1969. Good Bye, Montreal -- I forgot to say it then so I'll say it now
My first memory of needing to say goodbye was in 1969. I was born in 1960 in Niagara Falls, Canada. I lived in a small wartime house on Franklin Avenue with my family of four plus my maternal grandparents. The house is still there (minus the pink aluminum siding); I think my parents paid six thousand dollars for it.
We moved to Montreal in 1965. I don't remember needing to say goodbye to anyone that we left behind in Niagara because our entire extended family was either moving with us to Montreal or already lived there. As a four-year-old, I don't remember being very close to anyone else in Ontario that I would miss.
For our brief stint in Montreal (NDG and Parc Extension) we were, quite literally, surrounded by family and paesani. In our duplex on Avenue Wiseman, we lived on the main floor with our parents and grandparents -- I had, and still have, one brother. On the second floor, were my aunt, my uncle and their three children -- all slightly older than my brother and I but still great friends to this day.
Side note -- and for the record -- I did not set that fire behind the house, under the balcony of our duplex. My brother and my cousin, Flam, did. These seven- and eight-year-old pyro-miscreants blamed me, the convenient target about whom it was not such a stretch to believe such a thing. And so the story stuck. As recently as a few years ago, while visiting in Montreal, my uncle reminded me of this combustive mischief. I told him it was my brother and cousin -- his daughter -- who did the deed. They were both present during this exchange -- the stinkers denied it.
We had a shared basement/garage that went the length of the apartments above it. At least that's my recollection -- I'm sure it had some supporting beams or walls. Regardless, it was, for sure, a very large room. More about this later.
Our school, Blessed Edmund Campion, was within walking distance. Ironically, it was not until we moved back to Niagara that I learned French in school. Our neighbourhood was very Anglo and multicultural. Francophones were conspicuously absent from the hood.
Within a few square kilometres were scores of other family and paesani. One of the main streets close to where they lived was Avenue Querbes. It wasn't long after my immediate family moved out that the Expos baseball team took up residence in Parc Jarry (also close to where we lived).
Speaking of geography, the story goes that in one of those first winters of Italians immigrating to a particular part Montreal -- I think it may have been NDG -- coinciding with the first season of wine making, the wine was stored in barrels in a field both adjacent to a railroad track and behind the apartment complexes. Where else were they supposed to store barrels of wine? Not in a 650 square foot apartment.
As you may or may not know -- and as, clearly, the paesani did not know -- the Montreal winters could be significantly colder than the Calabrese (Southern Italian ) winters. The story goes that when they wanted wine, they would walk out to the barrels in the field, turn on the tap, fill a flask and away they went with their eighteen percent, sugar fortified wine made from the cheapest California grapes available.
This worked well for the beginning of that first Montreal Canadian winter. But at the coldest part of that Quebecois hiver, this one particular paesano went to get some wine, but on this blustery January day, oddly, the wine came out in drips and drabs. And it looked significantly less red than its fellow bottles siphoned off earlier that year. No matter. Wine in hand, soon delivered, family and paesani quaffed merrily. They were, however, quickly inebriated before imbibing considerably less that normal.
If you have some viticultural knowledge, you'll know -- as they were about to learn the following spring -- what had happened. Apparently, when wine gets extremely cold (aka frozen) the juice separates from the alcohol -- IE. alcohol does not freeze -- which is what they discovered in the spring: a barrel full of sugary sweet, very light in alcohol, grape juice. In other words, for much of that deep cold winter, they were drinking high proof alcohol.
If you want a better explanation, check this out: http://www.winespectator.com/drvinny/show/id/52050
What does this have to do with saying goodbye? Good question. I'm trying to paint a picture of some of the narrative -- immigrant folklore, if you will. Who knows how much of it is true and how much of it has been recreated and reshaped by the memory and retelling?
Back to those crazy, huge shared basements. For many Christmases and Easters, either we or our Querbes families would host the extended family. We would set up I don't know how many folding tables. Remember this was the 1960s (long before the lightweight folding, plastic tables now available at any Walmart or Home Depot). I'm sure the 1960s versions made of plywood, metal legs and laminate tops were about five times the weight of their modern counterparts. Where did they come from? Who brought them? Who set them up? These are things that never entered the mind of a child.
