There he was- a remarkable man; a savior who embodied calamity, conviction and intuition. Bewildered. She stared at him closely. She allowed her eyes to absorb the very nature of the man she did not know. Guarded. Her lungs absorbed an energy, a force, which was transparent in the open space between them. Inexplicable. Astounded by his ability to touch her soul, she ran. She ran into the open field, where fog thickly blanketed the air. She didn’t know where she was running to. All she could be certain of was that she was running from a stranger who made her feel like he knew her far too well.
Out of breath and out of time, she fell to her knees and threw her body to the ground. Afraid he may find her lying there, she grabbed onto the thin blades of grass, which demonstrated the only proof that wind existed, and pleaded with the man above to help her. She dug her face in the dirt and smelled the earth, ready to become a part of it and fearful she was fated to die. Silence became her. She could hear his body moving closer to where she lay. She dug her face deeper into the ground, reluctant; for she did not want her eyes to witness herself become a victim. She felt him standing over her. She held her breath and begged her body to rid itself of sensation. She became numb. Unable to sense what was going to happen next, she lay still, ill prepared to become his prey.
He stood there without much to say as he admired her in a submissive state. He was saddened by it. She lay there before him, withered, helpless and frightened. He could sense her loss of innocence, her obsession with self-destruction and her commitment to freedom and everything wild and free. He knelt next to her and asked if she was alive. She didn’t answer.
Somewhere amidst the chaos in the world, in their world, they found each other. It’s as if fate had magically worked itself out, as it usually does, bringing two lonely strangers to a place where being a nobody had lost its relevance. She hadn’t quite realized that her life had passed her by. She hadn’t realized that she wasn’t quite so little anymore. She had discovered that all was not right in the world. This became quite shocking for a frail girl with big eyes, a hungry heart and thirst for imagination. There, in the dirt, she lay disconnected from the outside world, in a tall field of grass listening to the crickets speak in unison with the speed of the wind. There was nothing ordinary about being ordinary to her. She forgot what it was like to change and be different, or perhaps it was the world she lived in that made it appear as though she hadn’t changed at all. She didn’t seem complacent or worrisome, yet there was a particular sadness that followed her- a certain kind of sadness that became addictive. Was she living to die or dying to live? Perhaps her blank face and routine days echoed a simple, yet profound statement about living such an ordinary life. Was she so different than the rest of her suburban neighbors? Undoubtedly no. Confined to this world, she became so plain because plain is all she could be if it meant blending in with a very, very unpromising Suburbia.
Although she hadn’t said a word about anything above, he was well aware of who she was and how she got there. He was intrigued. He lit a cigarette and handed it to her, “Now finish your story.”
Violated. He had violated her mind. Although she felt naked, she was compelled to finish where his ability to read her mind, had left off.
In addition to Wednesday’s post about storing memories I decided to write this. It’s a story about a story told by my grandfather. So I ask: what is our history without our stories? What are we without stories?
10 years ago I accompanied my grandparents on a trip to my grandfather’s hometown in Italy. We stayed in their little house at the top of a hill, which overlooked rolling hills, houses and farms. Although I had never been there before, this tiny house on a hill felt like home away from home. When we arrived we climbed the steep stairs which were crumbling beneath our feet. With our heavy luggage in our hands and the wind knocked out of us from all the climbing, we finally reached the rather tall wooden front door. My grandfather reached into his tiny pocket and pulled out a key, and as he pushed open the door a display of old world charm erected in front of me. I was eager to explore my unfamiliar surroundings and I couldn’t wait to get acquainted with the house which would be my home for the next two months. The house was charming, rustic and cozy. So much of my grandfather’s life and his family’s history resonated within those four walls. I remember being astonished and it feeling surreal. I couldn’t believe I was standing in the house my grandfather grew up in. I dropped my luggage in the foyer and began floating around each room, touching the walls, running my fingers across the furniture and window sills until I was interrupted by a rather large photo on the wall. It was a photo which had a strong presence in the room. It was a black and white photograph of a man in a suit and tie who strongly resembled my father. I stood there and observed the man of mystery in the photograph. Who was he and why was his photograph the only one which hung in the house?
Two years ago I enrolled in a course for school on the immigration of Italians to North America. I took this course because there was so much I didn’t know about my heritage and I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more. We had to complete an important assignment, which required us to interview someone who had immigrated to Canada. I decided that the perfect candidate would be my grandfather. I drove to my grandparents’ home in Toronto with my tape recorder and my notebook. I was excited to hear my grandfather’s immigration story from beginning to end.
