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In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane di Prima explores the first three decades of her extraordinary life. Born into a conservative Italian American family, di Prima grew up in Brooklyn but broke away from her roots to follow through on a lifelong commitment to become a poet, first made when she was in high school. Immersing herself in Manhattan's early 1950s Bohemia, di Prima quickly emerged as a renowned poet, an influential editor, and a single mother at a time when this was unheard of. Vividly ...
In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane di Prima explores the first three decades of her extraordinary life. Born into a conservative Italian American family, di Prima grew up in Brooklyn but broke away from her roots to follow through on a lifelong commitment to become a poet, first made when she was in high school. Immersing herself in Manhattan's early 1950s Bohemia, di Prima quickly emerged as a renowned poet, an influential editor, and a single mother at a time when this was unheard of. Vividly chronicling the intense, creative cauldron of those years, she recounts her revolutionary relationships and sexuality, and how her experimentation led her to define herself as a woman. What emerges is a fascinating narrative about the courage and triumph of the imagination, and how one woman discovered her role in the world.
My earliest sense of what it means to be a woman was learned from my grandmother, Antoinette Mallozzi, and at her knee. It was a house of dark and mellow light, almost as if there were fire and kerosene lamps, but to my recollection there was electric light, the same as everywhere else. It is just that the rooms were so very dark, light filtering as it did through paper shades and lace curtains, and falling then on dark heavy furniture (mahogany and walnut) and onto floors and surfaces yellowed with many layers of wax, layers of lemon oil. The light fell as if on old oil paintings, those glazes, that veneer. Sepia portraits: Dante, Emma Goldman. There was a subtle air of mystery. The light fell on my grandmother's hands as she sat rocking, saying her rosary. She smelled of lemons and olive oil, garlic and waxes and mysterious herbs. I loved to touch her skin.
There was this mystery: she sat, saying her beads, but the beads and her hand never completely left her apron pocket. My grandfather was an atheist, and if she heard his step on the stair she would slip the beads out of sight and take up some work. They had lived thus for forty years, and the mystery was how much they loved each other. To my child's senses, already sharpened to conflict, there was no conflict in that house. He was an atheist, she a devout Catholic, and for all intents and purposes they were one. It would never do to argue with him about God, and so when he came into the room she slipped the beads away.
As for him, he never seemed to inquire. Though those clear blue eyes saw everywhere. The I Ching has the phrase: "He letmanythings pass without being duped".
My grandmother's Catholicism was of the distinctive Mediterranean variety: tolerant and full of humor. When I was a little older, I would frequently hear her remark, at some tale of transgression, sins of the flesh reported by a neighbor in hushed Neapolitan—"Eh"! (an exclamation whose inflection communicated humor and seriousness, and a peculiar, almost French, irony)—"Eh"! my grandmother would say, "The Virgin Mary is a woman, she'll explain it to God".
This response to the vagaries of human existence, the weakness of the flesh, especially female flesh, gave me pause for thought. It indicated on the one hand, that the Virgin Mary knew much better than God the ins and outs so to speak of human nature, what we were up to, and that she had a tolerance and intelligence and humor that was perhaps missing from the male godhead.
It was at my grandmother's side, in that scrubbed and waxed apartment, that I received my first communications about the specialness and the relative uselessness of men, in this case my grandfather. There was no doubt that he was the excitement of our days, the fire and light of our lives, and that one of his most endearing qualities was that we had no idea what he was going to do next. But it was the women, and there were many of them, who attended on all the practical aspects of life. In the view that Antoinette Mallozzi transmitted, there was nothing wrong or strange about this. We women had the babies, after all, and it was enormously more interesting to us than to any man to know that there would be food on the table.
Not that I wish in any way to denigrate my grandfather: he worked enormously hard for his family—but he would at any time throw everything over for an ideal. There were many stories of his quitting an otherwise okay job to protest some injustice to a fellow worker. At which point he would arrive home with the fellow worker and his entire family, at the very least for dinner. Often they stayed for weeks. My grandmother would set the table for that many more, and if a solution was not rapidly forthcoming she and the six girls would take in crochet beadwork to keep cash coming in until my grandfather found another, less unjust employer.
Now, this sort of thing was not still going on when I was little—by then my grandfather was no longer working for others as a custom tailor—but the stories and the memory of it were in the air. My grandfather was regarded somewhat as the family treasure: a powerful and erratic kind of lightning generator, a kind of Tesla experiment, we for some reason kept in the house.
