The East Baltimore rowhouse stands at the corner of Pratt and Foster where a long column of painted brick buildings and while marble steps end abruptly. The DiPietro house is an antonym of Formstone façade and red brick steps; an irregularity in the block-long rhythm of monotonous repetition. It is as singular as the family that once lived there.
Rose Giordano squints in the harsh morning sunlight as she examines a set of keys for the one to open the front door. She is a slender stalk of a woman, petite and abbreviated in her custom-tailored black coat and matching hat. Chestnut-colored hair, now flecked with gray, has been pulled back into a coiled know at the nape of her neck. Her eyes, once described poetically by an ardent suitor as the color of hot buttered rum, are clouded over with a fog of unspeakable sadness.
Rose fits the key into the lock, turns it, and opens the door to the vacant house. Just yesterday, dealers and bargain hunters had come to prowl and prey upon the estate sale goods - her grandparents’ treasured possessions, leaving only the ghosts behind.
She listens to the hollow sound her heels make tapping across the worn linoleum as she moves from the entrance hall to the now-bare living room where sunlight filters through dusty venetian blinds. Charcoal -grey outlines mark the spots where family portraits once hung . . . a sepia-colored photograph of Nonna at the age of twenty-six, attired in her Sunday best; Nonna and Nonno flanked by five somber-looking children; Jack and Jackie Kennedy, her grandparents’ idols; her sister Clara’s college graduation picture; her own picture as Sr. Mary Celeste on vow day (a picture they had refused to take down after she had returned home)…uniformed young men staring gravely into the eye of the camera - her uncles.
Rose pauses at the doorway between the living room and what had been her grandparents’ bedroom. Until today, she had not been able to make herself come back to this room, every since Nonna had been taken to the nursing home less than five months ago.
It had been August fifteenth, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Instead of attending Mass that morning, Rose sat in the cramped living room of her grandparents’ house, nervously chain-smoking. Remnants of angry, ugly conversation among family members about costs and the old woman’s care clung to her like lint on a sweater. Her parents, aunts and uncles, all of them in their late 60’s and 70’s wore that tired expression.
We’ll have to sell the property, an uncle had said. We’ll have to put the old lady in a nursing home.
“They’s here,” Ms. Lee, the nursing aide, said quietly. Ms. Lee had been with the DiPietro family for three years now - enough time to witness, be privy to, and anguish over situations that set her Black soul to trembling and beseeching God’s mercy at the A.M.E. church across town. Rose loved Ms. Lee.
Rose crushed out her cigarette as the ambulance crew edged into the entrance hall with a folded gurney. She entered the bedroom where her grandmother sat in a chair by the window. Kneeling beside the chair, she took hold of the old woman’s hands. They were the hands that had fed her, wiped her tears as a child, even smacked her once for being naughty. They were the hands that had plucked chickens, canned countless jars of tomato puree and summer fruit; hands that had packed innumerable boxes of clothing and food for the poor; hands that had fingered well-worn rosary beads. Now they lay limp in her lap, wrinkled and useless with age. Rose pressed her face into the,
“Nonna”, she began in Italian, “ the doctor says you need more care, and. . . . “Her voice cracked. There was no word for nursing home in Italian. Teresa DiPietro lifted her head. Those once piercing gray eyes, now coated with cataracts, were expressionless. If she understood anything at all, she said nothing.
Teresa DiPietro lay absolutely still as the ambulance crew lifted her onto the guerney and tucked a sheet around her. She looks like a corpse, Rose thought but then she reminded herself that a corpse gets taken out in a zippered bag - like it had been for Nonno and Uncle Steve.
As the attendants struggled to maneuver the guerney through the door and down the steps to the waiting ambulance, Rose returned to the living room to switch off the television set that no one was watching. Teresa DiPietro had stopped watching TV a long time ago but as one her uncles reasoned, “Keep it on. It’ll keep her company.”
She remembered the first TV set her grandparents had owned. Growing up in an extended family where her grandfather had been the undisputed patriarch, Rose could not recall every turning the set on or off as a child. Nonno controlled the knobs.
