Everyone had left the funeral parlor, as the Rossis stood gazing down at the stiff, lifeless fingers that were carefully placed on the brim of a Phillies cap purchased almost forty years ago. A moment later the lid of the casket was brought down, and the Rossis were then escorted to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.
It was a cold, gray day in early December; not a good day for standing graveside, if there was such a thing. Many of Michael’s friends were there—some old, some new. Just as the service was to begin, a nurse wheeled a frail elderly woman to the graveside and placed the chair beside Michael. Rose Montefusco had suffered a mild stroke that left her legs too weak to walk any distance. She sat beside Michael, clutching her rosaries, and at her dear brother’s final resting place, which was right beside her husband, Peter, she prayed for his eternal soul.
Off in the distance, there stood a woman in a long coat, wide-brimmed hat, and dark glasses—which, given the grayness of the day, seemed peculiar. She would have struck anyone noticing her, as a movie star not wanting to be recognized. Not many among those gathered graveside could have done so. The only one who could have identified her with any certainty was no longer among the living.
The woman stood off in the distance, not venturing any further. She gazed at the casket, as if trying to summon a glimmer of what she’d once felt for the old janitor who now rested inside. Her eyes traveled from the casket to the mourners, before they fixed on Michael and the young man who stood beside him. When the service ended, she turned away and disappeared.
After a quiet reception, the Rossis went home, dragged out all their Christmas decorations, put on carols, and took to the task of decorating. It seemed an odd thing to do following the burial of a loved one, but in the face of sadness, it was a welcome distraction. Besides, Michael was leaving on a trip, and he wouldn’t be returning for a week. So the Rossis strung their lights, trimmed their tree, and set up all their Dickens village pieces. At the end of the night, they drank a toast to the old janitor and their lives going forward. The following morning a very prompt Moose came by to take Michael to the airport.
Michael spent most of the plane ride poring over photo albums, old and new, that he took along. He brought photos of his wedding day and of Andrew’s childhood, though many of the photos were of Hector and Rose. For hours, he flipped through albums, amusing himself with all the characters that were his family. He came to a photo of his father and Uncle Peter. The two men were standing with their arms around each other, smiling proudly in their Phillies caps. Michael smiled, then wept for the loss of two Italian immigrants, who saw baseball as their own little piece of America.
After Michael made his way through customs, waiting for him and holding up a sign that read “Cousin Alfonzo” was Michael’s cousin Alfonzo from Italy. Alfonzo spoke English well enough, but he drove like a lunatic. Michael tried to enjoy the conversation along the way with this relative he’d just met for the first time, but he was too busy holding on for dear life. Cousin Alfonzo, in his little Fiat, zigzagged wildly through the province of Foggia. Coming from a land where roads are littered with sports utility vehicles, Michael wasn’t used to small Italian sports cars that sat just inches off the ground. The car plus Alfonzo made for a real adventure, and Michael couldn’t help sighing when Alfonzo, finally and thankfully, brought the little Italian machine to a stop.
Bicarri Foggia: population 3,070 — region, Apulia — patron saint, San Donato.
Like most towns on the Italian countryside, Bicarri Foggia was built into a hill and had its share of narrow streets, barely allowing for a car to pass. Michael was teetering from the ride. He almost lost his balance, when another miniature Italian vehicle came whipping wildly around the corner, nearly running him over.
“Careful, cousin,” said Alfonzo. “Not everyone looks where they’re going around here.”
“Really?” said Michael. But the sarcasm was lost on his bilingual cousin.
When he entered the house, Michael stood in the foyer, examining the mosaics on the walls and floor—all which seemed to depict something from biblical times, or had some sort of religious significance concerning the Roman Catholic faith. At the end of the foyer stood a table, which held a most impressive statue of the Madonna. The living room was scantly furnished with pieces that looked terribly uninviting for lounging; though, hanging on a wall and bordered with an overpowering ornate frame, was a painting of the Madonna. Michael thought to himself, boy, oh boy, am I in trouble!
Over the years, Hector spoke little of the family and life that he left behind in Italy, but he hoped one day to visit before dying. But the old janitor ran out of days, and now his son had come in his stead. As Michael looked around a home filled with nothing but religious artifacts and paintings, he wondered whether coming to Bicarri Foggia was a mistake.