It was clear to me that he was as good as it got. My father, a sullen man with a smoldering temper, was easily as demanding as Grandpa, but did not bring these endearing qualities of excitement and idealism, this demand for something more than we already had or knew, into our lives. It was like tending a furnace in which the fire had gone out.
Antoinette was always busy, but there was a way in which she communicated the basic all-rightness of things. I loved to watch her hands. As I think about it now, I realize that as a little person I was not separated from the old: the sight and feel of soft, dry wrinkled skin was associated with the sight and feel of love. Of those who had the time to listen, to tell a story. I learned to love the smells and feel of old flesh—I loved to put my round child's cheek up against her wrinkled one.
Her hands always smelled of garlic and onions, beeswax and lemons and a thousand herbs. There was that sense of cleanness and the good smells of the world. A sense of the things that went on. In the turbulent 1930s into which I was born, my grandmother taught me that the things of woman go on: that they are the very basis and ground of human life. Babies are born and raised, the food is cooked. The world is cleaned and mended and kept in order. Kept sane. That one could live with dignity and joy even in poverty. That even tragedy and shock and loss require this basis of loving attendance.
And that men were peripheral to all this. They were dear, they brought excitement, they sought to bring change. Printed newspapers, made speeches, tried to bring that taste of sanity and order into the larger world. But they were fragile somehow. In their excitement they would forget to watch the clock and turn the oven off. I grew up thinking them a luxury.
Antoinette Rossi and Domenico Mallozzi met in their hometown in Italy, a town whose name translates as Saints Cosimo and Demiano. Antoinette's family was the aristocracy of the town (hence, perhaps, her French first name—French was still to some extent the language of the upper classes) though how aristocratic or wealthy the aristocracy of this small town was, I can only guess. I do know that later in my life, when Antoinette undertook to improve my education, she taught me the fine arts of embroidery and hemstitching in linen—a delicate process in which you pull out the threads of the linen weft and rework the warp into intricate geometric patterns. Though I remember her hands endlessly darning old clothes and making practical pieces of clothing—skirts, aprons—when it came time to teach sewing to her granddaughter she went back to the work she'd been taught, and no doubt the only work it had been expected she would ever do: fine embroidery, working in linen, and crocheting lace.
I am not sure how, or under what circumstances, Antoinette met Domenico: he was of a much poorer family. I imagine, though, that in a town the size of Saints Cosimo and Demiano, everyone more or less knew everyone else. One of the things we grandchildren were frequently told about Domenico was that he had had to quit school in the third grade to help support his family. He had learned the trade of custom tailoring and become a fine tailor, and it was with this profession that he supported his numerous family later in America. Domenico was of a fierce and fiery disposition, and seems to have had a certain difficulty in getting along with folks in his native part of the world. He was for one thing, then as later, an atheist, and—fairly common in the Italy of that period, and not at all as far—out as it sounds to us now—an anarchist. The combination, together with a burning curiosity and intellectual zeal, and a love of argument for its own sake and as a tool to uncover Truth, whatever that might be, didn't make him a popular guy. Or that's the impression I get.
At some point, he and Antoinette encountered each other and fell in love. For all her wealth, she was in a state of serious servitude. Seems my grandmother had six brothers and a father, and her mother had died, and nobody in the family had any intention of letting her marry at all—she was living, it was quite apparent to the men of the household, solely to keep house for them and provide the womanly comforts, however they might have been conceived back then. (We are talking the last decades of the nineteenth century here.) Keeping house in her situation didn't have the onerous overtones it has for us—she mostly had to oversee the servants and make sure things were done right. Probably plan the menus and things like that. Though she was a very skilled cook and may well have done a bunch of the work herself, I don't have the sense that she had to. Or that any really grubby or depressing tasks fell her way.
Still, servitude isn't in the quality or quantity of the work, but simply in performing tasks that your heart isn't in. Where the True Will, to use a magickal term, isn't engaged.
