Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Brief History Of Italians In America, Don Pesci c2014

Dedication -- To My Nieces and Nephews

Prologue: A Little Knowledge

I want to warn you from the very beginning: A memoir is very much like a confession, and you must be wary of people who write confessions. They are rarely sincere about their failings or themselves in their narratives because they cannot bear to be sincere about themselves in their lives.

Everyone quotes Socrates’ famous apothegm: Know thyself. Few are willing to trace his self-knowledge to its bitter end in forced suicide, and fewer still practice what he preached. In the 21st Century – Your century, my dear nieces and nephews – it may not be necessary to know oneself at all. In any case, perhaps it is better to concentrate on others. My century – the 20th, the bloodiest in the history of the world, full of introspective maniacs – had its fill of self-regarding “men like gods.”

Most of this godly introspection led, in one way or another, to oceans of spilt blood, concentration camps, revolutions patterned after the French Revolution that swallowed its children. Hitler wrote his confession, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), early in his career; he was, you will have noticed, a jihadist. In our day, if you call a jihadist a Hitlerite, he will acknowledge the compliment with an inscrutable smile. Most of Hitler’s “struggle” was nonsense and lies tied in a pretty bow of self-pity, but he found armies of men willing to take him seriously. A hearty belly laugh early on would have blown him to bits. Stalin, “Breaker of Nations,” was as bad as Hitler and Mao as bad as Stalin. Communist totalitarians ruthlessly murdered between 85 and 100 million souls – not to speak of their own souls – in this the cruelest of centuries. But just try to uncover from their contemporaries a hearty condemnation of any one of these three mass murderers when they were on the up-swing, slaughtering the competition and sending men and women better than themselves to early graves. Good luck with that.

All memoirs are confessions. This is a memoir; therefore, it is a confession; therefore, let the reader beware.

You ask me to provide some useful – by which I assume you mean objectively correct – information about our family.

This is difficult. We know too little about our roots. Too little was said by my father and mother about their fathers and mothers. And you know as well as I that once a subject touches the brain and the memory, it is marvelously transformed. I will tell you what I know, but I cannot vouch for its undiluted accuracy, mixed up as it is with additions supplied by the imagination, that imperious imp that “improves” the accounts of those historical sources even serious historians draw upon – in this case, mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters, all of whom WILL have their laugh. This yearning for the last laugh is a characteristic of both sides of our family. Everything here is second-hand, as the lawyers say, and inadmissible in a court.

Keeping in mind the tendency of the imagination to further guild an already gilded lily, here we go…

In Beginnings Endings Lie

Rose Pesci, my mother and your grandmother, was born in 1912 and died in 2007. My father, Frank Pesci, born 1907, died earlier in 1976, and my mother missed him dearly.

After my father died, my mother asked what I wanted of his. I took a watch, an old Timex I still have with me. Timex, you will be happy to know, is still very much alive; though, of course, watches are much more expensive in our day, owing to inflation, than was my father’s inexpensive, thoroughly practical Timex. When my mother died, I asked for the pictures of Grandfather Umberto and Grandmother Enrichetta that hung on the living room wall of the homestead at 1 Suffield Street in Windsor Locks.

I do not know how my father came by these photographs. There is no studio mark on the originals. They hung over an old desk that contained, I was later to discover, a few rare treasures, enticing clues that would tell me what little I now know of Grandmother Enrichetta’s early life in Italy. The photographs were lovingly enhanced by my father, who was for many years the head photographer at Travelers Insurance Company in Hartford.

My father’s love for his own mother is present in this picture of her. He enhanced his mother’s photograph with charcoal, touching her hair lightly with lines that embellished her curls. He did the same with his father’s hair and mustache. He used charcoal to edge his mother’s double bow that hung loosely around her slender neck. The pictures are black and white, and so there is no note of color in the hair. However, I will mention that my two aunts on my father’s side, Concetta (Connie) and Richettina (Henrietta), had flaming red hair. And looking at the pictures displayed on the living room wall beside the window that opened on a carefully tended lawn and a sugar maple that in fall gave forth colors that would have astonished Monet, I often wondered if either grandparent had red in their hair. What color were my grandmother’s eyes? Her eyes in the black and white photo hint at a transparency. Possibly, they were hazel. Could they have been blue? I never asked my mother or father, because I was content to wonder over it. I was like that, a wondering, wandering boy. Also, neither my mother nor my father was forthcoming concerning the history of their parents, which had much to do with a desire for assimilation on their part.  History among the Pescis was parceled out in offhanded remarks, and here no Italian was spoken. I don’t recall my father mentioning his father or mother frequently. For all we knew, our parents crossed a bridge from nowhere; before them lay uncharted territory. My father was born in Casalnoceto, Italy, and arrived here when he was two years old. My mother was born here. Her father, Carlo Mandirola – “Carlo The Fox” -- was (fourteen) when he arrived.