Several memories that come to the forefront of these parties: one, full meals with pasta and meatballs, followed by several other courses were always served. Who made the food for all these glorious Italian immigrants? I would venture to say there were at least forty of us. Speaking of food, there were always zeppole (Italian deep fried doughnuts which may or not have contained surprise! anchovies). Two: the laughter and the happiness. My recollection is that there were plenty of both. Three: lots of smoking -- back in the sixties, having a cigarette in hand was like having a cell phone today.
Something else I should say before leaving the laughter and the happiness. A while ago, my son said, "Dad, you should blog about those crazy parties the relatives used to have in the basement of your house when you were a kid." And this is to my point: the reason I've never blogged about it is the same reason why I started and never finished the two blog posts I mentioned before. My point is that saying goodbye is very difficult for some of us. Perhaps it's predominantly a male thing... I don't know, but it's difficult to recollect beautiful things that are gone forever.
I remember my grandfather staying home from Christmas midnight mass because, well, yes, he didn't like church, but also so he could cook a rabbit for us ready to be eaten upon our return at 1:00 a.m. Unlike the ladies in the family, Nonno cooked seldom, but when he did it was with an excessive amount of oil. Lots of white wine and herbs too. It was the best rabbit I've every had. I'll never have rabbit that tastes like that again. And it's both painful and beautiful to remember our extended family as we gathered in my grandparents' dining-room for so many meals in their humble, semi-detached home on Meadowvale Drive in the 1970s and 1980s. I had a difficult time saying goodbye to my Nonno when he left us in 1989. And to my Nonna when she passed away in 2005.
Back to my numbering the Montreal shared basement memories. Four: the games and the storytelling. There were many games, hence the laughter and the joy both of which were no doubt helped along by the wine. The one game I remember was one which only the men played. Here's how it worked. You went to the front of the room and turned your back to everyone. Staring straight out in front of you, you put one hand beside your face, palm facing outward. There were two ideas behind this: one was to create a surface area with the palm of your hand and two was that you couldn't see what/who was behind you. Then -- and here's the fun part of the game -- someone would sneak up and smack your hand. If you could guess who it was, you'd switch places.
Speaking of names, there were only a few male names. There were anywhere from two to half a dozen of each of these: Rocco, Salvatore, Giuseppe, Cosmo, Antonio, Bruno and Ilario were some of the forerunners. And then there were the diminutives of said names. For example, Rocco could be Roccuzzo. I was Roe-kee (I wouldn't know what the Calebrese spelling could possibly be). For Giuseppe there was Peppino and Peppe. For Salvatore there was Sammi and Turi and so on. Oh, and one of my favourites: for my brother and me, our Zio Antonio -- until he passed away in March of 2013 -- was Zio Totò.
Back to the game. I'm told, although I don't remember, that my Zio Rocco hit so hard that he wasn't allowed to play anymore. My uncle worked in auto body shops his entire adult life. Each of his hands were like meat tenderizers. Here's where the timeline gets murky: the story goes that this particular game ended for good when someone who was quite likely drunk and packed a mean swing hit a brother or a cousin or a paesano so hard that something white went flying out of the victim's mouth.
My dad says he remembers thinking it was a Chiclet. You know, the chewing gum? Well, it was a chiclet but not the literal kind. Rocco or Bruno or Salvatore or Ilario or Cosmo or Antonio had lost a tooth. And that's how the infamous game ended forever.
Four continued: the storytelling. I can't remember any of the stories my Zio Totò used to tell. Only that they were very entertaining. Years later he told me that after some long convoluted tale he had spun I had asked him to tell it again. It was my first time hearing, years later as an adult, that he couldn't retell many of these stories because he was making them up as he went.
My dad likes to remind us that at one of these basement parties my uncle was being prodded to tell a story. He politely but firmly declined the repeated requests. Apparently storytellers were supposed to stand on a chair for their oration. My dad says that my uncle, his brother, leaned over to him and informed him sotto voce, "Cosmo, I can't tell a story. Right now, I'm seeing three of you. I don't think getting up on a chair is such a good idea." Remember that sugar fortified, eighteen percent alcohol wine?
