Icarus

for Francesco

The buildings rise like wooden blocks stacked one upon the other, clinging to this impossible slope. The afternoon sun warms the stones, and peeling stucco. You run your hand across their rough face, and feel the heat burning like blood within. In this shimmering summer heat, people take refuge in the oasis of shadows under doorways, and passages. The streets so narrow, even a donkey would struggle to pass.

As you climb, your foot slips on the dusty cobbles, rounded smooth from the passage of feet, and time. The slap of the fountain echoes down the alleyways, as the women gather around to collect cool water from deep within the mountain. At the end of this crooked lane lies the steps to the Castello, overgrown with weeds. No one goes there now but children, and dreamers.

You climb the last few steps past the walls of the town, and turn, looking out over the cracked red tile roofs. The patchwork green of the valley is ringed by a crown of hills, set against the faded blue of the cloudless sky.

Rolling up from below, the peel of the church bells tolling the Angelus. This is the noon hour, the axis of the day. Women bless themselves above the wash tubs, and pause to pray. Even the barefoot children stop their clamor, aware of something watching from above.

You look beyond the crown of hills, to the bald mountains rising in the summer haze. No snows are left to feed the rocky streams, just the seeping of springs, like blood from within the stones.

High above a hawk is turning in the sky, rising on the warm breath of the village as it exhales.

You close your eyes against the brilliance of the sun, and dream of flight.

Pietravairano, Caserta, Italy

This is it. One of the ancestral homelands of the 20 Prospect clan.

On a day in 1882, Francesco DeBottis, and his wife Maria, said goodbye to this town to begin a new life in America. They left behind this village clinging to the hillside, and emigrated to Port Byron in Upstate New York with their 4 year old son James, and baby daughter Philomena.

That is about all that I know about them. Francesco was 32 years old and Maria was 26. Francesco’s father had died the year before. Whether that played into his decision to leave, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps burying his father was the final break with the past.

All I have to go on are dates, and statistics about the state of Caserta at the time. History tells us that most of the people in Southern Italy suffered under poverty then. Malaria, and other epidemic diseases were common.

The infant mortality rate in Italy was 22%, and 50% of children did not live to see their 5th birthday. Living on narrow streets, without running water, and good sanitation, it should not surprise us. In such close quarters as this a virus could quickly spread to half the town.

Look again at the ages of their children, and it is not hard to imagine that 2 others were lost in the 3 year gap between James and Philomena. Consider that when they reached New York they would have 4 more children between 1890 and 1894, including my Grandfather Samuel. The parents must have lived in a state of fear, worrying that their children could be lost in a moment for something that started out as simple as a skinned knee.

Maria passed away in 1896, and Francesco remarried a 25 year old widow a few years later. Four more children followed from his marriage to Rosa. They were American’s now. With each passing year, the memories of this little village must have seemed like something from another age.

Rosa passed away in 1925, and Francesco followed in 1938.In all he spent 56 years living in Cayuga County, New York. By the time they died they were no longer Francesco and Rosa. They were Frank and Rosy to their friends and family. The last living link to the “old country”.

As for Pietravairano, perhaps some descendants remain. The population of rural Italy is in steep decline. The village still exists, but it has moved down from the mountain, and out into the farmlands in the valley.

The citadel still stands atop the mountainside, looking out over the pastoral landscape. It crumbles a little more each year, its stones beginning their long descent back to the bottom of the hill. In another 100 years there may be few people left to hold back the pull of gravity on the rest of the village.

Here in America, our journey continues.

(All photos of Pietravairano taken from Photofunia / Google Maps)

Through a glass, darkly.

“It should be said that something can be known in two ways. In one way, through its own form, as the eye sees the stone through the image of the stone. In another way, through the form of something similar to it, as the cause is known by its likeness to the effect and man by the form of his image.” – Thomas Aquinas. (Theology, Faith, and Reason: On Boethius)

The winter of our discontent grinds on like a house guest that has overstayed his welcome. We yawn, stretch our arms, clear the table, and try every hint we can think of, yet still it sits droning away in its chair. Not to be rude, but dear winter, its time you went home so we could get to bed.