My father told me some few stories about his father, one of which concerned a clubfooted man, another concerned a stillborn brother.

The history of a town like Windsor Locks can most easily be read in the way tombs are displayed in cemeteries. The patriarchs of the town, many of whom were settlers from Windsor – rumored by those who live in Windsor to be the oldest town in Connecticut, though the claim is hotly disputed by some who live in Wethersfield -- have an honored place in the cemetery. They occupy the high ground. Following the English, came the Irish, who built the canal and Locks after which the town is named. They were followed by Poles, Italians and others.

My grandparents arrived in Windsor Locks from northern Italy just after the centennial clock was inching towards 1900. Carlo Mandirola, my mother’s father, came to Windsor Locks by way of Agawam, Massachusetts, where his sponsoring sister had settled.

Umberto Pesci owned a small shoe and boot making factory in Windsor Locks. One blustery winter’s day, when the snow was piling up in the still unpaved Main Street, he looked out his window and saw a familiar sight, a clubfooted man, the subject of some raillery in the town, painfully making his way through the snow. The man – let’s call him Julio – was terrified when, passing the Pesci boot making shop, the door opened and he was collard by Umberto, who dragged the astonished Julio into a large, warm room.

Umberto quieted Julio’s fears and made him sit down in a wonderfully wrought chair that my father later painted white and put on the Pesci’s porch, where it remained until the house was sold. That chair had cradled all my uncles and aunts, as they sat on the porch talking up a storm – This was before the advent of television, which destroyed interpersonal communication – later moving into the kitchen, where they played cards until midnight and beyond. My bedroom wall and the kitchen wall were the same. I recall leaning my cheek against the cool plaster wall, straining to make out what was being said, but the plaster and the lathes behind it captured and muffled the sound, so that it reached me on the other side of the wall as an indistinct angelic murmuring in which I could hear the laughter of my aunts nesting in the baritone voices of my uncles. Ever since that time, I have been consoled by the sound of the human voice.

Julio trembled. Had he done something wrong? My grandfather was a big man for his time, five foot nine, with powerful arms. Tenderly, he loosened Julio’s shoes and pulled away from his twisted foot the right shoe – if such a mess of leather could be called a shoe. Julio turned his face away in embarrassment. Umberto bathed his misshapen foot. When Julio several times struggled to pull his foot away, Umberto gently told him to be still.

He was going to make him a shoe that fit.

There was something else the matter with Julio that did not come through the story told by my father as he sat in the very chair that years earlier had held Julio prisoner to his father’s kindness. Was Julio also dumb? Could he have been simple-minded? Or was he just one of those poor souls that life had clawed and clawed and frightened to his frozen bones?

Umberto made a cast of Julio’s misshapen foot, from which he made a boot. A few days later, he chased Julio up Main Street, caught him in front of a pub and steered him back to his shop, where he fitted the new boot on Julio’s foot. Before he left the store, Julio, who was poor and could not afford new boots, pulled out of his pocket what little money he had, which he pressed into Umberto’s bear claw. He bowed three times and ran – HE RAN – up the street.

I never exchanged a word with Grandfather Pesci, who died before I was born. I never knew his wife, my grandmother Enrichetta, who died in Saint Francis Hospital in 1921 at an early age, a tragic 38. In the photo my father lovingly adjusted, his mother’s eyes seem transparent -- blue, they MUST be blue. I will have them blue. It is a thing I wish to share with her, though my eyes are dark blue. Her eyes, I imagine, were like spring cornflowers.

Grandmother Enrichetta was with my father in the last dream he dreamt before he died. I went to see him in Hartford Hospital and found him strangely excited.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I had a dream… so beautiful. Everyone was there at the seashore: mama, my two sisters. They were laughing and playing.”

