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Each year, as summer fades into fall, a vague melancholy whirls around me like autumn leaves refusing to settle to the ground. I brace myself and wait for it to pass. But this year was different.
In a world turned upside down by the pandemic and coloured by our collective sorrow, I wasn’t surprised that my own story of grief was unearthed. What surprised me was my journey from grief to understanding and, finally, to gratitude.
More than 20 years ago, my father, Pietro (Peter) De Simone died the day after Thanksgiving. And while I’ve always made sense of my life through writing, I’ve been unable to write my grief. Until now.
My father was a sometimes difficult, always determined and daring man.
In most of my early memories of Papa, I’m sitting at the kitchen table listening to one of his monologues. With his low boiling point, a story about his day could easily erode into a rant. His frustrations would fill the room as he railed against the humiliations and hurdles of his life as an Italian immigrant. Back then, I couldn’t have known the depth of his pain as he struggled to find his footing in this new land. I thought he was just being difficult. And so, in the arrogance of my youth, I tuned him out. I convinced myself our world view differed. I told myself the only thing we had in common was the blue-grey colour of our eyes.
But this year, my seasonal melancholy took me deeper into the past. I wondered if the universal quiet during this pandemic helped me to hear the parts of Dad’s story that had never settled in my memories. As I gathered close memories once scattered through time, a new portrait of my father emerged.
One memory stands out among the rest: The entire family had joined our parents for our traditional Sunday lunch. When everyone left, my husband and I stayed behind. The conversation at the kitchen table turned to my family’s emigration from Italy to Canada. I’d heard the story from my aunt, uncle and mother, but never from Dad.
“We arrived in Toronto on Thanksgiving Day, 1956. We left Italy to give you three girls more opportunities for a better life,” he said. But we’d had a shaky start. “The apartment your aunt had secured for us fell through at the last minute. It went to someone without children. So the five of us moved into your aunt’s living room. What choice did we have?” He took a deep breath and continued, “A few days later, I went out to explore the neighbourhood. It was morning when I left, but one thing led to another. I didn’t get back until dark. I kept meaning to call. Anyway, I’ll never forget the commotion when I got home.”
He remembers being greeted at the door by a rush of bodies huddling around him, kissing and hugging him. “Your uncle grabbed my arm saying he’d been ready to call the police. I couldn’t believe it. And then I saw your mother’s face …” He slid from his accented English into Italian and stared down at the table to compose himself. “She was as white as a sheet. And the baby was crying. Nine-months old. What did I expect? But I worried that the landlord would come knocking on the door.”
Dad jumped to the end of his story: “What more can I say? I went looking for a job. I found one.”
Armed with a few English phrases and determination, he’d walked for miles in a city he didn’t know, stopping at every hair salon, asking for a chance to demonstrate his skills as a hair stylist, his profession and passion. That’s what he’d been doing all day. Proving himself. Fending for his family.
More than anything, I remember his voice. He spoke without bravado, without anger. This is the version of Dad I’d been unable to summon until now. The one with the wistful voice and daring heart. The one with an equal measure of grit and tenderness.
By all accounts, the snow came early that year. We had neither winter coats nor boots. And then, magically, we did. Of course, our magic was Papa. Through the years, he would repeatedly face similar uncertainties and challenges in this place he sought to call home. So yes, Dad could be difficult to live with as he teeter-tottered between despair and determination; between standing still and daring to take yet another step into unknown territory. During those times, I could almost feel his worry and fear seep into my veins. But no matter what, I always knew I was deeply loved.
There was more to Dad’s life than struggle. At his memorial, stories about his generous spirit, inclusive nature and zest for life abounded. Each was a testament to the ripples of strength, encouragement and joy he’d sent out into the world.
As he mellowed and I matured, I’d become a willing listener of his stories. I’d learned we had much more in common than the colour of our eyes. Between the grit and grief of life, Dad and I had found purpose and contentment. We’d found so many reasons for giving thanks.
When Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the entire family was startled. But he focused his waning energy on two more experiences: To return to Italy to see his family and feel that familiar ground beneath his feet. And then to return home for our traditional Thanksgiving dinner. He accomplished both.
Forty years after Dad’s first Thanksgiving in Toronto, my husband carried him from his sick bed to his seat at the head of the table for the final time. He held his three-month-old grandson. Pretended to sip turkey broth. Later, when we were alone, Dad asked if I thought he’d provided well for his family. I answered. His eyes watered. Mine did, too. We sat together quietly, letting love and gratitude fill the space between us.
Rosalba (Rose) Roberts lives in Toronto.
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