Published on October 10th, 2016 | by Joanna Clapps Herman2
Joanna Clapps Herman on WHAT WE REMEMBER
My father is slamming the door between the kitchen and the garage so hard it bounces. Then, the car door goes off like a shot. He’s going down the street. That’s what we call it: The North End Social Club, where the boys play gin rummy, bisquet, cook, and watch television, once it invades the 50’s. Sometimes the cops pound on the door of the club—shouting, “Police!! so the neighbors’ll be sure to hear. This way the boys who have recently gotten out of the can have time to climb out the back window so the cops won’t have to pinch them for breaking parole,” my father explains with deep affection for us, for his friends, for his life down the street.
After the ruckus, the cops, sitting down, have a plate of macaroni with sausage and meatballs, while they tell the boys about the complaint about too much noise from one of the club’s nosey neighbors, or explain, like the regular guys they are, that they’re sorry they are going to have to take Crazy Mo’ in this time. His wife has filed against him again. Otherwise they’d have to pinch Dirty Mo and Other Mo too.
“They’re good guys, the cops,” my father explains to us, his girls, in his deep, soft voice. “They don’t want to make trouble.” He likes to bring his girls, my sister Lucia and I, in on the goings on at the club. Explain the ways of his world to us.
But tonight, my mother stands, hair curled, lipstick on, her back arched in a fury against the stove. She’s just scrubbed away the spills of dinner.
The hum of late summer heat comes in through the windows over the sink.
“He’s always going down to that club. He’s supposed to be taking us for a ride. It’s a beautiful summer night,” her glinting eyes swing over to where Lucia and I have landed, beside the stove, after we ran in from the yard. We’d been playing in the hot sinking glow when we heard their voices roar, then hiss.
“Peter, why do you get like this? Who’d you loan money to this time? Tell me.
“Oh you make me so mad.”
Our father stands there furious, helpful. She’s got him dead to right. But that doesn’t change much between them.
The avocado green stove is a wall Lucia and I stand near for protection. There’s a ribbon of hot summer air between us.
She glares around.
She turns to us next, “You should be saying, ‘Daddy, take us for a ride. Take us to the drive-in,’” my mother flings at us. She’d like to give someone a slap.
Going for a ride and buying ice cream isn’t enough to make sitting in the back seat with the two of them in the front, livid and mute with one another, worth it.
My parents are mad for each other both with wild love and terrible fights. But tonight my mother’s fury about my father going down the street again is descending to a new depth.
Her words fall around us like dead leaves. Our eyes blink into the sunset that is taking place in the windows behind the trees, while we wait for her to come to what we’d rather do anyway: spend the long summer nights with my mother’s sisters and their kids, while all the husbands are somewhere else—Dad at the club, Uncle Rocco out with his mistress, Uncle Gene eating ice cream that will leave him with a diabetically induced amputation in a few years, Uncle Al down at the Waterbury Republican newspaper plant working the night shift, and Uncle Joe in his chair asleep, dirt under his finger nails, dreaming about the neat rows of tomatoes and peppers in his garden—leaving the women and kids to walk each other back and forth on the dirt sidewalks late into the night, gossiping, a che murmurade (who shall we murmur about) about our neighbors, the lousy coffee Mrs. S. served without an “and”, which husband was beating his wife.
“It’s getting late, we’d better walk you home,” we’d say, walking up and down under the dusty trees to pull the night into longer and longer stretches, so we’d have time for another story, another cartwheel.
My mother has recently found out that she’s had a hysterectomy many months earlier about which she was not informed until long after it was done by our beloved Dr. Lombardi, who drives from house to house to take care of us all when we’re sick, however late the night becomes. She never questioned why it took months to recover from a D and C while she lives at my grandfather’s house and Lucia and I each stay at different cousin’s houses. Or why Dr. Lombardi didn’t tell her until just very recently.
But tonight my mother’s fury about my father going down the street has a new hysteria to it. It’s taken a new turn, as if a taranta has taken its bite from her.
She has never been this mad, this despairing before when they fight.
There’s a frenzy, a wild over-taking of her.
She begins to screech, high pitched, a shrill wail, it rises as a siren, piercing the summer night, piercing our ears and skin. She flings herself down onto the kitchen floor, yanking the blue and green stripes of her dress up over her head as she falls into writhing and wailing on the linoleum.
She’s exposing herself: the wrong side of the fabric over her head, the pale skin of her legs, her underwear showing. She shouldn’t do that.
The sight sears and seals in my brain.
In my story, in my mother’s kitchen, I am frozen in my place by the avocado stove, waiting for all the screaming to stop.
Until I ask my sister, Lucia, 30 years later sitting at her large. wood, kitchen table in Cambridge Massachusetts if she remembers what I remember of that night—my mother pulling her dress up over her head and throwing herself to the floor, the unholy shrieking.
“Remember?” she answers me incredulously. She shakes her head, quiet, sad.
We are drinking my father’s favorite cold drink—large glasses of ice tea. The large heavy glass goes down to the tabletop.
Then she describes to me in exquisite detail what happens next.
“Yes, I remember that night. I was so terrified. Dad said he was going to leave us.
“He was screaming, ‘Get up Rose. Stop that, right now. Get up off the floor, or I’m leaving you.’”
But she wouldn’t stop crying, screaming. She wouldn’t get up.” He was standing over her.
His own mother was institutionalized by the time he was five. All he remembered about his mother was her bathing him in dirty water when he was very small. “I knew what my mother was doing wasn’t right, even then,” he explained to his daughters much later on.
“I kept trying to get Mom to get up too. But she wouldn’t move,” Lucia continues at her kitchen table, “I was terrified that Dad was going to leave us.
“‘I’m leaving,’ he screamed.
That must have been when he walked out the door and slammed it. That was when we heard the car begin to whine backward down the driveway.
“I ran after him.” Lucia’s hands are wrapped around the faceted glass. Tears are rolling down the soft skin of my sister’s face.
“I ran down the driveway after him, ‘Don’t leave us. Don’t!’
“He stopped the car when he saw me, got out, put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me. ‘I would never leave you girls.’
“‘Never.’ Was what he said.”
My sister, all those years later, lifts her amber tea to her lips, her eyes liquid, releases with her memories, the rasping scrape of crickets outside the window, the quivering air of that summer night, into her kitchen.
We don’t talk that night at my sister’s table about pizzica tranata, the tranrantula’s bite that leads to tarantismic, frenzied dancing that goes on for days to release and ease female hysteria in southern Italy where our family is from. We don’t know about this yet. We are not thinking about the way the older women of our Italian family cry in ancient, shrill keening against the cruel fates at our funerals. We won’t make these connections for more decades still.
In Cambridge in my sister’s kitchen we are just two American daughters reassembling the pieces of a devastation from our Italian past without knowing its name yet.
The feature collage in this article was created by Joanna’s niece, the artist Anna Mudd, who writes:
“The photographs included in this image come from Ernesto De Martino’s groundbreaking book The Land of Remorse, the first in-depth scholarly study of the ecstatic ritual known as tarantism in Southern Italy. It was my mother who first pointed out to myself and my aunt, the author of “What We Remember,” the connections between this raw and “ferociously difficult” moment in their lives, and folk practice that was, for so many women, a space to bring their own complicated and painful emotional experience. I am so moved to see this moment in my grandmother’s life held with such care, and added to this larger ocean of stories.”