I thought of my aunt’s red hair whipped by the wind, like a cantering horse’s mane.

 “And the sky…” His own eyes widened to swallow all the joy in one gulp.

“What about the sky?”

“It was SO blue.”

Red hair, laughter crashing like tambourines, his mother elegant on a beach, his father also present though out of the frame, and above everyone a blue sky embracing all in its wide arms, its mother’s caress. It was my father’s last and most perfect picture. During his life, he had taken hundreds of pictures. I knew this would be his last dream.

What’s that? Oh yes, the stillborn.

My father and I were lounging in the grass, in the cemetery among the tombs, both of us, I’m sure, glad to be alive. Camus says somewhere that it is better to be than not to be. Even if he had entered the world as an insensate rock lying in the sun; it is still better to be something than nothing. In this regard, Camus differed from other French thinkers, most notably Sartre, and this difference over existence was at the root of a painful separation. There is no need to rehearse forgotten friend-crushing quarrels among French philosophers, though every man and woman during his life, however spare, must sooner or later answer the question put by Hamlet to himself: “To be or not to be…” The answer to this question lies at the root of all love and crime. I point it out here only to stress that Camus was in this quarrel on the side of the angels, while Sartre was, in my somewhat prejudiced opinion, of the Devil’s party. My father, a philosopher in small matters– the only matters that matter – would have taken Camus’ part and defended his position vigorously. Everything that is – is good, and the evil men bring on themselves is a result of their flight from the greatest good. Better to be something than nothing. By affirming being, we accept, if we are theists, God’s creative acts. Or, if the thought of a creator dashes you too much, I suppose it might be said that in choosing life we affirm the dignity of ourselves and all good things in the world.

It was Veteran’s Day. A schoolboy had just finished reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address near the towering cross in the Spring Street Cemetery, people had dispersed, and my father and I were taking our ease. He pointed past the circumference of the cemetery, towards a gully through which Kettle Book ran on its way to the Connecticut River more than a mile us downstream. Close to the cemetery was a fish hatchery. Unwanted trout were let loose in the stream, and my friends and I were able to catch the larger of them with our bare hands. The brook was so narrow it could easily be jumped. Taking a few trout, we would carry our trophies to Main Street, where strangers would marvel at our catches.

“Over there,” my father said, “we buried my brother, my father and I,” apparently under a cloak of darkness.

He said his brother, whom his father had not named, was a stillborn. His father had asked the officiating priest of the parish whether he could bury the boy in sacred ground, the answer to which question was a firm “No.” So, his father had made a small coffin of orange crates, commandeered his son, and on a dismal, rainy night, they buried the stillborn as near the cemetery as possible. Who knows what was in my grandfather’s mind; perhaps he thought the sacredness of the cemetery extended beyond its geographical limits. Mercy would extend it. Nearby might be good enough.

“Over there,” my father said, “by a small stream,” by the brook from which we pulled trout.

My father in his devotions paid special attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this, he was like other strong Italian men – Carlo, my mother’s father, being the exception – who, plumbing the depths of their own fallen nature, looked to the Virgin for mercy, miracle and succor. Carlo, by his own accounting, was sinless, pure as a rose; what need had he of salvation?

In the earlier years covered by this – What shall I call it? – retrospective view of my sometimes mystic young years, there were two kinds of Italians.  And the difference between them comes forth most powerfully in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” in which a nun seeking repentance is counterpoised with her sinless aunt for whom repentance would be redundant.

