So as I’m stopped in front of his house, a guy about my age comes out onto the front porch. He looks at me, curious, about to say something.
I get out of the car. Buenos tardes, I say, and ask him how long he has lived there. He says one year, but the people downstairs, who own the house, have been here awhile. I tell him that I was in the area and I wanted to drive by and see the house where my Nana and her twelve siblings were born and raised.
He says, Wow–thirteen kids, on which floor? and I tell him that it was not divided into apts, it was all one house—until probably the 1940s. Thirteen kids in this house and thirteen kids next door, in that house. He shakes his head and says that is a lot of kids.
I tell him that until the 70s, English was not the first language in the neighborhood then, either–everything was Italian. He says, Yeah, there’s this sort of monument thing just down the block and you can tell it’s some kind of Italian thing. I tell him that that is what is left standing of the original St. Bartholomew’s Church. This entire neighborhood was baptized and married and buried there. He seems a little bit surprised to hear this, and only semi-aware of just HOW Italian Silver Lake was, and not at all aware that its residents came from just a handful of neighboring Italian towns. It has always been Latino since he has been here, he says. It’s a nice neighborhood—everything very nearby, people pretty cool.
I tell him that I spent so many holidays, so many Saturdays just hanging around, so many good times, in that house.
Ahh, que buenos recuerdos, he says.
Si. Que bonita, esta familia, I answer.
And then he switches to near-perfect English, after an entire conversation in Spanish. I am embarrassed and apologize for my assumption, and he says, Of course not! No worries! And we laugh.
Still there: the black, wrought iron fence that looked so menacing then, that I would look down on from the second floor porch, stepping around window screens with tomatoes sun-drying on them, and imagine being impaled if I fell.
Probably still there: the little backyard, once with round table and yellow umbrella, where Uncle Charlie and his best friend, Gino, on one of their summer visits from Switzerland, sat and drank coffee and ate wine biscuits and sang to me, “Che la Luna” and “La Donna e Mobile” and other songs I didn’t know. And where Uncle Archie’s June birthday would be celebrated every year, all of the siblings in attendance, with a strawberry shortcake, with strawberries that Auntie picked at Schartner’s, made with love, for her brother. And where thirteen children, and many grandchildren, somehow played and didn’t feel crowded.
Still there, but only in our collective memory: The side entrance with the music box which would play whenever the door was open, and automatically stop when the door closed, the tune some variation of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” with a tick-tick sound keeping time; the fantastic smell inside, which I remember vividly, but can’t put into words; the stairway to Uncle Archie’s second floor apartment, both stairway and apartment covered with original art by Uncle’s daughter, Cousin B (who left for Europe for her junior year abroad and never come back, eventually settling in northern CA and changing her name and embracing the hippie life for good. Auntie and Uncle were so crushed by her departure, both from their daily lives and from all sense of what they knew to be Normal Life–but they were also very proud of her art, and the stairway showed it. But I digress); Auntie Livina’s first floor kitchen–modest, spotless, where magic was made and gold was spun, without any help from Kitchen-Aid or Wusthof or Cuisinart; the dishes of candy, Peanut Butter Cups and mini-Snickers and M&Ms, just waiting for my visits; the rosary blessed by the Pope; the framed photo of me on the sideboard in the dining room.
Still there, but only in stories that predate any of us: the dining room, where this huge family somehow ate very well, and where there was always room for one more, even the occasional hungry stranger during the Depression; the basement, where chickens and turkeys and possibly other non-pets ran around until they became dinner (a fact of life accepted by all except Auntie Jean, who was upset by the whole thing as a child, and who might have briefly gone vegetarian over it); the living room floor, where a pushy vendor once spread out his kitchen supplies and would not leave until my great-grandmother pointed the shotgun at him and told him that she’d blow his head off if he didn’t get out of her house (apparently, she didn’t need that fancy kitchen shit either); the parlor, where the deceased were “laid out” and wakes were held; the dining room table, where the whole family, with the exception of a teenage Uncle
Archie Elmo, was treated to his contraband pies, after he hid them under his bed in an effort not to share them with is siblings; the street outside, where Auntie Evelyn (ever the tomboy) sped off on her brother Charlie (ever the fancy-man)’s closely guarded Italian racing bike, and was promptly hit by a truck.