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As a young child, storyteller Diane Ferlatte moved with her family from rural Louisiana to California in search of greater equality and opportunity. But her family never lost its love for the south, and the regular trips home inspired this story. ()
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Writer and professor André Aciman reads from his story, "Roman Hours," originally published in Conde Nast Traveler and reprinted in The Best American Travel Writing of 2002. In it, he transports the listener to the Rome he moved to as a refugee at age 14, and the home he longed to live in. ()
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Massachusetts-based storyteller Jay O’Callahan invites the listener home with him to his older sister’s wedding, which was transformed by a great snowstorm that blanketed Boston and the surrounding communities. ()
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Jay O’Callahan, André Aciman, Diane Ferlatte
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Pull up a chair, throw another log on the fire, it’s storytelling time. And Jay O’Callahan will tell us how gathering the clan in a huge blizzard turned the wedding of his sister into a topsy-turvy affair.
O’CALLAHAN: I woke 7 o’clock and I turned on the radio. The announcer was saying it’s the biggest snowstorn of the century. I sprang out of bed and I looked out the window and there was two feet of snow and it was snowing hard it was wild out there. Only the bluejays could move. Everything was transformed. By 8:30, quarter of 9, all the wedding guests, the Chicago guests, our neighbors, they were all tramping through the blizzard into our big front hall. Going to be a wedding? How far is the church? A mile. A mile?
CURWOOD: Find out if Jay’s sister makes it to the altar. It’s the annual storytelling special this week on Living on Earth, right after this.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
This time of year when we like to take a break from today’s environmental news and take a moment to share in the ancient means of communication – storytelling. And this year out theme is about the one thing many of us do during the holidays – travel to the place we call home. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost put it, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And indeed there is something of the imperative in all the stories we’ll hear today from our three guests as they share their homecoming tales.
I’d like to welcome Jay O’Callahan. He’s a storyteller from Massachusetts. And he’s here with a tale about returning home for his sister’s wedding, and how a giant blizzard transformed that celebration into a day that no one soon forgot. Glad you could make it, Jay.
O’CALLAHAN: Thank you Steve.
CURWOOD: Also joining us is André Aciman, a writer and teacher at the City University of New York. And he’ll be telling us about how and why the city of Rome became his adopted home. André, thanks for being here.
ACIMAN: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: I’d like to start our round of storytelling, though, with Diane Ferlatte. Thanks for joining us.
FERLATTE: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: Diane, now I know you’re from Oakland, California these days, but you’re story’s about growing up in a much different place – rural Louisiana.
FERLATTE: Well, my family has been living in the South for a long time. I mean, they went from slavery to sharecropping, and from sharecropping to any kind of work they could find. And my grandfather, who was a preacher, was the first member of our family on my daddy’s side who was born free.
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, 57 years ago. And all of the family I ever heard about or knew about lived in Louisiana. We lived in the 17th ward in Orleans Parish on Genois Street. We knew everybody who lived on that street. And I remember just the freedom I had just to run from porch to porch, house to house, visiting and playing with my cousins and my friends. And every time my cousin came over to visit my mama she would holler out in this high-pitched voice, “Yoo-hoo” and just walk in.
But as a little girl, I spent a lot of time at my grandfather and grandmother’s house in Alexandria, Louisiana, a small little country town. And back then on Peabody Street where they lived, it seemed like everybody had a porch to sit on. And everybody on Peabody Street knew me. Whenever I went anywhere, folks sitting on their porches would always say, “Hey!” whether you were coming or going. You see, that’s the way it was in the South. You couldn’t pass anybody without somebody saying hello.
But now summertime in Louisiana was hotter than hot. In the evening we used to sit on the front porch for hours laughing and talking, telling stories, while trying to catch a cool breeze. And the screen on the porch kept the bugs out, and believe me, in Louisiana there were plenty of bugs, and I was scared of every one of them too. But you know, even though I didn’t like the bugs, I did like their singing at night.
My folks didn’t have much education, but they were tough. They knew how to make do, just like most folks back then. Just about everything they ate came from their garden or from fishing in the bayou. And everybody in my family could cook too, so you know we had plenty of good eatin’. And our favorite thing to eat was hoe-cake bread. You made it the same way you make biscuits, but instead of rolling out the dough and cutting it, see you’d make a ball and you’d pat it down in the skillet and cook it slow until it was done. Mm-mm.
Well back in 1945 when I was born things were different in Louisiana, because even though my daddy was a skilled bricklayer and a plasterer, because of the color of the skin and Jim Crow he couldn’t get this job and he couldn’t get that job, couldn’t sit here, couldn’t sit there, couldn’t go through this door, couldn’t go through that door. But that’s the way it was. And because of the way things were in the South, many black people started leaving the South. And my family decided to leave too. And my aunt, who had already moved to California, she told my daddy, “You ought to come to California. There’s more work out here.” I didn’t want to go to California. But before we left they had a party for us. Everybody on the block came. I never will forget. It rained that day too. Tears were flowing. But my daddy, he put us on a train and we headed up to California. I was nine years old.
