WE all come with dreams and often they must fade, fragile flowers
left over from childhood - a sweetness small and solitary and so
very much each his own. The Italians understand this - they sing
their dreams, and laugh and cry over them, and they die clutching
them. And they catch the light in your eye when you talk of yours.
They take your hand and draw you in and for that moment you are all
children again, eager and believing.
When I was small I wanted passionately to play beautiful music. I
managed to prevail on our country church to let me play Bach on its
organ and my head swam with the glory of those chords reaching up to
God. But then very sensibly life took charge and made me a housewife
with five children and I learned that after diapers there were
bigger problems. Sometimes there seemed little left of me for me.
I did somehow join the college orchestra viola section, and those
two hours a week were like a small shining in the dusty chores of
housework. My instrument and I were perfectly matched - it deserved
me as much as I deserved it - a hulking, stolid crudity hacked out
of kitchen firewood, and I could easily have smashed it over the
nearest chair. When I went to get it repaired at De Luccia's
violin-maker shop on Thirteenth Street in Philadelphia's Italian
section, I was caught up in the whirl of entrancing impossibilities.
I hung over the beautiful instruments in the shop that I had no
right to own, nor ever would. De Luccia's brother, Gennaro, made
priceless violas - I had seen one once and deep inside me, I wanted
something so lovely. I thought of the poet I had read - and the
yearning line - "some late lark singing in my heart" ... a dream -
my wistful, small dream.
And then, abruptly, out of no possible expectation, the check
came, an unbelievable breathless amount stamped on the scrap of
green paper. It was for me. There were no claims on it. I thought
of Thirteenth Street and luminous hopes, De Luccia's Shop with its
wonders of loving craftsmanship and Gennaro's viola. Suddenly they
were all there for me. I put on my hat and with check in hand, I
went in on a hot Tuesday night in July.
Shapeless, sweating women were drowsily fanning themselves on the
marble steps they had spent all morning scrubbing. The vegetable
cart was dropping by a bar and its horse munched on his feed bag and
listened to the political arguments of his loud-voiced master in the
bar. Petunias and geraniums spilled in a shining brightness over the
rusty balustrade of a roof garden. At the corner a butcher was
talking to his cat while it nestled between plump hanging cheeses
and succulent steaks. Farther down, the Venus Adonis Restaurant had
its doors open for coolness and pungent smells drifted out
tantalizingly. Somewhere a hurdy-gurdy was playing plaintively from
a rented room.
The bakery I always stopped at was enveloped in a warm fragrance
of melting brown sugar, hot raisins in butter, and crusty loaves
turning richly brown in the oven. The saleswoman, her hair piled
high in a bubble of dyed brown, was speaking Italian with a kind of
womanly tolerance to an elderly man clutching his package of rolls.
She stopped, smiled at me, and with a motherly pat shooed him out
She hustled back to the counter and steadied her tilting hair.
"And where are the children?" she demanded. "Always you have the
children, and the Model A, such a beautiful car, no? Didn't you
bring it? Eh! You wouldn't sell it? Such elegance, no, you
couldn't." She patted some cookies back into place and looked at me
"Ooo, I see. It's just you tonight, something special, no?" She
smiled and going to the casement she brought out a cannoli - a
confection of pastry and cool custard drenched in dark chocolate
syrup. "When it's just you, it's not too expensive, no? Fifty
I paid out the 50 cents and she watched me critically as I
crunched into the fragile melting delight. …