31 May 2004

Memorial Day

Dad was still a babe in arms when the cannons began going off in Europe in 1914. It's possible he might have had a dim memory of the Armistice. I'll never know.

In the meantime, he lived the life of most Italian boys growing up in the Silver Lake neighborhood in Cranston, RI. At home his parents spoke Italian with their children. His dad dug ditches for the Providence Gas Company. His mother made home-made macaroni every day. He went to school and tried to escape the usual punishment in those days, being rapped across the hands with a wooden ruler. He and his brothers and sisters lived through the usual childhood illnesses and occasional crises--his sister actually did poke out one of her eyes with a stick, as our parents always warned us about. He learned to swim in Dyer's Pond and learned to drive at age 14 by borrowing a neighbor's car from the curb. Age 14 was also when he had to quit school, at his father's insistence. He learned to polish knives like his older brother and went to work in a factory like most of the boys he grew up with.

In the meantime, a madman started ranting in Germany about Third Reichs and master races. One day he gathered his armies and began his takeover of Europe. We here in the United States watched it warily. After the carnage of the Great War, we wanted no part of Europe. The America First protesters were strident, even as Adolf Hitler and his minions overran Czechoslovakia and Austria and Belgium and France. And the Netherlands and Norway, and also marched east to Moscow.

Dad did join the National Guard. He trained at Fort Adams in Newport. He always had a bit of a peeve with the U.S. Navy: "We cleaned up the beach for them, and then they wouldn't allow us on it." They'd leveled the shingle and cleared up the tourist trash and cleared the land and then the Navy moved in and forbade anyone else on the property.

To add insult to injury, the folks on Bellevue Avenue (where the Newport Mansions are situated) ordered that the troops not march there. It ruined the look of the neighborhood. Heaven forbid Mrs. Rich Bitch had to look at social underlings in khaki passing her home.

And then one Sunday afternoon in December 1941, when folks had settled down to listen to a football game or a concert on the radio, or were at the movies, or visiting their mom, there came a news bulletin that changed everything...

After Pearl Harbor, Dad was sent to Fort Jessup in Georgia for basic training. He'd never been out of New England before, except by train to New York, and he was astonished by the men of Italian descent he met there. They didn't speak Italian with their parents, or eat Italian food, or even know which paese their families came from. Talk about culture shock! And the climate, he said, was about as bad as the Army chow.

He was then shipped to Germany, near the Black Forest. I never did ask him for more details, which I'm sorry for. All I have left are his photos. When I was a little girl one of my favorite stories was about Dad and the fawn. He had a photo of it, a red deer fawn that he and his troopmates had found wandering alone after a battle. They fed it and cuddled it and took pictures with it--until its mother appeared, bawling for it at the edge of a field, and they let it go home. Now that I know the whole story of what happens on battlefields, that event must have seemed like an oasis of normality for the men. Perhaps when they cared for the fawn they were thinking of a pet at home, a bunch of homesick American boys remembering a beloved dog, or cat, or horse, or a pet bird no bigger than a minute.

Dad liked the German people as much as he hated the Nazis. He always talked about how clean they kept their homes, even in the horrendous situations created by war. And he was astounded, when they actually found intact forests, at how neat those were from the foraging of surrounding townsfolk for firewood. Much later we found out that a German woman was running the motel we stayed at in Lake George, New York, and she and my dad would talk about "the old country."

Of course he survived the war. He didn't talk about the more harrowing memories, at least not to me. The only "war story" I'd heard was a relatively mild one, about his platoon capturing some German soldiers. He confiscated a pistol from a German officer. After the war, he confided his memories to my mother, who had already had heard the worst listening to her younger brother's harrowing postwar dreams. I expect my grandmother heard the same nightmares, for Dad's bluster covered a sensitive soul, one he'd been teased about as a child. He must have remembered, though, the buddies he'd made that had been killed, sniped from his side, blown up by mines or mortars. I'm sure, as bullets screamed over his head, as he was deafened by cannon fire, as he was sleeping in the dirt, eating out of cans and washing out of his helmet, he dreamed of all the things he'd rather have been doing: eating a heaping plate of his mother's spaghetti and meatballs, fragrant with tomato sauce and basil, squiring a young lady to a dance--oh, how Dad loved to dance, even the jitterbug!, even grumbling in the early morning light as he got ready for work.

He left that all behind to defend his country.

I wish I had some beautiful words for him, and all the men and women who went into that cauldron, especially for the ones who never came out, and for the ones who came out broken and battered. I don't have any beautiful words.

All I can say is "Thank you."

09 May 2004

Let's Hear It for Mom

I'm a long-distance Mother's Day giver these days. Oh, there's a phone call and a present (this year it was a DVD player), but it's just not the same.

Mother's Day was always heralded with flowers when I was a kid: not many florists' bouquets, because I was allergic to flowers. Occasionally my dad got my mom some roses, her favorite flowers, but then they would have to stay on the porch.

No, Mom's beautiful pink azalea bushes usually managed to bloom just around Mother's Day. They flanked each side of the front door and gave the house a cheery look. But behind the house was something I loved. Our neighbor on the other side of the chain-link fence had an errant lilac bush that always grew into our yard. My dad hated it, but I reveled in it. In May it would bloom in rich lushness, dangling thick bunches of sweet-smelling lilac blooms over the fence. Allergy or no--and I paid for it later--I buried my face in the flowers, breathing in that heavenly smell. It's still my favorite scent and, had I been able to manage it, I would have had live lilacs at my wedding.

Mother's Day was an occasion to go out to eat in those days, a luxury for us. Oh, we dropped in at the occasional hot dog place or Arby's and later McDonald's on summer Sundays. But going to a "real" restaurant was another story. It was time to dress up: skirt, nylons, good shoes instead of Hush Puppies, the whole nine yards. Dad wore his suit and we squired Mom to someplace that had white tablecloths, cloth napkins, clean menus, and waiters in suits. Our usual early venue was Venetian Gardens, on the way to Oakland Beach. We ate all our Thanksgiving dinners there as well. Then one of them discovered The Inn--now Bassett's Inn--on West Shore Road. We went there to fill up on salad and baked stuffed shrimp.

One Mother's Day--I think it was Mother's Day--we tried that epitome of Rhode Island restaurants, Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks sits on the shore of Spectacle Lake in Cranston. (We lived not far from the opposite shore of "Spectacle Lake," which we always called "Speck's Pond." I nearly laughed myself silly when I found out this tiny body of water was actually called "Spectacle Lake.") It was a legend in Rhode Island, one of those restaurants that gets written up in newspaper food guides and tour books. They took no reservations and people waited two and three hours to get in. On the day we went--and it couldn't have been Mother's Day; it would have been SRO--we went at an "off hour," after two on a Sunday afternoon, because we didn't think any restaurant was worth waiting in line so long for. We only waited about 45 minutes at this odd hour.

The place was nice and the food was good (although the portions were pretentiously small like those served at famous restaurants). We had a good time. But we emerged thinking that we had eaten just as good food other places, like the Inn, and never went again. Twin Oaks still marches on and I still haven't figured out what people see in the place.