Another morning has dawned clear and cold on the front porch, steam rising from the tops of the buildings downtown, as the morning sun painted them powdery pink. From this distance the glass towers seem like one monolithic mass, a glacier creeping across the landscape. It’s hard to imagine the thousands of lives that will swarm inside of them, like bees in a hive. Each one unique, its own complex tangle of blood, and muscle, and nerves. And this is but one city among millions, and these lives just a speck among the billions who have come, and gone.

For the past few weeks I have been pecking away at our genealogy, drawn in by the desire to know the faces that came before, to trace the roots of the tree back to the source. It has been an interesting journey. The branches that seemed the closest to my sense of self were quickly met with dead ends, and the ones that seemed obscure, ran on like train tracks into the distance. So I followed them to see where they led.

Down one track lay five generations of a family living out their lives in the village of Pietravairano in Caserta, near Naples, Italy. Down another track lay eight generations in the Bavarian town of Winterbach, outside of Munich. I made it as far as 1788 and 1580 respectively, before the tracks became overgrown with weeds and disappeared, but I have no reason to doubt that they were tied to these towns for several generations before that.

These places, and these names, stare out at me from the computer screen as mute strangers. I can search the names of these villages, and look at satellite imagery of the landscape. I can use our technology to drive the streets, and stare up at the buildings from three thousand miles away. But despite all of our technology, the human geography remains just lines, and names on a page. Like a blind sculptor I can only place my hands upon their granite faces, and imagine how they looked.

We can split the atom, and map the human genome, but we cannot recreate the past. It can only be painted in the canvas of our imagination. And yet, Aquinas was right. There are two ways to know something. Through its own form, and through the form of something that has descended from it. In the same way a geologist can examine a sculpture, and know the rock from which it was chiseled, we can know these people through knowing ourselves.

Watching my son this weekend, bent over a sketch pad, intently focused on the picture he was drawing, I could see the image of my father; the same furrow in his brow, the same calm focus on his work. It flashed for a moment like sunlight off the window of a distant building, before going dark. But it was there. For a moment the past lived through the present.

These moments surround us daily, if we can only pause long enough from our lives to see them. The faces, and shadows of the past flickering like a home movie being projected onto the screen of our lives. I run my hand across the map on the page, name before name, disappearing into the distant past. They are gone from this earth, forgotten except in name. Yet they pulse like blood through the capillaries of our lives.

The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70’s

Let me start by apologizing. I know my posts this week have tended to be maudlin, and depressing, but I swear I really wasn’t trying to make Elly cry. I blame it on the weather. So before the week ends, I’m going to lighten things up and try to redeem myself.

As a child of the 70’s I have always winced at 70’s nostalgia. Shows like “That 70’s Show” repulse me, because I remember the 70’s, and the fact is they weren’t all that great. Perhaps that’s because my earliest awareness of the world beyond Prospect Avenue came at the age of 4 through the evening news.

During the ill fated Summer Olympics of 1972, my friends and I were busy yucking it up over the classic joke:

“Do you know how they fill the swimming pool at the Olympics?” “Mark Spitz!”

when the tragic hostage situation interrupted our regularly scheduled programming. As a child of 4, the events unfolding were way over my head. I can remember standing in Peter Carmichael’s front yard when his older brother Danny came running out to tell us that a Busload of Guerrilla’s had just taken the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Having recently watched Planet of the Apes on TV, a chill went down my spine as I imagined a school bus full of Gorilla’s carrying machine guns. What sort of effed up world was this?

Then there was the televised return of the first Vietnam War POW’s in February. I watched the scenes of servicemen walking down the steps from their airplane into the jubilant arms of their wives and children with my Mom, and was confused as to whether these soldiers fought for the North or the South in the civil war. Not the Vietnamese Civil War, the AMERICAN Civil War. (I was 4 1/2 people, cut me some slack!)

