In the summer of love, I was 12 years old and living a white bread existence in the west end of Toronto the Good. Our house, a one and a half story, post-war ruddy brick and white lathe edifice, stood proudly on the corner lot of Holbrooke and Tenby, a “slightly irregular” testament to my father’s stubborn conviction that he was “handy” and to the scarcity of quality building materials available after World War II.
Three houses down from us was one of “those” houses – an uninhabited red-shingle house that leaned precariously over the property line to the south, sprouted a disreputable screened porch across the front, and wore an after-thought kitchen tacked inelegantly onto the back. Slate-grey steps rose from the level of the street to almost meet the porch door, each step slanted twenty degrees toward the soft ground on the right-hand side. There was even a shaky red-shingle garage at the end of the overgrown, shared drive.
At 12, I couldn’t have put into words the umbrage our neighbours held for the dilapidated red-shingle two-story. It looked like an ordinary house to me, just like all the others in the jumbled mix of semis, detached and brick and stone dwellings on our street. I only knew that the unfriendly, sideways glances of adults who passed by the home clearly communicated to me the feeling that this home was unwelcome among us, and that we were all properly embarrassed by its shabbiness.
Then a new family moved into the red shingle house that summer; a new family full of sisters with coal-black hair, tawny skin and pierced ears. Mother, Maria, was compact, if a little round, still with the long black hair and laughing eyes of her daughters. Father, Giuseppe, had a nut-brown face, fallen into sun-darkened, care-worn lines that framed a pencil-thin exotic moustache.
Then came the speculation, whispered around the neighbourhood.
“They’re Eye-talian, you know.”
I sensed that the pronunciation was not only wrong but also somehow disparaging, and it annoyed me.
“It’s Italian, Dad,” I remember saying on more than one occasion, making an attempt to elevate my dad’s underdeveloped level of sophistication. It took a few years for my dad to get it right. It took me a few years to get that for him, a veteran, it wasn’t about sophistication.
I wasn’t a complete neophyte when it came to Italian culture (although I wouldn’t have known that word then). At the bottom of my street was Alex’s Variety Store. It was “the store” to the neighbourhood kids – the place we all headed for on Saturday with our weekly allowance money. Alex provided all of the childhood essentials – ice cream, candy and pop. The first third of his store was dedicated to the purveyance of junk food; large-windowed displays showcased black balls, and sweet tarts, liquorice, and Pez. A large cooler cradled cold tubs of ice cream in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, but also contained tubs of strange-sounding concoctions like limone and spumoni. The foreign names and unusual appearance of the treats both intrigued and frightened me.
The rest of Alex’s store also intrigued and frightened. His dry goods selection included shelves full of big, bright porcelain objects, bowls and figurines and trays. Huge scrawling gold filigrees and bold primary pigments decorated the objects. I remember that I could never walk down those aisles, only stand with my toes across an invisible line only I could see between my world and these vibrant new wonders.
Although drawn by the carnival colours, I was alarmed by their brash size. They put to shame my mother’s collection of delicate brown horse figurines that barely made a showing in our living room. There were also beautifully displayed gauzy white christening gowns, iced with satin ribbon and edged in delicate boxes like cakes in a bakery. I can remember thinking, what incredible doll clothes! High-heeled ladies’ shoes in shiny black patent with drastically pointed toes were set against the back wall by the alley door.
Even more, Alex offered a collection of 45s from Italy, labelled and, presumably, sung in Italian. The fact that Italian people could actually buy stuff made just for Italians, from a store in my neighbourhood was a revelation to me. It was an epiphany that shook my Wonder-bread world. I wanted to know more, see more, and taste more. I was empty – a goblet waiting for the vino to be decanted.
After the new family moved in, little things about the red-shingle house began to change. Flowers appeared beside the sad grey steps, major excavation began in the back yard near the shaky garage and the disreputable porch attained an air of respectability with a coat of sparkling white paint around its sagging windows.
I, being an only child, gloried in the knowledge that the middle daughter, Vicky, was about my age; her older sister, Teresa, was 14 and younger sister, Angie, about 7. After two weeks or so of being coy with each other, Vicky and I both decided simultaneously that a jump rope worked better with someone at both ends and we quickly became good friends. Vicky began to draw me into her house and into her world.
My first venture into the red-shingle house took me into a worn-out but scrupulously clean kitchen full of loud voices, warm laughter and the exotic scents of sweet garlic and spicy espresso. Vicky’s parents spoke little English, but their hospitality was so expansive, it easily eclipsed any need for language.
“Hello! Hello! Mangia! Mangia!” was the only greeting I required to know that I was welcome in their home.
So began my own personal calabrese odyssey.
I learned how to drink caffè espresso (with lots of sugar and cream, please). Vicky’s dad carefully brewed the magic elixir in the tiny stainless steel coffee maker on the top of the stove. I loved the tiny cups that Vicky’s mom would get down from the cupboard, placing one before each of us and smiling indulgently as she handed me the sugar and cream. It seems that the thick dark ambrosia was not to be consumed with such ameliorating accoutrements; rather it should slide over the tongue and down the throat like hot tar. Vicky’s parents were generous in their tolerance of my need to tone down the experience with the familiars of my own cultural norms, always passing the sugar and cream to me without my having to ask.
