Maria Mazzioti Gillan
Daddy, We Called You
From Paterson Light and Shadow, Serving House Books, May 2017
“Daddy” we called you, “Daddy,”
when we talked to each other in the street,
pulling on our American faces,
shaping our lives in Paterson slang.
Inside our house, we spoke
a Southern Italian dialect
mixed with English beg
and we called you Papa
but outside again, you became Daddy
and we spoke of you to our friends
as “my father”
imagining we were speaking
of that Father Knows Best
in his dark business suit,
carrying his briefcase into his house,
retreating to his paneled den,
his big living room and dining room,
his frilly-aproned wife
who greeted him at the door
with a kiss. Such space
and silence in that house.
We lived in one big room—
living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom,
all in one, dominated by the gray oak dining table
around which we sat, talking and laughing,
listening to your stories,
your political arguments with your friends.
Papa, how you glowed in company light,
happy when the other immigrants
came to you for help with their taxes
or legal papers.
It was only outside that glowing circle
that I denied you, denied your long hours
as night watch man in Royle Machine Shop.
One night, riding home from a date
my middle class, American boyfriend
kissed me at the light; I looked up
and met your eyes as you stood at the corner
near Royle Machine. It was nearly midnight.
January. Cold and windy. You were waiting
for the bus, the street light illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you
on the empty corner waiting for the bus
to take you home. You never mentioned it,
never said that you knew
how often I lied about what you did for a living
or that I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,
find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
Today, remembering that moment,
still illuminated in my mind
by the street lamp’s gray light,
I think of my own son
and the distance between us
greater than miles.
I honor the years you spent in menial work
slipping down the ladder
as your body failed you
while your mind, so quick and sharp,
longed to escape,
honor the times you got out of bed
after sleeping only an hour,
to take me to school or pick me up;
the warm bakery rolls you bought for me
on the way home from the night shift.
to the editors
of local newspapers.
better than any Father Knows Best father,
bland as white rice,
with your wine press in the cellar,
with the newspapers you collected
out of garbage piles to turn into money
you banked for us,
with your mouse traps,
with your cracked and calloused hands,
with your yellow teeth.
dragging your dead leg
through the factories of Paterson,
I am outside the house now,
shouting your name.
From What Blooms in Winter, NYQ Books, October 2016
My 19-year-old grandson gives me his arm, lugs me up
the steps of the bus, helps me up hills and mountains,
his eyes drinking in the beauty of Sicily, its exquisite
flowers, its elaborate churches, its ancient temples
that stand stark against the bright sky.
We sit in cafes together and order
an enormous lemon ice that is served
to us in one of those Sicilian lemons
three times the size of lemons we have at home.
Time slows in the hot afternoon
while we sit shaded by patio umbrellas
and almost purr like cats snoozing
through long afternoons.
When we get to Mt. Etna, my grandson climbs
to the top of the volcano, or as far up
as they’ll allow people to go.
He loves the challenge of the climb,
carries a volcanic rock back to the café
where I wait for him. The guide tells us these rocks
are what make the Sicilian roses
so perfect and perfumed.
When we get home, I push some of these rocks
into the soil around my rose bushes
and watch them bloom,
as though I’d carried Sicily home with me,
the huge Sicilian sky, the mountains,
the people with their tables laden with food
and smiles of welcome,
this place so ancient and unchanging,
so alive with color and light,
whose music calls me back to it again and again,
as though it, and not New Jersey,
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the author of twenty-two books. Her newest collection is What Blooms in Winter (NYQ 2016). She received the American Book Award for All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). Ms. Gillan is the Founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also Director of the Creative Writing Program and Professor of Poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY.