Monday, April 16, 2007

The House that My Grandfather Built

Bro is in one of the bedrooms upstairs, and I am in one of the bedrooms downstairs. With the storm rolling overhead, I am certain that he is also awake, listening to the disquieting silence around us, if not similarly infused with a gnawing sense of despondent angst. As babies, we were rocked to sleep every night under a canopy of plastic rosary beads, with bedtime stories and lullabies told in the respective languages of our Eastern European grandparents. Pappap sang to us in Italian and threatened us with mortal punishments if we didn't go to sleep. Grandme silenced our naughtiness with nightly undulations of the Lord's Prayer and obscure sing alongs in Yiddish, even though she never once recognized that her mother tongue was anything significant or contrary to her strong Catholic faith.

In a little while, the terrible emptiness of the house will become too much for me to bear. I'll take my pillow and blanket and wander upstairs to snuggle up on the mattress beside Bro until morning. Of course, because we're 'grown-ups' now, he will attempt to be gruff with me. He'll criticize me for being cheesy and sentimental, and tell me that we're way too old to be sleeping in the same bed. I'll dramatically chastize him being a homo, jump on the mattress beside him, and adolescently tell him to shut the hell up and make some room for me because I said so. He'll put on a display of painful annoyance, but move over anyway because no matter how old or big we are, he's still my little brother. Silently, though, I know that he is relieved that I came to join him. Old habits have a way of dying hard, and we both know that we need each other's steady company very badly right now. With the impending sale of the house that my grandfather built, the next 48 hours are going to be as painful as losing our favorite grandparents all over again.

In an effort to contribute to the family project of fixing up and selling that house that my grandfather built, Bro and I have descended on the small town in Western Pennsylvania, where my grandparents came to America to live the American dream. As the oldest (and, of course, most cherished grandchildren) we are formally tasked with the job of leading our generation of cousins in a lesson of how to get one's hands dirty. From the basement, there is a mixture of stress and laughter as a rapid painting process is under way. Bro is hurling obscene and sexually derogatory insults at each of our prepubescent boy cousins. The boys are a cackle of giggles, exchanging their best "gay" impersonation of Bro. It really doesn't take much to discover that each of us is blessed with the same dark, dry and profoundly disgusting sense of humor.

Upstairs in the kitchen, I am attempting to sort through my grandmother's lifetime collection of sugar packets from McDonald's, kitchen holiday window decorations for every conceivable cause of Baby Jesus celebration, travel magnets from almost every American state, ceramic angels, and dozens of plastic rosary beads in every shelf and drawer. Of course, between my nostalgic tears produced by touching all of the precious things that my grandmother loved the most, I am laughing from the sheer insanity of it all. How many sugar packets from McDonald's does one woman need? I completely fall to pieces when I open one refrigerator drawer to discover a thousand or more small ketchup packets as well. I really can't say if I'm laughing or crying. This is what Italian people do best. We feel very deeply. We laugh and cry rather easily, sometimes even at the same time. Secretly, I'm hoping to find my grandfather's mythical grappa stash from the Old Country, and starting to wonder if I could actually use a cigarette...

Meanwhile, the aunts and uncles are wandering the place like zombies. Unlike me and Bro they have a tendency to bicker between then, even though their love for each other is profoundly deep. The aunt is especially crazed that there is a terrible mildew problem in the upstairs closets. The uncles are yelling about a drainage issue in the back yard. I notice that the house is noisy again, and I smile. I wander into the living room to find a spare cleaning rag and discover the old portable tape player that always set on a shelf in my grandfather's work room in the cellar. I pull it out of a pile of stuff and realize that there is still a cassette in the tape player. I investigate and instantly discover a real family gem: An old tape of my grandfather's favorite 1950's Italian lady singer! In my excitement, I stop everything and call downstairs to Bro.

A few seconds later, Bro is standing next to me in the big, empty kitchen. I dramatically present the tape to him. He gives his best laugh and mischievous smile. He looks over at the old cassette player and says, "What do you want to bet that that old piece of shit still works?"

Team work as always-- I pop in the tape, and he plugs in the box. Suddenly, the house is filled with the sound of my grandparents again. The Italian lady singer fires up with a bombastic version of "Volare". Volare! Oh-oh! Cantare! Oh-oh-oh-oh! Nel blu dipinto di blu! Bro and I instantly remember the words, and start singing at the top of our lungs, while beginning to imitate the way our grandfather used to dance on the kitchen floor. At the sound of the music, the cadre of cousins come running upstairs. The older ones have some idea of what is going on, but the youngest one, who is only 7 years old and never knew our grandfather, looks completely bewildered. I swoop him up in my arms, and he wiggles in embarrassment. In Italian, the language he's never really heard, I tell him to dance with me.

The aunts and uncles come running in with their respective spouses. They each stand in the large doorway, watching all of us do our thing. Typical Italians, they're laughing and crying at the same time, too. I can't help but wonder what they are all feeling at the sight their own children playing together as they did when they were young. Bro and I catch each other's eyes and wink back the solid lumps that we can feel rising in our throats. I hand Baby Cousin over to him, and grab my aunt's hand to pull her into the kitchen. She reaches back for my uncle, who reaches for his wife, who reaches for my other uncle. And before we know it, we're a family full of dancers, hugging and laughing, and holding each other through this terribly painful moment in a way that would make my grandparents so very proud.

I look at all of these beautiful people that I love so unquestionably and realize that each of us is like the house that my grandfather built--vessels of time, energy, moral strength, powerful resilience and ingenuity. We know that we can't take the material things with us when we go, that in a hundred years, it's not going to matter how incredibly sad it was that we had to part with the only place any of us ever really called 'home'. But it will matter that we did it together, that we danced for a brief moment in honor of the people who gave us life in the 'land of opportunity', not to mention so much love and unconditional tenderness. Long after his passing, my grandfather was there to show us that it doesn't matter that he built a house that lasted through 3 generations, but that he built a legacy of good people who truly know the meaning of love.

My family is truly beautiful. I thought that maybe ya'll might like to know.


Paolo Conte said...

I love it when you write about your heritage. You have a real gift for words. There's so much power and movement in your voice. What are you getting a PhD in?

leaf said...

Beautiful story.

Anonymous said...

absolutely touching. you need you own book contract.

Anonymous said...

I can see it so vividly.

Yes, family is everything.

Anonymous said...

Darn you. I'm sitting her with tears in my eyes trying to cope with my grandmother's long good-bye. She had a stroke in November and she has become weaker and weaker ever since. She's always been there. I was named after my grandfather, who died barely two years before I was born. I remember walking home as a kid and coming home to the smell of freshly baked tortillas, which me and my friends would devour.

Namaste, you are truly a beautiful person. Your words touch us all.

VJ said...

Aww, a very nice family rendition there N. Sell the magnets on ebay. Almost anything will go on there. Except the packets. Bury them in the back yard. Bingo! The drainage issue will be solved. Really. Promise... Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

Carrie Broadshoulders said...

Wait, your brother is gay?