When we got to California, we had to live with my aunt and her family in Oakland. It wasn’t hot like Louisiana, it was cold, and it was summertime too. And I remember she didn’t even have a front porch to sit on. But as soon as my daddy got a job, we moved out and got our own place. It didn’t have a front porch either. And when people walked by your house, I mean, they hardly even looked at you.
At first I didn’t like California, but my cousin lived right behind us and that helped a little. But it was different. The one thing I liked, though, there was no bugs bitin’ you. But you know, at night I did miss the sound of the bugs singing. And when we went to the movies we could sit anywhere we wanted to, we didn’t have to go to the balcony. And when me and my momma got on the bus and I headed for the back, she said, “Oh no baby, it’s okay to sit up front.” And my daddy, he got more work than he ever got in Louisiana.
We all were beginning to like California, even getting used to the weather. But it still wasn’t the same. I’m sure it wasn’t the same for my momma and daddy either, because every summer, guess what? My whole family would drive thousands of miles all the way back down to Louisiana. Can you imagine that? Driving thousands of miles across the desert in all that heat with no air conditioning.
Now the first time we went back to Louisiana we had been living in California for a year or so. I had gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that one time when we stopped to get gas I almost walked into a bathroom that had a “white only” sign on it. I don’t know what upset me more, the “white only” sign or that big bug I stepped on and squashed trying to run back to the car. And my daddy would say, “Girl, those bugs won’t hurt you. You scared of everything.”
But every year when we went back to Louisiana, it was always the same, just as I remembered it. I mean, everywhere you looked there was something green growing, and it smelled different too, the smells of moisture from the swamps and humidity and mold grass just filled the air. And when we finally turned the corner on Peabody Street going to my grandfather’s house, everybody was stuck waving and yelling, “Hey, glad to see you again! Oh, you back home, huh? How long you gonna stay this time?” And when we parked the car and my daddy stepped out, some folks could come over and shake his hand, laughing and talking, and people would hug my momma, and kids that knew me would come running over to see me and my brother.
But then the screen door would open and my aunt, who we called Nanny, would come out and she’d say, “Let me see you kids! Come here and give me a kiss. Ooh, look how you’ve grown. Come on in the house, I’ve got something to show you.” And what she had was my favorite thing too: a big cold piece of watermelon. Mmm. And electric fans in the house, blew the smell of cornbread baking, fresh fish frying from the kitchen, ooh, all the way to the front porch. And with the smell of rain in the air, it smelled like home. And it was home, because before long the front porch was just full of people laughing and talking.
But well, as we got older, my brother and I didn’t always go back to the South every year. I guess we thought we were just too citified for that small little country town. We had changed. But so did the community on Peabody Street. Some people leaving and some dying. Even my grandmother was gone. Only my grandfather and my aunt Nanny were still living in our house on Peabody Street.
But that was enough for my daddy, because every year he went back, and always the cheapest way too: driving. One time he talked me and my new husband into driving down there with him. First time my San Francisco born and bred husband had been in the South, and he didn’t know what to expect, especially since he’s white. You should have seen the surprise on my 104-year-old grandfather’s face when my husband walked into the house. All he could say was, “Who that boy?” And my Nanny, who was caring for my grandfather, took to my husband like he was family, and he was. And before long, they were out together fishing for catfish on the bayou, she was cooking him hoe-cake bread for breakfast, and he was fixing buttermilk for Papa and sitting on the porch laughing and talking like he had always been there.
Well that year my husband got a little taste of what we missed and why we went back. And I realized what I had been missing too. I realized that there’s no substitute for roots and family. I missed the slower pace of life, you know, taking time to talk to one another, and of course the good food, like red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish, file gumbo, and of course what was famous in our house, hoe-cake bread. But we always had to beg to get Nanny to make it. But if you begged long enough, sooner or later she’d be patting it down in that iron skillet.
A few years later, after my grandfather had died at the age of 107, Nanny got sick right before Christmas. And my daddy drove straight down to Louisiana, put Nanny in the car and drove her to Oakland, California so we could take care of her. When we left the doctor’s office it didn’t look good. I mean, she was very sick. But she was able to be with us in our home for Christmas. But soon she was back in the hospital again, and then we got a call saying that we’d better come, it didn’t look like she was going to make it. And there we were, all standing around her bed, and you know what I was thinking: hoe-cake bread. I told her, “Don't you die on me. You better get up and make me some hoe-cake bread.” And don’t you know she had the nerve to try and laugh on her deathbed. It was funny, but it was her last laugh. And ever since, we have been trying to make hoe-cake like Nanny’s, but we haven’t got it right yet.