Here is the story of sister Angelica, who is placed by her family in a convent after she has had an illicit birth. For seven years her family does not contact her, and one day she is visited by her aunt, who wishes her to sign some legal papers. Angelica's sister is to be married, and the nun must now sign a document renouncing her claim to her inheritance. Angelica, her heart warmed by memories of her son, mentions the unmentionable: Is my boy’s hair still yellow, are his lips still like rubies? The aunt condemns her and coldly discloses that her son, for seven years Angelica’s spiritual raft, had died two years earlier. Angelica is an herbalist; she has just provided a successful herbal cure for one of the sick nuns. In her grief, she wanders into the forest and makes a death posset of herbs, which she takes. Now, it must be understood that suicide, despair without hope, is the sin that CANNOT be forgiven. Before she dies, Angelica begs the Virgin Mary for mercy and intersession. Puccini’s Mary steps on stage directly from the 12th century: She is the QUEEN of heaven. In the 12th century, and for some years beyond, if you were of the Queen’s party – if you were HER man or HER woman – nothing would be denied to you. In one early mystery play, Satan, who appears as God’s counselor, the tester of men, storms Heaven and lays before God his just complaint: If the mother of God is allowed to proceed recklessly in this manner, she will, sooner or later, overthrow all the laws of Heaven and earth; she plows laws under her feet for those who petition her in the name of her Son. THIS virgin now steps into Puccini’s operatic frame. In answer to Angelica’s prayer that she be allowed to see her son in Heaven, a miracle occurs. Mary appears holding in her arms Angelica’s son, whose hair is golden and whose lips are red as rubies. The Virgin, herself a mother whose Son was tortured and murdered LAWFULLY, hands the child to its mother in a welcoming sign that her prayers have opened the doors of Heaven to her, a sinner spurned by all. The other nuns witness the miracle and rejoice at the throne of Mercy beneath the feet of Mary.

My father was born in 1907, in Casalnoceto, Italy; his father was born in 1880 in the same town. Umberto arrived in the United States in 1909 with his wife and his son Francesco Augusto, then two years old.  My father Frank and his father were of the Virgin’s party. They knew, as heirs to joy and sin, that they need the merciful intercession of a Queen. That is why, I imagine, Grandfather Umberto outfitted Julio with a shoe he fashioned from scraps of love, and that is why he thought the mercy of Heaven would reach his stillborn son where he rested in peace beside Kettle Book.

The What?

Oh yes, the desk.

Things were filed away in it and forgotten. A desk is very much like a memory box. I recovered a few relics some years before my twin sister Donna had cleared the house following my mother’s death. There is nothing as desolate as a house, once brimming with life, from which a family has fled. Every memento left behind is precious. Most precious of all are the living memories of those now irretrievably gone. You try to recall everything: the curl in your mother’s hair, which probably came to her from her own mother on the Mandirola side, known familiarly among Italians in the neighborhood as “Ricci” (curly); the color of your red-haired aunt’s eyes (hazel); the ages of your ageless uncles; who was the eldest, who the youngest – and then you give up and return to the daily rut of your own life. In my father’s time, it was not uncommon to give up one male in the family to the church, which is why there are so many Irish and Italian priests. My brother’s brother-in-law, Father Dick Bolea, was the family priest. Families now are smaller, the heads of households are less willing to part with their human treasure, and – you may have noticed – the wide world itself is gradually losing all understanding of the sacred in life, which is not the way Jesus wanted things to go when he cautioned against becoming conformed to the world, about which he had ambivalent feelings.

Your great grandmother Enrichetta Pesci was taken from her family in northern Italy by the Contessa Teresa di Gropello Tarino (nata Marchesa Dal Torro) who lived in a big Palazzo on the Mediterranean. The little girl, given up by her father to be a playmate for the Contessa’s daughter after her own mother had died in childbirth, was treated right royally. I was surprised to hear my grandmother was sent to college. Her manners, as well as those of her husband, were exquisite. Whenever a woman entered a room, her husband Umberto rose and bowed; he did the same when a woman left the room. When Enrichetta married Umberto in Casalnoceto, she was, I was told, given a dowry that included a parcel of land in northern Italy. After my father died, my aunt Concetta (Connie) traveled to Casalnoceto to dispose of the property. All the Pescis, Connie said, had been living on it, apparently rent free. They could not have been too happy to see her.

Before Aunt Connie left for Italy, I entrusted her with a mission: Find out, if you can, who the most famous Pesci was in Casalnoceto. At a young age, I thought: perhaps a local saint, or a pirate. The young are stupid, but bold in their thoughts. I knew nothing of geography and supposed every place in Italy, because of its shape, was in easy reach of the high seas. Casalnoceto is a small, landlocked, northern Italian town midway between Bologna on the Ligurian Sea and Milano, a large city that lies in in close proximity to the Alps. Further back, the Pescis were alpinisti, mountaineers. One Pesci was a silkworm farmer who plied his trade in the very shadow of the Alps.

Connie was a scamp, as were all the Beltrandies – especially Susan, Connie’s daughter. Life bubbled up in them; they laughed at adversity, scorned solemnity.

