In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia.  He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart of Appalachia.  At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside.  “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Editor’s note: Brent is a long-time friend of mine. From junior high through high school, and years of Presbyterian youth experience, we share many childhood commonalities. It was not until I attended his mother’s memorial service that I had the slightest clue what a powerful influence she had on his love of nature. Brent is many things. He is my old friend, he is a poetry student, he is a husband and a writer and a son and a brother. He is a lover of the natural world, and he is a gift to that place and all of us in it. I hope you enjoy this dipping and swirling ride into the mind of a child who is discovering frogs, and fireflies, and the greatness of trees.

Outside | by Brent Aikman

I was six years old when we moved away from the neighborhood I had known as “mine.”

 Away from my best friend who lived next-door.

Away from the familiarity of the dead-end street full of kids, families, people, that at the ripe age of six, I could say “I know them.”

Away from the world as I had come to know it: Friendly people, the nice Valley Bell Dairy milkman who delivered milk to the house, “Shane” the ancient boxer dog that lived across the street, “Big Rock” down in the woods (It was really big, and it was truly a rock), and more.

Away from everything that a normal neighborhood, on a dead-end street, had to offer. We were ‘that family’ that moved away. We only moved about 4 miles, not far at all in adult understanding.

But to a six year old…

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play…  Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

The writer in 1976.

My father was a chemical engineer. My genetics yielded neither the comprehension of mathematics nor science. Those numbers, those scientific thoughts, did not make it too far into my brain. I believe two conditions exacerbated this natural fact. First, if there was a window in the classroom, my eyes were drawn to it, especially when math came around. I just didn’t understand, nor did I really care about, multiplication tables and sums (I think they call this Attention Deficit Disorder these days). Second, I certainly was much more interested in being outside.

Outside, in the woods.

Late spring in West Virginia has a true magic about it. The world is a vibrant green that  startles the eyes. Everything is in bloom. Nature is finally awake after long months of winter. You can see it in the trees as they reach for every drop of sunshine they can grasp. The wind is soft and moist with warmth suggesting that summer is coming. Every wild living creature is either giving birth or going through the mating rituals that will lead to bearing offspring and moving the species ahead a generation.

That spring the woods almost seemed in a frenzy. Birds flying, chasing, singing. Squirrels darting, playing, chattering. Chipmunks, annoying chipmunks. The cry of the red tailed hawk that sent those chipmunks running for their lives. Blue tailed skinks sunning on the rocks. The green snake, brown garden snake, black snake in the bush eating baby birds out of the nest. I did not need math or science in school. I came to an understanding in the woods. There is a lifecycle. Mating, birth, living. If the black snake eats one of three baby birds, it is not only the death part of the lifecycle, it is mathematics. There are now only two baby birds.

I understood science and math, just not in the classroom.

I would lie in the cool leaves on the forest floor, looking up into the fresh canopy of leaves. I could stay there for hours, watching, looking, and listening. Engulfed in the enormity of the woods, but yet not feeling as though I were lost, or small. I felt like I belonged. Unlike my time in school, here I understood what was being revealed to me in the math and science of nature.

Math: Trees grow one ring every year. Birds lay eggs, maybe one, maybe more. The hummingbirds that we see in our woods flap their wings about sixty times a second. Black snakes can grow really big. That one was over four feet long!  A frog lays hundreds of eggs.

Once, I discovered an incredible secret outside. I found it, it was my secret, and I shared it with no one.

I had been watching the puddle for about a week. I finally gathered the courage to dip my hand in. I dipped, the egg mass oozed around my fingers. I held the gelatinous mass in my hand and looked at the single black spec floating in each little bubble. There really is nothing like holding a mass of frog eggs, freshly scooped from the standing puddle by the road. I put the eggs back after complete examination. I would come back to look at them again. Maybe I would not hold them again, I thought, but I would but definitely look. And soon, there would be frogs!

Science:  When it rains, the toads come out onto the road so they won’t drown, to get warm, and they get squished by cars. Hummingbirds can fly backwards. Bumblebees, according to the man-made laws of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly.