I am not sure how many servants the Rossi household employed, but there were enough so that Antoinette had her own personal maid. This is crucial to the tale. When her brothers (and presumably her father—though my mother and aunts never mentioned him) found out that she was being courted—and by such a low-class type as Domenico!—they locked her up in her room. She was their property, clearly, and they weren't about to let the only woman in the house go anywhere. If there were going to be a marriage at all—which was unlikely—it would have been "arranged" for the family convenience. In any case, Antoinette's maid, who remains nameless in these stories, smuggled letters from Domenico to Antoinette and back again for some time, while Antoinette remained behind a locked door, refusing to yield. The maid eventually helped her escape. She eloped with Domenico, and for a time the couple lived at Domenico's house—probably quite a change for her. It must have been crowded there, and clearly uncomfortable to remain in the town after such a outré move. Eventually they emigrated to America.
I'm sure this was no fun either, though Grandma never complained, and to my knowledge never regretted her move and her choice. When I knew them after some forty years of marriage they were still in love, with all the fierce clinging to their differences that creates such beautiful sparks in a long-term love. That struggle for truth that lay between them.
As I went into the kitchen this morning to make some tea, I saw through the (intentionally?) open crack in her door, my beautiful young daughter in the arms of a beautiful young Black skateboarder, who had evidently spent the night (skateboard propped against the wall in front of her door, like an insignia). As I went tranquilly into the kitchen and called out to ask them if they wanted tea or coffee, I thought with deep gratitude of some of the women I met when I first left home at the age of eighteen: those beautiful, soft and strong women of middle age with their young daughters who made me welcome in their various homes, where I could observe on a given morning mom coming out of her bedroom with a lover, male or female, and joining daughter and her lover at the table for breakfast in naturalness and camaraderie. These women, by now mostly dead I suppose, were great pioneers. They are nameless to me, nameless and brief friends I encountered along the way who showed me something else was possible besides what I had seen at home. Some trust and mutual joy in transient or long- term mates possible between parents and kids. (So that a mom myself, I have always felt the house is blessed by young love: the bliss and softness it radiates to all corners of my flat: discovery and tenderness, like a new spring morning. Trust.)
I think, too, of those other women who taught me other ways, when I was much younger. They had the same strength but not always the same softness. They were the "art teachers" and music teachers I encountered in school, or the women of the arts who sometimes found their way into my parents' home, to be spoken unkindly of later. They usually wore what my mother considered too much make-up. They mostly had sad eyes, but they were sensitive and alert to—well, to me among other things. They were single women and that in itself was considered an anomaly. Single women who had given themselves to the arts—though in fact none of them had achieved great recognition in her loved field. They taught, and wore large jewelry, did not hide behind aprons, were considered more than slightly non-respectable. They showed me a way, and I loved the lines under their eyes their make-up accented rather than hid.
As I loved my cousin Liz, who would show up sometimes, cutting classes. Her cropped hair, and soft, slightly chunky figure. Her intelligence, and spirit. There was a rare day I was home from school when she came by, and we sat together; I was eight, she almost ten years my senior, and she recited poetry to me. "If" by Rudyard Kipling was her favorite, and I soon got it by heart. Liz was unique in my world. No one sat with me, in that way, simply to share feeling. Some early communion of spirit I had found with my grandparents, but with no one else. Years later, my mother hinted that Liz might be gay. She was gone by then, far from family judgments, living in Florida. And I had grown my own agenda, my own ideas of human freedom, so that news made her something of a hero.
These styles, these possibilities of being, and being a woman, being alive as a woman, have stayed with me. As I write now I see how each is still with me, in the form I make for myself, my way of being in the world.
My grandfather and I had our secrets—as when we listened to Italian opera together. Opera was forbidden Domenico because he had a bad heart—and so moved was he by the vicissitudes and sorrows of Verdi's heroes and heroines that the doctor felt it to be a danger. We would slip away together to listen—I was three or four—and he would explain all the events extraordinaire that filled that world. All that madness seemed as natural as anything else to my young mind. The madness in the air around me, I felt, was no different.
We would share forbidden cups of espresso, heavily sweetened. Drops of the substance, like an elixir of life, were slipped into my small mouth on a tiny silver spoon, while the eggshell china with its blue and gold border gleamed iridescent in the lamplight. I remember that his hand shook slightly. It was the world of the child—full of struggles larger than life, huge shadows cast by the lamp, circumventing the grownups. It was a world of enchantment, and passion.