Alfonzo led Michael through the dining room, which featured a painting of The Last Supper, before entering a patio enclosure. Outside the enclosure stood fig trees wrapped in blankets and tied for the winter. Further away were the remnants of a tomato garden. A tangle of vines hung on the fence enclosing the yard. Stone pots sat inside the enclosure. They held the withered remains of seasonal plants. In a corner rocking away in a chair, sat a familiar looking figure. He didn’t have a radio on the floor by his side, nor was he sporting a Phillies cap. Nevertheless, he looked quite familiar.
Said Alfonso: “Schiocchi, questo e` il vosreo nipote Miguel, dall` America.” Pop, this is your nephew, Michael, from America.
With an effort, Vittorio rose from his rocking chair and walked over to his nephew. Vittorio was two years older than Hector and a little shorter. Because of his advanced age, he walked with a slight bend at the waist. He smiled when first looking up at Michael, then wept. He was saddened to hear from his sister Rose that their brother had passed on. He became excited, though, when he learned that Hector’s son would be coming for a visit. Every day for a week, Alfonzo reminded his father that his nephew from America was coming. What Vittorio hadn’t counted on, nor expected, was the forty-eight-year-old man that now stood before him. Michael was a sobering reminder of how much time had passed since Vittorio and Hector’s tearful embrace the day Hector departed for America.
“Miguel,” he said, “Sono il vostro zio Vittorio, voi ho gererato il fratello piu` anziano.”
“I am your Uncle Vittorio, you father’s older brother,” Alfonzo translated for him.
For the first time since standing in Vincent Caruso’s kitchen, Michael Rossi got his cheeks pinched. Vittorio then led his nephew and son into the dining room, where he grabbed a jug of his homemade wine and poured.
Said Vittorio: “Per aiutarli a distendersi dopo un viaggio lungo.” To help you relax after a long trip. Then the three men raised their glasses “To famiglia.”
The wine was too dry and strong for Michael; nevertheless, he smiled and pretended to enjoy it. By the time he was halfway through the second pour, he was no longer pretending. Then he laid the photo albums out on the table. He spoke, Alfonzo translated, and Vittorio looked on with great interest. The old man had the same reaction, as did Michael, when he saw Hector and his brother in-law with their arms around one another, smiling and wearing Phillies caps. On the last page of the first album, was the wedding picture of Audrey and Hector. Vittorio held it up and said, “La vostra madre era una bellezza reale.” Your mother is a real beauty. Then he added, “Allora ha aggiunto, soddisfa gli da` tutti gli miei amore e condoglianze quando rinviate in America.” Please give her all my love and condolences when you return to America.
Michael asked Alfonzo that his father repeat what he just said, figuring that either his uncle was mistaken, his cousin misinterpreted, or that the wine had already gone to his head. But there was no mistake, and Michael was still quite sober. With a shrug he said, “Sure thing, Uncle Vittorio.”
“Hey Michael, you don’t look so good,” said Alfonzo. “You want some more wine?”
Michael threw down the last swallow of his second glass, then placed it firmly down on the table, indicating he wanted a refill. That night, as Michael lay in a terribly uncomfortable bed, in a cold, spare bedroom, he felt nothing but warmth in his heart for Alfonzo and Vittorio. In all three photo albums, there wasn’t a page that didn’t have a picture causing Vittorio to press his hands to his heart, or make his eyes well up. But there was also an ache in Michael’s heart.
For thirty-three years, Hector and Rose kept the news of Audrey’s leaving from their brother in Italy. Michael figured that his father had wanted it that way. Hector wasn’t burdened with too much pride, but evidently he was ashamed to tell his brother that his marriage had failed, or that he couldn’t keep his wife. The thought of his father living even one day of his life ashamed for something that his mother did, brought back all of Michael’s hatred.
The following morning after breakfast and bundling up for the weather, Vittorio said, “Viene Miguel, li ha lasciati camminare e gli mostrero` la nostro citta` di Bicarri Foggia e mentre camminiamo gli diro` la storia del vostro padre.” Come Michael, let us walk and I will show you our town of Bicarri Foggia. And while we walk, I will tell you the story of your father. As they walked, Vittorio spoke, Alfonso translated, and Michael listened.