When Connie had returned, I asked her, “So, did you ask in the village who was the most famous Pesci?”

“I did.”

Here her hazel eyes began to roam over my head, to the left of me, to the right of me, and a suppressed smile crossed her lips. She seemed unable to focus. Now she was looking at the wallpaper, now the floor, now vacantly out the window.

“And?”

“He was a bear tamer.”

Her eyes swept over me. A bear tamer; I was unable to process the surprise.  Her hand went to my cheek. I felt the warmth of her palm penetrate my eyes.

My father, Connie told my sister, was a tall man, strong and vigorous. The circus that came to Casalnoceto offered money to the men of the village who chose to wrestle the bear. Umberto accepted the challenge and stepped forward. The circus owner studied him and was heard to mutter, “Please, do not hurt the bear.”

Connie, after an exhaustive church search, brought back with her a rudimentary family tree:

·         My great grandmother, Rosa Fantone, born 1845, married my great grandfather Giusepe Abbiati, born 1842.

·         Rosa Fantone died giving birth to a daughter, Enrichetta Abbiati, my father’s mother.

·         Enrichetta Abbiati, born 1881, married Umberto Pesci, born 1879, on March 23, 1905.

·         They had three children: Frank, Concetta (Connie) and Richettina (Henrietta).

·         Following the death in childbirth of his wife Rosa Fantone, my great grandfather remarried and took to wife Bonadeo Santina.

·         They had three children: Constanza, Giovanni and Teresa. Giovanni married but had no children Teresa never married.

·         Costanza married Cuerci Levi, who was Jewish, and they had two daughters, Irma and Natalina, both of whom were still living when Connie visited Italy.

Susan Beltrandi was Connie’s daughter, a sort of female Huck Finn, ever intent on storming my father’s heart, which was easy enough to do. She knew she could get round my mother, with a little help from my father. He was a castle easily captured, particularly if you were assaulting in the name of his sisters, whom he loved inordinately. My mother Rose – who rarely held back when her comments were wanted – thought Susan was full of (expletive deleted) and vinegar. My mother’s most frank comments on people or her time and place always sounded loftier in Italian, which none of her children could comprehend. Knowing they could not get at the meat of such comments, Rose felt free to let loose. As her children grew older, she dropped the Italian mask and astonished them with the clarity and moral acuity of her sometimes ribald presentations. Of everyone in the family -- and remember, in the pre-television age, nearly everyone a child met was a living library -- she was the best story teller. She embellished, but her embellishments underscored the golden nugget of truth in her narratives. Much of what I shall say here concerning a time I could not have witnessed came from her.

And so we come to the heart of the matter: Rose Pesci.

She told me that Frank Pesci – not the aging Frank of his last years, but the man in his vigor, the one she fell in love with -- was “the most eligible bachelor in Windsor Locks.” She met him at a dance and found she had to brush aside a rival, who had been competing for his affection.

Timidly, during a first dance, she had placed a flower in his button hole. Her rival discarded it when she was dancing with Frank, but he broke off the dance, tenderly picked up the flower – We can only hope it was a rose – replaced it in his buttonhole, walked over to Rose and asked her for a second dance. It is at moments like these that cupid lets loose his arrows.

They all went into my father’s heart at half shaft, and from that time on, he pursued her.

The pursuit was relentless and eventually successful. There were, however, frustrations along the way.

My father, deeply wounded by cupid’s arrows, had been asking my mother to marry him for a while. Each time he asked – be still my trembling heart! – he was put off, not decisively but puzzlingly and ambiguously. Naturally, he was frustrated.

One day, he showed up at the Fuller’s with a calendar in hand, which he placed before my mother. And he said firmly, but not so as to alienate my mother’s affections, “Rose, here is a calendar I will leave with you. I want you to choose on this calendar a day when you will marry me and then mark it. Not now, not now, but later. I will come once more. If no date is marked, I will not ask you again.”

When he was gone, Rose rushed in tears to Mrs. Fuller, who had so often plied advice from her.

“Frank has asked me to marry him. I am to pick a day on this calendar for the wedding. If no day is chosen when he returns, he has told me he will not ask me again. I don’t know what to do.”

Mrs. Fuller’s response was instantaneous, which was unusual for her,  for she was the kind of woman who like to chew on the various possibilities before she swallowed one. “Rose,” said Mrs. Fuller, who had already taken the measure of my father, “marry him.”