I love Bumblebees.

Outside was where I wanted to be, but If I had to be inside, I would be in the kitchen. The kitchen of the new house had a window that was almost six feet wide. The sill was less than two feet off the floor, so I could sit on the floor and look out. I looked out at a bird feeder that was four feet long and 14 inches deep. A BIG bird feeder. No. It was a bird feeding platform. My mother would tell me what each bird was, if we would see it again, or if it was just passing through. I could sit and see birds that others may never see; Scarlet Tanager, Grosbeaks, Cowbirds, Nuthatches, Warblers, Juncos, American Redstart, the Common Grackle with its blazing yellow eyes, and Finches of purple and gold that would sing the rise of the sun.

There were wonderful surprises including the Wood Thrush, the most elegant Cedar Waxwing, Indigo Bunting, Solitary Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many birds that were the gift of “passing through.”  There were Woodpeckers of all sorts and sizes; Downey, Red-bellied, Common Flicker, Hairy, and if we were lucky, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Then HE came.

Young Brent, OUTSIDE.

There was a great thump, and it seemed everything stopped. It was the Pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. If I was lucky, I would be sitting by the window and get to look into his yellow ringed black eyes. I would hear him ask me if I was coming back outside. And I would run for the door…

In this time of the spring, in the dusk of the early evening, it starts. The fireflies rise. My grandparents lived on the west side of Charleston and had a very large side yard with a Magnolia tree that I could climb. I spent a lot of time at their house. And while there, I spent a lot of time in the Magnolia tree. I would climb to my spot and sit and watch the fireflies come out of the grass and off the branches of the tree and flicker around my head as they searched for their mates. The world was alight.

My grandparents’ yard helped meet my incessant need to be outside. There was an area of rose bushes on which to feast my eyes and nose; grape vines growing over the patio that brought in birds; a small vegetable garden planted in spring that produced tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and squash.

Then there were the oak trees. There were four (I counted them using my math skills) HUGE oak trees, each one at least four feet thick if not more. At seven years old, I was small. These trees were huge. Spring allowed me to lie on my back in the yard and watch, and look, and listen. Spring brought a sense of urgency to the oak trees with lots of birds flying, squirrels scrambling, and the chipmunks – always, the annoying chipmunks. The giant trees provided life and a home to many creatures. Me, I stretched out underneath the huge trunk and spreading limbs and took it all in. I watched the birds and the squirrels and would wait for dusk, for the lights to start twinkling in the trees. It was magical. While it was not in The Woods, my grandparents’ yard was held in high esteem. And to this day, I long to sit high in that Magnolia tree and watch, and look, and listen as the fireflies rise into the spring evening.

As a child, I found solace outside, in the woods. I had to move away from my friends, start attending a new school, learn new streets and meet new people. My world turned upside down. My own mother had said “go play outside,” and then Mother Nature wiped away my fears and helped me understand that no matter where I was, I could look to her, and suddenly all would be right with my world.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

In a Man’s Voice: The Jersey by Vernon Wildy, Jr.

Vernon was born in Richmond, Virginia on June 6, 1971.  After being schooled in the Henrico County school system, he went to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and received a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering in 1994.  After college, he returned to the Richmond area and entered the workforce and worked in the transportation industry, mostly in operations.  During that time, Vernon discovered a poetry group in the area and began to read at open mic events around the city of Richmond.  He also was able to have some of his works published in Fantasia magazine, a local literary magazine.  While continuing with poetry events, he began taking graduate classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He finished his Masters in Business Administration in 2010. He self-published his first novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Visit his blog, I Got Something to Say.

Editor’s note: This essay generated a lot of emotion in me. Vernon first wrote this essay as a poem – http://vernsspot.blogspot.com/2012/06/look-at-me.html. In both the poem and prose forms, he captures the loneliness, confusion, and isolation of adolescent boyhood, but he never panders.  It is what it is. I love how he conveys the burning desire to be on the inside, and yet balances it with an even more powerful urge to bring someone else into his world on his terms. Not to be ignored is the beginning of anger, and that anger deliberately suppressed. Thank you, Vernon, for letting us IN. I love this essay.