With the advent of TV, Edward R. Morrow and Walter Cronkite became her grandparents’ confidants. Milton Berle and Sid Caesar were eagerly awaited like good friends who stop by for a weekly visit. They would cluck sympathetically over Ed Sullivan’s hunched frame and slow drawl, but his show brought something into their lives they had never experienced before - these people who had never attended a concert, ballet, or even a movie. But it was the wrestling matches which had completely captivated her Nonna. The ringside drama was so real for her that when her favorite, Bruno SanMartino, was about to be flung over the ropes, she would shout “Ma tu guarda! Leave alone! Leave alone, you somanabitch!”
A flick of the switch and it was all over now. Gone. And with it, a treasured part of her life. Rose fought back the tears and headed for the front door.
The nursing home was a two-story rectangular structure overlooking Back Neck River. From the brightly -lit halls inside, one could peer into rooms painted in warm colors. Old men and women lined the hallways in wheelchairs, some of them chatting amiably with one another; others staring into space; one or two babbling incoherently. Nursing attendants were busy with their morning schedule.
“ Don’t worry about your grandmother,” one little spunky lady of eighty-five had said. “I’ll look after her.” That would be nice, Rose mused, except that Nonna rarely spoke anymore and when Rose had asked her why, she had simply answered, “I have nothing more to say.”
When Rose entered her grandmother’s room, Teresa DiPietro was seated in a wheelchair. Rose avoided looking at her grandmother as she hung up nightgowns and robes, then placing the remaining contents of the suitcase into a chest of drawers. Damn! Where was the other woman who occupied the other bed? It would have helped break the tension which had plummeted upon her like a rock, pinning her down on a ledge of uneasy silence.
And then she heard it. What she had been bracing herself for since early morning and for which she had no answer. Teresa DiPietro had something to say after all. Very distinctly, and in pleading tomes that made Rose’s heart shatter into a thousand pieces, her grandmother spoke. “When are you taking me home? she asked.
Rose leans against the doorframe between the bedroom and living room. Layers of memories, like the outer leaves of an artichoke, stand ready to be peeled away, one by one until she is left with only the heart.
The changes in her grandparents had come about gradually. Her grandfather, who had always been meticulous in his appearance, was now unshaven and unkempt. His clothes carried the smell of sweat and urine. Nonna went down to the cellar less and less until finally, she had taken to cooking their simple meals in the first floor kitchen. She’s getting forgetful, one of Rose’s uncles had warned. Last week she left something on the stove and nearly burned the goddamned house down!
They had come to rely on their thirty-something year-old granddaughter for little favors, asking politely, sometimes awkwardly for help. Yes, Nonno, I took care of the checks at the bank. Yes, the gas and electric bill was paid. No, that is NOT a bill from Blue Cross.
She had noticed how her grandfather’s hands shook more and more as the Parkinson’s disease progressed. Nonno, you must change your underwear today. Come, I’ll shave you first. And when he would fling his soupspoon down in frustration over his palsied hands, yelling “Ha-damn sonofabitch!”, she would wipe his chin and croon as she fed him. “Su, Nonno, mangia.”
“Guarda, Nonna” I brought you homemade lentil soup. Let’s soak your feet so I can cut your nails. What did you eat today? Here, put on this new housecoat. See how pretty it is? Sei bella, Nonna!”
Then three years ago Luigi DiPietro began to fail rapidly after suffering a stroke. By early March, a week before his eighty-ninth birthday, it was obvious that he wouldn’t last much longer. You can’t let him lie there and suffocate! her mother had wailed. We have to DO something! Reluctantly, Rose had called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. For two nights in a row, she had kept vigil by his hospital bed, watching his life ebb away.
The two young resident doctors called Rose out into the corridor. We think it might be spinal meningitis, one of them said.
“Is that what you’re treating him for?”
“No, well, you see…”
“What are you treating him for?”
“Well, his lungs are congested and we’ve been suctioning-”
“Is my grandfather dying, Doctor?”
“A man his age in that condition. . . Well, yes.”
“Then let me take him home to die. Tomorrow is his birthday.”
