On Main Street

Main street

The tall trees were compelling. “It’s Moorestown and no other,” we said, as we drove through town. We found an old house on Main Street which faced a row of oaks. It had a first floor center hall that Margie loved and a garret-like bedroom (ours) under the roof’s slant; two rooms the children quickly made their own, and on the second floor, a two-room suite for Margie’s mother, Helen Headley Ridge.

Big trees graced many Moorestown streets. They dotted the park that surrounds Strawbridge Lake. A silent grove enveloped you on the winding street leading to the Middle School, an unexpected treat. Our backyard trees – two of them walnuts that Helen deemed junk trees (a death sentence) – blended into the woods that had taken over a disused apple orchard on Mrs Williams’ estate. We were drunk on trees. We took no vacation that year. We didn’t need one. Good thing too, we were broke.

My walks along Main Street, under the trees, took me past David Ritchie’s house where Harley Armstrong lived, then past Bob Smith’s tall house on the north side of Main, past Bob and Lenore’s house, past Parry Cottage where M.C. Morris lived and finally, to Molly Haines’ Hathaway Cottage. These were Quakers I had met after I joined the John Woolman Memorial Association. Our new family physician asked:

Have you made many friends in Moorestown?”. I told him.

You know the finest people in Moorestown.”

Some mornings I’d arrive at the Friends School at Chester Avenue when parents were delivering their children. I’d pause at the traffic light to watch the cars emerging from the school grounds. Some SUVs had bumper stickers which read “We support our troops in Iraq”.

MFS

This was the corner where M.C. Morris used to sit at his rickety folding table, handing out peace literature and soliciting signatures for antiwar petitions. The school’s bulletin board stood on the lawn just behind MC. The message on the board said “There is No Way to Peace. Peace is the Way.”

M.C. was tall and lean, with a mustache and a closely trimmed beard. In cold weather he wore a tweed topcoat and a black beret. In an earlier life he had taught German language and literature at Hiram College. He also knew Russian.

EPSON MFP imageMC Morris refinishing furniture

In 1930, M.C. took a job with the John Deere Company which trained him to fix, to maintain and to use the farm tractors. The Company had sold hundreds, perhaps thousands of its tractors to the Soviets. MC and Libby were sent to Moscow where he became one of the faces of John Deere in the Soviet Union.

He would visit many outlying farm areas every month. He’d make minor repairs but mostly he showed the farm workers how to do it themselves. Sometimes M.C. took a train to the end of its line, then a bus as far as it went and finally, by horse and wagon to his destination. Libby stayed in Moscow where she worked within the small Quaker presence there. They remained in Russia for about two years.

In old age, Libby and M.C. returned to Switzerland on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, to the village where they had been married. They were married again pro forma in the same town hall. The townspeople celebrated it with them. Shockingly, Libby died on that trip and she was buried in Switzerland.

Parry CottageParry Cottage

Once back in Parry Cottage, to supplement his income, M.C. refinished furniture and re-caned chairs. He did a piece for us. In good weather he did the sanding and the painting on the small terrace above the first floor’s kitchen. He’d wear his rusty black beret in cool weather. We lost touch for a while; then Molly told us that M.C. had moved into a modest retirement community in Ithaca, New York, to be near his daughter.

We exchanged postal cards: his room was comfortable, with a desk, a chair, space for his books and for his calligraphic equipment. He said there were no locks on the doors. Occasionally a sadly diminished resident would enter his room while he was working at his desk.

Harley Armstrong taught English at the Moorestown Friends School for fifteen years. She wrote an excellent sentence and she despised humbug but her tartness was tempered by Quaker forbearance.

In Harley’s time, persons eligible for food stamps collected them at the Burlington County Trust Bank, which was located on Main Street across from the Friend’s School. If they chose, Bank customers could conduct their business al fresco at a teller’s window which opened out to the sidewalk.

But food stamps could be collected only at this outdoor window, in fair weather or foul, in summer or winter. Harley put an end to that practice with a crisp letter to the bank manager.

She never earned much at Moorestown Friends School. In her day, many private schools paid badly, half-expecting their teachers, of good family, to have private incomes. Their children got a free education, but Harley had neither children nor private income. She made do by living on the second floor of David Ritchie’s raffish old house. In 1991 she entered Medford Leas on a resident scholarship. She died in 1997.

Molly Haines lived with her parents at the east end of Main Street. Her uncle, M.C. Morris, lived on West Main, about a mile and a half away. They’d take long walks together, two tall figures striding along Main Street, often at dusk. They walked in the street because the brick sidewalks were heaved up by the changing seasons and by the bulging roots of the old trees that lined the curb. On summer evenings I’d hear fragments of their speech as they passed our open windows.

Fresh out of college, Molly had worked for the GE Electric Company. Then she applied for a job opening at Philadelphia’s Quarterly Meeting of Friends.

If I get the job,” she promised, “I’ll work here for the rest of my life and I’ll never ask for a raise in pay.”

Molly got the job and she kept her word but The Quarterly Meeting did not: it included her in all pay raises. Molly earned her keep; in addition to her secretarial duties, she edited in-house publications and she adorned them with her clever illustrations.

She took the bus into Philadelphia every morning, just as Margie did, and sometimes they’d share a seat. Mollie would sit with the New Yorker Magazine in her lap while she knitted garments for her numerous nieces and nephews. She’d speak to Margie as she knitted, with an occasional glance at the New Yorker Magazine. Once a year she drove to New England to deliver scarves mittens sweaters socks and rib-cracking bear hugs.

In old age, Molly entered Medford Leas. I’d see her on Sunday mornings at Quaker Meeting in the Holly Room. The large windows there give a long view of the woods. At close of service I’d walk across the room to greet Molly.  She’d give me a powerful bear hug that lifted me to my tip toes.

Months passed. She showed up at Sunday Meeting in a wheel chair. No more bear hugs at end of service, just a hand shake. Then she entered the Haddon Court Assisted Living unit. I see her now and then as she’s wheeled down a long gallery that overlooks some trees. She looks at me blankly.

Bob Smith, ever the outsider, lived on the other side of Main Street. My friend, Bob Haines, was the newly elected head of the John Woolman Memorial Association.  I was his treasurer. He introduced me to Bob Smith who was the outgoing president. Both Bobs were graduates of Haverford College but Smith was eleven years older than Haines.

I introduced Margie to Bob Smith one afternoon while we were walking on his side of Main Street. He was sitting on his porch. I told him that Margie was a graduate of Swarthmore College because I knew that Swarthmore and Haverford College were friendly rivals. Bob’s face lit up:

Did you see the score?’, he asked gleefully. He saw Margie’s puzzled look.

We beat you!”, he crowed.

As a student, Margie had gone to the football games only because they were a part of the Saturday night dating scene. She told me a story perhaps apocryphal, but quintessential: the Swarthmore players, in the huddle, were apt to question and debate the wisdom of the quarterback’s call.

I wish that I had paid more attention to Bob Smith. He was city born and bred, he was well read. That he was ironical discountenanced some people.

After his wife died, Bob began visiting London again. He knew the great literary accounts of London and he had retraced the the authors’ footsteps. He’d see six or seven plays in two weeks while he was in London,

Stay at the William Penn Club”. He assumed every thinking person was drawn inexorably to London. The Club, a small hotel owned and operated by the Society of Friends, is located just off Great Russell Square, near the British Museum, a short stroll to Bloomsbury and not far from the theatre district. Bob was not an outsider in London.

In 1970, he wrote a book, In and Out of Town. It is poignant and tart, a clear-eyed memoir of his boyhood in the Northern Liberties district of Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Bob’s father was the beloved neighborhood physician. By 1900 the neighborhood was teetering on the edge of fading gentility. Here’s Bob in the foreword of his book:

Minor enchantments, high moments and wonder, are touch and go and hard to hold, and worth the try.” Here’s one of his tries:

And always in the late afternoons with supper cooking, the breath of the basement kitchen coming up from the dumbwaiter and the stairs. In warm weather with windows open and a wind from the river it was lager beer from Schimpf’s and a whiff of horse from the boarding stables in Perth Street and in its season, waiting for those who got close enough, the warm sweet scent of the alyssum in the flower boxes.”

In late autumn Bob and Lenore Haines used to buy a sack of unshelled pecans and stand it up in the corner of their kitchen. They and Harley, Libby and MC, and anyone else who happened to call, would sit around the kitchen table shelling the pecans. Pecans do not yield up their flesh so easily as walnuts, nor so bountifully. It took a long time to fill our bowls.

pecans

We’d dump our gleanings into a large pot. Later, Bob and Lenore would fill dozens of little bags with the kernels and tie the bags shut with red and green ribbons. These became Christmas gifts for relatives and friends.

Every year or two, Lenore and Bob, Libby and MC, and Harley attended the meetings of the Iroquois Nation in upstate New York. In my mind’s eye, I see them standing serenely among a group of Indians under a spreading tree. Across a luminous river, lions and lambs lie side by side, as in a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Bob’s vegetable garden in Moorestown was a peaceable kingdom. The garden took up the entire back yard of his house. A thick layer of mulch covered the ground, sixty years of mouldering leaves were augmented by each autumn’s fall. The soil needed little hoeing; Bob merely pushed aside the mulch to expose the welcoming earth. His garden was a patchwork of plots living in happy confederation. One large plot was devoted to lettuces. A wide strawberry plantation formed the back boundary of the garden.

In mid August, Bob and Lenore departed Moorestown to visit Argonia, Kansas, Lenore’s home town, where she maintained her family’s homestead. She and Bob had first met when they were students at Vassar and at Haverford colleges. After their marriage, Lenore made her life on the East Coast where Bob took over the family paint business in Camden, New Jersey. She missed Kansas sorely and Bob knew her sacrifice; hence these late summer transfers to Argonia.

In old age they moved to Argonia for good. Their daughter had preceded them to Kansas, first to attend university there and then remaining in Kansas after marriage. She lived within driving distance of Argonia. Bob died in Argonia three years later. Lenore lived to be ninety-nine years old.

