Of the mysterious Night Blooming Cereus, Mary Cappello writes: "The flower fell into our neighborhood like a shooting star." That neighborhood was a working-class suburb of Philadelphia riven by class distinction and haunted by contradiction. In tracing the marks that immigration and assimilation have left on her Italian-American family, Cappello also offers us her family's unsung art-their gardens, letters, and rosary beads-for the lessons they teach us about desire, creativity, and loss.
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An Italian-American Life
By Mary Cappello Beacon Press
Copyright © 1999 Mary Cappello
All right reserved.
The Sweetness of Doing Nothing
Snapdragons, if you press the hairy underside of their throats ever so gently, will speak. As a child, I wanted to eat every blossom in my father's garden, until I learned the pleasure in my mouth of their names: calla lily, cosmos, rose eclipse, dahlia. As an adult, I keep The Field Guide to Wild Flowers on the same shelf with books of poems: "fragrant bedstraw," "wild madder," "grass-of-parnassus," "night-flowering catchfly," "ragged robin," "shooting star." My mother shared much of what grew in my father's garden with neighbors--even the ones who weren't speaking to her. It is 1968, and my mother's views on civil rights make her the local radical; her article appearing in the Catholic Standard and Times describing the paper as a "dismal rag" has not endeared her to our law-abiding Italian and Irish neighbors. Still my mother sends me at eight years old on the errand to deliver tomatoes in odd-sized brown paper bags to each unsuspecting asphalt dweller. Now there is something like the receipt of a letter to celebrate on Concord Road.
Turning down a particular garden path in my mind--it might be lined with shells or bricks, discarded tires or aluminum cans--I remember how gardensprovide a way to wander, and how gardens become a place for the sweetness of doing nothing. After squeezing out orange juice for a family of nine, sizzling orange peel for scent, washing with arthritic fingers each sock on a washboard, my great-grandmother, Josephine Conte, disappears through the screen door of her son's house to the garden. She's left her rosaries behind, fills her pockets with camphor leaf, then sits or stands staring, not sighing now for her five dead children--Gesuel, Maddalena, Alfredo, Antonio, Edoardo--or for the ocean between her and the place of their birth and death. She walks slowly; she nods; she sits or stands. She's doing nothing. Turning another bend, beneath the pear tree whose fruit the squirrels have won again, stands Josephine's only remaining son, my grandfather, Giovanni Petracca, hands open, eyes shut. So many shoes repaired will mean at least one of his own children will be able to see the dentist. But for these moments, it is important to do nothing. In another generation, there's my mother. Locked in our row home for seven years with agoraphobia--episodes of which began in the Catholic Church she later learned to leave--my mother roams the garden at least, gathering herbs, gathering thoughts, she writes.
Neither the work of writing nor the intensity of gathering is what stands out to me in this memory, but, once again, perfect stillness and blessed inactivity. Watching my mother from our dining room window, or more likely, as a child in search of her, is it possible that I decide not to beckon her, but simply to enjoy this unusual vision of her at rest, at peace? Probably I did call to her, did interrupt her spell, because I knew this was a different space from her depression and that I wanted to share in that long, slow swim through pulsating color. I see my mother from all sides through the tunnel of memory's lens. My mother is still. My mother is clear. My mother is clearly quiescent. And even though the feeling is liquid, my mother does not dissolve in this memory of the garden so much as she resolves, is resolved, finds momentary resolution in the shade of a cherry tree or as she bends to break a sprig of parsley or, buoyed up by a trail of roses by her side, looks up to the sky. On the other hand, lately I have dreams. I dream the grain of my father's garden as though I'm screening a home movie of the garden in the dream. In this dream, the garden is lush, but I can only tell this by its patches of color, not by scent or touch or weather. This seems significant. My father poses before the garden's entrance, before the slopes of prickly pear cemented by my great-uncle Tony. The garden, though a blur, is clear, but my father seems ghostly, and I don't know how to make him materialize. I know and love my father's garden but I don't know him, and our love for each other was stemmed even before it could bud, let alone blossom.