“ Ms. Giordano, we can arrange for a nursing home. He’ll be more -”
“I’m taking him home. It’s what he wants. Just tell me what’s needed to keep him comfortable, that’s all. There’s no need for heroics, is there Doctor? The man’s eighty-nine years old. He’s had a full life and now he’s dying. Why do you want to look for a new ailment?”
Dr. Katz, the tall, bearded one, cleared his throat and said, “All right, Ms. Giordano, if that’s what the family wants.” After a pause, he added, “ You know, you Italian families are admirable - the way you take care of your old folks.” She had merely nodded and returned to the room where her grandfather lay.
Dawn swept over the city like a gloved hand brushing against velvet. A milk-white haze filled the sky. Ten stories below, early morning traffic began its beetle-like crawl down St. Paul Street. Rose caressed her grandfather’s forehead and whispered “Happy birthday, Nonno. Buon compleano.” He was awake now, and although he could no longer speak, she knew he understood.
“I’m taking you home today, Nonno, “ she said softly. The old man’s mouth relaxed into a wan smile.
Rose went to a pay phone in the visitors’ lounge and dialed her mother’s number.
“Hello, Ma? Listen, I’m bringing Nonno home this morning. Call the medical supply store as soon as they open and order a suction machine. I’ll take care of the nursing service. No, Ma! He isn’t better. It’s just the right thing to do, that’s all. You know how he always talked about dying in his own bed. It’s what he wants.”
After checking on the discharge orders for her grandfather, Rose went back to the room to await the ambulance crew. She slumped into a chair near her grandfather’s bed, feeling suddenly old. Rose closed her eyes, letting her mind drift. . . summer nights long ago when it was so hot and muggy and folks sat out on their front steps, chatting good-naturedly about the weather, someone’s wedding, the parish priests. Summer nights with an occasional walk to Patterson Park ten blocks away. Fifteen-cent snoballs with twenty different flavors to choose from - five cents’extra for marshmallow topping. Church carnivals with the streets blocked off from traffic. The smell of fried dough sizzling in vats of hot oil. Summer nights with that endless stretch of painted brick buildings and steamy concrete sidewalks, relieved only by the cool marble steps on which they sat. Her knuckles scraping across the smooth white surface as she played jacks until it was too dark to see.
Now, as the old neighbors passed away in steady succession, younger families moved in. No one sat on the marble steps anymore. Instead of friendly exchanges of greeting and the shouts of children playing step ball or Simon Says, one heard only the steady whir of air-conditioning units or the slam of a car door.
The old man had died at precisely 3:05 that following Thursday afternoon after his discharge from the hospital. His wife of sixty years napped peacefully in the bed next to him. Rose’s sister Clara had called twenty minutes earlier. “He’s sinking fast, Rose. You’d better come now.”
As she drove the maximum speed allowed on the Beltway, Rose sensed she would not get there in time. She felt strangely cheated at not being there for that final moment. How ironic that Clara should be there instead. Clara had not been to visit the old people in three months.
When Rose arrived, Clara was waiting at the door. “He’s dead, Rose. He passed away five minutes ago.” Without answering, Rose hurried into the bedroom where her grandfather lay. His mouth hung open in a manner of slight surprise; his unseeing eyes fixed on a picture of Christ which hung on the wall. Rose moved closer and kissed his forehead, then his cheek. She did not cry.
Later that evening, after funeral arrangements had been made with Zannino, the undertaker, Rose and Clara sat sipping coffee in the first floor kitchen.
“Tell me, Rose asked, “what is it that you remember most about this afternoon - I mean, you know- that final moment when he - “ Clara cut in. “What do I remember the most? Well, I’ll tell you,” she said lighting a cigarette. “It was the silence - that God-awful silence when he stopped breathing and we all just stood there, not doing anything, you know what I mean? I mean - we could have done something to start him breathing again, you know? But we didn’t. We just stood there and let him go.”
“That’s as it should be,” Rose replied. “It was his time.”
On the morning of her grandfather’s burial, Rose had looked about the funeral parlor for Steve. When Zannino, the funeral director motioned to the family to gather for the final viewing, Steve had not yet appeared.