CURWOOD: Storyteller Diane Ferlatte. We’ll be right back wit more tales about coming home. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
You’re listening to our annual storytelling special featuring Jay O’Callahan, André Aciman, and Diane Ferlatte, who’s just told us a wonderful tale about her yearly trips back to her family homestead in Louisiana. Diane, you’re story reminds me of a story I’d like to share with you all. It’s about the years that my mother and I would return home from her job in Ohio to the family home in New Hampshire for Christmas and New Years.
No one lived there, once my mother started teaching out in Ohio my grandmother moved out to my aunt’s house in another state, but the spirit of home was still there. Now this house was built in 1755 and it was always stone warm. In the winter sure it was cold, because the heat and water were turned off, but it was always warmer than the outside because there’s a big, actually it’s a massive stone center chimney that reaches down to the constant 55 degrees of the earth. So it doesn’t take too long to get a wood stove going to get the place nice and toasty. And when we come back that’s what we’d do, we’d stoke it up, get the place nice and warm, and head out to cut the Christmas tree.
Even today, when I hear feet stamping at the back door, getting the snow off, that says snow to me, justa s much as the crackle of the fire that was going. And each year, we’d spend a lot of time in that car, toll after toll, highway after highway, gas station after gas station, getting there. And more than once we must have gone through some pretty nasty snow and ice storms. But no one ever asked if it was worth it. It was all worth it when you were there, just to be able to throw another log on the fire from a tree that you had cut down maybe the previous year some place out on the thirty acres. It warmed you back then with the sweat and the saw and it warmed you again. And in just a few days we’d be gone again. But there’d be no doubt that we’d come back for the holidays another year.
So that’s my story, Diane.
DIANE FERLATTE: Mm, a good one.
CURWOOD: And I don’t have to travel that far now to get there because that’s the house I live in now. How about you? When’s the last time you went back to Louisiana?
FERLATTE: I went there in August. I took my mom back, because she has beginning Alzheimer’s now and she keeps talking about going back to Louisiana, going back to Louisiana. So I said, we’re going to take her. So we took her back in August, my husband and I. I saw the house where I used to live when I was a little girl. Man, had it changed. It’s all the, you know, houses that I used to remember running from porch to porch. There’s only a few people left on the block that knew me and my momma, but it changed a lot.
But the funny thing about this trip to Louisiana, now that we’re back home in California, my mother doesn’t even remember going.
CURWOOD: Hmm. How strong is that pull on a landscape of that community for you?
FERLATTE: It’s a strong, because I have a-- I went back there every year. It was always, you know, people knew me, knew my momma, my cousins. It was just such a warm – everybody -- I felt loved.
CURWOOD: So it gets harder and harder to go back the longer you’ve been away perhaps.
FERLATTE: Yeah, especially since everybody is going and the neighborhood is changing. My house where I used to live looks so different and so old. Different people are living there. It was kind of a rough neighborhood now. It’s just different.
CURWOOD: Jay, what did Diane’s story evoke for you?
JAY O’CALLAHAN: Oh Diane, I love the love you had for Louisiana. I love the sense of smells and community and the voices, the welcoming, and I love the sense of your life going to California, that journey and then being pulled back. And then the wonderful, wonderful cake. It was just like a wonderful invitation into your journey. Thank you. Beautiful.
CURWOOD: And André?
ACIMAN: Oh, it filled me with so many things in common. To start with, you know, I was born in a city called Alexandria, so it instantly rang a bell. But the thing that I was -- kept thinking of is now that you basically have lost that childhood home and the childhood city, town, can you recreate this for other people, that same feeling of love and welcoming and family and friends, community? Can you reproduce that elsewhere or is it permanently lost?
FERLATTE: No, I think it can be created other places, especially where I live now. I get to know my neighbors. I know everybody on my block. And I invite people over to my house all the time, we’re always eating. So I try to create that. Of course my family, who lives in California, they still come over and we always gather, eating. And my mother can still sort of make hoe-cake bread, but she’s losing it. And if I don’t get the recipe, it’s going to be gone forever.
CURWOOD: Yeah, I hope you get it soon – I want to try it myself. André, you’re up next. Now you grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. And at the age of 14 you and your family who are Jews were expelled from that country, back in 1965. Your family fled to Italy.
ACIMAN: That’s right.
CURWOOD: I first read your essay in The Best American Travel Writing of 2002, and I have to say I’ve never been able to think the same about Rome ever since. So let’s here your story called “Roman Hours.”