“But there is the problem of my brother.”

“Tell him.”

Before her mother Louise had died of bone cancer, she had called my mother to her bedside.

“Rose,” she said, “will you promise me something?”

“Of course, Mama.”

“I will have your promise?”

“Yes.”

“Take care of Charlie. Promise me.”

“Yes, mama.”

Charlie was Rose’s ten year old brother, and the apple of his mother’s eye – for very good reasons. I have from Charlie a story of his mother, when she was in the bloom of health. It is his first and most persistent memory of her. She had taken him to a wooded area near Bradley Field, there to find the illusive porcini mushroom. She had placed him, a very young child, on a dirt road beside the edge of the wood, and he was entertaining himself by stirring the dirt with a stick she had given him, when he looked up and saw his mother in a crescent of the morning wood, dressed all in white, gleaming in a sudden sunburst, lean over a log, fetch a porcini and hold it up triumphantly before him, a bright smile kindling her face, which he could see, as if in a close-up, a rare and tender moment of blissful, unmerited happiness. She poured out her love to Charlie often, because he was tender to her, and his love was a secret coda between them.

My father returned and asked for the calendar, which was blank.

 Then, he asked the right question, “Rose, what’s the matter?”

It came out of her like a storm swollen stream. She had promised her mother – whom my father knew well – that she would care for her brother Charlie.

“How could I burden both of us, at the beginning of our marriage …”

“Rose…” he interrupted, and then flashed his world-conquering smile, “Charlie will come and live with us.”

And so he did. Charlie was ten when he entered my father’s house.
                                               
It is almost impossible at this remove to capture either of them as they were in, say, 1926, the year of the dance. Nearer memories – in our case, the only ones we have – displace reality. In the early 30’s, my mother was a very fetching young woman. I had, but since have lost, a picture of her when she was working a governess to the Fuller children in Suffield. It shows her with short hair, in a second row behind the children and the sometime austere and forbidding Sam Fuller and his wife, Amos, who was not above conspiring with my mother to overthrow Mr. Fuller’s more imperious demands. Mr. Fuller was an unswerving tea-totaler, for instance; Mrs. Fuller liked to spice gatherings at her house with a spot of wine, which my mother insisted to Mr. Fuller, on one occasion when he had come home early from his business and found the house cluttered with women, was grape juice.

"Rose, what are they drinking?"

"Grape juice. Would you like some?"

"I would."

She brought him a glass of her father's wine. He did not realize what he was drinking. 

At fourteen years, Rose Mandirola was robustly independent, throbbing with youth, a child of stress and struggle, trying as best she could to escape the tyranny of her father, a cruel man sometimes when he had too much whiskey in him. And yet, surrounding her was a protective shield of cautionary innocence. It was in adversity that she took the measure of truth; some solid thing there was in her that MUST have the truth. At fourteen, grown up already, she had put her fantasies away. That rock hard appreciation of “what is” was so firm you could have placed an Empire State building on it and it would not have buckled. The same was true of my father, though there was in him a compensating  romantic streak. What Rose did with the truth after she had found it out was no one’s business but her own. She was, during the time she spent with the Fullers, the most grateful woman in Connecticut.

I pressed her one day on her father. What was life on Center Street like?

“My father? He was a man who cared for his children,” she told me. “They had the freshest food. Down in the basement of the house, he kept a garden; so there were fresh vegetables the whole year round. He had the greenest of thumbs. He could make roses grow from rocks. He made sure that his children and my mother had the best medical care. But…” and here a wall went up between us.

I knocked on the wall, “But what?”

“I was coming home from the Fullers, walking towards the house. When I was still far from it, I heard the screams… my sister Lena. I ran in, and there he was with his belt, beating her. I pushed him. He was shocked, maybe embarrassed – no, shocked. I tore the belt away from him, ran out of the house, up Center Street. Boiling, I was boiling.  I thought I heard more screams and stopped. The screams had been coming from me. I ran into the woods and tore the ground with my hands. And I buried that strap in the ground. I stomped on the ground, covered the spot with leaves. He would never find it. If he beat me – though he had never done that to me; it was always Lena – I would NEVER tell him where that belt was. When I returned to the house, he had gone. John [her brother] was sitting in the living room. I said to him, ‘You are a man, bigger than he is. How can you let him treat my sister like this?” John said nothing. Later my father returned. He was drunk. John grabbed him by the neck, hauled him into the kitchen, threw open the door to the cellar stairs. All the while, he was slobbering, “No Johnny, please, no…” John held him over the stairs. “Do you see down there?” he said. “If ever you touch my sister again, and if you mistreat my mother, I will throw you down these stairs.” And that was the end of it. Something broke in him. From that day on, he was less fearsome.”

