Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'The Place I Call Home'
Finely crafted and powerfully moving poems explore the complexities of growing up as the child of Italian immigrants in 1950s Paterson.
From Walt Whitman to Amiri Baraka and William Carlos Williams, the Garden State has been home to many an award-winning poet. Maria Mazziotti Gillan is among them, and her most recent book of poetry, "The Place I Call Home," vividly details the complicated emotions and lasting impressions of a child of Italian immigrants in 1950s Paterson.
All His Life My Father Worked in Factories
or mills as we called them, back when Paterson
was the silk capital of the USA and was known as Silk City.
When my father was thirty he had a large tumor on his spine,
and after the doctors at St. Joseph’s removed it
he spent three months in the hospital and then a year
at home. He couldn’t work and wouldn’t let my mother apply
for welfare so we lived for a year on $300, and while $300
in 1943 was a lot more than it is now, it still wasn’t enough
for a family of five to live on. We ate spaghetti and farina
and my mother’s homemade bread every day. When my mother
was dying, she worried that the year without money—
when she couldn’t give my sister five cents to buy milk in school—
was why my sister got rheumatoid arthritis at thirty, a disease
that progressed, eventually invading her lungs and eyes.
After the surgery my father had a limp that became gradually
worse as he grew older. He was no longer strong enough
to lift heavy rolls of silk, so he got a job as a janitor
in Central High School and when that became too much
for him, he took a job watching the pressure
gauges on steam boilers to make sure they didn’t explode.
All his life, my father walked, dragging that dead leg behind him.
All his life, he worked menial jobs, though he did income taxes
each year for half the Italians in Riverside by reading
the two hundred page income tax book, and he could add,
multiply and divide in his head faster than an adding machine.
He was fascinated by politics and read news magazines
and newspapers, and knew the details of world crises and war.
When I was a girl, I worked in factories during the summers
and I moaned and complained about how boring it was,
how dusty and tiring, how I’d shoot myself if I had to do this job
for one more day, and I think of my father with his sharp intelligence,
forced each day for fifty years to work eight hours a day at jobs
so repetitive they would have bored a mouse, and the way
he never complained, never said I can’t do this anymore,
instead he just kept working, knowing he had to do it
so his children would have the soft lives he never had.
When I Was Young We Played
When I was young we played Monopoly, my brother, sister and I,
and dominoes or gin rummy. We’d sit at our oil-cloth covered kitchen table
playing games after our homework was done or on weekend afternoons
in the winter. In summer, we played stickball in the street or hopscotch,
tossing a black rubber heel to mark our places. When we were really adventurous
we’d take our silver skates, tighten the clasps so they’d fit our shoes and we’d move
as fast as we could down 17th Street and onto 3rd Avenue until we reached
the slippery slate sidewalks in front of the shoemaker’s shop, the sidewalks
that terrified me because when I reached them on those skates,
it felt like I was flying.
17th Street was its own small world. All our friends congregated there
either on the street or in the vacant lots with their daisies and Black-eyed
Susans. Sometimes we’d walk to the corner to Burke’s candy store
for ice cream that Mr. Burke would scoop out of a vat into a small cardboard
container, and he’d give us a wooden spoon and we’d finish the ice cream
before we reached our front stoop.
On summer nights at dusk, a group of us would congregate on our back stoop,
and we’d try to catch fireflies in jars with holes punched in the lids and we’d “smoke”
punks to keep away the mosquitoes. We’d breathe in the tangy sweetness of Zio
Guillermo’s garden, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, corn and pots of zinnias
and marigolds, and we’d tell stories there in the hushed summer dark.
Joey C’s father set up a screen in their backyard and invited all the neighborhood
kids over to watch movies. Mr. C loved to see the kids have a good time and we did,
sitting in darkness, the sky still clear enough to see thousands of stars, the kids
lined up on folding chairs, others sitting cross-legged on the grass. The field
between Joey’s house and mine sparkling with lightening bugs, the world
was as small and perfect as it would ever be, the net of happiness lifted
us out of our own skins, set us sailing above Joey’s yard, above our ordinary
lives and away, even for a little while, from our mothers’ voices calling us home.
We did not know then that for us this world would remain perfect and sealed
in glass like those globes that had inside them miniature villages,
and when you shook them snow fell through the air
like tiny falling stars.
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Mazzioti Gillan. Excerpted with permission of New York Quarterly Books. All rights reserved.