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The first closed fist landed just below my mother’s jaw. The second hit flush against her upper lip. The blow’s force bounced her head off the bedroom wall. My father raised his right arm, ready to strike again. His left arm was stretched out, his hand clutching chunks of my mother’s apron and house-dress. His eyes were wide open and filled with rage, his face the color of chalk.
My mother stood helpless, waiting for the next painful shot. Her legs were buckled, both knees rubbing each other, as one black slipper hung off her foot. A thin stream of red blood moved from her nose to her chin, and tears flowed from both her eyes.
The right side of her face was already starting to swell. Her dark-tinted glasses, opened and shattered, rested between her chest and my father’s left arm. The next blow landed over her right eye, raising an immediate welt. My father was all that kept my mother from falling to the floor.
He stared hard at her face, the anger starting to dissipate from his body. His muscles began to relax, a natural redness returning to his fleshy cheeks.
“Don’t fuck with me, puttana,” he said to my mother. “If I see you talking to him again, I’ll cripple you. Nobody is gonna talk about me behind my back.”
“He just stopped to say hello,” my mother said to him in Italian. “His sister and I were close friends. His ship is in port for a few days and he knew I lived close by. He was bringing news from home. That’s all. I swear. That’s all.”
“Did you go with him?” he said, still holding a strong grip to her dress and apron. “Did you, you fuckin’ bitch?”
My mother, her English still weak, shook her head, confused by the question.
“No,” she said. “No. I didn’t go anywhere with him.”
My father looked down at his wife, took a deep breath and spit in her eyes. He turned and tossed her face down on the bed behind him.
“I’m gonna go see my mother,” he said. “Have dinner ready when I get back.”
My father walked past me, rubbed my head, kissed me on the forehead and headed out the front door of our three-room cold-water tenement apartment.
It was four-thirty on the afternoon of January 9, 1956. My mother’s thirty-fourth birthday. I was two years and three months old, sitting atop an old steamer trunk that doubled as both playpen and bed, holding a discarded box of Ronzoni No. 9 spaghetti. Watching my father beat my mother is the earliest memory I have of my parents together.
My parents first met on the island of Ischia in the summer of 1938.
Italy was then in the sixteenth year of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial rule and enjoying an economic revival. Overall, prices were low, the lira strong and work available in abundance. Resort islands such as Ischia and Capri were thriving, with hotels filled to capacity and beaches packed with sun-hungry tourists.
Though talk of a possible world war made many of the islanders nervous, the sight of so many visitors eager to spend vacation money on their shores helped ease the tension.
“Ischia was such a safe place to be then,”“my grandmother Maria once told me. “The thought of war was in the distance, something for politicians in Rome to fight over. In Ischia, as in all of Italy, it was a time for peace.”
My parents were first cousins. They were introduced to each other by their aunt Nanella, oldest sister to my father’s mother, Raffaela, and my mother’s father, Gabriel.
My mother, also named Raffaela, was sixteen at the time. She was of short-to-medium height, with thick and curly dark hair, full red lips and a shy smile.
My father, Mario, was twenty-one and visiting Italy for the first time. His face was expressive and handsome, his body boxer hard and his dark brown hair beginning a slide toward baldness. He had been on the island less than a week and was already boasting to strangers and friends of having “ruined three girls.”
My mother wiped her hand nervously on the side of her light blue skirt and shook my father’s extended hand. My father leaned down and awkwardly kissed my mother on both sides of her face. He smiled when he saw her blush.
“Relax, honey. I’ll never hurt you” were the first words he said to her. He spoke a poor version of Italian as he made an attempt to ask my mother to a movie. She looked to her aunt for help and said “no” once she understood the request.
“Okay,” my father said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
He stared at her as she and Nanella walked away, heading toward the deli the Carcaterra family owned and operated.
“He’s a good-looking young man,” Nanella said, holding on to my mother’s arm. “He’s wild, but name someone who isn’t at that age.”