The earth the gardener digs in and the root systems he tends are attached in complex ways to a house or an idea of a house, to a neighborhood, to a state flower, to the landscape of the country that he has left if he is an immigrant, to the gardens of familial patriarchs and matriarchs. In my family, three such gardens glimmered in place of family jewels: my father's, my maternal grandfather's, and that of my great-uncle by marriage, Antonio Polidori. A great-grandfather's garden that predated these was supposed to have yielded the most spectacular scenes of all. But the ancestors who survived to greet my generation surrounded the memory of my maternal great-grandfather with a deafening silence. Were they really "doing nothing" in the glorious silence that their gardens allowed? Or were they conjuring him so as to bury him? That gardener's flowers I never glimpsed, though sometimes as a child I swore I saw a man with blooms pressed to his heart, his mouth, his eyes, dancing a floral dance, struggling to make himself come clear and glorious in my grandfather's backyard.
June 20, 1943. Father's Day! Saw the new day at exactly 6:30. The sky is clear and much promising. Cut my back yard hedge planted many years ago by my father who is in heaven now. Pruned a tree.
FROM THE JOURNAL OF JOHN PETRACCA
My maternal great-grandfather, Antonio Petracca, father of John Petracca, was a master gardener. The first of my family to emigrate from Teano in southern Italy before calling his wife and sixteen-year-old son to join him--the year was 1916--Antonio made a modest living in the United States by keeping the wealthy warm: in the summertime, he landscaped the gardens of the families who lived on Philadelphia's Main Line; in the winter, he took care of their furnaces. Every year, Ardmore, the town where he lived, sponsored a gardening contest, and every year, I'm told, my great-grandfather's garden took the prize. I don't know what distinguished my great-grandfather's garden. No one seems ever to have photographed it, and in all the reams of jottings that his son left behind, no description of his father's garden abides. What I know about the man himself is shrouded in mystery, a source of family shame or family pity. However judged, his was certainly the greatest of family secrets.
Straining my ears to catch the meaning of my family's whispers, I heard of two misdeeds attached to his character. Some said that he was a gigolo--the exact word used to describe him--an irresistibly attractive dancer (and in this sense, according to Webster, a literal gigolo) who was unfaithful to my great-grandmother when she was pregnant with my grandfather. They said that he, along with wife and child, was exiled from my grandfather's birthplace because of a death and possible murder that bore some connection to an illicit love affair. Whether the woman involved invited his advances or whether he forced himself upon her was never clear. Great-grandmother Josephine Conte had ways of dealing with what could not be spoken. She would, for example, open the neckline of her dress and talk down into it, as if she were telling her troubles to her own heart. And when that didn't work, my mother told me, she would go to a place she'd never been before and leave her troubles there. She did, however, share shards of her experience, the base of her own trauma, with her daughter-in-law, Rose Arcaro, as they together cared for Rose's children. Rose, in turn, presumably sworn to secrecy, occasionally unburdened herself of the tale, morsel by morsel, but she never gave the whole to any one person.
That the story reeks of the worst stereotyping of Italian character--a Gothic narrative with passion and murder at its center--keeps whatever might be real and useful in it at bay. Nor is my knowledge of this enigmatic point of departure helped by the fact that on those rarest of rare occasions, in those weak moments when my grandmother was compelled to tell of what she knew of it, she'd keep me from hearing by talking to my mother in Italian. But even my mother was kept from the real, the full, the true story. All that my mother could tell me for sure was that my grandfather was forever estranged from his father, who after all had abandoned him and his mother in more ways than one. In addition to failing to be loyal to my great-grandmother, who had also suffered the loss of all her children but one, my great-grandfather failed to make clear when he left for the United States that he would eventually send for Josephine and John. When he felt surer of his footing in the United States, he sent her a telegram requesting that she send to him his son. My great-grandmother made the journey even though she was not called for. My grandfather, by this time nearing sixteen years old, became in a sense his mother's protector; he sympathized with her suffering and tried to give her a better life in the home he was making with his wife, Rose, after his father died. I'd also heard that my great-grandfather's illegitimate child was killed in an accident and that the townspeople blamed my great-grandfather for the child's death.
