Monday, 3 April 2017

Days of Wine and Remembrances - Umberto Tosi

1914 Illustration for James Joyce's
The Dead by William Bock
Every year around Easter my great uncle Augusto on my mother's side would break out a barrel of his homemade wine from the previous year, or maybe two. He would pass a decanter of his deep maroon brew around the table for everyone to taste at one of the multi-course, extended family feasts that my mother and her sister would prepare on most Sunday afternoons during my early childhood years in 1940s Boston, Massachusetts. Even the kids got a spoonful or two of it diluted in a jelly glass of water-turned-pale-fuschia. The vaguely strange, metallic taste of diluted wine recalls all of this for me with Proustian sensuality even today. "Buona per il sangue" (Good for the blood), Zio Augusto would say.

"Buono, Zio Augusto! Buono, buono! Delizioso!" My mother, Alba, her sister Nina, and two brothers, Aldo and Vincent, along with aunts and various cousins would all tell him, trying to look pleased, even making smacking sounds. Applause. It was awful wine. You could have peeled paint with it, but they dearly loved their "Zi'Augusto, a jolly, round-faced, leathery skinned retired factory worker who had lost three fingers on his right hand in some long-ago mishap, drawing my morbid childhood fascination.

I got to thinking about these old stories in the course of attempting a fictionalized family memoir based on the Alessandrini clan in which my mother was a central figure. Transplanted from Rome, the Alessandrinis had their share of hardships, but seemed in a perpetual state of celebration when they gathered, no matter the occasion, or even talked with each other on the phone.

Veloz & Yolanda
on top of their game, 1939
Everyone talked at once, yet in unwritten contrapuntal harmony. They joked, told stories, sang, they played piano, mandolin, guitar. My uncle Aldo - a dashing charmer in his early 20s - would get me to put a tango on the wind-up record player and grab his sister, my aunt Nina for a spin around the living room with mock dramatics. She was taller than he, thinner and nimble with a kind of awkward grace. They burlesqued the 1930s movie tango team (and dance studio chain tycoons) Veloz and Yolanda morphing into Popeye and Olive Oyl. Cheers. Applause. Time enough for reflection off stage.

I cherished the memory of those Boston get-togethers, though they faded as I grew into an adult preoccupied in my own family and profession across the continent in California. I took their lyrical ebullience for granted, not appreciating its rarity and the energy it took to maintain it. It wasn't sentimental in the least. There was substance to it. I grew up an only child, wishing I had a brother or sister until I encountered so many siblings who treat each other coldly at best, and often miserably. I couldn't understand it. All their lives, my mother, her siblings and the cousins were there for each other no matter what. They even helped each other build houses as their families grew. Their enthusiasm for each other could at times their wives and husbands complain of feeling excluded in later life, though I never was aware of my mother drawing such a line when it came to her brothers and cousins.

Opera singer
Alba Alessadnrini
and son (me) 1939
It's possible that their intense camaraderie was forged in the difficult childhood that my mother avoided talking much about. Theirs wasn't the typical immigrant family story of fleeing poverty and struggling upwards. My grandparents were from fairly well off cultured backgrounds. Before they emigrated for good, they traveled back and forth between Rome and Boston, not for work, but to visit my grandmother's sisters who had emigrated to New England. They finally settled in Boston themselves in the late 1920s not long before the Great Depression hit in 1929.

My grandfather, Alfonso, an accomplished musician, took up barbering to earn a living, then descended into an alcoholic depression that ended in his years-long confinement in a state hospital in that era of warehousing the mentally ill. My grandmother went to work in a shoe factory to feed her kids, while my aunt Nina took care of her younger siblings.
Gerard Alessandrini

Recently I got to reminiscing about the family with one of my Boston cousins, Gerard Alessandrini. We go months, sometimes years, without a word between us, but when we connect it's as if no time has passed at all. I was 16 when he was born. Our childhood family memories cover different decades but are remarkably consistent in texture and tone.

Gerard was in town to open the Chicago staging of Spamilton, the acclaimed parody based on Hamilton that's been packing audiences since it opened last September. There's no doubt that Gerard is heir to the Alessandrini wit and panache which he's parlayed into a brilliant career as a Tony- and Obie-award-winning career as a playwright, parodist, librettist and performer since he opened his successful Forbidden Broadway comedy review that has run continuously in New York since 1982, and other towns as well.

Gerard's Chicago show proved as much a hit as the New York original. My inamorata, Eleanor, my son Zach, and a friend were in stitches through the whole performance when we saw it a few weeks ago. Gerard's satire bites sharply, but in ultimately good nature, which is why so many of the stars he's parodied have come to see his reviews over the years. He's very Alessandrini in that way.

Scene from Federico Fellini's
1972 film Roma
My mother and her cousins and siblings are all gone now. I don't know how I can convey their spirit through written words. James Joyce's lengthy, elegiac story, "The Dead" from Dubliners comes to mind as an evocative model. Fellini's autobiographical films remind me a lot of what the old Alessandrinis were like, particularly his 1972 episodic opus, Roma, and, in particular, in the extended, al fresco eating scene that becomes a kind of joyful, crowded street, layered culinary, musical, conversational, multi-generational fugue.

Alessandrini-like characters have shown up perforce in my writings, for example, in my short story, "Onion Station" which ran in Chicago Quarterly Review a while back. I wish I could talk to them now. I'd ask many questions I regret not asking over the years. Isn't that always the way? I'll be content to talk with my handful of cousins and pore over what memorabilia we can gather. If nothing else, it will be a way for us to remember together and know one another better. If those blithe Alessandrini spirits are by chance continuing to party on another plane, as I like to think they are, then they will smile at our efforts, I hope.
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Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and oughts. He has been editor of San Francisco magazine and California Business, and has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies.

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7 comments:

Dipika Mukherjee said...

What a beautiful post Umberto, and what lovely memories. I'd love to read more about the magic of your Boston gatherings.

Chris Longmuir said...

I always enjoy reading your posts, Umberto, they are always so beautifully written.

griseldaheppel said...

Me too. What riches and warmth of life in a huge extended family you evoke. Your cousin Gerard is clearly very talented. I love the sound of Spamilton! Please can you write a Boston quartet as an antidoe to Elena Ferrante? Just finished book 3 of her Neapolitan quartet, very depressing.

Marsha Coupé said...

Your fascinating family left you the best legacy of all, especially for a writer. I always enjoy your tales of the Alessandrini and Tosi families, Umberto. You capture their passion, camaraderie and struggles beautifully.

Sandra Horn said...

Thank you for sharing these lovely warm memories and making me smile Umberto!

Alicia Sammons said...

Beautifully written account of a family, a time and a place; and ultimately, a slice of Americana--testimony to the colorful cultural diversity that makes this country so fascinating. Your loving and honest memoir reminds us all that in remembering those who shaped our past, we continue to discover new things about ourselves.

Linda LaRoche's Blog said...

Wonderful portrait of the personalities that make up a family. Often a writer has no further to look than his own family to get a character driven story- they provide a great ensemble with a chorus of voices.