My father once told me that his father, Giovanni Lepore, used to bring sandwiches to Sacco and Vanzetti when they were in prison in Charlestown in the 1920s. He’d hitchhike there, carrying a rucksack stuffed with provolone and prosciutto on pumpernickel. I have no particular reason to believe this story is true, but it might be true. I can picture it. I can smell it. It smells true.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants, had been arrested, tried, convicted, and would be executed for a crime they didn’t commit. My grandfather had immigrated to the United States in 1907, the same year they did—paesani—and in the 1910s he and Vanzetti had worked together in Clinton, Massachusetts, building a railroad and living, with all the other immigrant workers, in railroad sleeping cars in a part of town known as Little Italy. “Here I made many friends, whom I remember with the strongest emotion, with a love unaltered and unalterable,” Vanzetti later wrote. I like to think that one of those friends was my grandfather. Mio Gio.
Still, I don’t know. I don’t know much about my grandfather. In 1919 he joined the US Army and became an American citizen. His father, in Italy, Abruzzo, paid a scribe to write him a letter:
Try to come back soon over on your mother’s arms. Dear Son the way you said that your sick to stay all alone, we are feeling the same way because we get pretty old so I am pray you to come back…. You can get wife and marry the girl you like.
My grandfather did go back to Italy, to find that wife, Concetta Cecchini, Concettina, and then never saw his homeland again. He never learned to speak English. He had strong views about the exploitation of immigrants who helped dig out the Wachusett Reservoir, not far from Little Italy, and build the Wachusett Dam, holding it all in. Once, when there was a rumor that Sacco and Vanzetti were going to blow up the dam, my grandfather sat in a tree over the reservoir and watched out for them all night. Or so my father told me. And later, when they were in prison, he brought them sandwiches. I have only my father’s word for this. I never had the chance to ask my grandfather. He died during the Great Depression, more or less of poverty.
At the funeral, my grandmother, tristissima, jumped into the pit and splayed herself on his coffin. My uncles had to drag her out. Later, when she found the money to get a family photograph taken, she had an old photograph of my grandfather pasted in next to her. He looks like a ghost.
I never fact-checked the Sacco and Vanzetti story with my grandmother. I don’t speak Italian and she didn’t speak English, and we had a hard time with each other—she was hard and I am hard—and, anyway, I didn’t think to ask until long after she’d died. My grandfather was something of a radical; but in sympathizing with Sacco and Vanzetti, he’d have been in good company. Five days after they went to the electric chair, in 1927, close to a quarter of a million people protested in Boston. Much was written about Sacco and Vanzetti’s political philosophy—like my grandfather, they were socialists, and maybe anarchists—and from prison, Vanzetti wrote the story of his life. As a boy in Italy, he’d spent seven years in school, from the ages of six to thirteen. Someone in town had a library, and Vanzetti had started reading St. Augustine. “The principles of humanism and equality of rights began to make a breach in my heart,” he later wrote. He got a hold of Dante’s Commedia. “My teeth were not made for such a bone,” he wrote, but all the same, he “proceeded to gnaw it, desperately.” He read history, literature, philosophy. In prison for seven years, Vanzetti read and read. “I feel the fever of knowledge in me,” he wrote. He concluded: “the plague which besets humanity most cruelly is ignorance.”
I like to think my grandfather read the same books and came to the same conclusions. I’m pretty sure he read Dante. Nicola Sacco, when he married and had a son, named him Dante. My grandfather, when he married and had a son, named him Dante, too. He had a second son, my father, and named him Francisco Amerigo, after his new home.
My father grew up in Clinton, with all of his cousins and aunts and uncles, who came over, in a tumble, from the same part of Italy. They had no heating or plumbing in their house, and he liked to tell a story about how he first heard of toothpaste when a box of it fell off a truck and some kid in the neighborhood explained what it was for. He graduated from high school in June of 1941 and took a job as a janitor. In December, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the army. At Fort Devens, they pulled out most of his teeth: they were all rotten. After the war, he went to Clark University, in Worcester. If it hadn’t been for the GI Bill, which paid his tuition, he’d never have gone to college. He didn’t have a car or enough money for the bus, so he hitchhiked. When he wasn’t in class, he worked in Clinton at a bookbindery, to be close to books, as if he were young Benjamin Franklin, an apprentice at his brother’s printing shop, which is something I thought about many years later at my father’s deathbed, just me and him, where, as he slept, I read Carl Van Doren’s biography of Franklin, and then, when I looked up, he was gone.