ACIMAN: We may never become Roman, and yet it takes no more than a few hours for the spell to kick in. We become different. Our gaze starts to linger. We are less fussy over space. Voices become more interesting. Smiles are over-the-counter affairs. We begin to see beauty everywhere. And the city is beautiful in such unpredictable ways: the dirty ocher walls are beautiful, and why not? Ocher is the closest stone we’ll ever come to flesh. It is the color of clay, and from clay God made flesh. The figs we’re about to eat under the sun are beautiful. The worn-out pavement along Via dei Capellari is however streaked with dirt, beautiful. The clarinetist who wends his way towards the sunless Vicolo delle Grotte, wailing a Bellini aria, plays beautifully.
What wouldn’t I give never to lose Rome? I worry on leaving that I slip back into my day to day life far sooner than I thought possible. It’s not just the beauty that I’ll miss. I’ll miss too the way the city gets under the skin and for a while makes me its own.
I first arrived in Rome as a refugee in 1965. Mourning my life in Alexandria and determined never to like Rome, I eventually surrendered to the city and for three magical years the Campo Marzio was the place I came closest to ever loving. I grew to love Italian and Dante and Leopardi, and here as nowhere else on earth I even chose the exact building where I’d make my home someday.
Years ago, after school I liked nothing better than to lose my way in a labyrinth of tiny, shady furtive ocher-hued vicoli. What I wished above all things was to amble freely about the streets of the Campo Marzio and to find whatever I wished to find there freely, whether it was a true image of the city or something in me, or a new home to replace the one I’d lost as a refugee.
Then one afternoon a miracle occurred. During a walk past the Piazza Campitelli, I spotted a sign on a door. Affittasi, to let. Unable to resist, I walked into the building and spoke to the portinaia saying that my family might be interested in renting the apartment. When told the price, I maintained a straight face. That evening, I immediately announced to my mother that we had to move and would she please drop everything the following afternoon and meet me after school to visit a new apartment.
She did not have to worry about not speaking Italian; I would do all the talking. When she reminded me that we were poor now and relied on the kindness of relatives, I concocted an argument to persuade her that since the amount we paid a mean uncle each month for our current hole in the wall was so absurdly bloated, why not find a better place altogether? To this day, I do not know why my mother decided to play along. We agreed that if we couldn’t persuade the portinaia to lower her price, my mother would make a face to suggest subdued disapproval.
I would never have believed that so run down a façade on the Campo Marzio could house so sumptuous and majestic an apartment. As we entered the empty high-ceiling flat, our cautious, timid footsteps began to produce such loutish echoes on the squeaking parquet floor that I wished to squelch each one, as though they were escaped insects we had brought with us from the Alberone district that would give away our imposture.
I looked around, looked at mother. It must have dawned on both of us that we didn’t even have enough money to buy a kitchen table, let alone four chairs to go around it. And yet as I peaked at the old room, this I already knew was the Rome I loved, thoroughly lavish and baroque, like a heroic opera by Handel. The portinaia’s daughter was following me with her eyes. I tried to look calm and glanced at the ceiling as though inspecting it expertly, effortlessly. I slipped into another room. The bedrooms were too large and there were four of them. I instantly picked mine. I looked out the window and spotted the familiar street. I opened the French windows and stepped out into the balcony, its tiles bathed in the fading light of the setting sun. I leaned against the banister. To live here.
My mother had come well-dressed that day, probably to impress the portinaia. But her tailor-made suit, which had been touched up recently, seemed dated and she looked older, nervous. She played the part terribly, pretending there was something bothering her that she couldn’t quite put her fingers on, and finally assuming the disappointed air we had rehearsed together when it became clear that she and the portinaia could not agree on the rent.
“Anche a me dispiace, Signore - I too am sorry,” said the portinaia’s daughter. What I took with me that day was not just the regret in her dark, darting eyes as she escorted us downstairs, but the profound sorrow with which, as if for good measure, she had thrown in an unexpected bonus that stayed with me for the rest of my life. Signore. I had just turned 15.
I have often wondered what became of that apartment. After our visit, I never dared pass it again and crafted elaborate detours to avoid running into the portinaia or her daughter. Years later, back from the states with long hair and a beard, I made my next visit. What surprised me most was not that the Campo Marzio was riddled with high-end boutiques, but that someone had taken down the affitasi sign and never put it back up again. The apartment had not waited. And yet the building I never lived in is the only place I revisit each time I go back to Rome, just as the Rome that haunts me each time is still the one I fabricated on my afternoon walks.
Today the building is no longer drab ocher, but peach-pink. It too has gone to the other side, and like the girl with the blackamoor eyes, is most likely trying to stay young, the expert touch a beautician’s hand filling in those spots that have always humanized Roman stone and made the passage of time here the painless, tiny miracle that it is. At 15 I visited the life I wished to lead and the home I was going to make my own someday. Now I was visiting the life I had dreamt of living.