Help yourself to the garden while we’re gone,” said Bob, and I did, concentrating on the strawberries, the carrots and the lettuces.

Bob did hand-to-hand battle with the insects because he rejected chemical warfare. He picked the bugs off one by one, and he placed them in a Mason jar. He said there always seemed to be enough vegetables for his family, for his friends, and for the insects that escaped his fingers.

EPSON MFP imageBob Haines in his garden

One spring morning, I came upon Bob on his knees. He was tenderly, reverentially transplanting lettuces. He had started these plants in his battered greenhouse, from the seeds of sprouted lettuces, lettuces descended from the lettuces his father had planted in the garden eighty years before. Bob sent some of these seeds to his daughter in Kansas every year and she passed some on to her daughter. Why does this recollection give me such pleasure?

Bob and Lenore Haines, Libby and M.C. Morris, Molly Haines and Harley Armstrong – Bob Smith too – were of those Moorestown Quakers who vied only in goodness, anonymously. In their quiet way, undetected, they planted in me a bit of their peaceable kingdom.

Portions of this piece appeared first in my letter to the Friends Journal in June 2007.

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Old Age is a Pyrrhic Victory

Warren Sawyer - 211 May, 2018

Warren Sawyer is sitting on his electric scooter by the elevator door. I stop to say hello. The door opens and Louise Michalowicz steps out, leaning on her cane. She has a companion by her side. Warren looks in awe as she walks past us:

“Charlie,” he says, “Louise is a hundred years old!”

“Warren, how old are you?” I know how old Warren is.

“Ninety-eight.”

Florence, his second wife, has just died after 36 years of marriage. Ruth, his first wife, died after 36 years of marriage too.

“I’d like to find one for the next two or three years, but there aren’t any around here.”

“Warren, How can you say that? This place is full of women.”

“I don’t think they’re attractive.”

 

12 April, 2014

I turn the corner too fast – I have not yet learned to slow down – and I almost bump into Julian Eysmans, who is walking with a cane. I haven’t seen Julian for thirty years; he was my neighbor in Moorestown before he and Mary retired to Tennessee. They returned to be near a daughter.

I embraced him – an Italian thing – and Julian recoiled. I felt his body stiffen. This Protestant gentleman had never before been embraced by a man. He regained his poise and we exchanged recent life histories.

Julian entered the Assisted Living wing shortly after our encounter. He graciously invited me to his new quarters where we talked about old times in Moorestown. I once helped him cut down a big walnut tree on Mrs Williams’s adjoining property. Julian burned the wood in his fireplace and in his cast iron kitchen stove.

 

27 November, 2017

I stumbled – new sneakers with sticky rubber soles – but I kept my balance.

“Watch out!”, cried out a passerby.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I’m glad,” she said. “Had you fallen, I would have had to report you.”

 

Odds and Ends4 March, 2018

The Thrift Shop is open on Tuesdays from ten til noon. Its three rooms and the hallway loop are filled with belongings jettisoned by residents who have downsized from villas and condos and the stuff donated by the heirs of deceased residents: what’s left after they cart away what’s valuable.

I feel like an archeologist on a dig fifty years in the future whenever I visit the Thrift Shop. The artifacts suggest that Medford Leas was once inhabited by a race of giants. I discovered eighty-three pairs of trousers in the men’ shop: two size 32s and four size 34s, and seventy-seven pairs with waists up to 48 inches.

I came upon sixty-six sports jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, a style dating to the first Frank Sinatra dynasty. I counted one Small (size 36), seven Mediums (sizes 38 and 40), and fifty-eight Large and Extra Large.

I’ll have to buy my clothes in Guatemala.

ShoesWarren Sawyer is trying on shoes. Some shoes are mildly scuffed, some are almost new, many bear the imprint of their late owners’ feet.

Warren is sitting on the seat of his walker. Toby Riley greets him:

“Any luck, Warren?”

“Not yet.”

“What size?”

“I don’t know. It’s been so long since I bought shoes.”

M stops me. She has never before spoken to me.
“See here,” she says, “ What day is it?”
“Tuesday.”
“Good. I’ll be all right.”

The clothing in the women’s room overflows onto to racks in the hallway. I run my eye over the labels. I seldom see high end brands like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and the like. Here’s why: the resident/volunteers, those who staff the Thrift Shop, siphon off the best stuff for themselves, for their children, for their grandchildren and for their friends.

Thrift ShopThe main hallway is a long loop that circles the core of the building. A half dozen large tables near the Thrift Shop’s front door are crowded with decorative household bric-a-brac.

Then comes the big stuff: bedsteads, highboys, book shelves, fans, armoires (that once hid large TVs), overstuffed sofas, leather recliners, mirrors, tables, floor lamps, unmatched chairs, chests of drawers, a 12 inch TV.

Suitcases without wheels abound and carry-ons. Exercise machines. A humidifier. A tall Raleigh bicycle with a thumb bell rests on decrepit, flat tires. It sits next to a stiff leather golf club bag that weighs a ton.

The last room, at the far reach of the looping hallway, is filled with kitchen wares: pots and pans, electric coffeemakers, toaster ovens, assorted silverware, waffle irons, steam irons, staghorn handled carving sets and much oven stuff. You could stock a restaurant kitchen.

The volunteers have begun to pack up the stuff on the hallway tables. Somebody shuts the door. It’s closing time.

 

20 May, 2018

Yesterday as I returned to my courtyard down a covered walkway, I saw Mrs. X striding along thirty yards ahead of me. She was unaware of my presence. I heard, unmistakably, the sound of a fart. It happens, sometimes involuntarily, even to Pope Francis, to Queen Elizabeth. To Meryl Streep!

 

2 June, 2017

We checked out of our hotel in St. Louis and we were rolling our bags to the truck in the parking lot. I grew dizzy and sat on the rear bumper. I fainted and fell to the ground, bruising my forehead, the flesh around my left eye and cutting the bridge of my nose. My eyeglasses were bent. Bloody face.

Stephen found me moments later, crumpled on the tarmac. He thought I was dead. “What am I to do with him?” But it was just a passing thing and we were back on the road in an hour. We stopped at a drug store to buy Bandaids. The young woman behind the counter stared at my battered face, at the oozing cut on my nose.

“Please call the police,” I said in a quiet, urgent aside. “I’m being kidnapped.” Her eyes opened wide.

“He’s kidding,” said Stephen hurriedly, laughing. I laughed too. The young woman smiled thinly.

In the truck, Stephen was angry: “You’ll get us locked up.”
IMG_24584 June 2017

I’m sitting on a launching apron slanting down into the water. It’s used mostly to launch inflatable rafts that ride the rapids down river. The water is cold. The Colorado River is only about forty yards wide here. Stephen is skipping stones across the water. I look down at my cold, skinny legs.

“I’m a skinny old man.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

I inch back from the water’s edge, lifting my buttocks and pushing back with the heels of my hands until I reach my socks and my sneakers. I put them on slowly because my back is achy.

I rise, fighting the pull of the sloping apron. Stephen touches my elbow to steady me. We walk back to our rented truck. The truck is full of Stephen’s belongings which he is taking back to California. I’m riding shotgun. We are thrown together twenty-four hours a day. We talk and talk. Stephen is a vegetarian; so I eat vegetarian too, mostly in Mexican restaurants. Not bad.

He climbed the backyard tree
Breasting sky, treading air
Fighting the undertow

He swung the earth below
To catapult him free
To any where

“I wrote this poem about you, Stee.”

“That’s about you, not me.”

 

13 May 2018.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Medford Leas was crowded with adult children come to visit their parents. Some of the children are seventy years old.

Judith has invited me to join the party for her mother. Ruth is ninety-eight years old, soon to be ninety-nine. Judith and Howard are in their early seventies. Jeffrey is only sixty-five. He has brought along two daughters and a grandchild to trump his older siblings.

Ruth always eats everything on her plate, out of concern for the starving people of the world. She wastes nothing, but today she is mortified because she could not finish her dessert: two large pancakes smothered with blueberries and syrup. Judith eats what’s left of the pancakes. Ruth is pleased.

After lunch Judith drives Ruth to Walmart’s, to buy panties for Ruth. She can afford Saks Fifth Avenue but that would be wasteful.

 

3 March 2016

I’m having my hair cut in the beauty salon on campus, in a room with six chairs, two rows of three opposing each other. I sit in the lone barber’s chair facing the mirrored wall. I see, reflected in the mirror, the three patrons behind me. They are octogenarians, perhaps nonagenarians.

One woman is asleep, slumped under the domed hair drier, seemingly held half erect by the dome. The woman in the middle chair is also asleep, her chin on her breast. Her sparse hair is in curlers. Her face has been scrubbed clean in preparation of make up: rouged cheeks, penciled eyebrows, the works. She looks like a corpse. It’s a tableau out of Madame Tussaud’s.

The third woman is having a manicure. Her aide sits in the waiting room reading a magazine The woman, wild eyed and gaunt, is restless, agitated:

“Where is my mother? Take me to my mother.”

“She hasn’t come yet, but she will love your hair.”

“Oh, Oh,. Ow! Ow! Ow!”

“I’m not hurting you. I’m just removing your old nail polish.”

“ No, no, no.”

“You’ll look so pretty for your mother.”

 

Nantucket Red“Nantucket red,” says a passerby, pointing out my shorts.

“That’s right,” I reply.

“Do you know how I know?”

“The LL Bean Catalog.”

She flounces off. Did I steal her punch line?

 

Gambarella14 May 2018

The bin for recyclables is in Parking Lot B. I dump in my bagful of plastics, juice cartons and one beer bottle. The bottom of the bin is covered with empty wine bottles, the detritus of the Mother’s Day weekend:

Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Vintner’s Reserve
Pierre Sparr Alsace Riesling
Yellow Tail Merlot
Clos du Val Cabernet
Yellow Tail Riesling
Mark West Pinot Noir
Welch’s Grape Juice Cocktail
Gambarelli and Davito Sweet Sherry, 2 one-gallon jugs.

Two gallons of cheap sherry! Who is drinking that stuff?