I was reminded about something important regarding the stories I heard in my upbringing when I read the Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints trilogy. The narratives of Nardo di Pace -- our family's village of origin -- that I heard as a child went deeper than the mere retelling of events. They were folklore in the truest sense of the word. They painted a picture of a peasant life that had barely changed for centuries prior to my parents' generation and maybe one generation before them when they started to immigrate to North America, South America and Australia as they sought to make a better life for themselves and their children. For hundreds of years, they were subconsciously moulded by a combination of Catholicism, mountainous rural living and an ancient Roman mysticism. And here's the kicker: it's a crazy humbling thought that I too have been shaped by this mixed bag of influence.
Five. I'm remembering this one right now in real time. The children. It occurs to me that my memories are mostly of the adults. I have vague recollections of one of the Querbes family basements having a small room with couches and a television. I think we kids would go watch TV there sometimes. I have other recollections that, when the weather was nicer, we'd play in one of the very small backyards. But by far, the most vivid memories were the ones described above. They were communal. The picture below is of my grandmother laughing after opening a nicely wrapped Christmas gift -- or so she thought -- only to discover a zeppole inside.
Years later, I remember asking my parents -- probably sometime in the 1980s -- do they still get together in Montreal? Do they still gather for Christmas or Easter? The answer was, sadly, no. Those were poor times. All they had was each other. As each family became more established, they moved out of Parc Extension -- they went to various other suburbs of Montreal. Some landed in other parts of Canada or the United States. Some even returned to Italy. Each family started having extended families of their own and so the story goes. Time made its relentless march toward change. I'm reminded of a Tom Waits lyric:
With a steeple full of swallows that could never ring the bell
And I've come ten thousand miles away...
It was a train that took me away from here
But a train can't bring me home
I know that memory can take off the jagged edges, buff out some of the imperfections of what really was. But to me, this was one of the most beautiful, love-filled, joyous, innocent times of my life. It ended. It was nobody's fault. It was life. It was migrant evolution.
I have a memory of leaving Montreal in 1969. I had no capacity to understand what was happening. I was eight and a half years old. Our 1968 Impala was packed. It would've likely been 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. As we were saying our goodbyes, my then sixteen year old cousin, Pompea, burst into tears as she hugged my parents. I was bewildered. My wife would tell you not much has changed. I'm still bewildered by emotion :) I remember asking my parents later on the trip back to Niagara what was wrong with my cousin. I'm sure they gave me a very reasonable explanation which, again, was totally lost on the brain of an eight-year-old boy.
The problem is, in some ways, I'm still that eight-year-old boy. It was hard to say goodbye to one of my best friends from my twenties who died a year and a half ago after a long bout with cancer. It was difficult to say goodbye to a thirty year career in teaching. And I could list several other difficult goodbyes.
But I'm getting better. I was able to visit and say goodbye to the high school that closed its doors in June of 2017 -- a school that I had taught in for nineteen years.
I guess in the end, saying goodbye well hinges on being present, attentive and fully alive in the moments that lead up to the goodbyes. Another way of looking at it is that to say goodbye -- short for God Bless Ye -- or farewell is to give someone a blessing. And to give someone a true blessing you must truly love them and wish them well in a manner that pays true attention to the other.
I will end and leave all my friends and family who are reading this with the Hebrew word "Shalom" which usually gets translated as "peace". And although "peace" is definitely part of the definition, this word, which is used idiomatically as "hello" or "goodbye", is more fully translated as follows: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. The word is highly moral and originally connected to the divine.
Can you imagine a world in which saying "hello" or "goodbye" to someone truly meant shalom?
And so, shalom to everyone reading this; goodbye -- or God Bless Ye -- until i write again :)
I don't usually dedicate my blog posts, but -- to make my point above -- I'll dedicate this to my brother Salvatore, my cousin Salvatore, my other cousin, Salvatore, my uncle Rocco, my Nonno Rocco and my cousin, once removed, Rocco :)