Touching Calabria (A Short Story in Little Time)
by Darlene Madott
“I’m firing the architect,” I said, “I wouldn’t set foot in my Church.”
“The best is always the next.”
“You have a steady hand.”
At ninety-two, my father’s bricks were as if laid by a master mason.
“A church has to be solid. There’s no fudging with the walls of a church.” I stopped painting.
“Says who?” My father wore a quizzical look about his dry lips, a smile of mischievous rebellion.
The mild heart attack wasn’t so bad. It was the drugs that compromised the kidneys. Sometimes, the visiting health care workers didn’t hook up the dialysis machine properly; my eighty-six year-old mother would have to get down on her hands and knees and sop up the puddles of fluid. It had ruined the hardwood floor of their bedroom. After sixty-seven years of marriage, they were still sleeping there together, albeit separate beds.
We were Sunday painting, again. But now we were sitting in the metal lawn chairs in the Woodbridge basement, staring at our canvases.
I was painting the central piazza of Tropea, Calabria, from a photograph taken on my trip the summer before this winter. My father’s subject was a landscape of his mother’s mountain village, Jesuite.
An errand had driven us off course, and we arrived at Montalto Uffugo, in the mountains of Calabria, at about four o’clock in the afternoon. At the gas station off the main square, I had asked if there was un albergo qui vicino, knowing that we could not make it back to Tropea by nightfall.
The gas station attendant’s eyes widened in warning. I had wondered what he warned me against, in the mountains of Calabria? Seeing my fear, he suggested we might find a room, in one of the smaller towns. He directed, with his hand, upward.
As we painted, my mother clattered pots in the kitchen overhead, creating our lunch.
“How do you concentrate? You know you married the best cook on earth?”
“Do you tell her?”
Downstairs, in the basement, simple words of radiant gratitude: “It’s good to work with you–”
“I think, this summer, we’ll paint a winter scene.”
“You’ve given me hope.”
“Every time I’m with you is a special occasion.”
“I guess I had to be, to make you possible.”
I can still see my father’s garage, United Signs and Truck Lettering, on Lawrence Avenue, near Caledonia. The garage door was large enough to admit a transport truck. On winter nights, these great creatures had entered, the clumped snow and salt dropping from huge wheels. As the beasts dripped, my father had wiped off the panels and prepared his work for the next day. He was always working, our dinners in the apartment above the sign shop interrupted by a doorbell.
He was always there. After school, before climbing the metal stairs to the apartment above, I had sat in my convent-school kilt. His mahl stick in hand, seated on the overturned coke case, he had listened to my day.
His patterns had filled the racks. Sometimes the customers would argue with him about these patterns, claim they were included in the price of a job. My father had known they would take his patterns to some shoemaker –" scarparu –" who would do the work for less. Quality was not what had mattered to these customers. It was simply a question of price.
“What happened with the work you did for Tony Ucello ?” The question filled the seams of our silence.
“That asshole.” His body was suddenly agitated in the lawn chair. &l dquo;He ordered a sign for the mosto per vino, grape season. And then he didn’t pay. He has the nerve to come back the next year. ‘You pay me for last year’s, first.’ ‘We’ll settle up both signs together,’ Ucello says. ‘Like hell we will. Is that the way you do business? You feed your family this way, with what you steal from another man’s family, his children’s mouths? You can stick your business.’” My father gave the Italian salute, fist raised in defiance.
“I didn’t know, at the time, he was mafioso. Ucello ended up in the trunk of his big-shot status car. And here I am, at ninety-two.”
“You had guts.”
“Life takes guts.”
As we climbed, my man hugging the mountains of Montalto Uffugo, parts of the road were already dark. My fear had mounted, not trusting to the road, to my man’s command of the gears, whether we would find shelter anywhere, whether we could make it back. Then, at one curling bend in the road, a transport descended.
“Turn back,” I commanded. “Turn back,” again, when my man had continued to climb.
“What do you want me to do, pull a U-turn off the mountain?”
A narrow laneway descended at a perilous angle off the left side of the road. My man pulled ahead of it, and began backing down into the lane. I threw open the passenger door, and leapt out, trembling. A woman on a Vespa stopped and asked if I needed help.
“Ho paura.” It came out of me like a cry.
I looked at my father, in the basement where we were painting. He had been champion weightlifter of Ontario, could bench press twice his own weight. Such a strong man. Without fear.
“He doesn’t talk.”
“Mom, how can he make small talk?”
“It’s so silent. We used to be able to get out, like this, even for a coffee.”
“Use the cab chits I gave you.”
“In the spring–”
“Don’t wait. No matter how bad it is, it can always get worse.”
“Our world has become so small It isn’t fair, that it should happen like this. We did nothing to deserve this–”
When we got back from our Sunday errand, he was waiting for us at the kitchen table. He reached across the table and clutched her hand. My mother looked at him, surprised. He gave her a smile. There were no words.
