Ancestors

ancestors2

ancestors

 

Nicola Mecca made the trip to America

traveling from Basilicata to Napoli

settled in Philadelphia

with the help of his padrone

in a neighborhood that once sheltered 

Jewish immigrants

his wife Maria Antonia and their children

later made the journey huddled 

at the bottom of the boat 

across a rough Atlantic 

 

Nicola shined shoes all his life

for businessmen who barely noticed him

faces buried in their papers 

as he rubbed the leather into a shine

finally got a mortgage on a house 

at 10th and Bainbridge

played guitar 

died of asthma

the poor man’s disease

 

when Nicola’s oldest daughter Millie first saw

the statue of liberty

she fell down on her knees and cried

Mamma’s favorite and my comare

she lived with us for many years

taught me to say my prayers at night

both of us kneeling by the bed we shared

bought me comic books from the vendor down the street

recoiled when relatives tried to fix her up 

at family weddings

“I don’t needa no goddamma man!”

by the time diabetes cut off use of both legs

she had spent 50 years on an assembly line at GE

she died penniless in a relative’s spare room

 

Rosa Maria her youngest sister

my Mamma

with her black curls, deep set brown eyes 

and semitic looks

courted at the candy counter at Woolworth’s 

where she worked 

by the neighborhood guaglioni

with their slicked back greasy hair

and their Saturday best

she could’ve had any man 

but she married someone who made her laugh

kept house all her life

lost two babies

raised four children

managed to make ends meet in the leanest of times

which was most of the time

and considered herself lucky to be in America

where she could sit outside at night in her beach chair

gossiping with her girlfriends

 

her husband Antonio

Tony to most people

pumped gas and fixed cars all his life

always had grease under his nails                          

and clothes that smelled of gasoline

he had a temper that could go off at a moment’s notice

a charm customers always came back for

if he liked you he’d give you his last dollar             

all his life bemoaning la miseria

from his petrol kingdom in the heart of south philly

at 80 he still pumped gas and shot the breeze

with the old guys who sat outside the station

one cold day in December

he came home

had a stroke and was instantly brain dead 

 

Rosa Maria sat quietly by his hospital bed

demanded that he be kept off life support

knew that this man whose name meant 

hills of the ancestors was waiting for the ancestors

She would follow nine months later

colon cancer

down to fifty pounds

refusing last rites from her nephew the priest

and invoking the names of ancestors

who came for her as they will one day come for me

 

I keep family photos

in picture frames I buy at garage sales

I have a shrine to la madonna nera

I may eat bottled tomato sauce

and amaranth spaghetti

and no longer believe in god

but I don’t forget the streets where I was raised

or la via vecchia, though many of those old ways 

are forgotten or discarded

I do not forget that the blood flowing

through my veins is the blood 

of Maria Antonia and Rosa Maria

blood that pumped through the hearts of 

those that came before

blood of those who resisted i conquistatori

as they subjugated southern Italia time and time again

blood of Sacco and Vanzetti

Latin blood

tough as the spirits

passionate as the eyes and tongues and hands

stubborn as the hearts and wills

of those I call

ancestors

 

© 2005 by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, originally published in Philadelphia Poets, Vol II, Number 1, April 2005