Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Family History

And so at the head of the table he sat, placing a large helping of salad onto the tomato sauce from the pasta dinner that remained on his plate, waiting to be sopped up by bread. He ate his salad at the end of the meal. It was the Italian in him. A half drank glass of red wine rested in front of him. It was Easter Sunday. His daughter was seated to his right. I was to his left. His granddaughter, my sister, was next to me. His son-in-law sat at the other end of the table.

My grandfather, Paul Alongi, took a sip from his glass of vino. He swallowed, taking a moment to taste the flavors of the wine. His lips parted and he began to speak. He looked at me. I listened to my grandfather speak. Consuming each word that came out of his mouth much like I had consumed our Easter dinner, which consisted of my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, salad, brisket, bread and corn. I made sure to savior and remember everything he was saying. His words were history. His history. My history. My family’s history. I knew they meant something, important. I knew I would want to remember what he was telling me. I felt like he was only talking to me. I refused to let the fact that I had drank almost a bottle of wine myself to impair me from remembering what he was saying.

Three generations sat around the dinner table, but none were listening as intensely as me. I loved when my Grandfather tells stories about Italy - the ‘old country’. It fascinates me. I could sit and listen about stories of my Great Grandfather, who I never met, all evening. If you want to keep me seated at the dinner table, just start talking about my families history.

My Grandfather spoke about his father, Charles. Charles was born in Sicily. He was 20 years old when he left his home for America. He arrived like many, on Ellis Island. He was one of the thousands and thousands of people you read about in history books in 5th grade. He was one of the people who left their homes in search of “a better life” or the “American dream”. He would first settle in Buffalo, N.Y.

I had to ask a question.

So, I interrupted and asked, “why there?”

It didn’t take my Grandfather a second to answer. “Because, it was where the work was.” Such a simple reason. ‘It was where the work was’.

Eventually, ‘work’ led him slightly further south, ending up in Farrell, Pa. He would meet his wife, my Great Grandmother, who I also never met, Catherine. She too was born in Italy. I can’t recall the name of the city where she was from, but my Grandfather assures me that it was a place far worse than Sicily in regards to being known for ‘organized crime’ or the mafia.

The two of them would make a home in Pennsylvania, where my Grandfather was born. My Grandfather would grow up in Farrell. He would meet a Hungarian woman named Mary Ann, who would become his wife.

My mom chimes in that she remembers visiting my Grandfather’s old house in Farrell. She would always find my Great Grandfather sitting in his garden just up the hill from the house. He loved his garden. He would sit in it in a lawn chair with a bottle of wine. He would sit amongst the vegetables, talking to himself, or his plants in Italian. My mom, as a kid, would dance around the heads of cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes and carrots and peppers and zucchinis, listening to her Grandfather speak, some in English some in Italian but completely at peace with the life he had and the life that his family had. His son, my Grandfather, had become a carpenter. He built houses. He gave people shelter.

My mind leaves my Grandfather’s story for a moment. I imagine every sip of wine ever drank in that garden by my Great Grandfather. I picture my mother as a kid playing in the garden, picking tomatoes off the vine, and my Grandfather out in the hot sun, nailing two-by-fours together and wiping sawdust and sweat off his forehead with a bandana. All this must have made my Great Grandfather proud. He had succeeded. He had created a family for himself. I’m sure he had his struggles along the way…. He was arrested before. He went to jail for 10 days for making his own moonshine during prohibition. The police showed up on his steps, said they had heard he was making moonshine, found it, and took him to jail. For 10 days, his job as an incarcerated man was winding the clock at the county’s courthouse. After 10 days, he was back him. Probably back in his garden. Probably happy.

My mind returns to the story. My Grandfather now talking about all the houses he built. He built the house I grew up in. He built his house. He built houses up and down streets. I’ve been on very few car rides with him where he hasn’t pointed out a house that he at least worked on. I’m proud of this.

Then he tells about my Great Grandmother. A woman, who could be the sweetest, kindness, most generous woman in the world, but cross her and you would feel the back of her hand or a kick in the butt. She had been known to go up to friends and family members at parties or gatherings and slip money into people’s pockets. She was the opposite of a pickpocketer. She snuck money into your pockets. There was also a story that she had SHOT someone. But my Grandfather assures me that is an exaggeration. She fired a gun into the air before, but that was because a drunk, who had been stumbling through their neighborhood had wandered into her house on accident and to scare him fired the gun. The cops were called. The drunk was taken away. Nobody was shot.

I sat speechless.

My Grandfather finished his wine.