 

15 May, 2018

I am traversing Courtyard Eleven. A woman walking a few steps ahead of me stops by an open door. She speaks through the screen door: “Hi, Sadie. Are you up for wine this evening?”

 

5 November, 2017

Bobbie Murray and I exchange stories about disposing the ashes of our departed spouses. The boxes containing the ashes lay on our kitchen shelves for months. They were a welcome presence.

Bobbie sometimes dons one of her late husband’s fedoras when she tools around on her electric scooter. I wear Margie’s wedding band on my pinkie. Fetishes that ease despair.

 

14 October, 2017

I hear angry female voices as I approach the middle apartment in Courtyard XXX; the voices grow loud and clear as I reach the door:

“I don’t need your fucking food. Get the fuck out.”

“I hope you fucking choke.”

The door opens. A forty-five year old woman in stylish black slacks rushes out, slamming the door shut. She hurries toward the parking lot.

I step back to take note of the apartment number. I know the face of the tenant. She is a small, white-haired eighty-year old who smiles sweetly whenever our paths cross. I go to the library to learn more about her. Her mini-biography, which is on file there, gives no hint of volcanic passions.

 

Avacado22 May, 2018

Today’s dinner menu is blah. Fortunately I’m not hungry:

Beef Vegetable Soup
Tossed Salad
Macaroni and Cheese
Meatloaf w/ Gravy
Ham Salad Sandwich
Mashed Potatoes
Cauliflower
Stewed Tomatoes
Rice Pudding

I’d rather eat in my apartment: Corn Flakes with almond milk. Stephen thinks I drink too much cow’s milk.

Then an avocado which I eat out of its half shell with a spoon. Then leftover scalloped apples, mushed up in the cereal bowl with sour cream.

 

7 May, 2018

We gathered on the lawn of the building that houses the office of our Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur. He loves Trump’s tax bill. He is worth thirty-one million dollars.

MacArthur is a carpetbagger from North Jersey who shopped around South Jersey for a rotten borough. He found Burlington/Ocean Counties which comprise the Third Congressional district. By spending lavishly, he had won the seat for six years. We hope to bring him down in November.

Protest Meeting

It was a 45 degree day, raw and intermittently wet. Fortunately we were dressed for the occasion. We looked like aged children in bulging snowsuits.

The first speaker was a resolute, hatless young woman whose ringing words also pleased the placid infant who gazed up from the papoose strapped to her mother’s chest.

The second speaker, also hatless, was an earnest young union leader whose three year old son wandered about in the space between the speaker and the surrounding audience. The little boy occasionally leaned against his father’s leg, or else he sought out his papoose-laden mother who was now standing among us in the audience. She patted his head while she nuzzled his sister’s cheek in the papoose.

The audience numbered about sixty, including fourteen of us from Medford Leas. Andy Kim, the Democratic challenger, was in the audience and he strode forth to say a few spirited words. We cheered and we waved banners to catch the attention of the local TV-news camera crew that was standing by. Afterwards, we waddled back to our cars, glad to have made our statement.

 

 

 

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Return to Sant’Anna

In 1954 I refused Dean Boyer’s invitation to repeat my first year in law school. Instead I took a job with the Westinghouse Electrical Corporation, in its Aviation Gas Turbine Division. I joined the team that had created the W19XB-2B, the first US- designed aircraft jet engine, they said. I commuted to the plant, located near Chester, Pennsylvania, as passenger in a co-worker’s car.

I was the junior technical writer. That meant I checked the parts’s lists in the latest edition of the engine’s overhaul manual. I certified that the design changes made in the engine had been incorporated into the updated illustrations and that they were reflected correctly in the updated text. That I occasionally consulted with the engineers who had made the changes – and who may have helped design the engine – did not relieve the tedium of the job.

Frustrated and unhappy, I decided to buy an used MG, a bright red one I had long coveted, and I had saved seven hundred dollars toward that end. First I’d have to learn to drive and get a license: a worrisome challenge. Maybe the car would jumpstart my life.

A year after I joined the company, Westinghouse announced that it was relocating our Division to Kansas City. The company had bought a disused World War II defense plant there for one dollar. That was about all, said the wags, that Westinghouse could afford. Move to Kansas City or leave the company. I refused to go but I was able to stay on in Chester while the move took place. The prospect of finding another job was disheartening.

Then my parents, my father newly retired from his job, announced that they were going to visit Sicily for three months, after an absence of forty-seven years. Zu Calogero, my father’s eldest brother, jumped at the chance to go with them. (Zu is short for Zio in Sicilian. Zio which means uncle. Zia, aunt, becomes Za. The Z is pronounced ts: tsu, tsa. ) Many older men and women were addressed as Zu or Za, even when not related to you. If not yours, they were bound to be somebody’s uncle and aunt.

My parents 1918

My Parents, 1918

My mother had immigrated to the United States in 1912, when she was seventeen years old. She was sponsored by Aunt Jennie’s grandmother. My father arrived later that year, on his own. Well, his older brother Calogero had preceded him here by two years. He was twenty-two years old, recently discharged from the Italian army.  Leonardo and Giuseppina were as yet unattached, but they had traded significant glances in the village.

Their decision to return to Sicily, and Westinghouse’s removal to Kansas City, served to clear my head. Did I really want an MG? Did I want to look for another dead-end job? Italy beckoned. I had more than seven hundred dollars.

I’d go to Italy a month ahead of my parents, to study Italian at the Universita Italiana per Stranieri di Perugia. That’s the Italian University for Foreigners. Then I’d join them in Sicily for a summer-long visit in the natal village of Sant’Anna. The village would become my base for visiting tourist sites in Sicily and Italy.

I got to Perugia in time for the spring semester at the Stranieri. The tuition, subsidized by the Italian government, was about six dollars a month. I found a pensione for fifty dollars a month, room and board. I was the lone American in the house. My fellow boarders were enrolled at the other university in town, L’Universita degli Studi. Mario Gentili, an Italian, was studying medicina; Giorgio Basso (Italian), agraria; Jorge Flores (Honduran) veterinaria; and Gianni Zanakis (Greek) veterinaria.

At the Stranieri I met students from all over the world, including American exGIs who were using their GI Bill benefits to study abroad. The GI Bill? I had some GI Bill left. Was this a way out? A way out to where? Who cared! I’d remain in Italy for as long as I could. I’d tell my parents later in the summer, before they returned to Philadelphia. In mid-April I left Perugia two days before their ship was to arrive in Palermo.

I wanted Palermo to myself for two days, unencumbered by old folks. I found a cheap room in a squalid boardinghouse on the third floor of a decrepit apartment house near the port. The staircase climbed round the walls of the inner courtyard but it was roped off short of the fourth floor landing. Beyond the rope was a yawning drop to the courtyard. The fourth floor had taken a hit during the American naval bombardment in 1943. The neighborhoods facing the water were studded with shattered buildings. The rubble had been cleared but the gaps remained.

At noon I saw a man cooking at a two burner stove in the foyer just inside his front door. A bench and table were on the sidewalk. I had a plate of perciatelli daubed with a splash of sourish tomato sauce, and a piece of oxtail for about thirty five cents. Move over George Orwell!

I couldn’t sleep that night in my windowless room which was in a dead end hallway. In the morning I saw several bright red spots on my chest and legs. The spots itched. On the second night, at the first pinch, my fingers flew to the spot and I captured what I knew had to be a bedbug. I abandoned the hovel and moved into a modest hotel. Later that morning, deloused and showered, I walked to the port where the M/N Vulcania was waiting at its pier. I joined the crowd massed around the gangplank.

Vulcania

I stood at the rear edge of the crowd looking over the heads of those who were scanning the faces of the passengers at the rail. About twenty feet in front of me I saw a group of people with sun darkened faces and starkly white napes, freshly exposed to view by artless haircuts. These were the markers of poor peasants. Under their clothing, the flesh was white, almost luminous, like that of cave dwelling fish. I recognized a face, a face I had seen among the photos at my mother’s house.

It was Zu Paolo Colletti, my mother’s youngest brother, who was about fifty-five years old. He was wearing my chalk-stripe, grey flannel suit. I loved that suit, a well bred Oxford I’d picked up at Pierone and Bruns in Spokane, Washington while I was in the Air Force. A longtime customer had rejected it after it had been altered for him. It fit me perfectly, at half the price! I gave it hard wear and it was clearly past its prime when I relinquished it to my mother. She added to one of many packages of food and clothing we used to send to Sicily before and after the war.

Carlo and Uncle Paolo 1955

Carlo and Zu Paolo, 1955

Suddenly, Zu Paolo and those clustered around him, spotted my parents and my uncle. They cried out to them, gesticulating, shedding tears of joy. My father and Zu Calogero responded vigorously. My mother waved wanly as she searched the upturned faces in the crowd. She found me and our eyes locked.

My relatives noticed my mother’s riveted gaze and they turned to see its object. They recognized me – from photographs – and they pushed through the crowd to engulf me. There were seventeen of them. They hugged and kissed me. My face was wet with their tears. The conjugations, the precise pronunciation I had begun to learn at the Stranieri abandoned me. I lapsed into dialect.

My cousins, like me, had come in Palermo two days before the arrival of the Vulcania. They were staying, several to a room, in a boarding house run by Santo Tamburro, a former Sant’Annese. Some of them had never been to Palermo before. They had come to the pier each morning, just in case they said, the ship should arrive early. They knew that was unlikely, but the weather was fine and the port life was interesting. They were enjoying a rare holiday.

Two days earlier they had met my ship, the overnight packet from Naples. Of course they were unaware that I was on it. I had recognized them as I started down the gang plank and I turned back. I found the cargo ramp in the ship’s aft and I exited, slipping behind a large container being offloaded. I disappeared into Palermo. Now, two mornings later, I had strolled over to the Vulcania.

My parents and my Uncle Calogero disembarked without incident. My mother was uneasy about the large steamer trunk full of dutiable items: two dozen cartons of cigarettes, a bottle Four Roses – nobody drank whiskey in Sant’Anna! – and many, many bolts of cloth for women’s dresses. She hoped to avoid declaring these goods. My Uncle Calogero told her not to worry.