“Did you see Uncle Steve at all this morning?” she whispered to Clara.
“No, with all these people here, I just didn’t think to check,” Clara replied.
“Clara, I’m worried.”
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about it now. Maybe he’ll go directly to church. Maybe he couldn’t handle this part.”
As the funeral procession entered the church, Rose scanned the pews in search of her uncle. He wasn’t there. She shivered with the terrible premonition of something gone wrong. Later that morning, after they had returned from the cemetery, she stood at the corner of Pratt and Foster, watching and waiting. He was still several blocks away when she recognized the shuffling gait, the hunched shoulders. When he finally reached the corner, she knew she would not have to ask why he had stayed away.
“Hi, Rosie. I went to feed the pigeons.” His eyes were fixed in a glassy stare; his mouth twisted into a frightful grin.
“Uncle Steve, you had me worried. I -” He walked past her without seeming to hear.
“All gone!” His voice rang out in a childish sing-song. “Everybody’s gone now. No one left but me and the old lady!”
“That’s not true ! How many times have I told you? You won’t ever have to be alone?” she shouted after him but he had already stormed into the house, slamming the door behind him.
Rose straightens up, reaches for some Kleenex in her purse to staunch the flow of tears clustering at the corners of her eyes. She drifts back to the entrance hall toward the first floor kitchen where only the stove and refrigerator remain. She does not linger here for it is the cellar, which beckons to her . Of all the rooms in the house, it is the cellar which holds the loveliest and ugliest of memories for her. She opens the cellar door and descends slowly, wishing she could muffle the click-click of her heels against the wooden planks.
At the foot of the stairs she pauses, surveys the stark, antiseptic wasteland of tile and terrazzo; yet manages not to look too far to the right of her. For a moment she hesitates, then passes under the archway between the kitchen and dining room. Everything is gone - tables, chairs, the large wooden pasta board, the roll-top cabinet with its mismatched plates. Nonna’s wooden coffee grinder.
This place had been Nonna’s private domain; an economic conglomerate of foodstuffs and clothing; a place where large kettles of minestrone and spaghetti sauce had simmered while Nonna sorted, mended, and packed clothing for I poveri. It was at the kitchen table here in this cellar that Rose had learned her family’s history; rich, wonderful stories of an immigrant family; lives that read like a soap opera.
Rose pushes open the door leading to the cantina. The shelves, once laden with jars of summer fruit and tomato puree, are bare. Wine barrels, once stocked with her grandfather’s homemade wine, no longer line the walls. Rose closes her eyes picturing the clusters of garlic, dried red peppers, provolone cheese balls, and sausages hanging from the ceiling and for a brief moment, she is seven again. Almost reluctantly, she backs out of the cantina with a silent reverence reserved for holy places, and turns back toward what had been the dining room.
This room, once a curious blend of black and while ceramic tile walls, terrazzo floors, and ornate mahogany dining room set, had been the gathering place for every family occasion. This room, with its massive table laden with homemade pasta, platters of meatballs, sausage, and chicken, bowls of freshly cooked escarole seasoned with garlic and olive oil, had held them all together as an extended family for over forty years but the day arrived when the old people could no longer maneuver the stairs, and their confinement to the first floor signaled the end of an era.
After that, the cellar, that subterranean world of her childhood, once so kinetic with life, had fallen silent except for the occasional rantings and ravings of a madman.
Now Rose fixes her eyes on the water pipes which run the length of the ceiling, close to the stairs. She had been careful not to look before, but she knows she must, for if she is to remember anything about this family, this place, she must be willing to remember it all.
Some people said it was the War that had made him that way. Others hinted in dark whispers that his birth mother (Nonno’s first wife, a widow with two small children) had contracted syphilis from Steve’s father. In the thirty years since the War, Steve had been in and out of psychiatric wards, accumulating labels for his condition the way he had once earned medals for military valor. Neither held any significance for him.
As a young man, he had been breathtakingly handsome with his swarthy skin, black curly hair, and deep, brooding eyes. By his mid-fifties, he had become a shuffling, balding shell of a man. Only the eyes had remained the same.