The Depression had hit the Mandirolas hard. Both Carlo, the padrone, and John had lost their jobs, and the inflow of money for a family of seven was severely diminished: Carlo, his wife Louise, who was sickly, Rose’s three brothers – Johnny, Charlie and Tommy – and her sister Lena. A butcher, whose name has not come down to us, knew both the Fullers and the Mandirolas. When Sam Fuller asked his butcher if he could recommend a girl to help in his house with his children, Rose’s name spilled out of his mouth. She was hired on the recommendation of the butcher, and a new world opened its doors to her. In the midst of a depression, Sam Fuller had persuaded the Suffield Country Club to hire both Johnny and Carlo as grounds keepers. My mother mothered the Fuller children and in their hearts became a refuge and a delight. Much later, when Sam Fuller Jr. wrote his family memoir, “Breaking Away,” he interviewed Rose. Age had weakened her body by then, but to her last day her mind was bright.  My copy of the book contains a handwritten note from Sam:

To Donald,

Your mother, Rose, is one of those saints that should appear in everybody’s lifetime. She appeared in mine and it made such a difference in my life. Hope you enjoy reading on pages 193-248 [these pages contain a transcribed interview with my mother] about what a wonderful person she is.

Sam Fuller 13/22/02

Your father, she told the Fuller children on this occasion, loved his children, however severe he had been with them. The children were afraid of him and so flocked to Rose – young Sam called her “Rosen” because, for some reason, he could not pronounce “Rose’ -- for succor and comfort, which they found aplenty. She was a confidant of Mrs. Fuller, who had entrusted her children to her. My mother thought of her time among the Fullers as her university. She was young; she had her mind set on a future brighter and certainly more successful than the bleak days that crowded in on her on Center Street in Windsor Locks. She knew nothing of finances and cared nothing for money.

One day Sam Fuller took her aside and told her she should be investing her money.

“But I have no money,” she confessed.

“You have your salary.”

“I give that to my father. So do all his children, when they are working.”

“All of it?”

“It’s a large family, and they want necessities.”

Mr. Fuller proposed a plan. From that day forward, he would give her two salary checks – one for her father, and the other for her, which would be deposited in an account about which her father would know nothing at all. She learned quickly, eagerly and gratefully.

Mr. Fuller knew she wanted to fly; this independent account would be her wings. He was the kind of man who could not help helping others, and what help he gave was given out in such a way as not to bruise the self-respect of those he aided.

The year of the dance may have been around 1928; the date is a faithful estimate and probably accurate. I am working within a speculative time line. My mother became a caretaker for Mr. Fuller’s children when she was 14; this I know for certain. She was with the family for more than 10 years, and the strong bonds of affection between her and the Fuller children lasted to her final breath. They visited her often. On one occasion – Could it have been the party we threw for her on her 90th birthday? – Sam told me, “You know, she was a mother to me.”

Love whirls outward. There are few things in life that, given away, return to the giver sevenfold. When my father died, Charlie Mandirola would tell me, “He was my father.”

Mr. Fuller had hired a girl who could beard the lion. Sam Fuller was a roaring lion who in his private affections for his children was solicitous but insistent.  Though he ran a tobacco farm, drinking and smoking for him were devils incarnate.  He was intrepid and fearless. His children trembled at his roar, but Rose managed him diplomatically.  And this is no wonder. She had spent the previous fourteen years in the lion’s den.

Carlo Mandirola came to the country when he was 14. He landed, we learned much later, at Ellis Island. But for a while there, his arrival point was in doubt, and there was much speculation among his grandchilden from what route Carlo had arrived, tempest tossed, in Agawam, Massachusetts, where his sponsoring sister lived. My brother had searched the records at Ellis Island and found no indication that Carlo had arrived in the usual manner. Had he come up from Mexico, or down from Canada? What whips and scorns had driven him here? Was he fleeing from some brutalizing menace or rushing towards some fugitive hope?

