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

2.3 Place I Call Home
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.

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