But then, he told me stories. Terrifying stories, fables whose morals seemed to point to the horror of social custom, of emulation. Or he read me Dante, or we would practice my bit of Italian together. Italian which was forbidden me in my parents' house, and which I quickly forgot when we were finally separated. Italy was a part of that world of enchantment. Domenico would describe the olive groves of the south, till I saw them blowing silver-green in the wind. When I was seven he promised to take me there "after the war", but he died before the war was over. I grew up nostalgic for a land I'd never seen.
He read me Dante. Told me the book had gone around the world. A world I saw much like the Bronx: tall apartment houses side by side. Marble and potted plants in the lobbies. Linked hands of housewives, passing my grandfather's book from window to window. They would read that one copy and pass it along. That's why it looked so worn: crumbling cover, thumbprints, and dog-eared corners.
Struggle for truth bonded Domenico and Antoinette. Her rosary, his Giordano Bruno. Fierce, luminous, and coexistent. As how much else my child's heart could only guess at. And in that struggle for truth my grandmother had the last word.
Domenico died when I was eleven, of that same great heart they had tried to protect him from. Antoinette survived him by eleven years. During that time she lived with her various daughters: my aunts and my mother, and much to their annoyance she conversed nightly with her husband. I still remember her in her room at our Brooklyn brownstone, in her cotton and lace nightgown, her luxuriant grey hair brushed and ready for bed, talking to my grandfather's picture, telling him all the varied events of the day in the dim light. Her soft voice would go from indignation to laughter or grief, as the story changed. She told him everything.
Those years must have been hard and sad for her, but I don't remember that she ever complained. She threw herself into the life of whatever household: mending our clothes, teaching me embroidery and linen working, rolling our endless batches of egg noodles.
When Antoinette was on her deathbed, I was no longer living at home, and hence barred from family life. The story of her passing came to me secondhand from one of my aunts—one of the few who didn't consider me too much of an outlaw to speak to:
When Antoinette knew she was dying, she had a last request. She had all these eleven years worn only black, worn mourning for Domenico, though he himself "didn't believe in" wearing mourning. But now she was dying, and she wanted to make sure that she was buried in a bright-colored dress. It was a matter of deep concern; she was restless and distressed till she was certain it was understood, and promises were extracted. "Because", she said, "when I meet your father in the next world" (which world, of course, Domenico the atheist adamantly insisted did not exist) "I don't want him to scold me for wearing mourning".
Certain she was right—how could there not be an afterlife?—and fierce in her love and her right to mourn her husband to the end, but not wanting him to scold her. Like the rosary she slipped in and out of her apron all those years. She was buried in light blue.
He told me stories. There were many, and I remember that there were some that made me joyous, but the one that has stayed with me all these years went something like this: Once in a village far away, there was to be a feast. The people of the town picked out a very fine animal, and led it to the center of the square. And they decked it out with a wreath of flowers around its neck, and praised it highly. And they played music, and danced around it and killed it with great rejoicing. And the next day the children of the village got together to play. They picked one of their number, and put a wreath of flowers around his neck and another wreath on his head. And they played their flutes, and danced around him and killed him, rejoicing. It's hard to say now what I made of this then. Only that a sense of foreboding, and of a huge responsibility of knowledge lay on me, age four or five. That this was the nature of the world, and we shared this knowledge. If that was how it was I was willing to accept it, only I wanted him not to suffer for it. How often I wanted to comfort him—old man and child sharing an existential bewilderment. A willingness to peer into darkness. Struggle for Truth.
I stood beside him as he sat at his desk. He only half-looked at me as he spoke. This was unusual, in the story times I always sat on his lap. Sat in a bentwood chair, sometimes facing the wall together as if to shut out distractions. A Zen austerity. Or were there only certain corners we could go to for these exchanges, where the grownups would not see us and swoop down—"Leave the child alone....Come on, Diane, your mother (or whoever) wants you....Pop is a little crazy" (an aside, an undertone). If Pop was crazy, I well knew by then that I was crazy with him. They were too late, with their attempts to save me for themselves. The conspiracy between us ran too deep.
I stood beside him at his desk, and his eyes were not on me. Only, I could feel the stuff of his shirtsleeve against my cheek, the smell of bluing, of starch. He said, "Someday you are going to go out at night and look at the stars and you will wonder how they got there. Then you'll study like I studied, and you'll suffer like I suffered, and in the end you'll find nothing". I was not very old but I didn't flinch at that "nothing". Only I knew with my full child's certitude that it wasn't true. Or anyway the despair that accompanied the word had no truth, however much he felt it. I had no words to argue, only the desire to comfort. I may have put my hand on his starched shirtsleeve.
