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The Father I Carry With Me

Copyright © 1998 by Fred Moramarco

 

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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.

Father at the Wurlitzer

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 words.

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.













Father, brother and a friend

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 America.

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 elsewhere.

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.

My father's signature

 

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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