Sunday, September 10, 2006

13. The Shadows of the Past

I'm sitting on a bench in the shade of a sugar maple that’s all leafed out, as fresh and green as the young bodies that saunter, scurry and slouch past me here at Vanderbilt University. Business has brought me to Nashville and the campus, where Gregory got his undergraduate degree. That was so many years ago that these kids weren’t even figments of someone’s imagination.

It’s a perfect 75 degrees, a soft breeze is blowing, and cicadas surge and ebb in the background. Somewhere in the distance, a mower drones. These kids, with their backpacks and cell phones and flip-flops, tread the same ground Gregory did. But theirs is a different world.

This is where Gregory fulfilled an immigrant dream: The great young hope of his family, he was the first to attend and graduate from college. And not just any college, mind you, but a major American university. I try to imagine him here. In fact, I would secretly like to see him pop out from behind some tree for just an instant.

I suppose I would freak out if that actually happened, although it’s possible that he did something like this after the funeral. There was a provocative incident that I didn’t find out about until later, and it involved not one, but two people, who believe they saw him at the memorial party at the same fleeting instant.

Today, Vanderbilt is integrated and multicultural. But when Gregory attended classes, it was wall-to-wall white bread. It’s strange being here, staring out across one of the quads as students take in the season’s waning sun and flip frisbees across the lawn. I’d like to say I feel all tingly and connected with Gregory. But I don’t. I had only one sort of “aha” moment, when I looked across the campus at one of the buildings and felt noticeably drawn to it: Whaddaya know, the library.

I’m much more excited when Mario calls and tells me he’s “tilting at windmills.” Mario’s grandparents were also first-generation immigrants, from Sicily and Calabria, a sunny heritage that still shows itself in Mario’s dark, good looks, his obsession with family, and his love of good food and wine.

Gregory’s heritage involved darker strains, including a hot-blooded legacy of abuse and mercurial tempers. One time while Gregory was growing up, his dad burst through the front door drunk and seething. In a matter of seconds, he was lunging at Gregory’s mother, trying to pull the diamond earrings and bracelet off her ears and arm. Gregory injected himself between the two, looked up at his dad, who was ready to backhand the boy aside, and said, “Stop! Don’t you know you don’t treat lady a like that?” Gregory was 7 years old.

Yes, there were issues in Mario’s family, but let’s just say his Mediterranean heritage flowed from gentler stock. Yet however they might be different, Gregory and Mario had the same good looks and love of food and wine.

There was this Italian restaurant – gone, now – where Gregory and I used to go for dinner. It was our favorite spot. We’d sit outside on the patio, just above the valet stand, and watch the parade of people coming and going. You can tell a lot about people by how they get in and out of cars.

We became quite attached to a red Italian wine here, Illuminati Riparosso. Rich, mouth-filling and complex, it was reasonably priced and still somehow agreeable with a lot of Italian foods. I always thought that Illuminati was a great, made-up name for an Italian wine, only to find out later that it is the surname of the producer.

The rolling, shimmering hills of the vineyard are just about as beautiful as Italy gets. I know, because this is a place Mario took me to several years ago. ‘Turns out that Mario had a connection to this particular wine and winemaker.

It’s also very likely that on some of those nights at the restaurant back home, when Gregory and I were on the patio dipping fresh bread in olive oil and sipping Riparosso, Mario was rolling Izzy’s wheelchair in through the back door and up to a table, where they might be ordering a little Riparosso of their own.

This restaurant was a favorite place of theirs, too. And Riparosso was one of their favorite wines. So here we were in the same place, drinking from the same grapes that had been touched by the same hands, grown in the same vineyard, and fermented in the same cellar thousands of miles away under the Adriatic sun. Interesting, the way unseen threads bind us. Different worlds. Same world.

Only then, it was 2 tables for 2, dinner for 4.


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