For me, memories are triggered by scents that bring me back to an earlier time. Here, while uncorking a bottle, the aroma of the wine transported me back to the cellar in the tenement in Paterson, NJ, where I grew up and where my father made wine. When I was a girl, I was often embarrassed by all the things that characterized my family as an immigrant family—that they weren’t American enough and too poor—and everything I wanted to deny in myself. The older I become, the more I celebrate the rituals and foods and people, who made my childhood so gloriously varied and so full of work crafted by loving hands.
I Want to Write a Poem to Celebrate
my father’s arms, bulging and straining while he carries
the wooden box of dark purple grapes down the crumbling,
uneven cement steps into the cellar of the old house
on 19th street. The cellar, whitewashed by my mother,
grows darker as my father lumbers past the big coal
furnace and into the windowless wine room
at the very back where he will feed the grapes,
ripe and perfect and smelling of earth,
into the wine press. The grape smell changes
as they are crushed and drawn out into the fat
wooden barrels, and for weeks the cellar
will be full to the brim with the sweet smell
of grapes fermenting into wine, a smell I recognize
even forty years later each time I uncork a bottle,
an aroma that brings back my father
and his friends gathering under Zio Gianni’s
grape arbor to play briscole through long July
nights, small glasses before them, peach slices
gleaming like amber in the ruby wine.
This poem was first published in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal and is available in What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions 2010). It was recently reprinted with commentary on womensvoicesforchange.org
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the author of twenty books. Her latest publication is the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets. Maria's official website is at MariaGillan.com.