Things didn’t exactly improve when we took our summer vacation to Washington D.C. the following summer, in the midst of the Watergate hearings. It wasn’t just the first impression of our Nation’s Capital as the home of a crook that soured the mood. It was also the part of the drive where we got lost in downtown Baltimore in the middle of a garbage strike. Mountains of garbage were piled on the curbs, and as we drove through that sweltering city with the windows down, between canyons of fly infested trash, my Bratty Big Sis was leaning out the window of our Plymouth coughing up the Jim Dandy Sundae she’d had for lunch.

But there was more than criminal presidents, wars and terrorist massacres to bring down the mood. There were layoffs, gas shortages, the ubiquitous wrecking balls of our Urban Renewal, and finally the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the Love Canal environmental disaster a mere 30 miles up the road in Niagara Falls. Is it any wonder that two of the most popular Sitcoms on TV were about life in 1950’s Milwaukee? Or that the musical hit of 1978 starred John Travolta as a 1950’s hoodlum, and Olivia Newton John wearing a poodle skirt? The 1950’s were the chosen nostalgic drug to help us forget the crappy 70’s we were living in.

So when I see hipsters, and kids who weren’t born until the 80’s, aping 1970’s fashion I just want to slap them. They have no idea what it was like to wear plaid polyester pants, and wide collared polyester shirts.

If I had to pick one word to describe the entire decade of the 1970’s it would be this:

“ITCHY”

So after weeks like this, where a dear friend informs me she has breast cancer, and another says goodbye to a father, and winter looks as if it’s never going to end, I like to remind myself it could always be worse. It could still be the 1970’s.

Here’s some rocking tunes, and radical fashions to remind you all just how much body hair, and polyester there really was. I get itchy just watching these.

The Sweet – Fox on the Run

Cher – Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Bo Donaldson – Billy Don’t be a Hero

Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun

Bay City Rollers – S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night

ABBA – S.O.S.

Donny Osmond – Puppy Love

The Partridge Family – I Think I Love You

Sunday Cruise

Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com – Please click on this link to view it in all of it’s amazing detail.

From Shorpy.com - Detroit, Michigan, circa 1912. "Daily river excursion steamers. Sidewheelers Tashmoo, Owana and City of Detroit III at White Star Line dock." 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company.

Look close, these are the faces of your ancestors. Slavs, Poles, Micks, Croats, “Hunky’s”, Eye-ties, Krauts, and others. They have come here on a summer Sunday to escape the heat of the city. Spending a few hard earned coins on a cruise across the thickening river to an island in the middle of the stream. A tree lined place where pike still leap and strike at the flies, despite the rainbow colored eddies along the banks.

This was your past.

The hazy sky blurs with the silver sheen of the water on the horizon. Out here on the river the oppressive silence of the city is left behind, replaced by the cry of circling gulls, looking for scraps of food on the docks.

Your are the fruit of this vine. Look it in the eyes, and remember.

They have disappeared into yellowing photographs, and shadows in the mirror. Their memory fades as generations settle like silt on the bottom of the river. It would take an archeologist to raise their bones from the deep, and reconstruct their lives. Names and dates, tied together to build an image of the past. Skeleton facts, revealing little about the blood that beat so warmly within the bone cage.

The sounds of the steam whistle breaks through the silence. The ropes are loosed. The engine thrums through the planks of the deck. The gap between the dock begins to widen.

Take one last look into their eyes. Reach out and caress the lines of the faces. Someday they will be ours.

Salutatorian

Maggie the Wonderdog

(Maggie bounds up the steps, and runs into the living room)

Maggie – Hey ya’ Moxie!

Moxie – (looks up from couch) Hey

Maggie – You’ll never guess where I was!

Moxie – Where?

Maggie – The peoples took me to that doggy place again, with all the cool smells!

Moxie – You mean the vet?

Maggie – No! That other place. The one where you get to play games.

Moxie – It’s called obedience class.

Maggie – Yeah, Obeed-ea something! It’s fun!

Moxie – You big goofus, they are trying to train you to do what they want.