Hector Rossi was born Hector Antonio Rosigliano, to Eligio and Theresa Rosigliano, in 1934—the same year that Adolph Hitler first met Benito Mussolini in Vienna. Hector and his three siblings: Vittorio, born 1932; Rose, or Rosa as she was called then, born 1928; and Emilio, born 1925, all growing up under Mussolini’s fascist regime. In 1939, after invading Albania, political leaders in Britain and France had opposed sanctions against Italy, suggesting it would push Mussolini to align with Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Said Vittorio: “I loro timori sono stati realizzati e ci siamo trovati stati allineati rispetto allo S. dei Nazi.” Their fears were realized and we found ourselves aligned with the Nazis.
Eligio Rosigliano was a Cavalier in the art of cabinet making, an honor bestowed upon him by the Italian government, before he joined the Italian Resistance. Initially the resistance was comprised of independent troops formed by members of political parties outlawed by Mussolini’s fascist regime. They fought underground against the regime and the monarchy. At the height of the German occupation, their numbers swelled to 300,000—35,000 of them women. During the height of the German occupation, Eligio’s oldest son, eighteen-year-old Emilio, felt pressed to join the resistance. The resistance succeeded in immobilizing eight of the twenty-six German divisions, but in retaliation the Germans killed 380 Italian man, women, and children.
Said Vittorio: “Ogni volta che abbiamo sentito I caricamenti del sistema in Marcia dei soldati tedeschi, abbiamo funzionato all’interno e ci siamo nascosti.” Whenever we heard the marching boots of the German soldiers, we ran indoors and hid.
Along with the other children of Bicarri Foggia, Hector and Vittorio played happily about, losing themselves in games with friends, never giving a thought to their father, Emilio, and the resistance. For a few hours a day, their youthful games insulated them from the war, their fascist government, and occupying forces. They were simply children acting as children, as it should be. But then they heard the menacing sound of marching boots in perfect sync. At first faintly in the distance, but then growing ever louder as the occupiers seemed to envelope the little town. At once, the children of Bicarri Foggia abandoned their play and scattered like sheep. Hector and Vittorio would run inside and hide under the bed. Together they would lie in terror and listen to the menacing march of the Nazi soldiers. After they passed, Hector and Vittorio would run to the window. Slowly lifting their eyes just above the sill, they’d watch until the soldiers were out of sight.
Said Vittorio: “Molte volte il vostri padre ed io sveglierebbero dopo che ha incubi di quei caricamenti del sistema in marcia.” Many times your father and I would wake up after having nightmares of those marching boots.
Afterward, Hector and Vittorio would run downstairs where they would find Rosa praying, as she always had during and following the soldiers passing through. Their eyes would then travel to their mother, whose cheerful and reassuring voice said one thing, but grim expression said another. There were times when Theresa Rosigliano could no longer sustain a strong front, knowing the danger in which Eligio and Emilio had placed themselves. She would leave for another room, though her muffled cries could still be heard. Later she would return to find Rosa already starting dinner and Hector and Vittorio setting the table. They would all take their places at the table, and as always, Rosa would say a prayer.
By the war’s end, the Italian Resistance had succeeded in controlling Venice, Milan, and Genoa, but they lost some 50,000 fighters, two of them, Eligio and Emilio Rosigliano. Peter Montefusco, or Pietro as he was known then, who also fought on the side of the resistance, had come home bearing the news.
Said Vittorio: “A lungo la nostra madre era inconsolable ed eravamo impaurita di che cosa sarebbe di noi.” For a long time our mother was inconsolable and we were afraid of what would become of us.
Rosa began running the household. Hector and Vittorio would come home after school and do whatever they could to help. Often, Peter Montefusco would come by and look in on them.
The Nazi occupation had all but ended, and the only soldiers heard coming through the province of Foggia were the Americans. The children in town would all cheer as they went by.
Said Vittorio: “Il vostro padre funzionerebbe in su al lato del GI e del’urlo americani il ‘Joe DiMaggio’” Your father would run up beside the American GI’s and yell, ‘Joe DiMaggio!’
The American soldiers would smile and wave at the young Italian boy, who ran, while yelling the only words he could speak that they would understand.
Times were getting tough at the Rosigliano household. Rosa was doing the best she could with what little there was. Peter helped out whenever he could, but at the current rate they weren’t going to survive for much longer. Peter suggested that Hector and Vittorio leave school to go to work. Peter had an uncle who had a farm down in the Tavoliere region, the lowlands of Foggia. The farms were all down in the lowlands, and like Peter’s uncle, all the farmers were looking for cheap labor.