It had been a Wednesday afternoon in March. Rose, who had never been good at recalling dates, remembered it since it was approaching the two-year anniversary of her grandfather’s death. The call had come from Ms. Lee, who had stayed on as Nonna’s nurse.
“Miz Rose, ya’ll bettah come ovuh here quick. Mistah Steve’s actin’ mighty strange! Ah tell you, Miz Rose, ah don’t like it at all. Lawd! There ain’t no telling’ what he gonna do!”
Rush hour traffic clogged the arteries of the Jones Falls Expressway. It was after five when Rose arrived at the house where Ms. Lee stood anxiously at the front door.
“Where is he?” Rose asked as she ran up the steps.
“Down in the cellar.” Ms. Lee twisted and untwisted the dish towel in her hands. Her frog-like eyes darted back and forth to the cellar door. Rose touched Ms. Lee’s arm.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she whispered, opening the door.
“Steve! Uncle Steve?” she called from the top of the stairs. The cellar was dark except for what appeared to be flickering candlelight. Halfway down the stairs, Rose halted abruptly.
Like a high priest about to perform some ancient ritual Steve had prepared the massive old dining room table like an altar. A dozen candles burned in makeshift holders. An assortment of knives, bowls, and neckties had been carefully arranged in a pattern on the lace tablecloth. In the center was a collection of birthday and Christmas cards standing upright around a crucifix. Rose felt faint. Gripping the banister, she forced herself to go down the remaining stairs. As she stepped onto the tiled floor, she felt water seep into her shoes. He had flooded the basement.
“Uncle Steve? Where are you? It’s me, Rose. Can we talk?” A stooped, gaunt figure stepped out from behind the archway which separated the kitchen and dining room.
“Sh-h!” he whispered. “We’ve got to sanctify this place - make it holy. Man! I gotta get rid of forty years of shit!”
Rose swallowed hard; then whispered back, “You’ve done a very nice job but I’m worried about one thing.” She prayed that she sounded convincing enough to earn his trust.
“What’s that?” he snapped. His glazed eyes narrowed.
“The candles. You’re not going to keep them kit when you’re not here, are you?”
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“Uncle Steve, I didn’t say that! You know it’s dangerous to leave lit candles around like that. Now promise me you’ll blow them out when you leave.” Keep steady, she ordered herself. Don’t overreact.
“Get outta here!” he snarled. “Who told you to come anyway?”
“Come upstairs. I’ll make you a nice cup of coffee - you look tired.”
“ I told you to go away,” he screamed.
Rose took a deep breath. “All right, I’m going,” she said.
Half-way up the stairs, she turned and cried out,” Uncle Steve, I love you! You hear me? I love you!” But he didn’t hear her at all. Steve circled the table, his hands folded in prayer, chanting something unintelligible. He stopped to urinate on the floor, casting it about like a holy aspersion.
Rose met Ms. Lee at the top of the stairs and motioned her into the living room, closing the door behind them. “ I want you to stay here with Nonna and keep the door locked. I don’t think he’d harm either one of you but I can’t know for sure. I’d better try to call the police from a phone booth.”
Just then, they heard heavy thumping on the cellar steps, followed by the slam of the front door. Rose peered out from behind the Venetian blinds to see Steve running down the street. Quickly she checked the cellar. All the candles had been extinguished. She went back upstairs to call 911.
An hour later, Officer Minkowsky was at the front door. Rose recognized him as the police veteran who had covered the neighborhood beat for the past twenty-five years. He was familiar with Steve’s psychotic episodes. “We picked him up in front of the United Baptist Church on Highland Avenue,” he said quietly. Rose closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to her forehead. She did not speak.
“ He didn’t put up a fight this time, Rose. He came real peaceful like. We found him stretched out on the pavement like he was Christ on the cross or something. So my partner and I just picked him up real easy and I said,’ Steve, you gotta come with us now, okay?’ And he just sorta smiled. Never said a word. Someone in the family will have to go down to City Hospital first thing in the morning. He’s in the D Building. I- I’m sorry, Rose, real sorry.”
