My parents were not to be trifled with. Father’s family was old world Italian. He was the first generation born here and only spoke English, although he understood Italian just fine when grandma was yelling at him. He worked hard as a plumber every day in other people’s dirt and grime and drank one Strohs beer each night. I was embarrassed that he got undressed on the porch at the end of the day, leaving his soiled clothes for my mother.
We watched Perry Mason and the Black Hawks most evenings. He wasn’t like the other fathers who were thin and wore suits. He boxed when he was younger and won Golden Gloves. His pinky would have worn a size 13 ring, if he had worn such things. He was huge and strong like the centerbeam of our house.
Mother managed the house and some rental properties. Dinner was on the table at half past five every single night and there was always meat, a vegetable, and white Wonder bread. God help you if you were late. No one ever tested those dangerous waters.
She was fiercely protective of her four daughters although she didn’t like children. She was part Cherokee and lost family on the Trail of Tears and you really didn’t want to cross her. When a counselor at school missed a deadline so I wasn’t eligible for the Rhodes Scholar, she about tore the place down. When my sister’s mother in law to be called her a nigger because of her dark, native american skin, my mother wrote a blistering letter to their pastor.
Communication wasn’t big in our house. He and mother spoke with looks that seemed to slide away from us like bacon grease on a hot day. You could never tell what they were saying exactly but you knew thoughts had passed.
Our family had a falling out with the Catholic church before I was born even though my grandmothers’ parish priest was to become Pope John Paul the second. Whatever the Catholic church did, it must have been bad and my parents weren’t putting up with it. We became occasional Methodists.
I was bred to be independent and I fought to get a job even though mother told me school was my job. I was tired of having one pair of stiff blue jeans at the beginning of each school year for a wardrobe. I felt poor and I hated wearing the clothes she made. She was a gifted seamstress. She made mine and each of my sister’s wedding dresses and she would make suits that looked like they were bought. I didn’t appreciate her skill till I got older and she was gone.
As kids, we ran feral during the day until dinner. One day when I was twelve, I ran home crying and shaking. My mother, turned away from the potatoes and said, “What?”
“Some guy was playing with us.”
The wooden spoon moved to more of a clubbing position. “What do you mean, ‘playing’?” This was before Mr. Stranger Danger.
“I was with Jean at the playground and some older guy came. He was smoking and throwing lit cigarettes down the slide at us. I ran but Jean thought it was funny and stayed to smoke with him.”
Jean was a sophisticated 14. She was everything I wanted to be: tall with long blond hair, colt like legs with an attractive overbite that made her seem like she was smiling all the time.
My mother resumed stirring. Late that night, the police came and we found out Jean didn’t make it home. I was interviewed barely awake, sitting between my Mother and Father and I remember waves of anger cycling off my parents.
Jean was returned home after three days but I wasn’t allowed to see her. The family moved away and I never saw her again or found out what happened.
A few weeks after they left, something woke me up in the dark hours before dawn. Someone was rummaging in our garage. I crept to my window and peeked out.
My father’s huge silhouette came out and looked around as if sniffing the air. The hum of neighborhood air conditioners buzzed through the night and people turned the porch light out when they went to bed back then. He came out with a loaded wheelbarrow. In the shadow from the scant moonlight I could see it was heavy.
He wheeled it out to the vacant property he owned next door. He’d always meant to build a house on it but the village blocked him because the church adjacent wanted it. He dumped whatever it was into a deep hole he’d dug earlier in the day with his backhoe. He hand shovelled the volume of dirt back in and planted a peach tree he’d purchased, on top. I would never eat the fruit from that tree.
He came back, took off his work clothes outside like usual and sat down at the kitchen table in his underwear. My mother greeted him with a beer and they talked so quietly I couldn’t hear. At the time, I remember being amazed he was up past 9 pm on a work night.
When he died, I claimed the red wheelbarrow. It was more rusted than red and the handles gave me splinters, but I’m kind of a tool gal and I figured it would be safe with me. And, it turns out, useful.
I have a beautiful granddaughter who loves gymnastics. None of the parents care too much when the coach hugs and pets the girls, but I feel the streak of violence from my Italian and Cherokee heritage vibrate like the low string on a guitar. The instincts that made me run when I was 12 are still intact.
I’m old now and not as strong as my father, but I can still manage to slide my new peach tree into the shallow hole. Mother and Father would be so proud.