Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Poem: The Tin Ball and the War Effort

The Tin Ball and the War Effort

by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Zio Guillermo worked in a silk factory in Paterson
for 40 years.  He was tall and slender and patrician,
his thick gray hair perfectly shaped, though he went
to the barber on 16th Street and 5th Avenue,
and not a fancy stylist.  Zio Guillermo married
Zia Louisa, my honorary aunt,

when they were in their 40’s.  Zio Guillermo
was Zia Louisa’s fourth husband.  All the others
died.  You’d think that would have given him pause. 
They lived in a second floor apartment in the tenement
on 17th Street; we lived on the first floor.  Zio Guillermo
was my Godfather, and treated me

like the child he never had. When they’d visit, he
and my father would talk politics.  They both
adored FDR. They drank anisette in small glasses
and espresso in tiny cups with tiny spoons to stir
in the sugar.  My uncle would give me a drop
of espresso and sugar in a glass of milk. 

He smoked Camels, three packs a day.  I always
think of him with smoke curling around him, letting me
help him remove the tin foil from his cigarette packs
and together we’d add it to the tin ball we
were constructing.  When it was large as a basketball,
he took it to be recycled for the war.  I was five. 

I didn’t know what the war was, except that my father
and uncle listened to news and read the papers
and discussed what was happening in Europe.  I don’t
know what they did with those tin balls we constructed
so carefully.  What I remember

is Zio Guillermo with his long slender fingers, artist’s hands,
and the way they handled everything with such delicacy
and grace.  He let me sit with him on his second floor porch
while he carved bird houses and whirligigs out of pine
to decorate his garden.  He let me walk with him between
the thick cornstalks in his garden, the tassels of corn fine
as silk, let me help him pick tomatoes and peppers
and zucchini.  Zio Guillermo

was very quiet and reserved.  Zia Louisa was tempestuous
and loud.  She wore whalebone corsets to hold in her large
breasts and body.  She loved to dance the Tarantella. 
She had a little handkerchief, neatly ironed and folded,
that she used to pat away the sweat.  She always yelled
at Zio Guillermo.  He’d hide from her in the garden
and pretend not to hear. 

My mother said she’d hear Zia Louisa crying in the middle
of the night, but didn’t know why.  During the day, she was
the general; Zio Guillermo, the private.  Even then,
I wondered why I felt sorrow coming off him in waves. 

The day after he retired, he was walking back
from Mastalia’s grocery store on the corner of 4th Ave;
he collapsed on the sidewalk and died.  Though that
happened more than forty years ago, I can conjure
Zio Guillermo up, alive in my memory as he was when
we sat together creating

that tin ball, the smell of Camels filling the air around us
and I was his child to be cherished till I sparkled
like that silver ball in the dark. 

from The Place I Call Home, copyright 2012, NYQ Books

The Cilentano Society, Butler Street, Paterson, NJ. 
Maria is sitting on Zio Guillermo's lap on the far right,

and her father is standing, third from the left in the middle row.