I took my uncle to the Customs’ Office where he tendered an envelope addressed to a man inside. Zu Calogero was illiterate, but he could count; don’t try to cheat him. The letter was from old man Maggio, the South Philly cheese maker – Yes, that Maggio. He was one of Zu Calogero’s many compari.

Presently a man emerged from Customs Office. He embraced my uncle, kissing him on both cheeks, left, right left. I soon learned that drill, left, right left so as not to bump noses. The three of us returned to my parents who were standing guard by the luggage. Kisses all around. Zu Calogero’s new friend pulled out a piece of chalk and he boldly anointed the luggage and the trunk. A folded banknote changed hands.

I hailed a ragged man from among those crowding near with their two-wheeled handcarts. Mindful of the presence of my elders, and of the conventional wisdom which in Philadelphia had said: “Watch out. They’ll cheat you,” I offered the man two hundred lire less than his price. Two hundred lire was worth fifty cents. He accepted my offer without comment. Shame! Shame! Shame! I have never forgiven myself. But I was newly arrived in Europe; it had much to teach me.

The carter loaded the luggage onto the flat bed of his cart and he took his place between the stays, like a donkey, He trotted ahead of us to Tamburro’s. It was now mid-afternoon.

My father and cousin Calogero 1955

My Father and Cousin Calogero, 1955

Santo Tamburo found accommodations for my parents and my uncle. My father and Zu Calogero instructed Santo to buy roast chicken for everyone. Santo’s wife would cook the pasta and make the salad. Meanwhile, Santo phoned a man in Caltabellotta, instructing him to send a small bus to take us to Sant’Anna in the morning.

Caltabellotta is a big town near Sant’Anna. From afar, Caltabellotta seems carved from the rocky summit of its mountain which is 2500 feet high. It has a famous view: Menfi, Sambuca,Villafranca, Burgio, Ribera, Sciacca and a dozen other towns are scattered in a broad landscape to the sea.

Tamburo’s dining room was festive. Many people in too small a room make for a good party. Zu Calogero entertained us with stories of his youth in Sant’Anna. The Sant’Annesi marveled at the accuracy of his stories, his faithful description of places, of his memory of notorious incidents, his shrewd appraisal of the paisani. Little had changed in Sant”Anna. He was very funny, especially with a few drinks in him; that is, if you could understand his nearly toothless speech. My cousins understood him; half the people in Sant’Anna were toothless.

I’d raise my eyes to catch a cousin staring at me, at this wondrous creature whose skin was fair, whose hands were not thickened and coarsened by field work. My mother faded quickly and she went to bed. I too tried to leave the party early, to pack I said, but really to explore the streets along the way to my hotel. My Uncle Paolo and young Peppe Colletti – he liked to be called Joe – insisted on escorting me. In turn, I worried about their finding the way back to Tamburro’s.

Next morning the bus from Caltabellotta was waiting for us at curb side. Our driver intuited the way out of the tangled center where the transit buses bullied their way through dense traffic. In Palermo the buses spewed dark, pungent fumes that turned daylight to dusk. By nightfall my shirt collar was ringed with black. In Perugia my shirts lasted three days.

As our bus approached the perimeter but still well within the city, we encountered, indeed our way was blocked by a man leading twelve or fifteen goats. He carried a short slender crook in one hand and a three-legged stool in the other..

The goats wore bells whose jingling summoned housewives and children who emerged bearing jars and pitchers. The goatherd milked the goats and filled their containers. How bizarre! Palermo seemed like my idea of a North African city, with its palm trees, its churches with multiple red domes, its crowded streets and sidewalks, its air of dusty disrepair. And now the goats. Then I realized that the goats were an elegant – elegant in its simplicity – solution to the problem of delivering fresh milk daily to inhabitants who lacked refrigeration.

st-john-of-the-hermits-domes-palermo-church-showing-elements-of-byzantine-arabic-and-norman-architec

A church in Palermo

Once past the goats, we drove through a wide swath comprised of rundown housing, large and small garden plots and a patchwork of shabby industrial and agricultural buildings. Then the countryside. We skirted hills whose rising flanks were yellow with the stubble of harvested wheat. High above the stubbled fields were pale green meadows.

We sped through mean, dusty villages whose main streets were barely wide enough for the bus. I could have touched the people drawn back against their front doors. They regarded me blankly as we hurtled by. Peppina, my father’s niece, his brother Giuseppes’s only daughter, was my seatmate.

She was tall for a Sicilian woman, about five feet eight. She was gaunt, with that pinched look of the undernourished, skin drawn tightly over hollowed cheeks and temples. She was twenty-six years old and, unhappily, unwed. Peppina’s front teeth were gapped and they protruded her thin lips. Her teeth, together with her close-set eyes and her aquiline nose, gave her the look of an angry, cross-eyed hawk. She was snappish.

Her two elder brothers had married and multiplied. Peppina was named after her father’s mother, like my sister Peppina, who died an infant during the Spanish Flu. Peppina’s younger brother, Calogero, like me was named after Zu Calogero. Peppina told me, pointedly, that Calogero was engaged to be married.

Peppina asked me about our cousins in Philadelphia. She was surprised to learn how little I knew about them. South Philly was like a village when I was a kid: we were in and out of each other’s houses. But once married, they had scattered to distant neighborhoods and to small towns in South Jersey. We had little in common. I was a bookworm; none of them made it to high school. I saw them only at weddings, at a few christenings and at funerals.

“Our cousins?”, she was amazed . Yes Peppina, our cousins.

The word for cousin in Italian is cugino/a. The word for brother is fratello ; a sister is sorella. In Sicilian dialect, a male cousin is called un frateddu. The double L in fratello becomes a double D in frateddu. Think of Turiddu (short for Salvatorello) in the Cavalleria Rusticana. The final O often becomes a U. A female cousin becomes una soredda, a sister. Cousins were as close as brothers and sisters.

E tu che vita fai a Sant’Anna?“ I asked her, “What’s life like in Sant’Anna?”

Dalla casa alla chiesa. Dalla chiesa alla casa.” “From the house to the church, from the church to the house.”

We made a rest stop in Corleone. Did King Richard, the Lion Hearted one, pass through Corleone? Maybe not, but The Godfather’s Al Pacino did, famously. Corleone, a dreary dusty town, was a Mafia stronghold.

Our impromptu stop was a windfall for the fly speckled bar-caffe. We drank sweet, watery soda pop while we waited our turn to use the toilet, a fetid hole in the wet concrete floor. The driver called us back with a blast of his horn. Italian bus drivers, careening toward blind curves, rely on their horns to alert oncoming traffic.

An hour and a half later, almost four hours out of Palermo, our bus entered Sant’Anna with the driver leaning heavily on the horn. We were the first bus, the first vehicle, ever to arrive by the still incomplete mountain route. The unfinished portion looked like a deeply plowed field, not of forgiving clods, but of split, broken, sharp-edged rocks. The driver had refused to risk it. A folded bank-note changed hands. Our entrance into Sant’Anna was historic, our welcome was tumultuous.

Sant'anna

Sant’Anna

Our relatives crowded the piazza which was a widening, a distension in the stark, treeless main street. A long outcropping of bleached, stratified stone rose up out of it, like a boulder in a stream. We quit the bus and were manhandled anew. My mother fainted and she sank to the street in a sitting position.

Somebody called for the doctor. He was nearby, sitting at the cafe’s rickety table, playing tre sette with Zu Pino Colletti. Dr. Nuzio dropped his hand and hurried to us. He examined my mother and pronounced her fit.

My father and I helped her to her feet. We gave ourselves over to Za Vita, my mother’s sister, who, though born after my mother had left Sant’Anna, had become her chief correspondent. The knot of people, no longer exuberant, opened before us and Za Vita led us to her house, trailing a gaggle of Collettis.

Aunt Vita 1940

Aunt Vita, 1940

Zu Calogero was enveloped by a happy swarm of Perrones which carried him off to his brother Peppe’s house, as had been pre-arranged.

END OF PART ONE

 

 

Bermuda Cruise

Last summer I decided at the last minute to accompany my daughter on a seven-day cruise to Bermuda. We had never been on a cruise ship before. I had vivid memories of my 1955 transatlantic crossing on the MN Roma of the Achille Lauro Line, a 15,000 ton Italian passenger liner that had been nicely converted from a World War II freighter.

Roma-Cariba-II-74-TN-Sydney

On March 12, 1955 I departed New York City in a snowstorm, and we were punished by high winds and hard rain for days. I’d go on deck, mesmerized by the mountainous waves and by the wind shrieking through the lines. I held on tight. Now I longed to have a deck under my feet again.

The S.S. Summit of the Celebrity Cruise Line weighs 90,000 tons, six times as big as the Roma. A thousand feet long, the Summit barely fits the shortest lock in the Panama Canal. It looks like the Empire State building on its side, or like a ten story 1970s Miami Beach hotel sitting atop a hull. We’d be sailing in late July, well before the hurricane season. The thirty-six hour run to Bermuda would be a breeze.

My daughter phoned three days before departure to remind me to bring my passport.

“A passport? To Bermuda?”

“Yes, Daddy. Bermuda belongs to Great Britain.”

I knew that. Vaguely. Still, I was offended. No wonder Spain resents an English Gibraltar. I went to the desk and dug out my U.S. passport; it had long expired.

To renew it quickly would have cost me $155. Eureka! my Italian passport. The maroon one, stamped in gold. There it was, lying in the desk drawer since 2009, never used. I was eligible for an Italian passport because my parents were still Italian citizens when I was born in Philadelphia. I’d be welcomed aboard the Summit as Signor Calogero Perrone.

Calogero? Who’s he? In 1934 when my mother signed me up for kindergarten, the school secretary, spying the name Calogero printed on my birth certificate, casually registered me as Charles. “You don’t want your son growing up as Calogero, do you?”

Calogero derives from the Greek: kalos geros. San Calogero is the patron saint of Sciacca, a big town in the province of Agrigento. It means a good or a beautiful old man. Or a monk. The secretary changed my name to Charles and it has remained Charles – on my report cards, diplomas, social security card, military discharge, marriage certificate, my driver’s license. Fraudulent documents all.