“They could work seven days a week if they wanted,” said Peter. “On any farm!”
Said Vittorio: “Il ‘“che non li desidero ha separato.’ La vostra zia Rosa ha insistito. Il ‘I lo perettera` soltanto se possono funzionare insieme.’” ‘I don’t want them separated,’ your aunt Rosa insisted. ‘I will only allow it if they can work together.’
Every morning Hector and Vittorio woke at 5:00 am to begin their hike down the hill into the Tavoliere region, where from sun up to sun down, they harvested grapefruit, tomatoes, olives and durum wheat. For weeks they picked only the grapefruit, tomatoes and olives until they learned the knack of harvesting wheat. At the end of each day, they hiked through the Tavoliere and Apulia regions of Foggia, until reaching Bicarri. They would stand at the base of the hill with their exhausted, young legs, willing themselves to make the climb. Sometimes they would lean on each other as they made their way up the hill. Once, to better urge themselves along, they pretended to hear the marching boots of the German soldiers. “Hurry, Hector, I can hear them!” cried Vittorio with great urgency. Pretending such a thing only served to remind them why their father and Emilio were no longer around.
When Hector and Vittorio finally made it home, the ever dependable Rosa was always right there with a well prepared meal. And no matter what time the boys returned, they all ate together, and no one dare touch a morsel until Rosa was finished with her prayer.
Said Vittorio: “Concluderebbe sempre la sua preghiera dicendo, dio del `dal caro, guardare prego sopra il nostri Vittorio e tormentatore e li mantiene in buona salute e forti.’” She would always end her prayer by saying, ‘Dear God, please watch over our Vittorio and Hector, and keep them healthy and strong.’
On the many nights after dinner, when Peter Montefusco would come to call on Rosa, Hector and Vittorio would drag themselves to their room and collapse in bed. They were two young boys, age fourteen and twelve respectively, who were no longer in school and had very little playtime. They never complained, though, as they understood the situation. At the end of each week they would come hiking home and turn their entire pay over to Rosa. Peter had arranged for a tutor to come by on Sundays, so that Hector and Vittorio would have some schooling. He also managed to persuade the very proud Rosa to allow him to pay for it.
Theresa was growing more and more despondent over losing Eligio and Emilio. She grew haggard and listless, eventually becoming no factor at all in the lives of her remaining children. It seemed that at any given moment she might slip away or cease existing altogether. For awhile, Hector and Vittorio pretended not to notice, as Rosa prayed that the mother she once knew would soon return. Finally the three pulled together and rallied around their mother, urging her to come back to them. Rosa began taking the initiative by washing and rolling her mother’s hair. If she was too busy, the job was passed on to Hector. They all did what they could; and although they did their best to keep up with their mother’s appearance, Theresa Rosigliano would never return to her former self.
The following year, Peter asked for Rosa’s hand in marriage. With all the excitement of the wedding and its planning, Theresa began to rally, becoming more talkative. Occasionally she even smiled. But it wasn’t to last.
Said Vittorio: “Che` bride bello la vostra zia Rosa ha fatto. E che` giorno fiero per me, perche` senza nostri padre e Emilio, era il mio lavoro darla via.” What a beautiful bride your Aunt Rosa made. And what a proud day for me, because without our father and Emilio, it was my job to give Rosa away.
Michael put a comforting arm around his uncle, whose eyes began welling up when recalling the wedding day of a loved one that he hadn’t seen in over half a century.
Hey lo schiocco, arrestiamosi in Iupo ed otteniamo alcuni die quei il canoli che gradite. “Hey Pop,” said Alfonzo, trying to brighten the mood, “let’s stop in Iupo’s and get some of those cannoli you like.”
Following the wedding, all Peter could talk about was going to America. Rosa was hoping it was just a passing fancy that would soon blow over and be forgotten. Not that the idea of America didn’t excite or intrigue her—but she wasn’t about to leave her two younger brothers alone to take care of their mother. “As long as Mama is still with us, we have to take care of her,” insisted Rosa. “She is our family.”
It wouldn’t be much longer before Peter’s dream of going to America would be realized—for in the spring of 1949, Theresa Rosigliano passed away. A tearful fifteen-year-old Hector and seventeen-year-old Vittorio said goodbye to their sister. And although he never could have imagined it at the time, for Hector, it would only be goodbye for three years. Not so, however, for Vittorio.