Fortunately the present, like the noon-day sun here, always intrudes upon the past. Only seconds after I come to a stop before the building, a budding indifference takes hold of me and I am hastening to start on one of those much-awaited long walks I already know won’t end before sundown. I am thinking of ocher and water and fresh figs and the good simple foods I’ll have for lunch. I am to go out tonight with old friends to a restaurant called Vecchia Roma on the Piazza Campitelli. On our way I know we’ll walk past my secret corner on the Campo Marzio. I always make sure we take that route where I’ll throw a last furtive look up at this apartment by the evening light.
An unreal spell always descends upon Rome at night, and the large lampadari on these empty interconnecting streets beam with the light of small altars and icons in dark churches. You can hear your own footsteps, even though your feet don’t seem to touch the ground but almost hover above the gleaning slate pavements, covering distances that make the span of years seem trivial.
Along the way, as the streets grow progressively darker and emptier and spookier, I let everyone walk ahead of me, be alone a while. I like to imagine the ghosts of the poet Leopardi or of the French novelist Stendhal or of the actress Anna Magnani, rising by the deserted corner, each one always willing to stop and greet me, like characters in Dante who have wandered up to the surface and are eager to mingle before ebbing back into the night.
It is the 19th century Frenchman I’m closest to. He alone understands why these streets and the apartment up above are so important to me. He understands that coming back to places adds an annual ring and is the most accurate way of measuring time. He too kept coming back here. He smiles and says that he’s still doing so, reminding me that just because one is gone doesn’t mean one loves the city any less, or that one stops fussing with time here once it stops everywhere else. This, after all, is the eternal city. One never leaves. One can if one wishes choose one’s ghost spot. I know where mine is.
CURWOOD: Ghost spot. What an evocative image. Not only did you really bring Rome alive for us, André, but what a powerful ending, choosing a place that you'd like to haunt.
Let’s talk about Rome for a moment. What made it so difficult to adapt to life living in Rome after leaving Alexandria?
ACIMAN: Well my father had basically become an Italian citizen while still in Egypt. I suspect he must have bought a passport and we became Italian. So when they kicked us out of Egypt and expropriated everything we owned, we basically had to end up in a country that was our homeland, which it really wasn’t. In Italy we arrived as refugees, as Italian refuges.
CURWOOD: And back in Egypt you were quite well to do?
ACIMAN: Yes, and we were totally, totally penniless when we arrived. And clearly what I tried to evoke in the piece was the young kid, me, I was trying desperately to reconstruct something that contained the best of Rome, which I didn’t know much of, and just basically try to transport everything I had lost back into Rome and try to put the pieces back together sort of with spit glue and make believe that we were okay again.
CURWOOD: And I’ve been thinking actually since you finished reading what my ghost spot would be, and I think I’ve finally come up with one. At first I thought, well it’s the family farmhouse, but hey, there’s a captain of the Revolutionary War that has that as his ghost spot. Really the place for me is a pine grove that’s not very far from my house where I would go when I was very little and find a bed of pine needles and just relax and look up at the sky and smell the pine.
Diane, how about you? I wonder if there’s a spot that sprang to mind for you, or you Jay, when you heard André talking about his haunting spot.
FERLATTE: I don’t really have a ghost spot or haunting spot. I think what I like or places where I like to live has to have greenery, I guess because maybe because I was born in the South and there was so much green around me. I need trees, I need grass, I need, you know, to see some of those things around me wherever I live.
CURWOOD: How about you, Jay?
O’CALLAHAN: One of my ghost spots is a tree, like yours Diane, but this is, it’s a beech tree that was seven realms high when I was a little boy, and it still exists, it’s still on Pill Hill. And I would spend hours when I was seven to maybe 13 climbing up that tree. I loved to use my arms and feel the roughness. It was like a rough, rough grey elephant. And somehow that’s a ghost that gives me strength, just feeling that and almost feeling the roots going down into the earth.
CURWOOD: We’ll be right with more of our storytelling special in just a minute. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
For our holiday storytelling special I’m joined by storytellers Jay O’Callahan and Diane Ferlatte and writer André Aciman.
Jay, we’re going to finish up with you. You have a story that takes place at your family’s home near Boston in the dead of winter.
O’CALLAHAN: I was sitting in my room in the basement in our big, old house on Pill Hill. We call it Pill Hill because there were doctors all over the place. I hate law school. One more case: Gabriella Rugani vs. the Food Mart, Trenton, New Jersey.