In the Fifties, Charles became Carlo while I lived in Italy for three years. (In Sicily my cousins called me Calogero.) I returned to the United States in 1958, bearing a black beret and my new name, Carlo. I lost the beret – nice hat, it had caught Margie’s eye – but I kept the name. Margie always called me Carlo, or in jest, Chaluzzo, which was what my mother called me, a form of ‘little Charlie’, akin to Cholly.

Nanda and I embarked in Bayonne, New Jersey. The check-in area was a vast hanger-like room, hard by the water, with the ship berthed alongside. The ship overhung the pier like a cliff, eleven decks tall. It blocked the view to the bay.ss summit

We joined the long line of passengers snaking through the room. A Customs officer, checking passports, circulated among us. Her name was Mary Ann, a genial Italian American from Jersey City. When she examined my passport, she called me Signor Perrone. I was thrilled. However, she pulled me out of line.

“Your passport lacks a visa.” She saw my puzzled look: “There’s no indication in your passport how you entered the United States,”.

I laughed: “I was born in Philadelphia and I live in Medford, New Jersey.”

Mary Ann was very patient, she was serious. “This passport says you are an Italian citizen who has somehow, somewhere, entered this country, perhaps unlawfully.” She spoke firmly but not unpleasantly. She sensed my rising panic. I wasn’t afraid of being deported – deported to Italy? Lovely! No, I thought I’d have to cancel the cruise, lose my money.

“Don’t worry. You can download a document in lieu of the visa.”

She led us to a computer in a side room where she gave Fernanda the pertinent information. Twenty minutes later and sixty-five dollars lighter, I had the required document which I handed over to Mary Ann. In exchange, she stamped a visa into my passport.

“Buon viaggio, Signor Perrone,” she said lushly, with a hint of Naples in her accent.

Soon after I was in my cabin unpacking my bag: two pairs of Bermuda shorts, the older pair was nicely faded to Nantucket Red. . A pair of sandals and a pair of dressy moccasins. No socks. Some shirts, a pair of slacks, one necktie and my linen sports jacket.

My linen sport jacket is forty-five years old, double-breasted, double-vented in the back, not unlike the one the Duke of Windsor wore in Bermuda when he was its governor. I hadn’t worn it for years but I threw it into my bag anyhow – it’s style cried out Cruise Ship. I brought no books; I’d find something to read in the ship’s library. I knocked on Nanda’s door when I finished unpacking and we left our adjoining staterooms to explore the ship before lunch.

I have elsewhere described my brief encounter with a Las Vegas casino hotel. Aboard the S.S. Summit we seemed to have landed in Las Vegas again. Ah, but now I could turn my back on that grossness and face the sea, with the wind in my hair. The ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty with a long curving flourish. The open sea was placid. Ahead of us was a day and a half sail to Bermuda, then three days in the port of Hamilton, and finally a thirty-six hour sail back to Bayonne.

A ship’s architecture imposes a class system upon its passengers. The distinction was vertical on the old transatlantic liners: the uppermost decks comprised First Class, the middle decks were Second Class, and deep in the hold was the Third Class. Steel doors separated the three classes. In the evenings, attractive girls traveling Second or Third Class might be invited to the First Class deck to fill out the dance floor in the arms of the ship’s junior officers.

Today, those parameters – different decks for different classes have disappeared. The S.S. Summit was one-class, but distinctions prevailed, not vertically as in the old days, but concentrically. The inside cabins, with no windows, were cheaper. The outside cabins facing the sea, with balconies, were larger and they were dramatically more expensive.

We had inside cabins on Deck 9, toward the rear of the ship. It was a long walk – about 400 feet – to the elevators and the staircases. The opposing walls seemed to meet in the far distance. We searched for, but failed to find a deck that was open to the sea. Did ocean views come only with outside cabin balconies? We’d search again after lunch.

Lunch was served buffet style, in a big room that spanned the width of the ship. The food counters were in the center of the room. They formed a large oblong, segmented into stations, each offering the main cuisines of the the world. The stations were manned by servers of various nationalities. One could sample all the world’s cuisines by circumnavigating the stations. Their concoctions were heaped for the taking, or handed over by the happy servers. At breakfast, short-order cooks dished out eggs any style, pancakes, or waffles, you name it. I filled up on oatmeal and a bowl of fresh tropical fruit.

Many diners were in poolside attire because the swimming pool was just beyond the dining room. Earlier that morning these diners had claimed the coveted poolside deck chairs by leaving a towel, a book or some personal item on the seat – arrogant ploys that enabled them to hog the chairs all day long. We ate quickly and left the noisy, crowded room.

We did find the open deck, not easily, because the unmarked door leading to it was gained only by passing through a gambling casino. This deck was about eighty yards long, running under the brow of the outside cabins stacked above. We walked around and under lifeboats hanging from massive davits. These were large powerful motor launches that accommodated 200 people each.

This stretch of deck was the only area on the ship where smoking was permitted. It was the ship’s smoking lounge, so to speak. Some smokers were scattered along the rail, others occupied the five or six deck chairs. An unoccupied deck chair was festooned with the artifacts of an absentee squatter. Fernanda and I walked the length of the deck several times, passing through the wafting cigarette smoke. We returned later that night when the deck was deserted and smoke-free. We took a few turns while the ship glided through a calm sea.

“Suitable attire is required in the full service dining rooms”. I put on my olive colored slacks, my subtly striped shirt and my paisley necktie. I slipped my bare feet into my elegant loafers and finally, I put on the linen jacket. I glanced at the tall mirror by my door: very nice. I tapped Nanda’s door to indicate that I was waiting in the corridor. She emerged, looking equally nice.

“Daddy! You can’t wear that jacket, it’s filthy.” I looked down my front. Yes, there were a few spots and some wrinkles, and the lapels drooped a bit, but the overall effect was fine.

Windsor jacket

“The light will be murky in the dining room. Nobody will notice.”

“Daddeee, there’s a big sweat stain across the back!” I removed the jacket and took a look. Yes, there was a stain, but it was more like the shadow of a stain.

“This all I brought, Dear. Nobody will notice in the darkened room. I’ll sit with my back to the wall.” We started out, she keeping a half step ahead of me.. A tall man approached us as we neared the elevators. He was about sixty years old. He wore a dark business suit, a solid citizen. He spoke to me.

“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask you a question?” He had a folded newspaper in his hand. The Wall Street Journal?

Sir? Nobody had called me sir for years. “Of course,” I said, “ What can I do for you?”

“I wonder if you would advise me about my investments?” It was the Wall Street Journal.

I was astounded. Somebody asking ME about the stock market! I looked him over. Was he a con artist?

“You could not have asked a worse person about investments,” I said. “I don’t even believe in the stock market. I’m a socialist.”

He was taken aback but he kept his cool. “Thank you,” he said politely. “I’m very sorry,” and he walked past us. I looked at Nanda, smiled but said nothing. Was it my jacket? We entered the restaurant; it was dimly lit. Nobody would notice my jacket. The maitre d’, a South American from Colombia, met us just inside the entrance.

“Good evening, Sir. May I have your cabin number” He consulted his iPad.

“Ah, Signor Perrone, buona sera, a table for two.” The table was the size of a large handkerchief, twelve inches away from its twin. I sat with my back to a pillar.
Our neighbors were sitting inches away. We exchanged greetings, little more. After all we and they had requested tables for two. We wanted privacy.

They were in their late-forties, well dressed in a showy way. Her dress was appropriate enough but he wore slacks and a polo shirt, no jacket and tie. The dress code? I looked around the room in vain; then back to their fingers and wrists which were weighed down with jeweled rings and bracelets.

She was picking her way through a large salad out of which reared four colossal shrimp. He was eating a double order of roast beef, two thick slabs of rare meat. She was drinking white wine, he red. I don’t recall what Nanda and I ate, some kind of seafood.

The food was good enough. The waiters, drawn from the Second and Third Worlds, were pleasantly solicitous. Their banter was studied, the set pieces of their trade. The sommelier, a Balkan woman, was knowledgeable, with a nice touch of hauteur. Nanda finished her wine and we left the restaurant. Our verdict: bountiful banality. What next? Should we follow the other diners? To the night clubs? To the casinos? To the discos? To a blaring, copy-cat Broadway stage show?

We sought out the library. We found it, suspended between decks, reached by a circular staircase – a kind of eyrie, an architectural afterthought, with three glass walls and the fourth lined with shelves. The shelves held about 400 books – mostly mysteries and bestsellers, some of them quite old. Nanda had been wise to bring her own books. I, unexpectedly, found an old but lightly read collection of Thornton Wilder’s letters. I took it without bothering to check it out. Who’d miss it? We sought out our stretch of open deck, took a few turns, we stood by the rail and studied the moonlit sea. It continued calm. We retired to our cabins to read our books.

Next morning we attended a lecture given by the ship’s captain. Captain Leo, thirty-nine years old, seemed young for the job. His seafaring family had him sent to a marine academy when he was thirteen. He’d been at sea ever since. His talk was a highpoint of the trip.

He marshaled a great deal of information about the ship’s history, its technical specifications and its daily operations, interspersed with amusing asides. By the time he turned us over to one of several subalterns, I was convinced that the ship, our fate, was in good hands. Nanda and I chose the tour of the kitchens, that is, a tour of the food distribution system.

Below deck, out of sight, was a sprawling beehive of activity, a series of interconnected work spaces: storerooms, large refrigerators, food preparation stations, kitchens and bakeries, each area enveloped in the steamy effusions of its distinctive activities, all manned by a host of food preparers.

The cooks wore their tall, stiff hats, the others wore soft white berets with headbands of different colors, depending upon the nature of their activity. They wore identity badges dangling by ribbons of matching colors. They worked as teams, efficiently, quietly and in good humor, with the usual banter of happy co-workers. They came from all over the Second and Third Worlds. Our meals-in-progress traveled over moving belts that led finally to dumbwaiters that lifted the plates to the various serving stations of the ship’s restaurants. Where did these hundreds of hidden workers go when they were off-duty?

