About My Father
About my father, there are many things I know:
At the age of eleven, he came to the United States and was isolated for two months on Ellis Island with Typhus. He had traveled alone in the belly of a Cyprian steamer from Sicily and in his old age, he would sometimes say that the ship that took him to America was haunted. Everywhere he looked, he saw people he knew from his village: the butcher’s wife who never wore a brassiere, the bully from Palermo who squashed mice under his feet, the priest who had heard his first (and only) confession.
My father was a truck driver, but he hated travel. He was deathly afraid of airplanes. He made his own wine, but it was thick and bitter and only he could drink it. He was a cruel man. He often accused my mother of poisoning him. He was not above the occasional errand for the mafia. Once I recall how he hit a man with a wrench on the side of the head because “he didn’t know how to mind his own business.” Still, he was kind to me, always buying me gifts and apologizing for things that he had not done. I recall him saying to me once—we were walking somewhere—“I cannot help the way I am, Tommy. It is in my soul.” Such talk seems strange to me now.
My father had a profound distaste for the Catholic Church. I never understood why and my mother forbade me to bring the subject up. It was only in his extreme old age that I discovered the reason: her name was Francesca. Since then, the story has become an object of my imagination.
Francesca died. Or, she was thought to have died.
Medicine being what it was at the time, and in such a remote village, her death would have been declared on an absent pulse, a lack of breath. Maybe, she seemed cold. A doctor might only be a notion, not a reality. They would not have embalmed her. They would have buried her quickly fearing disease. The funeral would have processed through the winding streets and onto the outer road toward the graveyard. The whole village would have followed weeping against the sun and yellow dust.
I see my father’s face: young, clean, expressionless, his eyes eternally on the ground. His mother caresses him, but she might also be aware that even an eleven year old boy sometimes needs to be a man.
The priest would have spoken distant Latin phrases. Mid-prayer he might have noticed the body move, but thinking better of it, he would continue the ritual. Yet, when he pressed the holy oils on to her forehead and her eyes opened. How he would have been amazed. This girl roused from her illness—Was it a coma? A fever? Are there illnesses that can be confused with death? Were we ever so ignorant of the basic forces of nature?—and called out for her mother.
I imagine the village would have been equal parts affrighted and overjoyed. Hands would have been cupped over faces, or clasped in prayer. The sign of the cross would spasm across so many hearts. And the villagers who knew her best—my father one of them—would have approached the casket to take her from that terrible box, to pull her away from those dreadful flowers. But No!
This priest knew better than these peasants. He had been ordained to protect his flock against the powers of the unseen. Death, as he well knew, was the beginning of judgment and it was time for this young girl is the blossom of youth to be judged. He halted the village with his voice.
He commanded: “Satan! You shall have no dominion here! You who cause this body’s unrest! Back, back I say!”
Francesca would have been confused. She would have called again to her mother. Men loyal to the priest would have held back the crowd. They would have helped the priest press the wooden board over the kick body. They would ignore the cries of the villagers to stop. They would have dragged the box into the ground. They would have shoveled the soil over the body. They would protect the priest until the soldiers came to bring order back into the town. They would swear, weeks later, that she was pale, that they saw yellow in her eye, that her breath was unnatural. They would have reassured themselves that what they had done was right.
And what of my father during the episode? I can not imagine a boy of eleven strong enough to make a difference on the proceedings on that day. Yes, perhaps he went to confession. Yes, perhaps he brought with him a knife. Yes, perhaps he cut the priest down in the confession box. All I know for sure is that two weeks later, my father, at eleven years old and stricken with typhus, left Italy forever.
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