Once upon a time, many years ago, a little boy named Andy lived in a cottage in Cape Cod, by the sea, with his parents. Every morning, before leaving for pre-school, he ate his cream of wheat while his dad watched the news on TV. Andy never liked the news, it always seemed to be about terrible things all over the world, and there was usually this very sour-faced man making speeches.
His father told him, "Don't worry; that's just President Nixon, he always looks that way."
Every night, his father would read Andy a story at bedtime, every night, except when he was sick, upset or troubled. Times like that, called for mom. She would sit by his bed, and sing to him, but he never understood a word.
You see, his mom was Italian; she'd been a World War II war bride. Now, it might sound silly, her being a full-blooded Italian and not teaching Andy the language, but you have to understand her. She came from a country devastated by war.
She and her family lived without gas or electricity or running water for months, eating only raw potatoes, cheese and a bit of salami. Then she met and fell in love with an American soldier. She was sent to America, on a hospital ship.
Her first view of America, as so many immigrants, before her, was the New York City skyline. By comparison, the glories of ancient Rome were nothing. She was convinced that Americans were Titans, for only god-like beings could create such an edifice. And she decided, then and there, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, that she would become a good American.
She learned English. She studied America, and she didn't teach Andy to speak Italian or even spoke it around him. Well, that's not entirely true. When she got mad, she'd yell at him in Italian, which never made any sense. He'd stand there, mouth hanging open, looking up at her bright red face, having no idea what she was saying. That only got him into still more trouble. So, he eventually learned to just nod after every couple words.
And then there was the singing. When Andy had the flu, and chickenpox, and countless other troubles; she would be there, at his bedside, singing the same old song. It was quite the comfort thing, despite the fact he never understood a word of it.
As he got older, things changed for Andy. He didn't want to be an Andy any more, it was Andrew! And, he didn't want to hear any more singing at night, that was kid's stuff, and he was a man now, tall and lean. His mother, being a good Italian mother, always pushed food on him.
"You look thin, eat-eat," she'd say.
Years later, Andy went off to college, to become an engineer. But, engineering was, well, how to put it: kind of "dry." This appealed to the stoic, New England analytical side of his mind, courtesy of his dad. Yet, his right brain, with centuries of Italian artisans yearning to break free; also needed an outlet. He started to volunteer, in the college theatre department. The teachers and students were confused, why would a math major hang out in their department?
The Professor said, "So, you're not a theatre major and you're not a work-study, you just want to help out here, is that it?"
Andrew nodded. "Yup, you got it!"
It took a couple years, but they finally got used to his presence.
Then, in his junior year, he fell from a ladder, while painting a set and suffered a bad head injury, a concussion. At first, he didn't notice a thing. He didn't even feel the bang, when he landed.
About a week later, he started getting dizzy. Then the headaches started, and the memory loss, and the loss of appetite. A college student who can't remember his classes? Ohhh, not good! He was tempted to pack it in and go home, but that Anglo-Italian mix in his genes seemed to have given him quite the drive and determination. No, he'd stick it out and finish the year!
On top of everything else, his sense of smell and taste got all screwed up. Food tasted like cardboard, sodas like coal tar. Extreme odours were everywhere. Pungent wasn't the word he used. The reeking stench of decaying human waste, that was pretty close to what he was getting in his nose at every meal. So, he didn't eat hardly anything, for two months.
He lost fifty pounds!
Great diet system, unless you're a beanpole like he was then. It wasn't long before he pretty much looked like a death camp survivor. And for Italian mothers, food is a curative for all things.
They'd talk on the phone and she'd say, "You sound thin. Eat!"
"I'm eating fine, Mom," he'd tell her, his voice flat and without emotion.
She knew it was a lie. It didn't take an Italian mother to figure that out. She was sure he was dying. When he came home, at the end of the semester, she pushed food on him. Slowly, reluctantly, he ate, and began to put weight back on. Yet, sleep was difficult; his skull was still being bombarded with constant pain. Sometimes it was a hot poker to his temple, other times he was sure a huge screw was being driven into his forehead, and, more often then not it seemed his head was being crushed by a vise.
And so it was that she again sat at his bedside and sang to him. Kind of odd for a college kid to be sung to by his mother, but the cause was certainly just, and the melodic tune eased his pain.
Time rolled along. He recovered and eventually graduated, and moved off to start his life. His father passed away. He got married. His mother moved to Florida, and became an active senior.
She may have been old, but she did not slow down. No, it was trips to Las Vegas, cruises in the Caribbean, a safari in Africa and bouncing about the Outback of Australia.
Time was kind to her, but not a friend. Eventually, she had a stroke. Andrew went to see her and speak to her doctors. The news was as expected.
Now it was his turn to sit by her bed. He sang to her. Still not knowing the words, but knowing it would comfort her. She smiled at him as he sang, pressing her withered hand into his; the same hand that had prepared so many wonderful, and filling, meals. The same hand that had offered comfort in troubled times, and discipline when needed. Words were unnecessary; the tear on his cheek told her everything.
"It's all right, Andrew," she whispered. "I've lived a full, rich life, and I have no regrets. Now, go, and do the same, and sing to me once more."
It wasn't easy, but he managed to sing the song, one last time.
A few months later, his daughter was born, and they named her Silvana, after his mother. Each night, when putting her to bed, he sang his mother's song to her. It was the only Italian he knew. It took a while, but he finally got it translated -- Put your little head on your little pillow, and I shall sing you a lullaby. Sleep in peace and safety, knowing that my arms shall protect you. Dream of a future full of love, knowing that you are forever in my heart. Wake to a day re-born, knowing that I shall always be with you.
Click here for more by AJ Robinson.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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