our sessions when I was flailing my arms
and legs up and down while lying on a table, a great wave of grief
welled up in me and I began to cry uncontrollably. I never cried
as much before or since, and that day I felt as if I would never
stop crying. The grief was about my father, it was about his death
and his funeral, where I never shed a tear. I was, of course,
the male heir, the "man" of the family and I had numbed
my feelings about his death for more than half a decade. Suddenly,
there in the therapist's office, I felt this unbearable loss,
the loss of the father, of my father, the man whose sweet gentle
soul inhabits my own, whose name is carried by my own firstborn
son, and whose spirit has been away from me for a long while.
It's very good to have him back.
Fred Moramarco, co-editor of the poetry anthology Men
of Our Time
, teaches literature at San Diego State University. Click here to find out more about the book and read poems by Fred and co-editor Al Zolinas. Order this book on-line
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