Daily Archives: December 25, 2005

Portrait of Francesco

This time of year, I reflect upon the people who are a part of my life.The first person I recall is my Grandfather.I wrote this piece about him and it appeared in the book:”Dream Streets: The Big Book of Italian American Culture,” published by Harper & Row/HarperCollins, in 1989 and by Random House in 1991. It was also reprinted as “The Big Book of Italian American Culture,” in 1996, by Santini Press……………………………………………Portrait of FrancescoBetween wars, Francesco leaves Maria, his wife, and first son, Giuseppe, in Ascoli. he intends to secure work in America and his emigration ends in Pennsylvania. Immediately he goes to work; as a quarryman, railroad trackman, and later—when owners allow the hiring of Italians—a steel worker. He returns to Italia, then returns to America, followed by Maria, Giuseppe (soon to be called Joseph), and new son, Leo. All have life in the new land. Francesco continues loving Maria and soon son, Ezio, daughters Alvia and Ida come to him. Maria tosses a knife out of the house when thunder and lightning are in the sky. She is superstitious and does not believe in outer space. She believes only what she knows…Since he is already poor, Francesco is not depressed by the Depression. Defiantly, he throws his last three cents into a field of tall grass. He rolls boulders, builds WPA walls on Skyline Drive, and buys the big white house on the first hill above the railroad bridge. Eventually, he buys the field of tall grass containing his pennies…For an unknown reason, he decides to grow mushrooms and shares this idea with his friends who share it with his enemies. Carpenters, builders, workers, people of the soil, they erect giant structures with borrowed tools and hopes of future harvests. Bare chested, with red and blue kerchiefs tightly wrapped above the eyes, they fork hundreds of steamy tons of hot manure into tiered canyons. Sweated and fog shrouded, families and friends fill the shelf-beds, periodically running out into cooler air to draw clear breath. Then the heavy doors are shut and sealed with mud. The ooze is packed into cracks while the manure burns with inner life. Teeming swarms of microbes and bacteria digest and metabolize, seething for a half month or more, curing the sour mass into a musty sweetness. Impregnated with spawn, covered with topsoil, soaked with misty spray again and again, finally night-wind chilled to the temperature of cool caves, the chalky tissue yields harvest after harvest of fruit since the spawn does not die of old age…Not magically, fifty lean workingyears later the mushroom farms sprout Francesco & Maria, Inc., core stockholders of a group of local growers canning and distributing more than two million pounds of mushrooms per annum, immigrant dream success story…After World War II, all the children of Francesco and Maria go to college, while I, firstborn of a new generation, bounce beside Francesco in his Chevrolet panel truck delivering hand-picked baskets of brilliant white mushrooms to market, endlessly checking operations on his several farms, buying tools, visiting and organizing an extended family of friends and growers. In memory I continue to ride with him as, today, his heirs—sons, relatives, new immigrants, strangers—run their farms by calendar, clock, calculator, computer…I have lived thousands of days with mushrooms, sensing their slow meandering of invisible mycelia penetrating tons of compost; later, seeing colonized spawn forming millions of primordial foci upon damp peat moss; nurturing their development into white pinpoints of succulent flesh; and finally witnessing the urgent surge of growth in which each crop springs forth. I remember prodding heaps of loamy night-chilled topsoil, caked mud clinging to shoe soles, sunbaked insights, nocturnal scenery, cinder-block farmhouses on windswept hillsides, hand-built worlds of endless scent, sounds of wet soles on cypress scaffolds, whirling blades in whirring fans, turmoil of steam-drenched atmospheres, black manure stacked up to dripping ceilings above cavernous interiors, yellow incandescences illuminating bright mycelial masses of respiring fungus, damp white nightfruit. Mushroom universe—rooms black as moonless nights, heat filled with rolling steam, or chilled damp with flowing air, dream worlds, alien and all-enveloping where white caps pierce the dark like points of secret consciousness. The ancient plants create, contain, and release a billion spores, each one a messenger of evolution…When the mushroom grower leaves the farm, he can not shelve the smell. His hat, kerchief, pants, shirt, and shoes retain it. Standing in line at American Bank, the blind identify him before he speaks. As farmers do he bets his life, counting on the crop to redeem his risk…The cultivation of mushrooms is a complex man/plant symbiosis combining physical force, mental acuity, experience, perception, intellect, instinct…The farmer of mushrooms creates and maintains, under wildly varying meteorological conditions, a stable, yet flexible artificial ecosystem, a micro-world adapted to the life forms it perpetuates. Anticipating the momentary requirements of this sometimes inscrutable, intermittently invisible crop and its interdependence with its environment is the constant and total preoccupation of the grower. Because it is nature, he survives, or else, because it is nature, he does not. Finally, things continue because it is now. Things die for the same reason…Time shifts as it is this century and there are new farms and new ways of farming and making money. But the human being is more than this. Francesco has a life spanning time on Earth from horse cart to Lunar lander—the only moment in history this occurs. During World War I he dodges bombs and bullets. He never realizes Il Duce is not a great man. He mistrusts the Catholic Church, yet he builds St. Anthony’s for his community in America and does not attend Mass. His brother is an anarchist; never comes to America; so Francesco returns periodically to argue over disputed family property. He eats spaghetti, drinks vermouth, smokes some cigars. He is born in 1901. He does die in 1984. What he lives in his life can be lived by a man so he does live it. We live, remember, and do what we can do now. We can not do what he did. We continue and die, as he died. But the spawn does not die. Mushrooms, like us, are instantaneous, fruit of eternal trees.

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