In the delusion of the opiates, he is climbing again, the mountains of the West Coast. It is World War II. One of the men is spooked on the ropes, tugs at my father’s back. The man, with his fear, could peel them all off the side of the mountain, like a string of flies, caught by the same tape.
When the opiates wore off, he told me of a young father’s recurring dream: “We were on a ledge, at the side of a mountain. I had to get my little girls to safety. I knew I could jump up and hold my weight. ‘Use my body as a ladder,’ I’d tell you girls. Then I’d worry. How would I catch you, if you fumbled? Could I reach back to support you, and still hold us both? Which one would climb first? It had to be the youngest, so the oldest could catch her if she fell. But would I have the strength to take the heaviest last? Problems. So many problems...”
The image he painted was of a father, who would not always be there, to protect.
In Jesuite, “Go, ask some questions,” my man had prompted, as we approached a cluster of women. The houses were dense, embracing for comfort at the base of a church. Two women lingered on a patio, just off an open kitchen, where another two cleaned up after the evening meal. I announced myself, shyly, as coming from Canada. Had they known of a Rosina Iantorno, my grandmother?
One of the women knocked on the nearby door of signora Francesca, who had lived in Canada, raised a family there, and was now returned. An ancient woman came to the door. Yes, she remembered a Rosina Iantorno. So many years ago... Rosina had married a man from San Vincenzo. He had taken her away to Canada. They had never returned.
Now the group of women had grown. A walk began, to show us the old monastery of Jesuite. Our diminutive guide, closer to the ground than I by a foot, bore a stick, searching the underbrush with a trained eye, lifting.
“What are you searching?”
With the same stick, she pointed out the villa, owned by an absentee landlord, in Cosenza, or Messina. “Appartiene tutto a lui. Non ho paura di niente e di nessuno,” she volunteers. (Everything belongs to him. I am afraid of nothing and nobody.)
I hadn’t asked.
“Non ho proprio paura di nessuno.”
On an impulse, I reached out and touched her cheek: “Sei molto gentile.”
She looked up from the point of her stick, taking me into the silence of her eyes.
“No, sei tu che sei gentile.”
“Your grandfather walked seven kilometres between villages, every Sunday to court your grandmother... To think, you were there...”
I had stood on the road in San Vincenzo, overlooking the valley, listening to the sound of men hammering, constructing new out of old.
“Where are the men?” Warren had asked in Jesuite.
In San Vincenzo, with its men on rooftops or scaling scaffolding, I took a picture of my grandmother’s town, tucked and secretive across the valley, almost hidden in the dense dark growth.
A young Rosina stands beside the chair on which Rosario sits, her left hand placed delicately on his broad shoulder. His eyes, dark as the shells of roasted chestnuts, stare with male confidence at the camera. Everything of my grandmother’s face has faded in this photograph, except her eyes, doe eyes, soft and fearful. Her mouth has vanished into sepia silence, a silence that seems to go on, forever.
“Do you remember the hallucinations, Dad? The delusions you had, at the beginning, before the hip surgery?”
“You wouldn’t bring me down. I was hanging from the ceiling.”
“Oh, Dad, that wasn’t real. I couldn’t help you from the bed. Your hip was broken.”
“Then why did you ask?”
Signs and trucks for the likes of Ucello. What my father had not accomplished now haunted his eyes.
In emergency, the nurse had given him an overdose of the pain medication. He couldn’t breathe. His arms flailed and ran for their life. One articulate word: Problem. Breath intake, throat closed like a trap. “Surely one of you can come?” I asked at the door where a motor cycle victim was dying. A nurse administered the shot that reversed the last. My father’s unfocussed eyes returned. Awareness of the pain. Relief in awareness of the pain.
“I see the tops of trees,” he says from his hospital bed. They have moved him from emergency to the room where he awaits hip surgery. He refuses morphine. Better the pain than delusions. But it is slow to leave the body. He loops in and out.
“Just a step. I had to try. Just a step–”
A fall from the side of a mountain to the ceramic kitchen floor below.
“Let it go, Dad.”
“She’s just glad you’re still here.”
“They gave me a window,” he says suddenly, with wonder. “Is there a garden outside my room? Are those pumpkins on the ridge?”
He sounds excited, almost hopeful.
It was Jesuite my father was painting, at the time of the fall, from the vantage of his father’s town of San Vincenzo, in Calabria. It would be his last painting.
With my back to his bed, I describe the view from my father’s hospital window. I paint a garden, the tips of trees reaching skyward, about to burst their spring relief. I paint a garden, where there is a parking lot.
Who will mix my colours? Who will mix my colours, when you are gone?
“Touching Calabria” won Second Prize in the 2014 Accenti Writing Contest. It was read by the author at the Annual Accenti Awards held during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in May 2014.
Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and writer. She won the Bressani Literary Award in 2008.