I entered their home and sat down at the kitchen table with my grandmother and grandfather. They shuffled about in their seats and smiled from ear to ear. I could tell that they were excited and honored to share their immigration story. I still get emotional when I think about that day. I placed my tape recorder on the table and opened the box of photographs I had found in their home. Those photographs, which I displayed before my grandparents, were a great way to begin my grandfather’s storytelling process. I pressed the record button and began the interview.
My grandfather explained the struggles of working and living in Toronto without much money or any knowledge of the English language. He explained the hardships and the prejudice he experienced as an Italian man trying to grow accustomed to a foreign land. He told me about his difficult childhood, he shared what life was like working in the coalmines in Belgium and the different people he met along the way. He shared a story about his experience on the ship, which brought him to Canada, and how hard it was for him to leave his family behind. I was very proud to sit across the table from a man who had sacrificed so much for his family, his future children and grandchildren. As we sorted through more photos in the box we came across the same photo which hung on the wall in the home in Italy. I handed the photograph to my grandfather and watched him as he studied it with his eyes and fingers. I told him that I recognized the same photo from Italy and asked him who the unknown man in the photograph was. This is where his story about his estranged father began…
I was just a small boy, the youngest of three. Times were getting tough and there were rumors that there were better job opportunities in Argentina. The economy was starting to pick up there so my father took all of our money, kissed my mother, me and my two sisters goodbye and told us that as soon as he made enough money he would send for us to go live in Argentina or he would return to Italy. Weeks, months, and years went by. We never heard from him or saw him again. Times got tough and we were poor. At the age of six I had to quit school and start working. I became the sole provider for my family. I really liked school and was at the top of my class so I was sad when I had to say goodbye to my teacher and my school mates. Years passed and I continued to work and provide for my family. After working labor jobs in Italy and working in the coal mines in Belgium I decided to make the move to Canada. I came to Toronto to work so I could help my mother and my two sisters. We were poor and they needed the money. After years of working in Toronto I met a man named Antonio who had gone to Chicago to work. He told me that he had worked for a man with same last name as ours. Because our last name is very rare I was sure it had to be my father. I told Antonio that I had always wondered where my father had gone. I often wondered where he was living, what kind of life he had, if he had a wife or any kids. I sometimes wondered if he ever thought of me and often wondered why he never came back to me. I decided to buy a plane ticket to Chicago and meet this man with the same last name. I needed to know once and for all if he was my father. Antonio accompanied me on my journey to find him. We arrived in Chicago and waited for my father to leave the job site. I had this very photo in my hands and a picture of my mother and I (he flagged the 5×7 photo in his hand and waved it at me). Antonio pointed him out and when I was ready to get out of the taxi cab he had already crossed the street to get to his car. So I got back in the taxi and told the driver to follow the car my father was driving. We followed it all the way to his house. My heart was pounding as I watched him get out of his car and walk into his house. Antonio motioned me to get out of the car. I thought: it’s now or never, so I got out of the car and walked to the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited. A lady opened the door (I assumed she was his wife). I asked if I could speak to Giovanni. She told me that he was busy and couldn’t come to the door. As she was about to close the door I put my hand out to stop it from shutting. I explained that I was his son and held a picture up of my father. I told her that I needed to see him and talk to him. I needed to. She became very angry with me and told me to leave. I refused. I told her that I needed to speak to Giovanni and that I wouldn’t leave until I talked to him. Just as I finished that sentence I saw the man at the window. I saw my father, the man who had left me so many years ago. All that separated us now was a glass window. I waved at him and pleaded for him to come outside. Just as I stood there with my photos in my hand begging for the man who had disowned me, to come outside so I could meet him, a police car rolled up. They arrested me for trespassing and before I knew it I was on a plane back to Toronto.
(This story has been edited to for reading purposes)
I was astonished by my grandfather’s act of bravery and persistence. All my grandfather ever wanted in life was to meet his father. He never stopped missing him and was determined to find him one day. He had come so close to meeting him, to touching him, to seeing him face to face. It broke his heart that even after all those years his father had no desire to meet the son he had abandoned almost 40 years ago. My grandfather had endured so much as an abandoned child, adolescent and adult. He undoubtedly had a hard life. It’s a shame his father wasn’t around to be proud of everything my grandfather accomplished.
Storytelling connects you to your history and to the people who are a part of your family’s history. My grandfather has always been a great storyteller and although they’re stories I’ve heard more than once, they will always hold a special place in my heart. Although he’s 87, his memory is as sharp as a thumb tack. I often have to lean in to hear what he’s saying but it’s worth the neck pain and every earful. After the interview had finished and my grandfather had finished telling me a story he thanked me and told me how proud he was of me. I hugged him and said “No Nonno, thank you. Thank you for sacrificing everything to give me a better life. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me and for everyone. I’m proud of you. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you.” He looked up at me and smiled. His eyes welled up with tears and he said, “No one has ever said that to me.” My grandfather had gone through so much to get to where he is today, not for himself but for his family, my dad and his brothers and sister and for me. I have never seen him frown about the past. I’ve only seen him smile. I’ll never get to repay him or thank him enough for making the move to Toronto 63 years ago. All I can do is share my blessings, make the most out of my ambition and make him proud.
