Monday, July 2, 2018

Some Checkered Reflections

Zio Silvio walked rapidly across the courtyard towards us.  He was a slim man and carried himself with a slight stoop, but his smile was open and warm.  He shook hands with George then hugged him, speaking constantly in rapid Italian.  He shook my hand and said "Piacere."  Pleased to meet you.  As he beamed down at the children I watched his face.  He was in his late fifties and he wore the weathered, hard look of a man who works outside.  But through the deep tan and the etched lines, I saw a kindness, an openness, that drew me to him.  It was in his eyes, the way they darted back and forth taking everything in, and the crinkles at the sides that spoke of laughter.  His look of intelligence and humor transcended the language barrier, and I knew immediately that I would like this man with the checkered past.

Zio Remo was different. He appeared around the corner of the courtyard wearing a big grin and a checkered shirt. He used a stick to walk and moved heavily from side to side. The story George told me was that when he was in his thirties he had broken his leg in an accident on the farm. Instead of going to the doctor's he had set it himself and it healed crookedly. But this didn't stop him from working just as hard as Zio Silvio, I was to learn later, he just couldn't do it as fast. He also greeted us enthusiastically, but his face was not as open, and his eyes revealed nothing of what he was thinking.  He was older and heavier than Zio Silvio, but he bore the same weathered look as his brother. His life had been spent here at Gabi. Unlike his brother, he had never ventured into the cities to try his luck. 

My father-in-law was the oldest of the brothers. He seemed to feel it was his job to take care of his younger siblings. When he had left the farm to go to Africa and then to America, he sent money back for their mother and to buy various pieces of farm equipment that they needed. The tractor that Zio Silvio drove back and forth to the fields had been provided by money my father-in-law earned working in a factory in Burbank. The house that Zio Silvio lived in had been purchased by my father-in-law when it had come on the market a few years before. For this, and the use of his fields, he charged Zio Silvio the equivalent of $1 per year. Whenever I was in their company together I felt a coolness between them that bespoke of their checkered relationship and perhaps of Silvio's resentment of being obligated to his older brother. And now we were here to try the farm. What kind of threat did we pose to him? What mark would we leave on the pattern of their brotherhood?  


When we returned to Gabi in 1987, we rounded the same dangerous S curve I remembered and made the difficult three-cornered maneuver into the small road. As we drove by Zio Remo's old house, George's cousin Rosemma waved wildly with a dust rag. Her unconfined breasts flopped about under her tank-top as she fairly jumped up and down yelling, "Ciao! Ciao!" to our passing car. She ran behind us as we pulled into the main courtyard and we were welcomed with waving arms, warm hugs and wide open smiles. We wavered uncertainly as we exited the car, but Rosemma produced a large key and unlocked the front door and beckoned us into the cool, dark house. She insisted we go first into the dining room, then pointed. The table had been covered with a clean checkered tablecloth, and in the middle was a vase of flowers with a note written in English, "Welcome Mary and family."

Zio Silvio had aged greatly in the fifteen years that we had been gone, but one thing that hadn't changed was the light in his eyes. When I saw again his openness and his kindness, I was startled to recognize that the same look had passed through the generations to my son Matthew. As they stood together I flashed back to Zio Silvio extending his finger for two-year-old Matthew to grasp as they walked to the barn to visit the cows. Neither could speak the other's language, but they shared a connection. And as I watched the two men together I saw that each of them wore an openness of expression that was a magnet for others. I knew by then of Zio's many women, his failed businesses, his refusal to settle down and his eventual return to his birthplace to end his days farming the land in solitude.  I wondered if Matthew's ability to attract people would, like his great-uncle, result in a checkered pattern of success and failure. How much of what we do is bound by the genes we inherit?

Zio Silvio
Paul, Zio Silvio, Matthew (Simona back to camera)

The group gathers (Simona in middle standing)

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