Our “smoking deck” had a seven foot barrier at one end. I heard voices spilling over it and I pulled myself up to take a look. There they were, the below-deck workers, taking their ease on their own stretch of deck which was better equipped than our barren strip. Their living quarters must have been located at that end of the ship too. Did they have a swimming pool tucked away somewhere?pool in modern cruise ship1

Nanda was determined to have a swim. She had brought her bathing suit but she had been repelled by the ship’s crowded, noisy pool. We signed up for a tour that took us to the private beach of one of the island’s big hotels. Our tickets entitled us to an umbrella, two beach chairs and about three hours on the sand. I brought my book – good thing too – because it was a bad day for people watching. The beach was deserted, but Nanda was happy. It was to be her only ocean swim of the year.

On our last morning in Bermuda we took a bus tour to St. George, the old fishing port on the far end of the island. Our ship was departing at four o’ clock that afternoon. The bus was waiting on the pier but Nanda and I were the only passengers. No matter, said the driver. He phoned his office and within minutes a six- passenger van appeared, driven by a woman in her mid-twenties. We’d have, virtually, a private tour, an outing with the well-informed Diana, our driver, who chatted happily as we drove along.

She told us what it was like to live in idyllic Bermuda. Not so idyllic for many Bermudans because there were few jobs for the young. Some of her friends had found work in London and New York. Diana was lucky to to be part of a family business. She worked long hours when the cruise ships were in port but in the off season she’d fly to New York and to London, on shopping jaunts mostly.

St. George was settled in 1612, coeval to Jamestown, Virginia. However, St. George had survived even though few of its original buildings remained. An important survivor, much transformed, is St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere, continually in service since that year. Within this large, evolved building stands the wooden skeleton of the original church, a baldacchino of rough-hewn oaken beams.

The docent, an elderly parishioner, was pleased to show us around the church – we were the only visitors. She opened her heart to us when we told her that we had had tea the day before with Anthony Hollis, the Bishop of Bermuda. We had been referred to him and his wife by my daughter who is a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Its minister, Joanna Hollis, was the Bishop’s daughter
The streets of St. George were deserted. The St. George Cricket team, with the bulk of St. George’s citizenry in tow, had gone to Somerset town to play against its arch rival, the Somerset Cricket Club. The match could last for hours. We strolled the town center which included a small 18th century square and little else. Many shops were closed.

We rendezvoused with Diana and started back to Hamilton. She made a detour to show us the little church where Bishop Hollis had begun his career. Then another stop to show us the Bishop’s house. I was concerned about the time. She wasn’t. Bermuda, population sixty thousand, has a small town mentality. Everybody knows everybody. If we should have been delayed I think Diana would have phoned Captain Leo. “We’ll be a little late, Leo. Please hold up the ship for ten minutes.”

The Cafe Normandie was the ship’s best restaurant. Its entrance was preceded by a large display case which contained artifacts from the S.S. Normandie, the great French transatlantic ocean liner of the 1930s. The most striking items in the case were two decorative wall panels which were deeply etched and painted, depicting life sized male figures against a maroon background.

We looked into the dining room. It was decorated in the art deco style – a 21st century idealization of a first class restaurant aboard the old S.S. Normandie. The lighting was discreet and the tables were widely separated. It was quiet. Nanda said let’s do it and I agreed. It was expensive but heck, it was our last night at sea. We reserved a table for two.

The Serbian maitre d’ was polished and the elegant Romanian wine steward, a woman, was urbane. Nanda ordered a rum swizzle cocktail – the best she ever had she said – and she ordered a white wine to go with her fish. I ordered Ginger ale. Romania didn’t flinch.

The décor, in ivory and brown, was very formal. It looked like a set in a 1930s Hollywood movie. The ceiling light was a great white disc about six feet across. The wall panels depicted classically robed figures gazing nobly into the distance. Sconces shaped like conch shells lined the walls and vintage bronze portholes stared blindly.

The Cafe was an oasis of civility. The room was very quiet – no piped in music – and our waitress was reserved. The food was good. The understated décor was boring. The room was lifeless. I couldn’t picture Marlene Dietrich sweeping into the room and calling out to Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence sitting over there, or to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sitting tete-a-tete in that alcove. Back in Medford, New Jersey, a few months later, I googled the S.S. Summit and I learned that the Cafe Normandie had been dismantled and that it had been transformed into a rustic Tuscan inn, a “fun” place to eat.

Nanda finished her wine and we left. We sought out our open stretch of deck and we took several turns of its length. We stood by the rail and looked out over calm sea. Nanda remembers it being a little rough but then she has never crossed the North Atlantic in winter. We returned to our cabins, to our beds, to our books. No more cruise ships for us. The QE2 to England might tempt us, but not in winter.

Poems, Part One

 

pig on spit

The Beggar and the Baker

The beggar stood before the brazier
Drawn by the essence rising
From the crackling spattering piglet
Skewered turning hissing

He had in one hand a petty coin
The other, a piece of bread
The petty coin sufficed to buy
Of that pig not a shred

He held the bread above the vapor
Rising from the roast
Hoping thus to lend some flavor
To his bit of toast.

He raised his bread to eager lips
The baker cried, “Stop thief
You’ve got to pay for what you’ve taken.”
The beggar gaped in disbelief

A guardsman came to arbitrate
But he too was perplexed:
“This matter is beyond my ken.
I’d rather judge be vexed.”

They made their case before the judge
Who listened with reserve
He eyed the beggar, transfixed the baker:
“The law, it must be served.

It’s clear the bread some flavor gained
He must be paid in kind.”
He dropped the coin so that it rang:
“Your payment, Sir, the sound.”

The Good Old Days

My father came in 1912
My mother in ’13
The left a stony stingy land
To find their dream

My mother in a sweatshop
My father in a ditch
They worked extremely hard
They never struck it rich

They were exploited
Denied of much they wrought
In Sicily, they’d worked
Just as hard for naught

I hope that we shall never see
Those good old days repeated
What seemed a rosy golden age
To cheaters and the cheated

 

roma

A European Education

The best fare to Naples in ’55
The Roma of the Achille Lauro Line
A hundred-sixty dollars bread and vino,
A cabin shared with two men from Montclair
I chose a one way ticket a gesture
Like Cortes who burned his ships in Vera Cruz

We departed in a squally springtime blow
And were battered by heavy angry seas
Casualties were light a broken arm (not mine)
Glassware china some ill-digested meals,
Forgotten when the Azores came in view
Glistening a floating forest wrapped in rain
Accessible only to oared lighters
Which danced out to meet our swaying ship
And madly bobbing, collected cargo
Ragged sailors performed routinely
Miracles arcane to us who lined the rail
Hand and eye recalling skills inherent
To heroes on Homer’s wine-dark sea.

 

MESSER FRANCESCO DATINI IS DUNNED

Forgive this letter Messer Francesco but
Six months have passed. We did our part as pledged
The mason Goro, Gerini Niccolo and I
Worked on the loggia two months and twenty days
“The glory of Datini’s name.” you said
And we agreed, “the finest house in Prato.”
It puts Palazzo Medici to shame

Agreed, the costs were more that we proposed
Who knew the Turks would close the Straits
And raise the price of lapis lazuli
Azzurro trasmarino!, we didn’t stint
The Fiorentini make do with blu of alemagna
As do you merchants in your cheapest cloth
The Fiesolani have held the line:
Azzurro fino! And mark the cornices:
Gold leaf throughout while others stoop to silver
And we employed four men throughout the work
You know what they demand these blessed days?
Why even slaves cost more than a white mule
Again, thanks to our friends, the infidels
Old news to you Messer Francesco you swore
To drop that dirty trade if you were spared
The plague is done, commemorate your vow

So pay these sixty florins, good Francesco
Don’t wait for plagues to force you to what’s just
Your notary, Ser Lapo Bucci, is of like mind:
To fix this matter quickly out of court
The time he’s wasted on this business, he said
He could have found the road to paradise.
I have served you well, and would serve again
If you would pay us for the loggia’s work
With all respect,

A. Gaddi, Dipintore

 

borgo

Villa Vivalda,1998

From detritus

Our petty theft of cherries from the tree
Evoked the crickets’ earliest cri, cri
Reproved, we scanned the garden for the pair
Of Falerini who from earth and air

Brought forth cabbage, chard, empty cocoon
Lettuce, trilobite, carrot, cardoon
Celery, scrap of bone, artichoke, leek
Fennel, basil, foraminifer, beet
Radicchio, arugula, amber, quartz
Parsley, zucchini, scallion, shallot, shard
Strawberry, raspberry, ammonite, kale
Spinach, snail, handmade rusty nail
Radish, alabaster, oregano, thyme
Prokaryote (from primeval slime)

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 7.48.06 PM

Falerini earth and air
“That zuccone IS beyond compare”

To detritus

We plumbed Etruscan tombs in Chiusi
We wandered Todi’s dark viuzze
We sought the verities in Pienza
In preparation for Firenze

Leonardo, Botticelli, Giotto
Brunelleschi, Cimabue, Lotto
Piero, Pintoricchio, Pitti
Foppa, Antonino da San Gallo
Caravaggio, Figlio di Nessuno
Biccio, Baccio, Anonimo, Masaccio
Ferragamo, Scarpa che Scricchiola
Attribuzione Scuola D’ Ignoti
Mimmo, Memmo, Cossa, Tura, Piombo
Daddi, Gaddi, Dosso Dossi, Duccio ….

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 7.42.18 PM

Falerini Falerini
Winnow  scarify  rend us
Fold us in your nimbus

 Hans Road SW3 London 1956

Some  of the subject matter in this piece appeared in an earlier one. I have added new material throughout. I tried to break the original piece in two: Perugia and London, but the segments proved to be Siamese Twins.  So I started in Perugia then moved on to London which is where the story ends.. Hence the title, Hans Road SW3 London 1956.  EPSON MFP image

The Universita per Stranieri di Perugia was housed in the Baroque Palazzo Gallenga Stuart in Piazza Fortebraccio.  The sunshine sharpened the sculpted detail around the windows with bold shadow.  Within, the rooms were serene. The walls were faded to a watercolor wash, the wooden trim, painted gold, was patinated with age, and the ceilings were frescoed. The windows were deep and tall.