Gabriella, what a beautiful name you have. I bet your hair is red like the sparks and you have a beautiful voice. Gabriella Rugani, 26, a dancer, slipped on some grapes in the Food Mart, broke her leg, hasn’t danced in two years. Ah, Gabriella, I slipped too into law school. Awful. Oh, Gabriella I’m falling down a well. Last year in college I had all these friends, we could solve everything. Now they’re scattered all over the country.
Oh, here I am in a basement, the basement of our house. I thought it would be a good idea to move my room down here. It’s as dark as Dostoevsky. Gabriella, I have a, have a job, put me through law school. At night I clean one of the Boston schools. The only thing alive is the rats in the basement.
Bad year for Dad too. A few years ago Dad discovered he was a very good actor, amateur acting, but he could go to New York, he could do it. But I think he’s decided not to, support the family. It’s tearing him apart.
I shut the law book, good night beautiful Gabriella. I went upstairs, stood in the dark hall, our great front hall that can hold about 80 people. Bong, bong, bong, bong. Our grandfather clock striking midnight. It’s a new day now, February 4, 1961. In 11 hours my sister Patricia will be married. Oh, grandfather clock, eight feet tall, dark oak wood. You know, clock, I used to like you. When I was a little boy, you seemed to be full of play. Not now. Your sound is demanding now. You’ve turned into time, time, watching us, judging us. Never joining in.
I started up our wide front stairs, I was going to sleep in my bedroom. Mom wanted all of us to be where we’d been all these years this last night. Got up to the second floor and I looked at my sister Patricia’s door. It was shut. Patricia, she’s 24, she’s going to come out tomorrow in her wedding dress, come down the stairs and she’ll never go back to that room. She’s marrying John Madell, John Madell, graduate student at MIT from Chicago. His parents from Chicago are here in the neighborhood, all of his friends. They flew in yesterday, they’re staying with our friends all over the neighborhood.
I don’t look forward to the reception tomorrow. There will be 150 people here in our house and I’ll have to be polite. How is law school? Well, I’m falling down a well. Good, that’s the spirit, keep it up.
Bong, bong, bong, bong. I woke 7 o’clock, grandfather clock, and I stretched, went back to sleep and I snapped on the radio. The announcer was saying, “It’s the biggest snowstorm of the century. This is a blizzard, ladies and gentlemen. Two feet of snow and it’s snowing, going to snow all day and all night. Everything is cancelled: Celtics, Bruins, college boards.”
I sprang out of bed and I looked out the window and there was two feet of snow and it was snowing hard. It was wild out there. Only the bluejays could move. Everything was transformed. By 8:30 and quarter of nine all the wedding guests, the Chicago guests, our neighbors, they were all tramping through the blizzard into our big front hall. “Going to be a wedding? How far is the church?” “A mile.” “A mile!” The Norwegians, graduate students at MIT, they were living across the street. They came in and one of them said, “We will ski Patricia to the church!”
Dad said, “Quiet down, everyone, I’m calling the Department of Public Works. Listen, we need a plow up here, my daughter is getting married. Up on Pill Hill.” Dad held his hand over the phone. “He says he’s got some nut from Pill Hill.” Dad listened and put the phone down. “[laughs] I could hear the superintendent in the background, Ed Hickey. He said, ‘I’m going to that wedding, get a plow up there.’”
I said, “Dad, we’ll need a heavy car to get Patricia to the church.” “That’s right, that’s right. I’ll call Fred Fredricks. I’ve done a lot of acting with him. He calls me Lear. Fred, yeah, it’s King Lear, [laughs]. Listen, Fred, Patricia is getting married this morning. We need a car that’ll get through the storm. Great, great! 10:30. He’s going to send a funeral limousine.”
I grabbed a shovel and I went running out into that blizzard. Five of the Chicago fellows, they followed me. I got them shovels and I started shoveling. Snow was heavy. I was shoveling away and making a path for Patricia. And I was thinking of Patricia’s long path, painful path.
When Patricia was in the eighth grade she weighed 65 pounds, held together with freckles. She was in mom’s bedroom one night, “Nobody has asked me to the eighth grade dance. I’ll never have a bosom!” All through high school, Patricia, she was freckles, bones and brains, a lot of brains. Every college wanted Patricia. She knew she’d be homesick, so she commuted to college. She would study up in the third floor, that’s where Gram is. Gram has the idea that if a girl isn't engaged by the time she’s 11 she’s an old maid. Gram would crook her finger and say, “Now Patricia, be standoffish but not too standoffish.”
Then late in college Patricia started to act. Never forget, at the footlight club she was in “Pygmalion.” She was Eliza Doolittle. And toward the end of the play she was the transformed Eliza Doolittle. She came out, stood on stage and she was so beautiful, the audience gasped.