My father always wanted to be a writer, Hemingway, Hemingway, with his bullfighters and his marlins, but never quite succeeded. Like Vanzetti, he once wrote an autobiography, never published. He called it Diary of an Unknown. He was not a marlin man, not a fisherman, not a bullfighter, not a hunter, not a boxer, not a man of the least violence. He did, though, smell the way I imagine Hemingway smelled. My father had an extraordinary affection for strange antique medicinals. Ointments, tinctures, elixirs. He smoked a pipe that he filled with Briggs tobacco, from a tin. He drank Moxie. He lathered himself with pHisoderm, a gentleman’s soap, and splashed himself with Old Spice, an old man’s aftershave. He had pocks all over his back; he told us they were bullet holes, from the war, but they were just pockmarks. He’d been a medic and had never been shot, had never seen combat, but what he meant to say, I think, was that he had been marked, indelibly, by the horror of war. It had left holes, drilled through his back.
My father kept a stack of books on his nightstand, mystery novels, mostly. He read them at night, lying in bed, while listening to the Red Sox on the radio. James Michener, Dick Francis. He was a public school teacher and a guidance counselor, a director of guidance, a guide. He wore plaid jackets and striped bow ties and he smoked, all day, and when girls got in trouble, he drove them to Boston, to get illegal abortions. And when boys got in trouble, he kept them out of prison. He never raised his voice. He only ever wanted to help, and to write, and to read in bed.
My father found himself in books, tucked in between the pages like a bookmark or a silverfish. Mostly, he borrowed books, from the town library or the library of the school where he taught. We never had very many books of our own around the house. Except in his den, where he kept a shelf of the first books he ever owned: his college textbooks. When he died I inherited those books, a very little, very smoky library. Tiny books, held in one hand, all bound in cloth, and smelling of Briggs tobacco. Modern Library editions. Everyman editions. Viking Portable Library editions. Soft, and much pocked.
I once looked up his college transcript, and I found out that every one of these books was a book he bought for a class. Julius Caesar: in Shakespeare, sophomore year, my father got a C. God bless the days before grade inflation. An anthology of Ernest Hemingway, for The Short Story. B−. Selections from the Poetical Works of Robert Browning, for Romantic Poetry. C+. In the whole of Browning, my father has underlined only a single couplet, in pencil: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”
The most marked-up of all of the books in my father’s little library is an edition of Virgil’s Aeneid. He must have read it for a class called Roman Civilization (B+, his best grade). The Aeneid is also the only book my father put his name in. On the endpaper he stuck a return address sticker so that this book, if it ever got lost, would get back to him. This one book.
My father’s copy of Virgil’s Works is bound in green cloth, with a black leather insert on the cover. My father wrote all over it. Scribbles in the margins, underlines in the text, notes to himself, notes to Virgil. “Notice piety of Aeneas,” he’s written on page 39, and “Aeneas won’t go without his father.” Seek we Crete and our forefathers, he’s underlined on page 47. On page 57 he’s noted in the right-hand margin, “They sight Italy!”
Virgil wrote the Aeneid around 20 BC. My father’s English translation begins this way: “I sing of arms and the man who came of old, a fated wanderer, from the coasts of Troy to Italy.” Aeneas falls in love with Dido, an African queen, and then betrays her. He cries, all the time, about the suffering caused by war. As one world collapses, another is being built. “Happy are those whose walls are rising,” Virgil writes. And yet everywhere is war: “Raw fear/Was everywhere, grief was everywhere,/Everywhere the many masks of death.”
I picture my father—a very young man, who had lost his father, and seen war, and wandered the world—falling in love with this story of a homeland he had never seen, his father’s Italy. My father, too, was looking for a home, when he took Roman Civilization in his senior year, in Worcester, in 1949. A job, a wife, a family, children. He had found a story of himself, and even of his past, in Virgil. A story of wandering, a story of war and of the sorrows of war. He found Aeneas, wearing the mask of death, carrying the burden of grief. Honoring the dead. Building a new home. Wondering why the good suffer, and why war endures. Sighting Italy. And finding beauty in poetry. Seek we Crete and our forefathers.
My father, who never knew toothpaste as a child. My father, who had all his teeth pulled by the US Army. My father, who wore dentures from the age of eighteen. He’d stick them out at us, pretending to be a monster. My father, the gentlest man, the softest. I like to think I carry those books in a rucksack, with a provolone and prosciutto sandwich on pumpernickel. I pile them on a table, prop them up on a shelf, take them down, reread them. Loan them out, get them back. Head to the library. Get some more. Pass them on, every book a gift, every library an inheritance, a scroll, unfurling, like a newborn’s tiny hand, opening, the child of a whole family, each of its ancestors.
He got a hold of those books when he went to college, books, the relics of the dead, hard books his father, with his hard life, had never owned. And he found that, after all, his teeth were made for these bones.