In the days before I fell sick I dreamed of myself as a child, watching my grandfather, Salvatore, peel navel oranges. They always opened for him like flowers. Their fragrance calls to mind his pitted pocket knife, cutting twine that never frayed, and his careful fingers, gnarled like bark, pruning suckers from plum tomato plants, an aromatic basil sprig tucked behind one deliberately deaf ear. I can hear him curse my father in terse bursts of dialect for waiting too near the threat of frost to cover the fig trees, his Old World eyes flashing aquamarine ice.
At the end of his long, cantankerous existence, Grandpa, a widower, lived next door. He took most meals with us and bedeviled my parents (to our unending delight) with his tightlipped anarchy. Dissatisfaction was Grandpa’s native state. Testa duro, he could hardly bear to spare his eggplant soil on pretty, useless things like flowers, and then only the rose—my mother’s name—or gladiolus, Grandma’s favorite bloom.
Grandma’s name was Adeline, but Grandpa called her Lily. When I was little, I confused his seditious smirk with Sunday television images of Stan Laurel, a counterpoint to Grandma’s blustering Hardy. When I got older, watching him prune and shape our evergreens, his shock of wild white locks suggested Einstein wielding hedge clippers. But I couldn’t ever see the connection between our curmudgeon and the flame-haired boy shipped to America at midnight to escape enlistment into World War I or, more romantic, the avenging knife of his father’s foe.
Young Salvatore never saw his mother and sisters again. I could only see the old man glaring up at God to pray the Rosary, who nourished his impatient longevity with potent swigs of Fernet Branca and pungent slurps of homemade garlic soup. If he wasn’t working in the yard Grandpa played Solitaire by the hour, grumbling, at our kitchen table.
When I was sixteen I was sent next door to call him for supper and came upon a rare, amazing, secret sight: far too many legs with hoofs. I tiptoed closer. From his back porch my grandfather was hand-feeding at least a dozen deer pieces torn from a stale semolina loaf. When the bread ran out he growled, “No more. Now go, you sonmabiches,” and turned away with a charming grin. Stunned, I ran straight home to shout the news of what I’d seen. Grandpa smiling? My parents scoffed, dismissed the claim—and I knew that he would not confess. So I kept the story to myself, until now and here, in this sacred space where truth and memory meet.