“Uncle Vittorio, I promise to come back this summer with Aunt Rose,” said Michael. “I’ll bring my wife and son, too. We’ll all come to Bicarri Foggia for summer vacation!”
Said Vittorio: “Il mio fratello ha alzato un buon figlio.” My brother raised a good son.
With only themselves to look after and support, Hector and Vittorio decided they needed only to work five days a week. By year’s end, were still able to save enough money to buy a good secondhand car. The car came in handy, as it allowed them the luxury of sleeping in an extra hour in the mornings. They were home an hour earlier in the evenings. It was with all the newly found free time that Vittorio was able to court Lucia Verone.
Hector was happy that his brother found a nice girl. However, with Vittorio and Lucia spending more and more time together, Hector was growing lonely. Furthermore, not only was Vittorio involved in a courtship, but as the older brother, he had custody of the car, despite the fact that he and Hector had split the cost.
Hector spent many hours walking alone and remembering how he and Vittorio played together as children. It seemed that one day they were hiding under their bed from the Nazi soldiers, and the next, they were working to support their family. Now Vittorio and Lucia would soon have a life all their own.
What made Hector happiest during this lonely time was coming home and finding a letter from America. Every week without fail, Rosa had written to her brothers, and those letters meant the world to Hector. Because he was the youngest, it seemed that for half of his life his mother was sick and Rosa had effectively filled her shoes.
Said Vittorio: “Il vostro padre correrebbe alla cassetta postale, che spera per la parola dall’America. Your father would race to the mailbox hoping for word from America.
Hector would rip open the envelope, then sit in a corner alone and read silently to himself.
Added Vittorio: “Allora urlerebbe, il ‘viene Vittorio ed ascolta che cosa la nostra sorella deve dire.’ E lo leggerebbe ad alta voce.” Then he would yell, ‘Come Vittorio and listen to what our sister has to say.’ Then he would read the letter aloud.
That spring, Vittorio and Lucia were married. Shortly afterward, Hector handed his brother a letter from America. “Aren’t you going to read it aloud to me?” Vittorio asked.
Hector refused. He wanted Vittorio to read the letter himself. It read like an invitation—an invitation to come to America. Hector walked away, as Vittorio read the words of their sister. He wouldn’t return until the following day. He wanted Vittorio to read it over and over, taking the necessary time to consider it—to dwell on it. When Hector returned, what he wanted, and had been hoping, was that his older brother would give his blessing and approval.
The day before he was to leave, Hector walked up and down every street in the tiny town of Bicarri Foggia, saying his farewells to everyone he knew. It was a bittersweet time for Hector, anticipating the thrill of going to America and seeing Rosa, while at the same time weighing that against the sadness of leaving Vittorio. Part of him wished Rosa had never sent the letter. But Rosa and Vittorio had each chosen their path in life, and now it was time for Hector to choose his.
Hector and Vittorio stayed up late that night, remembering the days when they were a family of six. They talked of their childhood, when their father and Emilio would carry them up the hill when their young, tired legs couldn’t take but another step. At times they would cry to ride piggyback, which would prompt Eligio and Emilio to race up the hill with the four of them laughing all the way. When they made it home, as always, they were greeted by a happy Theresa, before Eligio and Emilio dropped the youngsters on the sofa. Rosa would then sit between them and read bible stories until dinner. Then came the war, followed by the occupation and resistance, and soon they were only three.
It was the spring of 1952, when Hector and Vittorio Rosigliano embraced and wept openly. At their ages of eighteen and twenty, they could never have imagined it would be the last time that they would ever see each other.
Michael said goodbye to Vittorio, with the promise that he would return in the summer with his wife, son, and Aunt Rose. He held on for dear life, as Alfonzo zigzagged his way through the province of Foggia on the way to the airport. Along the way, Alfonzo did most of the talking, as Michael was only half-listening. As Alfonzo went on, Michael’s gaze was fixed on the hills of the Italian countryside—a place that gave him a better understanding of the man who raised him.
“Cousin, you know he’ll be counting the days,” said Alfonzo.
“I know he will, Alfonzo,” said Michael, “I won’t disappoint him. I’ll be back.”
I really enjoyed this book. I felt as though I was friends with the characters in the book and I was brought back to a simpler time in my youth. Give it a read, you won’t be disappointed.
4 stars – review by Lungman00