My mother presented a different version of the story, or a different piece, on each occasion that I asked her for more details. It was hard to discern whose need the story most spoke to now, for the teller each piece originated with was hopelessly lost in the intermingled strands offered mainly by the women in my family: great-grandmother tells my grandmother who tells my mother who compares what she knows with her sisters. Running alongside this confused pattern is the border of my grandfather's grave silence and his dinnertime rituals. Dinner at the Petraccas was an occasion marked by humility and thankfulness; it had the bearing of a minimalist aesthetic colored by the care put into the meal. Picture for dessert a pear, crudely sculpted, delicately peeled by my grandfather's penknife. If in place of a pear, a peach, the ritual would lose its delicacy and be shadowed by a cloud of bravado, for my grandfather had the uncanny habit of cutting to the center of a peach, and, depending on the temperature or temperament of the day, opening the peach's inner cabinet as though it were a locket or shucking it as though it were a clam. Then he would extract the smaller seed that was nestled like a bead of knowledge inside the outer stone and swallow it as one might an after-dinner medicinal. Certain folk remedies prescribe a little poison for a great pain, but when I learned that peach seeds bore traces of arsenic, I couldn't help but wonder if my grandfather was killing himself in minute degrees or at least testing his fortitude in a way that made eating dessert into a game of truth or dare. Would he ever tell the truth about his father? Could he ever know?
The most recent version of the story that I receive from my mother is not overshadowed by a possible accident, a possible murder, but marked by a very definite encounter. A woman in the village beckons my great-grandmother to her house, she doesn't know what for. When she arrives, the woman takes my great-grandmother to the edge of a tiny coffin. Therein lies a baby, the woman's child and the child of my great-grandmother's husband, the woman explains. There is no murder; there is no accident. What's important here is this meeting between two women over another of my great-grandfather's dead children. The mistress wants to use the death to convey to my great-grandmother her pain; to convey what a louse her husband is; to convey the curse they share in loving him or in letting him love them, or in letting him have them. My great-grandmother is pregnant with my grandfather at this time, and even though they both survive, I picture my great-grandmother laying herself down then and there to die. But this is only because, continually in doubt of my own fortitude, I am perpetually amazed by other people's ability to live through pain. Ever in search of strategies, I beg friends and strangers to tell me in as much detail and with as much precision as possible how they cope. I like to think of my grandfather's survival of infancy and childhood as a testament to my great-grandmother's decision to cease to live in and through her husband and his passions, the beginning of my grandfather's life as an act of her will. What she could not foresee was how through this son's children, she might in part be healed. In a journal entry dated April 12, 1942, my grandfather writes:
Today is my mother's birthday, I am so happy that the day is beautiful and that everyone is doing his best to make mother happy. When I came back from work I saw Frances and little Rosemary fixing a basket full of azaleas. They motioned to me not to let anyone in the house know it. Later they marched in both holding the basket singing Happy Birthday to Grandma. It was simply grand. Mother kissed them both. I believe, besides mother's blowing the candles out on the cake ahead of time, their act was the best.
In what sense did she blow the candles out ahead of time? Maybe she didn't want "Happy Birthday" sung to her twice; maybe she didn't want more attention drawn to her, since for every person consoled, there is someone else in search of consolation--the mistress this story leaves behind, for example. Did great-grandmother and this woman love each other before that terrible encounter and the circumstances that led up to it, and did this meeting kill their love? Or did they begin to love each other then? Or are these questions that only a lesbian great-granddaughter would ask? For every person consoled, there is someone else in search of consolation. Great-grandfather died young. No one would ever say of what, but in the preparation of this writing, my mother tells me that he died, of course, of that unspeakable scourge, of syphilis. I realize that not only is Great-grandfather marked as the source of the family's immutable sadness, but that his character fuels an unspoken fear: that syphilis killed each of his children as well, except my grandfather, who kept a peach tree so that he might always have its medicine at hand.
An unutterable deed haunts one side of my great-grandfather's portrait, on the other side, a bright spot, his garden. What I know about my great-grandfather is a bright spot and a burdensome enigma underwritten by violence and pain, the pain he may have caused others. And that my family inherited his hedge.