“Le bombe americane caddero pocchi metri dalla Cappella degli Scrovegni!” 

His voice quavered and his jowls trembled as he looked upwards in fear and supplication, remembering how closely an American air raid in World War II came to destroying Giotto’s Chapel in Padua.  Professore Cristofani taught art history in the large room set up with a projector and a screen on the wall behind his desk and to his right.  He held a long slender, crooked wooden pointer in his right hand, a cane cut from the windbreak of a nearby field.  He was old and  frail, unsteady on his legs and unable to negotiate the stairs leading to the second floor classroom.

He would instead enter the room via a secret door, hidden behind a trompe l’oell panel which revealed an one-person elevator.  Signor Neri, the school’s genial Neapolitan factotum, would have snugged Cristofani into the elevator on the first floor and then run up the stairs in time to extricate him and lead him to his desk. Then Neri would retreat to the rear of the room to man the slide projecter.

It was very cold for April. We sat in the unheated classrooms in our warmest clothes.  Professore Amorini, our teacher of elementary Italian, wore a heavy winter overcoat. The cold was a small adversity that bonded those among us who were living out their dreams.

We were part of an entering class of about three hundred students, which was divided into sections according to native language:  English, German. Spanish and French.  The French sections included exotic nationals whose second language was French.

The  advanced students, many of them teachers of Italian in their home countries, spoke only Italian amongst themselves.  They met in smaller rooms, Rococo jewel boxes, where they studied sintassi, fonetica, etruscologia, arte, letteratura, corrispondenza commerciale, glottologia!  We dilettantes fell back into our native languages once outside of the classroom.

The English speaking students included Americans, Canadians and native English;  many of the South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians were transient, on their spawning run to the mother country.  Some would linger in Italy, seduced by its pleasures.

After class, we more casual students would gather in the outdoor cafes.  The back room of the shabby Bar Centrale was a late-night hangout until it closed at midnight; then we took our beers onto the Cathedral steps until the carabinieri chased us.  We talked novels, poetry, films and politics.  We sang folk songs.  Me, folk songs?  Temple University was in the middle of a ghetto!  I was reinventing myself.

The English were identifiable by their accents.  Gina Mallet’s was extravagantly refined.  It attracted some of us, it put others off.  Diana Beames, an attractive Australian, spoke more precisely in Gina’s presence.   I began to shed my Philadelphia adenoidal twang.

Gina was five-feet two inches tall, compact, with short curly hair;  she leaned forward when she walked, pumping her arms.  She was awesomely articulate, combative, conservative, bigoted, enchanting unless you hated her.  Winston Churchill was her hero.

Gina’s mother sent a proof copy of a portrait Gina had sat for just before she came to Perugia. The photograph was somehow necessary for her participation in that season’s coming out Ball, the last to be presided over by Queen Elizabeth.  At the Ball the Queen would kiss the hands of the daughters of Peers;  the other debutantes kissed the Queen’s hand.

She looked angelic in the photo:  “Angeli, non Angli.” said Pope Gregory in the Sixth century when he saw the first blond, fair-skinned British children  brought to Rome.

Gina, when facing off a group, was like D’Artagnan holding off a host of swordsmen, tossing off witticisms as she whirled.  She was not angelic.  She was merciless, but fortunately, with epee, we were unharmed.  In later life, as the Toronto Star’s drama critic, and then as its restaurant critic, she drew blood.  She was brilliant, she could be nasty.

Over the years Margie and I would see Gina every five years or so: once in Manhattan, and once again in Toronto after she settled there.  When we lived in Philadelphia and later in Moorestown, she stayed with us, enroute, whenever she visited her friend Hilary, who had married a rich farmer in western Pennsylvania.

At the restaurant in Philadelphia, Gina would pull me into the chair next to her.  Margie and I would trade smiles.  She’d knock off a bottle of wine by herself, becoming tipsy, becoming testy.  How did she get away with it?:  by the force of her personality and the unbroken flow of her speech. Margie and I just listened.

In Perugia, in 1955, my felt hat had caught her attention.  No other student wore a fedora.  I had creased and crushed the crown in Philadelphia, like a mobster’s, and, coincidently, like the hats of some British aristocrats.

We were an unlikely couple, not that it was ever much of a romance.  Mostly we did things with the crowd, of which she was the leader. She organized a picnic to the countryside which proved a disaster for the lone Italian who joined us.   “Un picnic?  A fare che?”  “A picnic?  To what purpose?”  He came in his best suit – light grey that season –  and elegant shoes.  We went to Spoleto with the class on a Saturday;  on another occasion, Gina, Diana Beames, Warwick, the New Zealander and I went to Assisi on our own.

In Perugia we’d end up at the antique Bar Medio Evo for a hot chocolate.  I walked her home one night, to her toney pensione, the Casa Carloni.  The maid served meals at a nicely appointed table, and the students were fined if they spoke English.  They’d drop their fines into the bowl on the table.

We smooched in the first floor entry, just inside the stately front door, on the broad, shallow steps, but we couldn’t close the deal.  I wasn’t a masterful lover and she was not the sophisticate she appeared to be.   She was seventeen.  I was twenty-four.

I had to go to Sicily for three weeks.  By the time I returned, Gina had only three weeks left in Perugia.  “Where’s your hat?”  I had given it to my cousin in Sant’Anna who had admired it.  He wore it when he tended his sheep on the mountain, in his sleeveless home-made sheepskin vest, with his legs bound in rags to thwart the brambles.

The hat no longer suited me.  I was never the dead-end kid Gina envisioned.  She was annoyed, but we took up where we had left off, but no more smooching.  “Come to see us in London.” she said before she returned to England. harrods

I arrived in Hans Place on Christmas Eve, disheveled and dirty, fresh off the train, having sat up for thirty-six hours.  The Mallets were about to go to a Chinese restaurant, a Christmas Eve family tradition.  “Just in time,” said Arthur.  “Wash up and join us.”  Mr. Mallet was unflappable.

Next morning Mr Mallet, Gina and I walked to St Paul’s Church (Knightsbridge) for Christmas services;   Afterwards Gina went home to assemble the Christmas dinner.  Arthur and I visited friends who had restored a little house in a nearby mews.  We had champagne. Before noon!  I had never drunk champagne .

I settled into Lynn’s bedroom;  Lynn, Gina’s older sister, had earlier sailed to the States, working her way across on a freighter.  The Daily Express ran a front page story:  “The Deckhand Debutante.”

“Aren’t you afraid to put your twenty year-old daughter on a ship with nineteen sailors?”

“Not at all,” said Arthur, who was a Royal Navy veteran of World War One and World War Two  “With one man in a lifeboat, I’d worry, but not with nineteen men on a freighter.  They will be very protective of her.”

The Mallet apartment was in the Harrods building, above the store on the fifth floor:  seven rooms with a  foyer that was a room unto itself.  Lord  Beveridge, architect of the British welfare state, lived below us, in the building’s one other apartment

I was treading for my life in deep water, all because Gina had taken a fancy to my artfully-crushed felt hat. I followed Gina’s lead in all things.  I had already learned to eat in the Continental way, my fork never leaving my left hand, the knife always in my right. We Americans cut our meat holding the knife in the right hand. Then we drop the knife and switch the fork to the right hand in order to spear the morsel and lift it to our lips.

I trolled the authors in the Mallet’s library:  Evelyn Waugh, Trollope  and Angela Thirkell;  Mrs Mallet had reviewed many of Thirkell’s novels for the New York Herald Tribune. During the week, Gina and Mr Mallet went to bed early.  Isabelle and I talked.  She was an American who had lived in England since the 1930s.  She had much to talk about.  In the mornings Arthur went off to his office and Gina went to secretarial school.  Isabelle worked in her study.

I’d wander through Harrods for an hour.  I window shopped on Bond Street, vowing someday to own a Herbert Lock hat.  I roamed the Burlington Arcade and  I ranged Sloane Square.  I’d go to the USIA Library to read back issues of Country Life or The Field.

I’d stop at a Lyons cafe for a cup of tea and a roll.  I craved bread because it seldom appeared on the Mallet table.   Gina and I would get a loaf when we went to Soho to buy the ingredients for an Italian meal.  In the crowded, disordered Italian shop –  a salumeria –  Gina showed me her favorite Soho landmark, the fattest orange marmalade cat I have ever seen, strategically positioned near the cheeses.

Arthur Mallet 1898 – 1970

Windsor Castle.  May 5th 1898   “I’m delighted at the good news and congratulate you and dear Marie warmly on the birth of a second son.”  V.R.I  Victoria Regina Imperatrix. (A telegram Queen Victoria sent to Bernard Mallet, Arthur’s father.)

A newspaper cutting:  “The Baptism of the infant son of Mr.and Mrs. Bernard Mallet (Extra Bedchamber to the Queen) took place yesterday afternoon in the Chapel Royal, St. James’ Palace.  Princess Henry of Battenberg (Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of the Queen) … stood sponsor in person (godparent).  The other sponsor was Mr A. Balfour, M.P.” (Member of Parliament , and future Prime Minister.)

“A pretty little ceremony, the picturesque choirboys in their red and gold gowns sang very well,,, Altogether a successful little function giving the little man a good ‘send-off.”

Arthur attended private schools before he entered the British Navy as a  young cadet just before World War I.   He was wounded at Gallipoli in 1915  when he was seventeen years-old.  He returned to action and fought in the battle of Jutland in 1916.  He served again in World War II, in Brooklyn, as liaison to the American Navy where he arranged the transatlantic crossing of Vanderbilt’s large yacht, which the Vanderbilts had donated to the English Navy.