When I was a kid I always savored the moment no matter how big or how small it was. If it was a moment that meant something to me I would often collect and keep something from where I was. I was never the type of kid to write in a diary regularly. I was the type of kid who kept a piece of something, which meant everything. I used to store birthday cards, letters, wristbands from concerts and trips, concert tickets, rocks (the list goes on) in a small drawer and when that small drawer became too full to close I decided that it might be a good idea to store those tangible memories in a box. So that’s what I did. I’ve accumulated so many things that I now have two shoe boxes stuffed with a bunch of things that most would consider crap. But it’s not crap to me and I’m by no means a hoarder. I’m what you would call a memory hoarder whose memories are safely locked away in shoe boxes. Those shoe boxes are filled with the greatest and most meaningful things, which spark some of the most wonderful memories of once upon a time.
I often wonder where the years have gone. When did I finish school? When did I turn 24? Sometimes it feels like everything that happened before today went by so fast that it’s become a blur. So when the past seems a little hazy and life is a little boring I turn to my memory box, I open it up and I revisit those moments. It’s nice to touch, feel, and have your memories at your fingertips. It triggers a warm feeling from within which often takes away from the stress of living in the now. I’ll have to admit that nostalgia is my weakness. It has the power to wrap its arms around me and give me comfort. I suppose this is why nostalgia and the importance of memories have become a recurring theme in the book I’m writing. The moments we keep as memories and the things we keep from those moments play an important role in story-telling. My shoe box of memories is a time capsule of moments and tiny little stories for what feels like a century ago. It’s important to bridge the gap between the past and present. It definitely makes you a more sentimental writer.
When my mother witnessed me on a chair reaching for the back corner of my closet she asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was looking for my memory box and that re-visiting my past would be a great way to spark some inspiration for writing. She asked me to get down from the chair and to follow her to her room. I waited outside her closet doors while she moved things around and when she was done she emerged from her closet with a box in her hands. “This is my memory box,” she said. She opened up the box and took out little bits and pieces of her past and shared what they meant. Each letter, card, ticket and trinket had a story attached to it. Those three hours became the greatest learning experience for me. I think I learned more about my mother in those three hours than I ever have in my 24 years of knowing her. I learned that she’s a memory hoarder like me and sentimental. I also saw a different side of her I didn’t know existed. There was a time where she was madly in love and although she never fell out of it she had sort of lost the ability to show my father that she’s still that person. She was a deep thinker who loved to write poetry and a lover of music and movies. The stories she shared with me revealed a side I had never seen before and I’m glad I stayed to listen. I suppose all it took was taking a trip down her memory lane to learn some new things about her. She told me that she had forgotten a lot of these moments and didn’t remember that she could write with such passion and depth. These memories which were tucked away in a box helped her rediscover herself by opening up her past. It made me smile to see her smile. With her permission I asked if it would be okay if I could post one of her letters or poems. Here is a poem she wrote for my dad when they were dating.
The costume was a success! It was probably the most uncomfortable costume I have ever designed for myself and the noisiest too, but it was the most fun to wear. Despite the obnoxious crinkling noise it made at my every move, it withstood the windy and rainy weather, the occasional passer-by almost ripping it in order to maneuver around me, and of course the ridiculous questions: “Uhh like what are you? A paper bag?” or “Haha did you like lose your job? Are you a bag lady?” What’s a true Paper Bag Princess without an answer for everything? Me: “Uhh no. I’m the Paper Bag Princess. There’s a difference. And by the way, bag ladies don’t wear paper bags. They’re not durable and could rip at anytime.” Where’s the fun in dressing up without the funny questions? It also sparked a discussion about The Paper Bag Princess as a book, as a classic and of course as a character. I suppose I brought back a piece of their childhood. One very
sober guest shouted belligerently across the room: “Back in those days, they didn’t have paper so that story isn’t believable.” I giggled of course because it’s rude not to laugh at dumb jokes. What a silly, silly realist. I guess the punch he was drinking turned him into a smarty pants. So I shouted back at the ______ (not sure what he was dressed up as) and said “Most stories are not about turning make-believe into the believable, otherwise they wouldn’t be stories we cherish. Secondly it’s a story with an important lesson to be learned, so it doesn’t rely on whether dragons and all of that other make-believe stuff actually exists because it’s written on paper and it exists in our minds.” He stood there with his mustache hanging off his face and rolled his eyes. Where’s a dragon when you need one?
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?” –John Lennon