Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

MY FATHER WAS A BRICKLAYER

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Memories can sometimes fade. Events can become vague as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself these past few days and I suddenly recalled why December has always been a dreary month for me. It is the month my father died. I think it was on December 13. I can’t remember how long ago. but it is so many years ago. I wrote a piece about him a few years back to try and recall him and his influence on me. It is part truth, part patch-work of stories heard and fragments of incidents that have stayed with me. I may be fictionalizing the reality to get at the truth of the man. Forgive me Peppino, if there are things left out.

Joe Nanni

First it was the death of his mother.

She passed away when he was nine. He couldn’t forgive her for dying, for leaving him alone, so, he invented a story about her running away with another man. It was his way of keeping her alive and telling himself that his anger was justified.

At the age of ten he was taken out of school to apprentice as a bricklayer. He said he had to work to help support his younger brothers. Shortly after that his father took his brothers and immigrated to Canada. He believed they left to escape his invented shame of a wife and mother’s infidelity. The family home was sold. He told himself, it was the only way his father could pay for the many debts he left behind. Then he was sent to live with his grandmother because his uncles were leaving for Canada one by one. According to him, no one else could be bothered to take him in. A year later, with a forged passport, he boarded a ship to Canada. Nobody in the village, he claimed, wanted him anymore.

When he ran through his self-created list of self-inflicted indignities he believed there was no other choice. It was the only way he could quench the resentment he harbored deep in his soul. Truth was a reality he couldn’t handle.

He knew he couldn’t emigrate on his own unless he was of age. His flimsy, faded Birth Certificate says he was born February 23, 1910. He clumsily erased his birth date and boldly wrote over the remnants of the numbers, changing the 10 to an 8. The initial pen marks still show through.

joseph2_0001_2

The penmanship and ink are blatantly different from the original, but were good enough to get him the passport he needed. This slight of hand turned a boy of fourteen into a young man of sixteen. If you look closely at the document you can see how deceptive he was becoming. Duplicity, for him, was a latent talent.

He sailed alone, third class, on a boat full of immigrants equally confused and uncertain of their future. And he took all of his anger with him.

.

In the vast halls of Ellis Island amid the noise and confusion he stands boldly in front of the immigration officer. Alone, disoriented, his eyes watch the official examining his documents. He reaches into his pocket and grabs a bone handled jackknife. Holding it tightly in his fist the feel of the steel gives him comfort. Only when he hears the thump of the stamp on his entry papers does he relax and let it slip from his grip.

The customs official approved his blatant deceit. If such a clumsy lie could gain him a new beginning, he took it as permission to live the balance of his life believing in the power of lies. He came this far on guile because he suspected that circumstance would continue to betray him if he didn’t pay attention. It never occurred to him that he was lying to himself.

As he grew into a man, his trade was the one true thing that gave him satisfaction. His skill as a bricklayer was his only source of pride. He promised himself he would never let anyone take it away.

On the job no one challenged him. He was the master bricklayer, the only one allowed to raise the corners.  As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited. With line and level he laid out perfect right angles as a guide for each course to come, a precise line for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortar board. The other masons took this as their signal to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and then slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved as a child. You could not break his vice like grip. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

 

Over the years, drinking became his other escape. It was the only thing that calmed his anger. But that was just another lie he told himself because the more he drank, the angrier he became.

Then there came the time when he couldn’t work anymore. His skill was failing with his health. Arthritis stiffened his fingers. Even though he taped his hands, he now wore leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick.

All the masons he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

The corners on which he built his life could no longer support him. One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there. He knew he was finished. He had no one to blame. And now he was angry with himself because he allowed his drinking to destroy the only thing that meant anything to him.

Lies are of no use to him anymore. He is finally facing the truth. These empty days allow the old bricklayer to focus not on himself – or his need for alcohol – but on his pain as punishment and his suffering as penance.  He knows he is dying and, in his own way, he is begging for forgiveness, consciously reaching out to everyone. You only have to look into his eyes to see how he is resigned to the task. Humility, never one of his strengths, is now something he is learning to live with. Sobriety, once a stranger is becoming a familiar companion as he counts down his last days. The resentment is gone. This is the most peaceful time he has ever known.

There is a noticeable change in his personality that unnerves everyone who knew him for what he was…a malevolent man who lived with alcohol and anger for most of his life. Now his family sees someone else, someone shrunken, frail and weak, who speaks softly and works at smiling more. There is an unfamiliar gentleness about him, which they find hard to match with forgiveness. They are struggling because they know he has no other alternative. He needs to make peace with his family.