I was being recruited, initiated, and I knew it. With my full consent, entering a world larger than life. I knew there was no turning back, and in fact, yearned only to go forward. To go forward, with him, into the darkness. The struggle for Truth. Only, for me, the darkness held no despair. Not nothing, Grandpa. It was someone other than a child who longed to say that.
Not nothing, Grandpa. It was a promise, a vow. I, Diane, age four or five, would make meaning in the world. Make meaning for him, for myself. The dark was luminous, of that I was certain. That much I knew.
With that exchange we achieved the full status of lovers. Without further touch or words, we shaped the prototype, the pattern for all my deepest loves to come. Always this despair, this hope, this luminous dark. The conspiracy between us was complete.
Complete, a world in itself, but it couldn't protect me from my parents. "Pull up your skirt and pull down your pants". This was a little me, five and under. This was mom, and she would send me for the hairbrush first, myself and then make me get myself ready for the beating. In some ways she was much harder to take than my dad because there was a crazy meanness to her, she hurt you even when she wasn't mad: dressing, washing, everything was painful. She was a methodical hurter, he was driven by rage and weird perversion. Being sent to my room by my mother, to wait for my father to come home to beat me for something. (This person was a teenager, or close to teens. After dad beat me he was sexually aroused. Would sit me on his lap with a hard-on to "comfort" me—or worse, I don't remember, only sense.) He would always say "Be-Jesus", before he swung at me with his hand (this was different from formal beatings with the belt, he would just lash out and start slapping you across the face, and if you tried to protect yourself you were "raising your hand to him" and your nose would usually start bleeding, and if you fell down he would keep hitting across your shoulders, and neck, and in some ways it was scarier than formal beatings, because you didn't know what part of you would be hurt, and with the belt it was usually, but not always, your ass, or your back and ass, or your legs—thighs, where it wouldn't show, and the front of you was mostly protected). "Be-Jesus, I'll kill you", he would say and you believed him, and then mom or Aunt Ella would come when it was over and try to stop the nosebleed, and sometimes it would go on for a couple of hours, and my mother would say over and over to me, "Your father is a very gentle man, (or a very patient man), but when he loses his temper he has a heavy hand". Or "but when you try him, he loses his temper". And I would be only half-conscious really, it seems now, looking back, as they put ice on the back of my neck to stop the nosebleed, and I would wonder what "try him" meant. And after a while I knew just how long his arms were, and never got that close if I could help it. My grandparents' house, my parents' house—the two worlds parallel, but never meeting.
I don't remember my father's mother at all. In the few pictures I have she is a very young bride—almost a child—weighed down by the requisite elaborate lace, or she is holding my father, her firstborn, a round, large-headed baby in a long white dress. She has the soft face and large, round eyes of an Arab woman.
Rosa Di Prima died when I was two, quite suddenly, from what I always heard at home was "diabetes". It hit and carried her off in two or three weeks, whatever it was. There was no diagnosis (no doctor?) and certainly no autopsy. My mother always described her as a "saint"—which seemed to mean she had endless patience for menial tasks and the rudeness of her children.
It was 1975, six years after my father died, when my mother came to visit me in a northern California country town, and told me with great trepidation a story of those early days, a story which filled in the picture of my father's family somewhat. It seems that in the first years of my life, during the Depression, my father's father was not earning enough to support his wife and his other five children who were still at home. He was a baker by trade and had had his own store in Brooklyn at some point, but perhaps he had lost it. In any case, my mother and father, who had been married just a few years, felt it incumbent on them to help out, and did so by the simple expediency of giving Rosa their grocery money, or most of it. We all three ate at her table every night. I suppose my mother would take me and meet my father there when he came home from work.
Now this sane and eminently practical solution to hard times was told me amidst the cedar and wild hollyhock, the free clams and leopard shark, the wild pot and wilder music, of that 1970s north country culture, in hushed and shameful tones. My mother had never told anyone in her family. I am not sure if even her sister Ella knew. She read it as a disgrace, somehow, that she, a married woman, had not been able to keep her own table. That my father, a beginning lawyer making seven to fifteen dollars a week, had not been able to support the two households separately.