They walked quietly for a few moments, the older woman careful not to trip on the slippery cobblestone street. Nanella stopped a few feet from the deli entrance and turned to her young niece.
“So, bella,” she said, “what do you think of our wild boy? Do you like him?”
“He scares me,” my mother said.
After that initial meeting my parents would not see each other again for fifteen years. Much would happen to both during that time, most of it tragic. My mother was, by the fall of 1953, a thirty-one-year-old widow, raising a sullen eleven-year-old son with help from her family. A six-month-old son and a policeman husband lay buried in the soft soil of the Northern Italian province of Udine, two silent World War II victims.
That war and those deaths had altered my mother’s physical appearance considerably—her hair and body had thinned out, her eyes were sunken and sad, her walk slowed and her once-sharp sense of humor all but vanquished.
She wore only the widow’s black, having handed over the multicolored skirts and dresses she once favored to her youngest sister, Nancy. She ate little, spoke even less and attended church on a daily basis.
“Casa e ciesa,” my mother’s sister Anna said. “Home and church. That’s all she cared about. It was the only life she knew. As far as anyone was concerned, Raffaela had no plans of ever getting married again, especially not to a man like your father.”
My father arrived in Ischia on a lemon boat. He had $175 rolled up in the zippered pocket of a dark brown windbreaker and kept another $50 tucked inside a shoe. He was thirty-six years old, slightly overweight, bald and less than six months removed from the maximum security facility at Comstock in upstate New York. He had with him one piece of luggage, a small, blue hand-held valise. Inside were two black sport shirts, a gray sweater, two pairs of brown slacks, three large Hershey’s chocolate bars and a blue dress with a small white floral design. The dress was a gift for my mother, the woman my father had come to Ischia to marry.
On his second night on the island, my father sat next to my mother in the white-walled dining room of her parents’ home, working his way through a second large bowl of pasta. He had wasted little time in stating his intentions, announcing to all who would listen that he had been in love with my mother for quite some time. It was not until now, he explained, that he felt he was in a strong enough financial position to give her the kind of life she would feel comfortable with in America.
He spoke to them about large apartments and large cars, big salaries and long vacations. He told them about trips he’d taken to faraway places, places they had never heard of nor even knew existed. He promised my mother the world and her son the universe and not one of those trusting people, sitting around a table crammed with food and drink, ever once doubted him. My father was family to them. There was never a reason to think he was telling anything but the truth.
His timing was perfect. My grandfather Gabriel lay in a Naples hospital dying of stomach cancer. The growing medical bills were a drain on family finances, and my mother felt she and her son would further deplete what few funds existed. She was also a lonely woman who longed for a change, who was desperate to get away from what had become tedious day-today rituals. She had enjoyed her six married years in Salerno and Udine, miles away from the locked-in mentality of Ischia, and was excited by the thought of living in America.
My mother was also well aware of what the change would mean for her son, Antonio. The boy was shy and withdrawn, seldom spoke and never smiled. While he was surrounded by doting aunts and uncles, it was clear the boy needed a father, someone he could look to for guidance. She knew he wasn’t suited, either physically or mentally, for the careers often selected by Ischia’s young men.
She didn’t quite see her son behind the wheel of a tourist bus, nor did she feel he would find happiness as a merchant seaman. Like most mothers she wanted better. She thought she would find better in America.
My parents were married on January 18, 1954, in a quiet ceremony, one devoid of flowers, music, photos and any outward displays of emotion. My mother wore a navy blue suit over a cream silk blouse. My father wore a borrowed tie, and fidgeted during the fourteen minutes it took to become a married man for the second time. He had on one of his black sport shirts, the short sleeves covered by a jacket on loan from a family friend. He appeared angry and distracted.
My mother cried and held on to a railing, barely listening to the monotone words of a sickly priest performing the ceremony. My father hardly knew his best man, while my mother’s maid of honor had spent the previous evening trying to get the wedding postponed.