Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fruit on Grafted Branches

In 1963 the railroad moved us to Oregon
Dad had not seen his cousins Sam and Savario since the war
It must have been during his six months at the Vancouver Barracks
After twenty years, we drove to visit them in Washington

At the table in Grandma's kitchen I'd heard their names
These sons of Italy and of my grandfather's brother
I knew them as well as I knew my grandfather
He died before I was born

Puget Sound and the Olympics were the only landmarks Dad needed
to find their houses on the Hilltop in Tacoma, a safer neighborhood then
I hadn't imagined they'd heard of me
But when we arrived, they knew my name

The Calabrese dialect was rich on the men's tongues
Ida and Yolanda, sisters-in-law, told the stories for my sister and me
I was fourteen and my sister ten
Ida told stories we didn't understand
but Yolanda spoke well

Of how Sam and Savario together built Savario's and Yolanda's house
The spacious brick house on Wilkeson Street
In the back yard they grafted apple, pear, peach, and plum branches into a single tree

Next door, on the corner, they built Sam's and Ida's place
A smaller, white wood-frame house

Savario worked as a longshoreman
Sam building cabinetry

Savario spoke jovial Italo-American
When English failed him, Yolanda explained

Mom tried to follow Ida in Calabrese
Dad remembered the dialect and explained both ways

If Sam and Savario were my father's cousins
What did that make their kids to my sister and me?
Julie, Patty, Joey, Cecilia, and Sammy
We got acquainted in the shade of Sam's fig tree

We saw that Joey's speech was slow
His eyes were full of love
But punks on the block bullied him
Sammy was then too small to intervene
Defending her brother, Cecilia was tough

The girls taught my sister a few words
The Italian for eggs, toast, a cup of coffee
In the morning Yolanda verified her nascent diction

We wandered to an elementary school yard
Sammy played in the sand
Aspiring to be in a muscle magazine
I did pull-ups on a galvanized bar

Domenic, their friend, was learning to drive
He came by and took Patty for a ride

Ten years after we went home to Oregon
the University of Washington brought me back again

I drove past the port, up to the Hilltop neighborhood
By the reservoir and elementary school

Savario and Yolanda hadn't changed
Sam had more English by then
The houses were the same
They knew my name

Both families came to my first wedding
The mafia, my former brother-in-law said
Sam offered to help with repairs to the old house I'd bought
Five years later the house was not my problem

When the families came to my parents 50th wedding anniversary, I had remarried
Julie and Patty had children of their own
In a Lutheran Church, we sang  love songs from Broadway shows
My Norwegian mother won the Reformation at home

How did another ten years pass?
We started getting together for funerals

The last time I walked with the men through the neighborhood
Sam said of Savario, "He forget everything."
My father was there, before he too began to forget

When Savario died, St. Rita's Church consoled survivors around his casket

Sam died in his chair, his memory intact, of a heart attack
Another line of people stood at the altar of St. Rita's

Sam's offer of help with my first house was not uncommon
Neighbors didn't call the plumber, they called Sam

A woman, whom as a girl, Sam and Ida had loved
Stood to lament the passing of her friend
She had frequently stayed for dinner

Her father was a deserter
Her mother worked nights
Sam always waited for her to put the napkin on her lap

He saved every ripe fig for Ida

Everybody worried about Joey, a still boyish, fiftyish man
The priest said, "You'll have to help your mother.
"Are you OK?"
Joey was calm and said he was OK

Cecilia and Sam Jr. check on their mom
Joey works part-time at the YMCA
He knows a lot of baseball statistics from watching TV
Occasional he goes to a Pilots' game
The house is the same

Not long after Sam's funeral, Yolanda began to forget
Julie and Patty, retired from teaching, cared for her
She seemed content until she was gone

Two years ago, we got together at Cecilia's for Christmas dinner
Dad and Mom came on the train
There was a football game on Art's big screen

Ida held my hand in hers again
Come and see us, she said

I said that we would
The crucifixes in those houses know my name

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