I remember nothing of those early dinners, and though my father's family lived there for some years, I remember almost nothing of their house on Butler Street. I know that my mother would say in such a tone as to indicate that what we were doing wasn't quite desirable, "We're going over to Butler Street". It meant we were slumming, were going to visit the poorer side of the family. Although I am sure she never said anything that my father could quite pin down.
What is a puzzle to me still is who would have found those dinners disgraceful. Certainly not Domenico, who brought home entire squalling families of would-be union organizers; nor Antoinette, with her welcoming frugal abundance. I can only think that some imagination of my father's as to the status and parameters of the provider-role; or some projection of my mother's as to what a husband is, or should be—some preconceived idea about what it meant to be American, perhaps—hung over the simple problem, and kept all ten of us from the enjoyment of its solution.
We are in my grandmother's apartment, and she is standing at the sink. The sink is a slate grey, made of grey slate in fact, with flat, slanting sides, and the dishwater is greasy from Sunday dinner: tomato sauce and roast. My mother and one of her sisters are arguing with my grandmother. She is small, soft, the skin on her arms hangs loose, her grey hair is drawn back into a bun. My grandmother is soft-spoken, but she stands her ground. I am on her side, I stand at her side, wordless. Children are not to speak at times like this. They are persistent, angry, my mother and the aunts. I know only that my grandmother holds her ground and I am afraid for her.
I am in the park with my grandfather, and it is night. I have almost never been out of the house at night, and I love it. I love the city at night, the lights, the noises. It smells of mystery. In the park, Bronx River Park, the stars come clear. They are very bright, they burn. There is some kind of meeting. A "rally" is the word. My grandfather has taken me with him, and I know somehow it is without my parents' permission. They are anyway not there to object, I have been visiting my grandparents without them.
There is a rally in the park—I am not sure now what sort of rally. Was there in fact a particular occasion—perhaps a protest against the coming war? (This would have been the late 1930s.) Was it routine, an anarchist meeting? I don't know that word then, of course, only that there are many people, most of them men, and most of them are not young. Grey hair and white predominates. The smell of the old menof my childhood: cigars, and a particular kind of soap. The low, hoarse voices of Italian men, gravelly, the pitch set by tobacco and wine. There are women, too, in the crowd, not as many, but they are fierce and earnest. Perhaps I am the only child. I do not at any rate remember any other children.
At one point my grandfather begins to speak. Everyone is still to listen. This has been going on for some time, people speak and the others listen, but this time I listen too—it is my Grandpa. I am not sure what he is saying, and then, at the end I am sure. At the end he is talking about love. He talks for long time about love. He is saying that we must love each other or die. I understand this part, I seem to know it in my bones. He means that we'll all die, the people of the world. He is saying that we must love, and it seems it is more than we must love one another. There is a love to learn that is generic, that is just love, and it doesn't need an object. I know this then, I understand it as he speaks, though there is no way I could find the words for it. It is as if he is saying we must learn HOW to love. And it is very clear: if we do not, we will die: all the people of the world will die.
This time I don't want to comfort him, he doesn't need comfort. This time there is no answer to his "nothing", it is not nothing, it is an invitation to love. The stars shine down on us, the leaves glow in the electric lights of the park. I am proud of him, and afraid, but mostly amazed. His words have awakened my full acknowledgment, consent. I hear what he says as truth, and it seems I have always known it. I feel old, self-contained, passionate with the pure passion of a child. In my child's way I remember this kind of love.
Perhaps he is the last speaker, or perhaps we leave after he speaks. Perhaps not, but this is all I remember. And the rough cloth of his coat under my cheek as he carried me home.
I have been out with my Aunt Evelyn, whom I love best of all my mother's sisters, because she always sings. Heart full of joy, like a bird. We are in Bronx River Park, and Aunt Evelyn has introduced me to rolling down hills. It's a sport I deeply love, the first joyful physical activity I remember. No joy in walking or running in my mother's house. I never tire of rolling down hills, in spite of stones and dog shit, but after a while my aunt tires of following me, and she sits down on a bench. I have a pail and shovel and I start to dig. I know better than to dig up the grass, so I'm digging on the dirt path, the ground is hard, but I am making headway. I am busy, and quite determined. A man in a uniform approaches my aunt, and whatever he says makes her very angry. And it is later endlessly discussed at home. Aunt Evelyn was "given a ticket", "fined" because I was digging a hole. She is furious, seems to think the ground was made for kids to dig in. Says so. But at home when my mother talks I am not so sure. Is it the ground was made for kids to dig holes in, or is it I've somehow gotten my aunt in trouble?