In the mid-1950s, my mother, though she had won medals for her achievements in high school Latin and was already gaining recognition from her teachers for her writing abilities, graduated from her high school's commercial course. Like her four sisters, excepting the eldest two, who had entered the convent together, she was expected to find employment in the business world as soon as possible after high school, or to marry. By the time my mother met my father, she had managed to save some money from her job as a secretary at radio station WHAT in Philadelphia. Though she'd considered using her small savings to visit Italy, her decision to marry led her to use this money for the down payment on a dirt cheap row home in need of repairs in Darby, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from the town where she grew up. The row homes were standard dwellings for a working-class suburb: twenty two-story units were directly joined one to the other, with a front walkway shared by each pair of houses. Each house was lucky to come with a small patch of grass in front of it and a somewhat larger backyard, separated from the house by a tarred back lane. In many cases, neighbors opted to cement over one or the other if not both of the grassy extensions to their houses.
The backyard of the house that my parents moved into was overrun with weeds, except where a path had been worn by people who had used the yard as a shortcut. As my mother tells it, one particularly gargantuan weed took up the entire width of the yard, and a cluster of wild cherry trees made the space unsuitable for a garden in need of light. My mother knew she wanted a garden here, but it was men not women who took charge of the garden in my family's Italian American households, and my father, who grew up in the Sicilian section of South Philadelphia in an even tinier row home, sans garden, did not know the first thing about tending one. Though my mother played a central role in the realization of the garden and in its continuance, the garden's care and upkeep became in many ways my father's preserve. He learned by watching my mother's father and my Uncle Tony, husband to Ann, my maternal grandmother's sister, and by reading. The results he achieved in his garden shocked his family who now failed to recognize him when they'd visit: who would have expected to find Joe, their brother who hadn't finished high school, now reading seed catalogs; who would have thought that Joe, with all of his impatiences, would come to enjoy starting seedlings painstakingly under special lights in his garage?
My mother employed Uncle Tony to get their garden started. He made a fence for the garden, removed most of the cherry trees, evened out the terrain, and, following his trade, cemented a pristine set of steps leading into the garden graced with a cemented slope on either side. He finished the job with a gift by planting the first plants for my parents in the slopes that formed the new entrance to the yard: myrtle, alyssum, evergreen, and ground cover pinks.
Now it was time for the front yard to gain its special border, and my grandfather came with wishes for good health as he planted cuttings from his father's hardy hedge around the three edges of the small front yard. The hedge that my great-grandfather had originally transplanted to my grandfather's garden from his own held a verbal if not literal place of honor there. To this day, I cannot picture the part of my grandfather's garden where his father's hedge grew: so open is the picture of my grandfather's garden in my mind's eye, so wildly well kept and dazzling is the imprint of his garden's scene, that I fail to see a hedge there at all. I only remember the reverence with which the hedge was spoken of by my mother and grandfather, and how it was the one feature of the garden whose origin must be remarked: "Great-grandfather's hedge," or "the hedge that was originally planted by Great-grandfather." It was as though this dignified shrub enabled its owners to concur that Antonio Petracca wasn't entirely a louse: he had given them something; he had saved something special for them from the bounty of his wiles, something that could help them in the new world in which they struggled to survive.
Not generally acknowledged like flowering bushes or plants for their warmth or beauty, hedges mark enclosures and draw distinctions. The hedge might have been the metaphoric border that was supposed to keep my family's gardens from intermingling--each in its way hoeing its own row toward an idea of class mobility. If the hedge was a tool for marking differences, it was one my grandfather was more beset by than willing to apply, for his own identity had been shaped too harshly by divisions that included citizen/alien, English-speaker/Italian-speaker, middle class/poor. Still my grandfather spoke with veneration of his father's hedge.
My mother, as guardian of its second incarnation before her house, took to her hedge with a ferocity that, while it never exactly smacked of violence, certainly seemed electrified by a force within my mother that she couldn't otherwise express. As keeper of the hedge, my mother's job was to periodically trim it, which she did in those days with long-edged wood-handled shears as opposed to electric blades. The job took muscle, and my mother trimmed the entire hedge at once without pause. Those shears snapped out the rhythm of the heady rhapsody that was her sweaty, therapeutic workout, though not, as one might surmise, on a designated schedule of Mondays or first Fridays. Nor did the ritual wait on weather, but followed by necessity the ebb and flow, or more accurately, the fever pitch of frustration reached in conversations with her husband or her mother or her parish priest (my mother was still in those years in search of emotional, intellectual, and social sustenance from the Catholic Church). When she called her mother in desperation over what she was learning about the man she'd married--especially about his unpredictable temper and his unwillingness to change--when she told her mother that she wanted to leave, her mother would reply: "You made your bed, now sleep in it." When she sought guidance from the mother superior or priest at Blessed Virgin Mary Church, they listened obligingly to her accounts of loneliness and nervousness, then reminded her that in light of the Greater crucifixion, "Your problem, Mrs. Cappello, is that you are a sinner." Following such suffocations, my mother trimmed her hedge as though to breathe. Smothered, she did not shout, but rapped out a refrain several hours' long: "Fuck this fucking hedge" and the shameful story it will never yield; "Fuck this fucking hedge" and the paternal body it pretends to shield; "Fuck this fucking hedge," symbol of containment, of what keeps me in, of what I cannot leave or leave behind.
