The first time I heard the story of the opera Aida, I was sitting on the screened porch with my grandfather. Out beyond the screen, the fireflies sporadically lit the velvet darkness. On the porch, the light from the kitchen window cast a soft glow touching the top of my grandfather’s balding grey head. It didn’t quite reach me, lying prone on the old metal glider. I remained in darkness, hearing the story of the Egyptian princess who died sealed in a tomb with her lover Radames.
It was mid-September. School had started the week before and I must have asked my grandfather to tell me a story to avoid the inevitable advent of bedtime, which came a full hour earlier than it did during the summer. No selection from the Brothers Grimm for him: He chose to tell me Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of love and betrayal. He also sang excerpts from the score, his hoarse baritone intoning in perfect Italian the words from his countrymen’s score.
“Pur ti riveggo, mio dolce Aida. Nel fiero anelito; Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti .. La, tra foreste vergini”
I was enthralled with this story, more exciting than any fairy tale I’d ever heard. Closing my eyes, I breathed the fruity scent of my grandfather’s pipe tobacco, trailing my fingers over the edge of the glider to touch the rough wooden porch floor.
My grandfather brought his love of opera with him from his native Sicily. He played records of the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso for hours, sometimes to the annoyance of his three daughters and one son, who preferred something more contemporary. When he packed up his small brown leather barber’s bag and set out for a day cutting hair, he took the tunes with him. Wrapped in his white barber coat, he sang opera to customers instead of making small talk. With every clip of his scissors he hit another note. I imagined him dusting talc to the rhythm of the tunes. Between songs, he filled customers in on the stories – but none were as good an audience as I was lying on the back porch.
Everyone loved his singing. Everyone, except my grandmother.
I always feared that my warm feelings for my grandfather somehow betrayed her. The enmity between them started before I was born. He had abused her for years, somehow justifying the slaps he delivered as his spousal privilege. No one in the family could tell me how soon after their wedding that the abuse began, but my mother confirmed it was a common occurrence by the time she was born – their third child and youngest of their three daughters.
Still, my grandfather was considered the catch of the neighborhood and family lore said that some women held a grudge against my grandmother for snagging him. When I was in my teens, I sat looking through a photo album with Gram. She pointed out two of the women.
“They stopped speaking to me when I married your grandfather,” she said. I peered at their homely faces, eyes staring mournfully at me from the sepia print in the old album. I glanced at my grandmother. She was clearly a prettier woman than either of the ones in the picture.
“They never forgave me.” Gram paused. “I wish they’d broken both my legs on the way to the church.” I froze. Seeing my face, she started to laugh and I laughed too. But I knew she wasn’t really joking.
If no one knew exactly when my grandparents’ domestic discord started, family members could pinpoint the moment that it stopped. One day, as my grandfather stood over my grandmother scrubbing the floor, his arm raised to deliver a blow, he felt a hand on the back of his collar. Turning, he saw his son, my Uncle Gene, who at 16 towered over his father. Gene delivered a five-word warning: “Stay away from my mother.”
There were no more slaps, only my grandmother’s memories of them. Eventually Gram found a way to even the score. Selling an old Victrola, she included his Caruso records in the deal. She insisted it was an accident. “I didn’t know they were in there,” she claimed.
Home from college for the holidays, I watched my grandfather dozing in his easy chair and tried to match the man who had acted so cruelly with the person I saw: a short elderly man with a pot belly and thinning hair. He woke from his post-dinner nap to watch Gunsmoke. As he contemplated the exploits of Sheriff Matt Dillon, his head nodded in a silent affirmation to some question only he could hear. It was bewildering to try to reconcile the opera lover and armchair cowboy with the man who mistreated my grandmother. When I learned about opera from grandpa, I’d heard a term: verismo. It referred to a realistic style of opera, often marked by events that are sordid or violent. And so it was with my grandfather and my family: Our story was earthy and colorful, with moments of darkness. For years, I quizzed other family members about my grandfather, trying to pinpoint the stories that would define him.
“He lived in the dance halls and concert halls,” my mother often said when recalling memories of her father from her girlhood. “On New Year’s Eve, all the neighbors took turns waltzing with him. No one could waltz like he did, European style. He did pivot turns around the big foyer at 512.” 512 Kelly Avenue in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh, was the house where we lived with my grandparents until I was eight. The dancing was over by the time I knew Grandpa, replaced by gardening as a favorite pastime. I spent hours following him as he tended his plants.