After this when we go to the park with pail and shovel, Aunt Evelyn spreads her skirts, and I somehow squunch behind them, behind the park benches, and dig. It is still fun, but scary. Especially scary remembering how mad she could get.
I am older, maybe six, and we are outside. It is night again, stars over the apartment houses of the Bronx, paler because of the lights. My parents and grandparents are walking a little ahead. I am looking up at the buildings, and the sky and I am very sad. Knowing this is the last time I'll see this street, my grandparents are moving. It is the first time I know that "this is the last time" for something and I can hardly bear it. (I'm not much better at it today.) I have somehow some paper with me is how I remember it, but maybe I make it up then and write it down later. For years I had the copy in my first-grade Catholic-school hand: the poem I made to comfort myself that night, to "remember forever" the stars over those tall white apartment houses. My first poem and it worked, still works, I still remember that sky. Poem as the gift of memory. Mnemosyne. Mother.
My grandparents are moving, and I walk behind them torn by the knowledge that this is the last time for something. Beginnings of dying, for me, for them. I am sad too because I sense that they don't want to go. This is a defeat for them, some kind of defeat. Their children want them to move, their place is too far away. No more the river, Bronx River Park, no more this particular light. As we return I passionately love their building, its lobby, huge and white marble. The polished stone, the urns in the entry hall. Brass work over the elevator. The cool space and the silence.
We are visiting my grandfather at "the pharmacy" (this is distinctly earlier, before the move). Corner store, with blue marble tile at the entrance, one of those posts marking the corner, you can cut a diagonal across the entranceway to turn the corner. Or go round the post in circles, looking at the blue tiles. He is not a pharmacist, but somehow he works here a lot. My mother's sister Barbara has married a pharmacist and my grandfather assists in the shop. I love to go behind the counter with him. The back room, filled with jars of roots, and dried leaves, all with those peculiar domed glass tops, the kind that end in a knob. The scales, and small weights. Colored powders.
Child and old man are equals here, in the light of recognition. Here we are both at home. This place more familiar to me than my child's body. These smells of herbs. Polished wooden tables where things are mixed. Is it we have been alchemists together? We are so still. High windows in the back, with stained glass on the borders. We meet each other, timeless, in this light.
dream (autumn 1987):
I am in an ancient church in Sicily. In the dream I think that it is "like a mosque"—it is actually bare stone, hung with incredibly rich cloths: deep colors of red, gold, green—satins and brocades. The light is the light of sun on grey stone, but filtered through all these colors. There are pews without seats—we can stand or kneel only, and I am jammed in with members of the family, to attend a funeral. My Uncle Joe has died, and my Aunt Mary is up in front with the coffin, more or less conducting the event.
The funeral service is going on, and it is mainly music, incredibly beautiful vocal music, Arabic in its modulations, but polyphonic, with one voice joining another. In the dream, it is very important for me to understand how "Arabic" my people are (the Sicilian side of the family). It will help me to understand my life.
People are crowding in beside me, there is a lot of jockeying for position by various (female) relatives—the aunts and my oldest daughter—and I am pushed to the outside of the pew, close to the aisle. I decide to move up one row: closer to the altar, which is just the coffin and these incredible hangings. There is more room there, for some reason the next "pew" is half empty.
I start to move, and then out of nowhere my father comes and stands beside me, blocking the way out. I feel as I always felt when confronted with my father's physical presence—claustrophobic and repelled. But I am mostly taken by the ambiance: the music, and the light of that place. Intensity of grief, the melody line of a dirge. Without looking at me, or otherwise acknowledging my presence, my father puts a hand on the back of my neck, just where my neck joins my shoulders. The gesture is humble in a way—even apologetic—and yet it presses on me. It is heavy, demanding: "You're going to have to deal with me somehow". I am aware of the nexus of nerves in that place in my body, the chronic pain of my shoulders and arms.
I don't turn or look at him, but in the light and the passion of the "Arabic" music, I begin to pray. I am not used to praying and I reach for the words, forming them very slowly in the dream-time: "Let me find it in me to forgive this man." In my dream I repeat this over and over. And I wake forming the words with my lips, an enormous sense of physical release in my body, and a real sense that the work is to find it in me—in my very flesh, the release point for this past.