My generation's relation to this nondescript plant, great-grandfather's hedge, had its own remarkable qualities. Quite literally, the hedge was something that cushioned us; more abstractly, it proved a soundproof grate that braced our confessions. On a number of occasions, when my friends and I would play too roughly, the hedge would break our fall. Its branches didn't stick or prick their assailant; they would give like the easy snapping of twigs even though the plant was succulent, and its tiny waxen leaves would cling to the backs of our legs like so many Band-Aids or bingo chips. In our teenage years, my friends and I would sit on the three front steps by the hedge to discuss the seriousness of our confusions, our desire for different pleasures, or the helplessness we felt about the conflicts in our households. My good friend Cathy, admitting to herself for the first time and to me that both of her parents were alcoholic but were not willing to admit it to themselves or to her, plucked leaves from the hedge between sentences, stared into the center of their nearly heart-shaped edges to find a word, then tore them slowly into confetti that fell to the ground with her tears. My mother, angered to find leafless gaps in the hedge after my talks with Cathy, would command me to sweep the steps.
If I really want to remember how the hedge functioned for me though, I must enter afternoons marked by inexplicable revelations--revelations that were enabled by my older brother, Anthony. I must be willing to remember my brother.
To my child's eye, the hedge is haunted. It is a net, an intricacy, a Bermuda Triangle into which things--toys or limbs--might disappear. On so many occasions I have lost things; on so many occasions those things have shown up in the hedge. Or, rather, my brother finds them there, this litany of missing parts whose loss has made me treat the games they belong to as defunct: a single white shoe from my nurse doll (I can't fancy her treading her imaginary hospital halls barefoot); the hollow pink rubber ball we hit against the three front steps in a game called "step ball"; Monopoly bills blown from the short table on the adjacent patch of patio; shuttlecocks; the most important, the black, pick-up stick; the key to my skates. On any number of interminable afternoons of nothing but regret--none of my games are playable--my brother spots a missing piece in the hedge. We're staring at the same hedge, or so I think, when he makes out among its brambles the shape of a sphere, or line, or pendant rectangle, hook, or cone. He is the one who finds toys in the hedge, just as he is the one, in the wooded walks we take along the nearby creek, to spot deer tracks, find birds' nests, or a chameleonic mushroom, or, each year as autumn approaches, to discover in the hedge the well-camouflaged presence of a praying mantis. My brother never acts as excited as I think he should when he makes these discoveries--it is just how he sees the world--whereas his findings always profoundly alter the quality of my day. They fill me with excitement, and you can hear me ringing "Thank you, thank you, thank you" in his ears.
I practiced reading the hedge through the children's magazine Highlights "Seek 'n' Find" puzzles, which asked you to find the boot hidden in the image of a tree, or the rabbit's ear among the shrubbery, or the button doubling as a knot in the wooded floorboard. But somehow this didn't translate directly outdoors into sighting missing pleasures in the master shrub. Whenever my brother pointed the found object out to me, I would feel bathed in "but-of-courseness." It was like shifting your optic to see the lady and the goblet, the duck and the rabbit in those two-toned visual conundrums. Once I saw what my brother saw, I realized none of my playthings was really ever hidden in the hedge. I just wasn't where I had to be to see them.
