by Joe Eliseon
My father was born in 1923 in his parents’ apartment on Hull Street in Boston’s North End. The North End had become an Italian neighborhood by that time. My Dad grew up speaking Italian at home. But the lure of America through school and the big world beyond the neighborhood was strong, so strong that he begged my grandmother to serve a traditional Yankee Saturday night supper – boiled franks, baked beans and black bread. Most Saturdays, to keep him quiet, she did. Often, the incongruity of the scene comes to my mind, my Abruzzese grandmother serving my Roman grandfather franks and beans for the sake of her aspiring American son. Come to think of it, I still eat hot dogs on Saturday night.
My Dad did not have much chance to hear English until he went to school. It must have been his second language, but it was a close second. Dad soaked up all things American like a thirsty sponge.
Somehow, from his early childhood, Dad became aware of local history. As you should know, Boston, and the North End in particular, had played seminal roles in fomenting the American Revolution. From his Hull Street apartment, a mere five-minute walk on short legs brought my father to Paul Revere’s House. Even closer, almost across the street, stood the Old North Church with its tall, white steeple, the place where the Sons of Liberty hung the lanterns that sent Paul on his famous ride.
A curly-haired little Italian kid of six or seven years complete with short pants, my Dad would stand on the steps of the church and recite Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” for passers-by:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore shall be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm ….
He remembered that tourists from the Mid-West and points beyond would pause and listen to him recite. They gave him nickels. America, the land of opportunity! What a country!
When he was an old man, long after he had left the old North End neighborhood, I took him back to Italy. He had been there twice before, once when he was a baby and again when he was called up as a Navy reservist during the Korean War. (The War Department took pity on him. He’d done a tour of duty in the Pacific in World War II, so they sent him to the Mediterranean.)
Dad amazed me. The moment he stepped off the plane, he shifted into his Italian dialect and became indistinguishable from the general population. Natives thought he was a native.
I cherish a vivid memory of him in his father’s home town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. He was sitting on a stone wall on the edge of the piazza with the cousins he hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. They sat in a row, their faces turned west, watching the sun set behind the Eternal City. All graying, all balding, all olive-skinned, high cheek-boned, strong jawed, thick-necked, hawk-nosed; all of the ancient Sabine stock that had once long-ago formed the backbone of Rome’s legions.
But one of them was different. One of them could still recite every word of Longfellow’s poem.
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.