Maggie – Uh-uh, we play games.

Moxie – Oh yeah, what kind of games?

Maggie – You know the one where they put us on a leash, and say “heel” and we have to walk beside them. Then they say “Whoa” and we stop. Then they scratch us behind the ears and talk in that silly voice.

Moxie – (sigh…)

Maggie – I got second place!

Moxie – oh yeah?

Maggie – Yeah, they gave me a ribbon and everything.

Moxie – Did you eat it?

Maggie – No, the peoples took it away and hung it on the fridge.

Moxie – I thought for sure you’d eat it…

Maggie – I hope we get to go back and play again.

Moxie – …because you pretty much eat everything.

Maggie – I know I can beat that Cocker Spaniel.

Moxie – Don’t you get it?

Maggie – Get what?

Moxie – It’s not a game, dummy, they are just trying to trick you into doing what they want.

Maggie – What do you mean?

Moxie – That “heel” game? That’s so you walk next to them on your walks, and stop chasing sqwerlz.

Maggie – No…

Moxie – and that “Stay” game is to get you to stop jumping up on peoples when they come visit.

Maggie – Get out!

Moxie – My god, you can be so thick at times.

Maggie – I can’t believe the peoples would be so sneaky.

Moxie – Listen kid, this ain’t the swamp. Peoples can be very tricky. They’re almost as smart as dogs.

Maggie – Is that why they know how to open the doors?

Moxie – Look, if you want to be a slave to the oppressors, you just go on sitting, and heeling, and begging for your treats, just leave me out of it.

Maggie – What are you going to do?

Moxie – I’m just biding my time, eating their food, and sleeping in their bed, but someday I’m gonna run this place.

Maggie – Oh…

Moxie – and when I’m in charge, it’ll be the peoples that have to whine in front of the fridge to be fed. But us dogs will be able to eat out of the dog food bin any time we want.

Maggie – (*thinking*)

Moxie – What? What’s that look for?

Maggie – When you’re in charge, can we go back to the doggy place and play some more games?

Moxie – I give up.

Monuments

I wrote this post over a year and a half ago. I am reposting it today in honor of a friend’s father who passed away this weekend. David, our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

When we are infants they are giants to us. Booming voices that echo around the periphery of our Mother’s world. We come to learn their smiles, and their laughter, and the feel of their rough hands.

When we are toddlers they are the kings of the world. All knowing, and all powerful. They can swing us over their heads, and make us laugh like no other. As we grow we come to learn their place as Atlas, holding up our world upon their backs. They are gone from us more often than Mom, but we learn to listen for the sound of their car in the driveway. We become aware that there is something hard in their world that takes place when they are gone, even if we can’t understand it. We see the exhaustion and the pain slip out when they are too tired to hold it in. We become little weathermen, reading the moods that blow like weather systems across the map of their face.

They teach us not with words, but with action. How to start a lawn mower, handle a tool, drive a car. They are the silent owners of the mechanical world, masters of a knowledge that isn’t taught in school. We are in awe of their ability to restore everything to wholeness.

Once we become teenagers we see that they are human, and we never forgive them for it.

As we ourselves age, they become part of the background of the family. Like the house, and the car, and the great edifices upon which the history of the family is acted out. They become an anachronism, a source of laughter for the way they dress, talk, and act. Men out of time, in an age they no longer understand. We begin to see their frailties. We roll our eyes and sigh.

Then they begin to appear like ghosts in the mirror. We catch glimpse of them in the corner of our eyes. Slowly we come to understand what it must have been like. We find a new appreciation for the sacrifices that they made, that we never knew, because they never once complained. If we are lucky, we have time to say thank you before they are gone.

All too soon, they are gone, and we are left with a face in the mirror that conjures up memories. So we smile through the tears at the memories, and dig deep within us to live up to the example that they set before us when we weren’t looking, like granite monuments to inspire us. We hope that somewhere they can see us, and know. And we pick up their shop worn tools, close our eyes, and using our memory of those strong hands, we set to work chiseling out our own monument.