As our friendship deepened, I began to know more about the inner machinery of this complex family. Primarily, they worked – hard. Maria and Giuseppe both held full-time factory jobs – difficult, sweaty labour that nevertheless provided them with the wages they needed to scrape forward, inch by inch, towards their plans for a better life. After the factory there was the garden and the house and the cooking and the shopping at Tumino’s grocery store.
The girls were responsible for cleaning the whole house every day. In fact, their “chores” came before everything except school. Having fun clearly came after responsibilities were discharged. I thought it highly unfair and on occasion, I heard a few loud arguments about the way in which the priorities were set, the girls complaining loudly in English, Maria responding in even louder Italian.
I didn’t realize then that these angry discussions were evidence of two cultures in collision.
Maria and Giuseppe were also very strict about dating and makeup. They tried to control the whole teenaged girl thing, but it seems that teenage girls in Toronto proved a far different breed than those in Calabria. Teresa, the eldest, chaffed the least against these rules. She accepted that she would marry at some point with her parents’ doting consent and approval.
Ah, but Vicky – she was a rebel to be sure. She secretly started dating a local hoodlum named Luigi. Even I didn’t know about it for six months, so well planned were the assignations. Vicky had to be very careful and very sneaky. Her parents would never approve, either of her dating or her choice. I thought she was very daring. It must have been exciting and heartbreaking for her, all at the same time.
Ironically, as I enthusiastically embraced the closeness of the Italian way, Vicky was struggling to be more independently Canadian.
In those early days the generosity of spirit of Vicky’s family moved me to make a “great plan.” I would attempt to learn the Italian language. I pressured Vicky into teaching me a few simple phrases to start: “direct me to Rome” and “the coffee is ready” being my first helpful expressions. We discussed the fact that Italian and French (which I was studying in school) had some similarities.
“Window in French is la fenêtre, right?” Vicky once told me in her near-perfect English. “In Italian we just add an s’. So window is la finestra, see?” Sure, yeah, okay.
My very slight forays into speaking Italian, dirigimi a Roma and il caffè pronto entertained Vicky’s parents immensely, my every utterance greeted with enthusiastic nodding and great bouts of smiling laughter.
I was elated. I had a secret pleasure that I shared with these wonderful, lively, generous people. I was through la finestra. I belonged.
Came the day that I decided to really impress my new second family. I borrowed a 45 record from Vicky. The title, the writing on the picture jacket, everything was in Italian – not a word I could understand. I felt very “in the know.”
The song was called Cuore Matto (Crazy Heart). It was 2 minutes and 30 seconds-or-so long and it was completely in Italian. I sat down by my little orange and white Seabreeze record player with a pen and paper, and I listened to Cuore Matto over and over and over.
After six hours, I was letter perfect. I could sing the whole song phonetically, having, of course, absolutely no idea what I was saying. It was a wonderful experience, touching, albeit in a cheating kind of way, what it felt like to be Italian. I was fiercely proud of myself.
Vicky assembled her parents in the front porch, both of them seated comfortably on the lop-sided old green couch, draped with a greying sheet. I opened my mouth
Un cuore matto che ti segue ancora, / e giorno e notte pensa solo a te, / e non riesco a fargli mai capire, / che tu vuoi bene a un altro e non a me. / Digli la verità e forse capirà/ perché la verità tu non l’hai detta mai Un cuore matto, matto da legare (matto da legare), / un cuore matto, che ti vuole bene (che ti vuole bene)
When I finished, a slight squeak to my voice on the high note, there was complete silence. Maria looked at Giuseppe and said something quietly, behind her hand. I was worried that perhaps somehow, I’d offended them, that my gift had not been received in the same spirit as it was given.
It was then I saw the sparkle of a single tear coursing down Maria’s rouged cheek. She turned and smiled at me, her eyes conveying warmth, understanding and thanks. Giuseppe, too, was nodding and smiling, holding Maria’s hand gently in his. Then they were up off the couch, feeding me espresso and cookies; a gesture I’d come to associate with pleasing them. I’ve never forgotten the words to Cuore Matto.
The red-shingled house’s reputation was improved with the neighbours, as Vicky’s family worked their magic. A beautiful garden of flowers grew that helped disguise the drooping steps and camouflaged the disreputable porch. They shored up the shaky garage and dug and planted an extensive vegetable garden in the back yard. In the fall, the scent of mature grapes presaged the making of homemade wine and grilled peppers packed in olive oil. The red-shingled house was still a little different, but it was one of us now.
When I reached my late teens, Vicky and her family moved off my block, taking up residence in a huge back-split home in Mississauga. I didn’t want them to move and I mourned the loss of proximity to my second family and adopted culture.
Eventually, Vicky married her bad-boy boyfriend, Luigi (with her parents’ blessing) and had a child with him. This and other life priorities have since conspired to keep us apart.
Although I have never again had the opportunity to pass through la finestra, I hold tight to my memories and impressions, jealously keeping them near my “crazy heart” to warm my Wonder-bread soul.
And when I can, I flutter my wings occasionally against a window that’s bright and brash and colourful and, for me, thankfully, still slightly ajar.
Valerie V. Deacon lives in Etobicoke – three blocks from her childhood home – and works as a law clerk in Toronto. She has been writing poetry and short stories since childhood.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 3.