Domenico Onofrio Tempesta--my maternal grandfather, my namesake--is as prominent in my mother's photo album as he was in her life of service to him. He died during the summer of 1949, oblivious of the fact that the unmarried thirty-three-year-old daughter who kept his house--his only child--was pregnant with twins. Growing up, my brother and I knew Papa as a stern-faced paragon of accomplishment, the subject of a few dozen sepia-tinted photographs, the star of a hundred anecdotes. Each of the stories Ma told us about Papa reinforced the message that he was the boss, that he ruled the roost, that what he said went.
He had emigrated to America from Sicily in 1901 and gotten ahead because he was shrewd with his money and unafraid of hard work, lucky for us! He'd bought a half-acre lot from a farmer's widow and thus become the first Italian immigrant to own property in Three Rivers, Connecticut. Papa had put the roof over our heads, had built "with his own two hands" the brick Victorian duplex on Hollyhock Avenue where we'd lived as kids--where my mother had lived all her life. Papa had had a will of iron and a stubborn streak--just the traits he needed to raise a young daughter "all by his lonesome." If we thought Ray was strict, we should have seen Papa! Once when Ma was a girl, she was bellyaching about having to eat fried eggs for supper. Papa let her go on and on and then, without saying a word, reached over and pushed her face down in her plate. "I came up with egg yolk dripping off my hair and the tip of my nose and even my eyelashes. I was crying to beat the band. After that night, I just ate my eggs and shut up a bbb bout it!"
Another time, when Ma was a teenager working at the Rexall store, Papa found her secret package of cigarettes and marched himself right down to the drugstore where he made her eat one of her own Pall Malls. Right in front of the customers and her boss, Mr. Chase. And Claude Sminkey, the soda jerk she had such an awful crush on. After he left, Ma ran outside and had to throw up at the curb with people walking by and watching. She had to quit her job, she was so ashamed of herself. But she never smoked again--never even liked the smell of cigarettes after that. Papa had fixed her wagon, all right. She had defied him and then lived to regret it. The last thing Papa wanted was a sneak living under his own roof.
Sometime during our visit with the photo album that morning, my mother told me to wait there. She had something she wanted to get. With a soft sigh of pain, she was on her feet and heading for the front stairs.
"Ma, whatever it is, let me get it for you," I called out.
"That's okay, honey," she called back down the stairs. "I know right where it is."
I flipped quickly through the pages as I waited--made my family a jerky, imperfect movie. It struck me that my mother had compiled mostly a book of her father, Thomas, and me. Others make appearances: Ray, Dessa, the Anthonys from across the street, the Tusia sisters from next door. But my grandfather, my brother, and I are the stars of my mother's book. Ma herself, camera-shy and self-conscious about her cleft lip, appears only twice in the family album. In the first picture, she's one of a line of dour-faced schoolchildren posed on the front step of St. Mary of Jesus Christ Grammar School. (A couple of years ago, the parish sold that dilapidated old schoolhouse to a developer from Massachusetts who converted it into apartments. I bid on the inside painting, but Paint Plus came in under me.) In the second photograph, Ma looks about nine or ten. She stands beside her lanky father on the front porch of the house on Hollyhock Avenue, wearing a sacklike dress and a sober look that matches Papa's. In both of the sss se photos, my mother holds a loose fist to her face to cover her defective mouth.
It was a gesture she had apparently learned early and practiced all her life: the hiding of her cleft lip with her right fist--her perpetual apology to the world for a birth defect over which she'd had no control. The lip, split just to the left of her front teeth, exposed a half-inch gash of gum and gave the illusion that she was sneering. But Ma never sneered. She apologized. She put her fist to her mouth for store clerks and door-to-door salesmen, for mailmen and teachers on parents' visiting day, for neighbors, for her husband, and even, sometimes, for herself when she sat in the parlor watching TV, her image reflected on the screen.
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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