Roses were his passion and summer found him bent over the bushes, sprinkling lime on the soil at their base, like some magic dust to help them grow. He’d stop, mopping the weathered brown skin on his forehead with a large white handkerchief. After squinting briefly at the sky, he’d stuff the hanky in his pocket and return to his task. The roses dotted the bushes like gems at his fingertips, rich in reds, pinks and corals. There also were peach-colored azaleas, stamens pointing like antennae from the center of the flower, and hydrangeas, their violet heads bowing heavy in the summer heat. I loved the pungent smell of the herbs Grandpa planted. He taught me to rub the leaves of basil – “basilico,” he called it – against the palm of my hand. I breathed the scent it left on the palm, like the promise of a meal yet to be cooked. The tiny, yellow star-shaped flowers on the tomato plants were my favorite things in the garden. I learned that the flowers became the pear-shaped red tomatoes used in the sauce my grandmother made on spaghetti Wednesdays in their household – so named because spaghetti was on the menu every Wednesday for all 60 years of their marriage. I had my role in the process. My grandfather placed a load of tomatoes in my cradled arms: “Take them to Grahnd-mah.” I walked slowly and deliberately in my tiny sandals across the grass, up the porch stairs and into my grandmother’s kitchen to deliver them. Soon the aroma of sauce wafted through the house where it lingered all day. I couldn’t tell you any other perfume that my grandmother wore. Her signature scent was basil and tomatoes.
The making of sauce was the only time I ever remembered my grandparents collaborating on a project. As years went on, they spent most of their time at opposite ends of the house, avoiding each other. They seldom sat in the same room. She held court in the kitchen. He spent hours in front of the television, taking breaks for lunch, dinner and to pack his pipe with fresh tobacco.
When I was older, I went to the Wilkinsburg Public Library every Friday. I paused in the lobby of the municipal building to read the names of residents who served in the military. Balancing my stack of books under one arm, my finger traced its way down the list of names carved into the wall, until it reached Ferdinand Reolo under the World War I veterans. I had seen the photos of my grandfather in his uniform, leaning against a motorcycle. That persona could have come right out of the copies of Hemingway I toted under my arm. He was like one of the war heroes in those novels, young, handsome – the kind of man that women fought over. The catch of the neighborhood.
College and my first job distanced me from my grandfather, but I returned to Pittsburgh as a newspaper reporter in my twenties. I’d stop in to visit my grandparents on weekends and see the Post-Gazette, the newspaper I worked for, folded on the end table. I’d shown him my first byline, but after that we never talked about my career. After he was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, I learned he’d been reading all along. Asked to leave the room while a nurse tended him, I lingered outside and heard him say, “That was my granddaughter. She’s a journalist.” He started to list some of my stories. It meant a lot to learn he’d been reading what I wrote all along.
Some time before my grandfather died, I bought tickets to take him the opera. It was Bizet’s Carmen. The weekend of the performance, a snowstorm rolled in dropping eight inches of white disappointment on my plans. Roads were slippery and my grandfather was old enough to be wary of a fall on an icy sidewalk. We stayed home and fell back on our old pastime. He told me the story of the opera. I learned all about the gypsy, Carmen, and her treachery against Don Jose with the handsome bullfighter, Escamillo. Grandpa pronounced the name, relishing every syllable — “Essscameeyo” – before bursting into The Toreador Song, one of opera’s most famous. “Toreador, en garde! Toreador, Toreador!” At the end of the tale, Grandpa lowered his voice to deliver the story’s climax: Don Jose, who’s gone completely mad, stabs Carmen. “He was crazy, you know?” Grandpa told me. “Insane.”
My grandmother was the one who went mad in our family story. Dementia sent her to a nursing home. Forgetfulness conveniently blurred her memories, but not her resentment of my grandfather. Sitting with Gram in the home, she spoke as if Grandpa was in the next room.
“He has to have his dinner at 5 o’clock, you know,” she said, her eyes glancing in the direction of a big, comfortable chair. “He gets grouchy if that dinner isn’t on the table at five on the dot.”
I studied my grandmother’s face, assessing whether she could handle the truth. I spoke softly, breaking it to her as gently as I could.
“Gram, you know he is not here. He’s been dead for years. Do you remember?” For a moment, confusion fell like a cloud over her face. Her lips set in a hard line.
“Humph,” she said.
Her reaction did not really surprise me. Most family stories don’t end with one person’s death. The relationships, the antagonisms, the love lives on in memory. It’s certainly true of what I remember of my grandfather. I drive more than an hour to work now, my radio tuned to National Public Radio. When they broadcast opera, I crank up the sound as I cruise down the highway. It’s fall again. I’m on the back porch. Grandpa and I sing along.