I loved what my brothers taught me, and for the most part, in spite of inevitable rivalries, I loved having brothers. Though neither of my brothers was very macho--if Anthony was ridiculed for his slight physique, Joe was for his gentle doughboy body--I always, happily, could dissuade my own attackers with the line: "You'd better stop, or I'll get my brother after you." Joe taught me how to visualize multiplication tables by holding up before my eyes the palms of his open hands as he chanted five times five times five. He taught me how to tie my shoes, and how to ride a bike. Anthony taught me how to roll my "r's" and how to drop first one then a stack of pennies from my elbow and catch it in the same hand. Both of my brothers were "smart," and each school year I dreaded the inevitable recognition that would come immediately after the teacher had pronounced my last name--"You must be Joe and Anthony's sister": expectations for brilliance were thereby set.
By the time I was in high school, Anthony, who was known in our neighborhood by the name of "yolk," short for "egg-head," was thought of as the family genius. In those years, he taught me calculus so well that I botched the teacher's lesson plans. Mr. Goodwin would assign us problems that we were meant to spend a week on in the class. I'd bring the problem to my brother who didn't solve it for me so much as he talked me through it. Calculus, I discovered, bore a relation to geometry. To solve most problems, I had to discern previously unrecognized shapes--another version of finding things in the hedge. Calculus got me to think of the world in terms of shapes in space, space and its limits, proofs of the existence of such shapes and their interdependence. My calculus teacher and the rest of the class would be stunned when I laid out the solution to each problem across the length of several boards and then explained it. Mr. Goodwin would then wax poetic about the beauty of calculus and how my solution wasn't bad for a girl, "and at that an Italian," he'd add, then make some joke about my spaghetti sauce and whether that was just as good. I never took offense at Mr. Goodwin's comments because I knew he was genuinely pleased with the seriousness with which I took his subject--and because I felt he was secretly jealous of my ability to explain more clearly than he could the solution of a problem. The more I learned in the areas of math and science, the more convinced I became that these subjects were not unusually hard. They were just rarely accompanied by someone who could communicate their ways and means. I taught my peers in high school and then, in light of my brother's guidance, tutored calculus in college.
In the meantime, though, I somehow lost track of my brother. He'd dropped out of the electrical engineering program he was enrolled in at Drexel University near our home in Philadelphia; I had made the break to live on campus at Dickinson College in Carlisle, where I intended to double major in English and chemistry and write the first coherent chemistry textbook. Our maternal grandfather, though immensely learned because self-taught, left Italy with the formal equivalent of a fourth-grade education; our father had not finished high school. We were the first to venture into higher education. Anthony kept his co-op job in the lab of a local brewery for a short time, but then started to withdraw. In the ensuing years, my parents divorced, and he withdrew even more. For a long time, he couldn't hold a job or leave the house much. Though he finally got therapy and kept a full-time job as a stockperson at an auto parts supply store, some form of what seems like woundedness has persisted: he has profound difficulty communicating with other people, and lives with my father still in the house we grew up in. He restricts his social life to seeing my mother on weekends and playing with his brother's daughter and son. Anthony, who had the longest memory in the family--he would remember colors and clothes and who said what, and when and where, from events that for the rest of us were hopelessly blurred--now seems unable to imagine a future.
I don't know how my brother who was the family angel--all benignity and humor, the only person who could make my mother laugh--got lost. Did he get lost, or is it just that I am no longer able to find him? When I looked for him, he was no longer in the place he used to be: older, wiser brother, teacher with a second sight, with a knack for finding things. Now he was silent and unreachable. How was it that the brother who had walked me by talking me through calculus problems now seemed congenitally unable to talk? How could he have become such a different person than the boy I knew? What had happened or had been happening? Maybe instead of helping me with my high school math, he should have been doing his own university assignments. Ever making discoveries for someone else.
Was my brother developmentally disabled and we all failed to see it? Was my brother immobilized by some aspect of my family's dysfunction in a way none of us could afford to see or know? Should my mother have been worried rather than delighted when my brother as a child showed a tendency toward writing upside down and backwards? I remain forever thankful to my brother for how he transmuted fragments--one part gravity, one part accident, one part neglect--into a shape I could discern in Great-grandfather's hedge. Great-grandfather was my mother's family's secret. My brother Anthony is mine.
Excerpted from Night Bloom by Mary Cappello Copyright © 1999 by Mary Cappello. Excerpted by permission.
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