Thursday, December 25, 2008

Italian Family Sundays ~ The Golden Age

From the Archives ~ Jan. 21, 2007

Yesterday I was driving to the older part of town to visit a friend who was in the hospital. He has been a mentor to me, and as I was nearing the facility, I saw the old street where my dad and his family had lived more than 90 years ago. The picture above was taken there, 1313 Hall Street, Dallas, Texas, where my dad was born. The house is gone. All that remains of his original family is his sister, my aunt Mary. She's the little baby in my grandmother's arms.
My friend in the hospital was asleep, but he didn’t look well. He is dying. I know the look, the sound, the smell. If it were a wine, I would describe it thus: pale and a bit cloudy. The bouquet has faded with a light scent of dried rose petals and ripe, aged Asiago. In the flavors there is a little tinge of acid, the tannins are all gone, the fruit is fleeting, and the finish is swift.

Hopefully, my friend's will be as well. For his sake.

It had been raining, and the streets were damp and saturated. It reminded me of Ireland, of a hopeless and miserable Dublin after a night of drinking too much Guinness and too little sleep. Cold, dank, unredeemable.

I was near my friend's wine store and hadn’t eaten all day (it was 2 p.m.), so I stopped in to get a sandwich, and ended up working the floor.

The store was crowded, and Sinatra was crooning over the speakers. A young man came up to me and asked me about the Italian Club. I gave him the requisite information and encouraged him to stop in at one of the Wednesday wine tastings they are starting to do. Then he reached out his hand to shake mine. My hand was bleeding from a boxcutter that had slipped when I was arranging some wine case stacks. I didn't even know I had cut myself. All in a day's work, even if it is a Saturday. Or a Sunday. Grab some tape, cover the cut and back to arranging bottles and straightening shelf-talkers.

In the past, we didn’t need an Italian Club. We had the Family. On Sundays like today, my family would spend the day together, eating, drinking, carousing at the beach or in a vineyard somewhere, in Sicily, Dallas, Los Angeles.

My dad and his dad would hang out together. My son is in Vegas, working. My dad and his dad are gone. It’s Sunday again, and I’m sitting in my room writing about something that doesn’t exist anymore.

My dad and his dad were in business together, for a while. I don’t think my father liked that too much. Probably my grandfather wasn’t too clued in on his son’s aspirations. I think my dad probably wanted to be some kind of artist, maybe an actor. He certainly ended up in the right place for it, Los Angeles in the 1930’s. The golden age of American cinema. But my dad cobbled, and my grandfather acquired real estate, and the ship sailed on. E la nave’ va.

Once, when my grandfather had made a pile of money, he loaded his young family up and sailed back to Palermo for a while. He was now an American, and while he was going back to Italy for a while, he could never stay there indefinitely. He had crossed over into the American dream. He was making it big. In the picture he wasn’t more than 24 years old, but the opportunities that he had reached for paid off early. My son is now 30 years old. I wonder if the opportunities for his generation will ever afford him a chance for a good life. It doesn’t seem as bright now. Warmer, yes. Brighter, no.

When my mom and dad were married in 1936, they took their Ford roadster up the California coast. They were building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. My parents were 21 years old, hopeful for happiness in their future and their children’s future. For their honeymoon, they tooled up Coast Highway 1 into a world we can only dream about now.

The Great Depression was receding, and war was a few years off. It was a moment to enjoy all that the possibility of life had to offer.

On those Sundays leading up to those years, they would spend sun-drenched days at the beach with their Wise Guy uncles and their Hollywood girlfriends. They were “A” listing through life, the Golden Age of the American Dream.
Cigarettes didn’t cause cancer, yet. Diseases were being conquered. The atom was being harnessed. Seat belts weren’t necessary. Front doors needn’t be locked. Out in the San Fernando Valley and Escondido and Cucamonga, the family would picnic in the vineyards. Note the happy faces and the glasses of wine.
My dad with some of the many women in his family. His Aunt Mary, his sister (my aunt) Mary, Josie and Cuccia, Tootsie and Anna, and Rosemary and on. So pristine in the simplicity of their happiness. Wine, women and song. And food, what great food. Local, fresh, not microwaved, not from a can. California, the Golden State in a golden age.
My mom and dad, with riding boots. Chances are, Dad made them. How much my son looks like him. I now am the age my father was when I wondered what it would be like to be his age. I think I might be happier at this age than he was, but his youth sure looked good from this vantage point. And my mom, the classic Italian beauty. She’s almost 93 and still pretty fired-up about life and living. Thank God she’s in good shape. My friend in the hospital, what I wouldn’t give for him to have been that fortunate, too.
My Aunt Josephine, on the right in the picture, next to her brother Felice and his East Texas bride, Reba. And my dad and mom. A night out on the town. Was it in Dallas? Or Hollywood? They look out at me from this picture as if to say, “Bring us your best bottle of Italian wine, and come sit down with us and enjoy your family.” If only I could, Uncle Phil. My mom and my Aunt Jo are both in their 90’s now, both in pretty good health. Still driving. But not in the rain.

My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, called me today. She was checking in with me. Her husband passed away a few years ago. Her son-in-law died a little over a year ago. Last summer one of her grandsons had an accident in the ocean, and he too is gone. So she called to see if I was still here, still around.

Yes, Aunt Mary. Many of them are gone but we are still here, those of us on the edges of the photographs. Still ticking and kicking. Still dreaming and still looking for a way to make all this work out. I miss our Family Sundays. And so I sit here and put down these thoughts for the internets to hold, for another place and time and people. It was a great time, and the memories feed the heart and the soul, on Sundays, when the family is spread out far.

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