“The plow is coming!” The plow was coming like a ship through the blizzard. We shoveled an hour and a half. I was freezing, all of us were. We ran into the front hall and mother said, “The bride is coming down the stairs, everyone.”
Patricia. She started down the stairs, my sister, she was the bride coming down the stairs, and I thought of when Patricia was 12, her birthday. We were in the dining room and Dad said, “Get the birthday cake.” I was 10, my sister Kathy 8. We ran into the kitchen and we lit the 12 little candles and Kathy carried the cake into the dark dining room. Dad had snapped the lights off and Dad was singing, “Happy Birthday to you...” Kathy set the cake down in front of Patricia and Patricia’s face was long, narrow, and it was filled with such happiness that I didn’t want the moment to end. I didn’t want any more tears. I didn’t want her to blow the candles out, but she started to blow them out and I willed that the candles would not go out, but the flames leaned to the left and they went out. And I wanted to say, “Dad, don’t turn the lights on yet,” but he snapped them on. It was over. I went to bed hurt, felt time didn’t care.
Patricia kept coming down the stairs in that beautiful bridal gown. We all applauded. When she got to the bottom, Dad put a cape around her shoulders, he had galoshes. We went out into the blizzard. Patricia got into the funeral limousine and off it went. And the rest of us, we walked, we walked in that blizzard all the way down Pill Hill. My feet were so cold they felt like needles. On we went through the village, and the only sound was a police car with chains: clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. We were all freezing.
We got to the church, it was warm but we were shivering, just 40 or 50 of us, not 150. The organ played and we turned and Dad and Patricia were coming down the aisle. Dad was an epic with a moustache and Patricia looked like a beautiful candle. They walked all the way down the aisle. And just then there was a great rumble. I thought the roof was coming in. I looked up and I realized it was snow sliding off the roof. And Dad handed Patricia to John Madell of Chicago.
There was something solid about John, something solid and steady. He was like a Yankee clippre ship. The wind was so loud, it was like a roaring river. So we couldn’t hear the ceremony but we could see John putting the ring on my sister’s finger. And they kissed and we cheered. A moment later the bride and groom, they went running out into the wild blizzard towards the limousine. The blizzard was happy now, it was throwing snowflakes at them. Off they went in the limousine and we pelted it with snowballs.
We walked up Pill Hill and Mrs. Lawrence said to me, “The whole world has turned into a bride for Patricia.” Old Mrs. Archibald’s brown wig flew off, landed in a tree. Mrs. Lawrence said, “It will make a lovely nest.”
We got back to the house and I was busy lighting fires and shucking oysters, pouring champagne. The caterers arrived. They were late but cheery, and soon enough from the kitchen the clatter of dishes and the smell of baked ham, and time was moving on. Bong, bong. Uncle Eric playing the piano [singing] “Waltzes, polkas, dancers galloping round.” The violinist arrived, he was a cannonball of a man. Patricia was speaking with a guest and the cannonball violinist went right up behind her and he played [humming].
Dad was in the hall, “Harry, Minetta, Patricia, come see who is here.” Patricia came running down and the cannonball seemed stuck to her. [humming] She gritted her teeth and went to the dining room, cannonball with her, [humming]. She fled to the bathroom, cannonball was outside [humming]. All afternoon the hall door burst open, people came in with tales of heroic deeds and drifting snow. And late in the afternoon dad said, “Harry [laughs] look who else is here! Come on in, Dick, Lydia.” Mother came running down, “Lydia, you were marvelous, Dick you’re marvelous, everyone is marvelous!”
By 5:00 there were 90 people there. Everyone wanted Patricia to sing. So Patricia, she stood on the red rug in the piano room and she sang grandmother’s song. [singing] “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.” And she was radiant, not because of stage lights, she was radiant because she was in love and happy.
When she finished, everyone applauded. It was like an explosion. And Aunt Virginia, she led us in the Hawaiian war dance out into the big front hall, everyone dancing and singing. Suddenly everyone was signing, [singing] “Chicago, Chicago, wonderful town.” People are dancing and singing, and outside the storm, it was singing and dancing. We were dancing around, [singing] “I saw a man who danced with his wife.” The bride and groom were dancing. Everybody was dancing.
The Norwegians were jumping up and down, the cannonball were jumping up and down, and it was then I saw the grandfather clock, it was vibrating. It was vibrating. And then it leaned just an inch. It leaned towards us and then it fell back and leaned towards us, and then it began to bounce. The grandfather clock was bouncing, bong, bong, bong. Oh, and I thought, ah, Gabriella, if time can dance, then you’ll dance, there is hope! If time can dance, Gabriella, there is hope, there is hope, there is hope!
CURWOOD: What a story, Jay O’Callahan. So what did the guests say to you after this wedding?