It was because we knew nothing about his past that everything seemed possible. We knew HIM. He was tough, gristly. He was Carlo the fox.

When he arrived in New York, my mother told me, Carlo had in his pocket some money he had saved while in Italy for the trip over. That money was supposed to have been shared with his sister who, while kind, had no intention of rearing in a land new to her a brother who was dependent on her and her husband. Carlo was born in 1880. His wife, Louise, was born in 1882 and died of cancer of the bone in 1934. The Ellis Island Immigration Station had opened in 1892, only a few years before Carlo lost his swag during his very first card game in the New World. His sister was not pleased and batted him about the ears when he arrived penniless in Agawam. This may have been the last time Carlo lost most of his assets gambling, though it was rumored that Carlo later had won and then lost in a card game several lots on Elm Street in Windsor Locks.

I recall my mother wringing her hands and swearing up a storm internally when she told me this.

“Think of it. We might have been rich.”

However, Windsor Locks was full of rumors of this kind. Chasing them down and wringing the truth from them was an exhausting affair. After a few runs around the block, people of the town simply accepted as true all rumors that did not tell against them or members of their families.

Carlo brought a piece of Italy – or at least that portion of the culture that benefited him – to America when he arrived. He soon was self-supporting. He married and began raising a large family. All the Italians in Windsor Locks minded their pennies. Ben Franklin’s maxim, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” came effortlessly to their lips, along with other more rustic folk sayings they brought with them in the crowded cargo ships that carried them from the Old to the New World. These were imprecations – thunderbolts you hurled at your enemies – that did not translate easily into English. And so they were left, by my mother and others, dressed in homespun Italian. If any of us asked for a translation, we were asked in turn whether we hadn’t something better to do OUTSIDE.

“Outside,” for a boy growing up in the early 50’s, was a sort of borderless, limitless liberty.

Windsor Locks was easily navigable. We – my father, mother, brother and sister – lived in a modest house on One Suffield Street, a route that connected Suffield, where the Fullers lived in relative splendor, to South Main Street, which trailed into Main Street, the heart and soul of the town. Main Street overlooked the Connecticut River, my sun-spangled river. The river was to boys in the town what the Mississippi was to Huck Finn, a water road of liberty leading to the territories, that portion of the country not yet “civilized” by governors, school teachers – nuns, in our case -- or overly cautious parents, worry warts troubling their children with the spurious and frightening news that the water in the canal, where we used to swim on the sly, would cause cancer in little children. Of course, we believed all this because we were credulous children, but there were heroes among us brave enough to take the risk. The canal and its Locks, after which the town was named, were on the far side of our one-sided Main Street.

The other side of Main Street was studded with pubs:  the Polish pub, the Italian pub, the Irish pub, this last being the liveliest and noisiest. A young boy in the early 50’s did not have enough fingers to count all the pubs that lined Main Street, from Charlie Ten’s (Tennero) in the south, at the beginning of the canal, to the Brown Derby in the north.

That Irish pub was formidable. In Windsor Locks, when my father was yet a small boy, he and his father were passing the Irish pub one night after a storm. My grandfather was used to the catcalls that poured forth from the pub when he passed it, for the Irish in the town and the newer arrivals, the Italians, were competitors for jobs and status. Generally, he ignored the insults hurled in his direction. But this time, his son was with him, and Mr. Daire (not his real name) had been unusually boisterous. My father was surprised when his father dropped his hand; it all happened so quickly. His father strode over to Mr. Daire, seated in a chair on the pub’s porch, lifted Mr. Daire and his chair in his arms, carried both into the rain streaked Main Street, threw both down, and with the large mitt of his right hand rubbed Mr. Daire’s face in the mud. Umberto could not bear it that Mr. Daire’s curses had scorched his son’s ears. Those who frequented the pub were more judicious in their insults after that, and Mr. Daire's son later befriended my father.

My guess is that my father was about seven when this happened. When I was seven, the sharp edge of prejudice that had separated the Irish and Italians in Windsor Locks had all but disappeared, blunted by familiarity, which does not always, as the maxim has it, breed contempt.

I was born a twin on July 15, 1943 and could say along with William Blake, as I later learned, “My mother cried, my father wept; into the wicked world I leapt.”

NEXT: IN TO THE WICKED WORLD



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