The 1920s found him in New York City where he worked on Wall Street.  He returned to London in the 1930s to begin his business career.  When I met him in 1956 he was director of a group of hotels which included the Mayfair in London and the Metropole in Brussels.  He was a gourmet;  so were Isabelle, Lynn and Gina.  In the 1930s, the Mallets lived in Provence during summers, close to the sea for fresh fish, close to the vine for good wine.

At Hans Place in the evenings,  Mr Mallet would remove his suit jacket and his shoes to don a velvet dinner jacket and velvet slippers. His necktie remained at his collar. We’d have sherry in the living room while Gina, the family cook, prepared the meal.

“South African swill,” Mr Mallet called it.  It was the sherry served in his hotels.  Good stuff.  The Mallets never failed to praise Gina’s meals. She was good.  One Sunday she roasted a leg of lamb:  “What an extraordinary joint,” said Mr Mallet.

Once a month Mr. Mallet flew to Brussels to attend a meeting at the Hotel Metropole.  He said one ate better in Brussels than in Paris.

Arthur’s older brother, Sir Victor, was a former Ambassador to Italy and later  to Sweden.  Like Arthur, Victor had been baptized in the Royal Chapel, but by the Queen herself.  Sir Victor and his wife came to dinner once but I never met him.  He didn’t like young people at the table, so Mr. Mallet gave Gina and me money to eat out.

In the evenings, Arthur sometimes sat at his elegant little handloom on which he did Bargello.  I told stories about the village in Sicily.  Gina went to her room to practice typing.  The phone rang – it was on the far side of the room – and Mr. Mallet rose to answer it. “Hello Harold.”  Isabelle stood up and made a motion for me to follow her out of the room.  It was Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister. He and Arthur had been schoolboys together.

I made a stupid joke once about King Edward V11.  Arthur’s face darkened for a moment.  I still remember his brief look of displeasure and I am ashamed of myself.

Isabelle McDonough Mallet 1900(?) – 1976

Isabelle was an American born in Brooklyn.  She had been a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune before she married, specializing in English novels. She continued to review British writers for the Tribune even after she moved permanently to London.

She first married Seaton, the father of her son who was later killed in a training accident while In the RAF.  She divorced Seaton to marry Arthur Mallet with whom she had two daughters, Lynn and Gina.

I shall here quote portions of a long letter Isabelle wrote from Stonington, Connecticut months before she died.  It is a good example of her disjointed conversational style:

“Oh dear, dear Carlo, how many times I dreamed of getting this letter started.  Of course your contributions to my happiness in hospital was deeply appreciated. Inside and out  – I always love the Sicilian lore, like your way with words and the whole story of the Perrones as translated by Lynn (Lynn had lived with my parents in Philadelphia for three weeks when she was between apartments) is an especially glowing chapter in Mallet lives —but what happened first that the painkillers they gave me nearly polished me off, sent me up around the wall of any of the customary locations you can fill in.  So I came out with a long lasting case of nerves which affected  my literary style and mood.  I kept telling Gina I wanted to write Carlo when I was in snappy mood, but the mood didn’t come, and when it finally arrived, Gina lost your address, she does things like that —in between being an angel which she would hate to be called, and making bookcases to enclose our ever-expanding library, and getting ready for the advent of the Twins, their mother  and their beautiful sister, Gina loses vital statistics.  ,,,,  I wish I could see all of your family in the village (Moorestown, NJ) you live in.  Wish you and Margie had known us when we were down in Shillingford (England) too.  Then you would understand a bit what Badger has done to our lives, Arthur’s first ship he served on in World War 1was the H.M.S. Badger.  Before World War II we had a very large boathouse and lots of very not grand boats.  We had a very small Badger and canoes (which didn’t count) and an enormous fat noisy river boat called the Sour Puss after me, it was christened one Sunday afternoon when we were all hung over and not very polite to each other.  Before Dunquirque, our fleet started disappearing. Dunkirk-Break Down the river they went at night.  Sour Puss was sighted at Dunquirque time being very useful indeed, fussy and chugging about and bossy.  On the English side, not the French.  If she hadn’t had that name, she would not have stood out in our memory.  Anyway, after the war, there weren’t any more boats on sale in Harrods fun-boat department, so we got just one Badger, a splendid wooden boat which was all things to all men.  The family pet.  Now we have H.M.S. Badger III, it is a pretty little sail boat, the boys and Gina found it.  When the Blessing of the Fleet takes place and the tall garlanded ships go out to sea, you can see if you have good eyesight the H.M.S. Badger III racing right along  with them darting in and out of the picture, always just on the verge of being swamped.  We were all water rats, my family and us and my son-in-law Robin isn’t. I think it’s kind of him to let his children come all this way to be taught how to race in small frail craft in a rough sea.  He really is a very good egg, much nicer when he was in America though, he learned the language and got over his initial surprise and shock. But no more so that my father—this is a very disconnected letter, you just have to fish for clues— but my father brought us up to believe that England was the home of high excellence and a special breed of charm and dignity, etc. and then he got to England and found out that the English entirely agreed with him on every point—but whereas he believed they were superior to other mortals, they knew it which enraged him.   …Dear me, I have so much more to talk to you about but since the boys arrive Wednesday I felt I had to get started somewhere, and will write again when there is space to sit down, the boys have learned to cook at their coeducational boarding school, that is an item in their lives which Arthur would have approved of hugely, too.  They are funny, tell me more about your family, forgive long drugged silence, love to you and yours, Isabelle.”

A letter from Gina Mallet, 11 April 2009:

“Caro Calogero,

Thank you so much for sending Ma’s letter to you from Stonington.  I heard her voice again….I glad to know she was so cheerful after the original operation.  ..the hospital did indeed send her round the bend with far too many pain killers and I had to call a shrink etc…and threatened a law suit on Time letterhead!   And the lawyer totally agreed with me and I wound up having him tear up the total bill….

But it was bad thereafter because within far too short of time, the cancer returned, to her spine this time….She was so gallant but it was a losing fight as it had been since Dad died….She was cut adrift ….and it was good that she had a last summer with the boys but even so, they were almost too much for her….Patrick was amazingly intuitive and wonderful while Mowbray was bewildered….Obviously I think of her often and still puzzle over her life because if she had been able to escape the female role as it were, she would have found something fulfilling to do,  Dad could live in his skin happily but she couldn’t, she was always striving toward something but the world in which she lived wasn’t the one where she spread her wings….Many American women’s stories of that era are stories of frustration….I’ve come to think….because they were encouraged to expect more that society was willing to allow….I’m always sorry she never wrote a novel about being an American in England but she was inhibited by circumstance….Not a rebel at heart.  And not too very confident in her self.  Her tendency to overanalyze often tripped her up.  Lynn is very like her in that regard.

England was terrible for her….she had inherited Harry’s, her father’s ambivalence about England.  From NYC it seemed perfect.  Once he ran into the real thing, he had many, many reservations….and she as you know did too….Harry liked Seaton her first husband a great deal more than he liked  Dad because Seaton was not so unapologetically English, Seaton was more self conscious and aware of of other’s reactions to him.  Seaton died young, sixty! I recall, devastated first by world war I and then by Ian’s death,,,,he was enchanting….

I’ve been invited to speak at a slow food event near Hilary this June.  Maybe we can meet once again for lunch in Philadelphia…that would be great.”

The Times

Lynn Mallet Jackson 1935 – 2012

In his eulogy, Patrick Jackson quoted something I wrote about his mother who had been a guest at my wedding in 1960.

“We received this remembrance from Carlo Perrone, Lara’s Godfather and who was one of Mum’s oldest friends”:

“We were married in a small Episcopal country church in 1960,  The bride’s family sat on one side of the church, the groom’s on the other;  the Protestants sat on one side, the Catholics on the other;  the Republicans sat  on one side, the Democrats on the other;  the Anglos sat on one side, the Italians on the other.  Lynn sat among the Italians, a beacon shining above a sea of dark heads. By then Lynn had entered my family’s folklore as ‘La bella Inglese.’  She was at home in the meanest settings; her home was a haven to all that washed ashore.”

Gina Mallet 1938 – 2013

Gina Mallet

Susan Ferrier Mackay..  Special to The Globe and Mail:

“Gina Mallet, influential theatre critic, food writer and restaurant reviewer, was a force majeure in both her chosen areas of writing.  Talented, highly opinionated and known for her outspoken reviews, she was never concerned over ruffling the feathers of an on-stage ego or a renowned chef.

A positive review could ensure a full houses for a theatre production.  A negative review could damage box office takings and reputations.  Actor Peter Hutt recalls a review of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in which Ms. Mallet referred  to him as a ‘useful prop’.

Ms. Mallet’s writing garnered her a 2005 James Beard Award for her book, Last Chance to Eat.   A perfectly seared goose foie-gras she deemed the holy wafer of haute cuisine .”

A few  of Gina’s friends gathered at her apartment in Toronto to commemorate her death, to savor the piquancy of her life.  I sent them my description of the youthful Gina as D’Artagnon.

The Mallets enriched my life.  I gave little in return:  my Sicilian stories; my sympathetic ear to Isabelle’s discontents;  and a well-worn panel from an old Sicilian farm cart.

sicilian cart

The fragments of paint left on the panel are bright and – unusual for these cart relics – the scene depicted is also deeply incised:  Saint George, England’s patron saint, on horseback, is slaying the dragon with his lance. The dragon symbolizes the Devil.  Saint George, who symbolizes Christianity, is saving England from the Devil.

Isabelle had hung the panel on the wall behind the grand piano.  Gina appropriated it when her parents relinquished the Hans Place apartment.  The panel followed her to New York City, to Los Angeles and finally to Toronto.  Her niece Lara, my godchild, inherited the panel after Gina died.  It decorates her home in Palm Springs, California. The panel is my lasting legacy to the Mallets.  The rest is words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roma 1957, Part One

My four month stay in London came to naught: The London School of Economics rejected my application once they received my undergraduate grades from Temple University. I had six glorious weeks with the Mallets in Hans Place followed by two and a half months of misery in a garret in Notting Hill Gate, in a house inhabited by Turks. The occasional dinner with the Mallets at Hans Place gave some relief. Gina and I went to the movies twice. We went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Continue reading