O’CALLAHAN: The guests stayed actually.
CURWOOD: You couldn’t get rid of them, huh? They were snowed in.
O’CALLAHAN: They were snowed in. My mother came down the next morning. Everyone had to sleep where they could, and there were three of the Chicago fellows underneath the dining room table, so she went right back upstairs. People couldn’t leave. After two days mother was in her room saying, “When are they going to leave?”
CURWOOD: And so how would you say this affected later homecomings to your family house on Pill Hill?
O’CALLAHAN: The house that we bought, mother and father got after the war, was a millionaire’s house, but nobody wanted to heat the house, and so they got it for very little. And it was sold just a few years ago, great deal of money. And a wonderful couple who lived there invited us all back, so last year we were all back. Was the first time in 40 years the five of us siblings were there for his birthday party, and I was to tell Pill Hill stories.
So we gathered back and many of our friends were invited, so they came from different places in the country, as far as California, to just spend the night again, well an evening, at the home again, telling stories. Everybody. I told mine, but everybody telling stories.
CURWOOD: Diane, how about you? How did this story touch you?
FERLATTE: Well, it brings back memories. Because I guess being born in Louisiana, you don’t see much snow. And as a child living in Oakland where I lived growing up the rest of my time, I hardly saw very little snow. And the first time I saw snow I was in my 20s. And funny thing, though, speaking of weddings, I got married in the snow. I don’t know how that happened.
I got married the end of January, and before we went up to Tahoe to get married, a snowstorm. And I could not believe it. We rented a five-bedroom house in Tahoe and we knew nothing about snow and about chains and all that. And then when we got to the cabin, we finally found the cabin, we had to shovel our way to the front door. We couldn’t even get in this house. It was just like awful. People were late, they couldn’t find where we were, and they were stopped because there was so much snow. Some of them didn’t have chains. Oh, it was just awful, and we didn’t know what to do or how to really handle snow, so we had to do a lot of shoveling, lot of shoveling.
CURWOOD: André, what about you? What experiences of your own does this story remind you of?
ACIMAN: Well I was thinking a I was listening, it’s a wonderful story, and very moving. I mean, one of the things that made me think of was of course I discovered snow when I was 17 in the states. And I always wondered, you know, what does snow mean? What does it do to one? Is there a particular feeling that comes with snow? And I think there is, but I’m never quite sure I can put my finger on it. It’s something between family, ceremony, warmth, you know, the hearth and all that sort of stuff.
But as I was listening to this story I kept saying to myself, this story, it’s the product of someone who has lost something. And I always think that the best thing that we have, however real they were, are always the product of something we lost. In other words, we remember them and that’s why they begin to glow and they become very special.
CURWOOD: And wonderful. And I think for me, snow creates this wonderful illusion that the world is perfect. Because first when it’s flying you can’t see anything else but where you are, and then when it’s settled and the sun comes out or the moon comes out, everything is perfect. You know those leaves you didn’t get in the yard? They’re covered. The car with a bit of a crumpled fender, it looks just as beautiful as a brand-new shiny vehicle. Everything is made new by that snow.
And everything is quiet. Around you there’s this padding, so that when you’re with the folks that you’re with, you hear each other but the outside world really doesn’t intrude, unless it’s the scrape of the plows. But it just creates a magical moment.
FERLATTE: You’re from the East Coast, right?
CURWOOD: I’m from the East Coast, yes. New Hampshire.
FERLATTE: That’s how East Coast folks think. Everything is so perfect. I don't like snow. It doesn’t seem perfect to me, it seems awful. Too cold.
CURWOOD: It’s perfectly cold, huh?
CURWOOD: Well, I know we’d all like to hear more storytelling, but unfortunately we’re just about out of time. I’d like to thank you all for joining me for this year’s Living on Earth Holiday Storytelling Special. Jay O’Callahan, Massachusetts-based storyteller, who shared his tale of winter festivities.
O’CALLAHAN: Oh thank you. I loved the stories. Thanks so much.
CURWOOD: André Aciman, essayists and Professor of Comparative Literature at the City University of New York, who took us across the ocean to Rome.
ACIMAN: It was wonderful being here.
CURWOOD: And Diane Ferlatte, storyteller from California who brought us home with her to Louisiana.
FERLATTE: Well, thanks for having me here. I love sharing my stories.
CURWOOD: The pleasure was all mine. Today’s Living on Earth Storytelling Special was produced by Cynthia Graber with technical director Chris Engles. Theme music composed by Allison Dean. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and happy holidays.
Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation environmental information fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded internet service; the Educational Foundation of America for coverage of energy and climate change; the Ford Foundation for reporting on US environment and development issues; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org; the Oak Foundation; the Town Creek Foundation; and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.
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