For six months they had treated him there at the hospital, plying him with mega doses of lithium, then thorazine - none of which worked. The reason, they said, was his age. There was, however, an experimental drug, they said. Of course there was always the small risk of side effects.
The side effects, it turned out, created something far worse. Her uncle became a walking zombie. There’s nothing more we can do, they said. so Rose took him home to her grandmother’s house where he would sit by the old woman’s bed for hours at a time, silent, lethargic, beyond conversation. Once in a while though, he would still walk to the park to feed the pigeons.
Ms. Lee didn’t notice anything unusual that bright October morning as she fried up bacon and poured the orange juice. When Steve didn’t appear for breakfast at the usual time, she figured he might be sleeping late. He did that sometimes. Except for the small radio which was tuned in to a gospel station, the house was quiet. “ Go on now, honey, eat yo’ breakfast like a good girl.” Ms. Lee placed a bowl of oatmeal in front of Teresa DiPietro and handed her a spoon.
Ms. Lee stepped into the entrance hall and called out to Steve. No answer. She returned to the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes. By ten o’clock, Ms. Lee grew uneasy. No matter how sick he was in his mind, he still seemed to have a good appetite and liked his breakfast first thing in the morning.
She climbed the stairs to the second floor to knock on his bedroom door. Still no answer. Then she turned the knob and peeked inside to discover his bed had not been slept in. On her way back downstairs, she paused near the cellar door once more. Opening it slightly, she called again. Maybe he’s in the downstairs bathroom shaving, she thought.
Ms. Lee opened the door wider and began her descent. She was halfway down the steps when she saw it. First a pair of feet dangling, swaying ever so slightly; arms hanging limp; then the purplish, distorted face slumped on the chest, its neck grotesquely suspended by thin wore wrapped around the water pipe which ran the length of the ceiling.
With a piercing scream, Ms. Lee scrambled back up the steps, her enormous body heaving spasmodically. She ran outside to a neighbor’s house where she pounded on the door, shrieking hysterically. “He’s daid! He’s daid! He’s done hung hisself.”
Less than an hour later, Rose had come rushing from work after receiving a call at work that there was a family emergency. “What happened?” she screamed upon entering the house. Already other family members had gathered in the first floor kitchen.
“ Your uncle Steve’s dead,” her father answered in a tight voice. “Ms. Lee found him about an hour ago. . . downstairs.”
Rose made a rush for the cellar door but a policeman blocked the way. “ Sorry, but you can’t go down there, Rose.” Rose pressed her small, frail body against the policeman’s burly frame in an effort to push him aside but he gripped her by the shoulders and planted himself squarely in front of her. “ You wouldn’t want to see him like that,” he said gently. Then he led her into the kitchen and sat her down. It was Officer Minkowsky.
Behind the closed door of the living room, Teresa DiPietro sat in front of the TV, its volume turned up to drown the voices in the hall. “ You can’t keep it from her. She’ll have to know that he’s dead,” one of her aunts insisted. “ You know how she calls for him all day and half the night. It’s always ‘Where’s Steve? Where’s Steve?’ “
“ We are not going to tell her that he hanged himself! Do you all understand?” Rose cried. Then regaining her composure, she added, “ I’ll think of some way to tell her but not . . . this.”
Ms. Lee snuffled into her handkerchief and remarked, “ But you know, Miz Rose, it do seem funny though ‘cause Miz Teresa never once ast fo’ Steve today. It’s like she know.”
Rose draws a sharp breath, feels the tears trickle from the swollen creeks of her eyes, and stumbles blindly up the stairs back into the entrance hall. Now it is finished. Now she can go.
Clara had phoned last night to say that the estate sale had been a great success; that already a buyer had made an offer on the house. Rose ponders this information as she draws the door shut and locks it.
Once outside, she turns to look at the house one last time; then shifts her gaze to the unbroken expanse of row houses which lead to the park ten blocks away. As she stands at the corner of Pratt and Foster, she knows that she now holds the heart of the artichoke in the palm of her hand. Memories have no price tag, phantoms are still afoot; and the pigeons will always be there, waiting to be fed.