 

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“There’s a special way to cut up a peach so the stone comes out clean,” he says reaching into his vest pocket for his old jackknife. “I liked to slice them up and dip them in wine.” The memory brings a smile to his face.

“I show you.”

As he tries to pull the blade open, his knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to acquiescence. He looks at the knife as if it too has finally betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes it toward me. “You take it,” he says.

“No.” I push it back to him. “You keep it. Its yours.”

He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years.

The knife fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. When I make a fist it disappears, but I can feel the weight of its steel forged decades ago. With the blade fully extended the weight gives way to a delicate balance.  And when I slice into a fresh peach it cuts clean and effortlessly.

 

After the funeral the men who worked with the old bricklayer come back to the house. An atmosphere of easiness settles in the kitchen as they loosen their ties, unbutton their shirt collars and sit around the table trying to get comfortable in their ill-fitting suits. They tell stories about the old bricklayer, paying offhanded tribute to his memory but never once mentioning his drinking. Even though he spent his working days in an alcoholic haze, to them, it had nothing to do with his skill as a mason. Their stories anger me because they are talking about a part of his life that made him happy. They fail to see the demons that dominated the man.

No one notices his wife enter the kitchen. When they see her, though, all conversation stops. She lifts the old bricklayer’s tool bag and drops it in the middle of the table. The dust of years of use drifts up from the ragged sack. The handles and corners are reinforced with duct tape in an attempt to preserve something that was clearly falling apart.

I slide the decayed leather straps through the tarnished silver buckles and pull it open. Everything inside was clean. Every trace of mortar that usually clung to the tools was scrapped away. There was not a speck of concrete on the trowels. Fresh hockey tape was carefully wrapped around their handles and the handles of his brick hammers. The chisels were sharpened and the joint makers polished.

I lay each piece on the kitchen table. Silently they take them and pass them around. Each man holding a trowel or hammer in his hand, testing the weight, finding the balance, trying to get a sense of how the old bricklayer wielded each tool. They were searching for the finesse they saw when he raised the corners. And it was enough for them to handle the instruments of a man they considered a master.

“Take what you want,” said his wife, not even trying to hide her bitterness.

That she would give away the old bricklayer’s tools surprises them. The men quickly glance at each other then quietly divide the spoils. Just as quietly they rise from the table and leave the room taking the remnants of the old bricklayer’s legacy with them. That side of his life is where it belongs.

But, the tools only defined part of the man. We were left with the reality of unwanted memories.

“They took everything.” She paused as if regretting what she just did. Then she closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. “None of it was worth anything to me,”

I take a peach from the bowl on the table. With my father’s jackknife I cut out a single slice, dip it into a glass of wine and offer it to her.

“He gave you his knife,” she said taking the fruit.

 “Yes,” I replied. “Didn’t he bring it all the way from the Old Country?”

“It was his father’s.”

 

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

December 17, 2013 at 3:00 PM

3 Responses

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  1. The hooked blade might be a linoleum cutting knife.

    This story reminds me in many ways of one of my relatives who was a carpenter. He had tools from his father as well. I remember hearing him tell a story once how when his father came to the United States from Europe, he worked for 25 cents a day putting down bricks for a street. There was something special about those generations. They made things by hand and they were of high quality that would last practically forever. They are the blood and muscle of countries and should never be forgotten.

    nofrillswrapping

    December 17, 2013 at 5:02 PM

  2. Hi Ed, I truly love reading your posts. The depth of feeling and keen observations at a time of much stress for yourself are both evident. You are brave enough to understand and show your true emotions. We men are not known for showing this side of ourselves. A sad tale very well told.
    Best as ever,
    Conor

    Conor Bofin

    December 17, 2013 at 5:59 PM

  3. Hi Ed,

    A wonderful piece of writing for, what must still be, a painful part of your life. I think most of us carry feelings of guilt, confusion, and sadness about our relationships with our fathers. Writing about these feelings in a compassionate, thoughtful, and honest way can help us make sense of this “patchwork of stories” that resides in our, often cluttered, memories. I think that our generation is much better prepared to deal with the difficult episodes that shape our lives. I still don’t have a clue of what kind of person my father was, except to say that he displayed some of the qualities that you talk about in your writing. Continue to write, it is still one of the best therapies, and you do it so well.

    cheers

    Fred

    square-wheel-jockey

    December 19, 2013 at 9:45 AM


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