The Jersey | by Vernon Wildy, Jr.  

I’d known who she was since kindergarten, but it took until eighth grade for me to finally notice her.  Up until that point, I had paid her little mind.  To me, she was only somebody who was always in my class every year.  But when we got to eighth grade and I saw her walking around the middle school campus, she finally caught my eye.

Boy, did she ever.

She had developed faster than the other girls, her breasts and butt standing out like neon signs shining at night.  Her figure was more womanly than a good percentage of the teachers at our school.  That year a lot of the boys were paying extra attention to her.  You could always hear whispers of, “Hey, check her out…..” going around when she walked by. And just like them, I was checking her out, too.  This was my first feeling of infatuation and I really wanted to say something to her; but at that age, I didn’t have that kind of confidence. I was sort of tall, but definitely chubby.  Every day I was dressed too plainly to even be noticed.  As kids wore the cool clothes at the time, I was wearing a wardrobe of buttoned-up plaid shirts, casual polyester pants, brown loafers, and white socks.

What really took the cake was my backpack.

At first glance, it was a normal-looking backpack.  The one thing that made it stand out in the worst way was that my mom was insistent that she write my name on it with a permanent pen.  She wanted to make sure that in case another student had a similar backpack that my name would tell everyone that my backpack was mine.  And of course, the entire school knew it was mine and they let me know about it.  It was not a good look and during the preteen years, the one thing at my school that was near the top of priorities was looking good. So there I was walking around wearing uncool clothes, slinging around an uncool backpack, and having an uncool body shape that didn’t work in my favor.

And there she was, standing out from the rest and gaining the whole school’s attention.

I felt myself drift further and further away, feeling lost and out of sight.  I realized then that making the honor roll and answering every teacher’s questions correctly would never gain me favor or even a chance to be near what was blossoming before me. There was also something else I learned during that eighth grade year.  Football was very, very important at my school.  I should’ve known that, but I actually didn’t pay too much attention.  In my mind, football was just a game, something that we played in the neighborhood, whether tackle football in someone’s backyard or touch football out in the street.  We had a ton of fun going at each other, yet football was also a place to prove yourself, especially to the older kids.  I held my own most times, even though I wasn’t the fastest or most athletic. But that’s where my football playing stayed.

When I was about eight years old, my doctor recommended to my parents that I shouldn’t play organized football.  His reasoning was that I was going to experience a growth spurt in my teenage years and he felt my body couldn’t take the wear and tear while still growing.  My parents agreed and so during youth football season, I stayed home while most of the other kids in the neighborhood were heading out to football and cheerleading practice.  It never really bothered me that I didn’t play because my parents kept me pretty busy with other activities during the fall.

Middle school started to show me that football could put a boy at the top of the popularity totem pole.  The players always seemed to have the prettiest girls talking to them and they got the most attention around school.  That was especially true when game day arrived.  The team members always had a tradition of wearing their jerseys at school all throughout that day.  The school would be dotted with light blue jerseys bouncing around campus.  Everybody got excited for the games, especially if they were playing at home.  Those days we didn’t have to ride the school bus home.  We could stay after school, watch the game, and have our parents pick us up after the game was over. But when you saw those blue jerseys around campus, they were not being worn by the players.

In a lot of cases, those jerseys were being worn by girls.

The girls usually caught up with the boys before school started and asked to wear their jerseys.  Girlfriends wore their boyfriends’ jerseys, cheerleaders wore one of the popular players’ jerseys, and random girls would wear other players’ jerseys.  In my school, wearing a jersey was a big deal. As for me, I had no jersey to give anyone.  I was just a normal student walking around campus, going to my classes, and looking to do my best.  I tried not to think about the jerseys being worn by the girls.  I wasn’t the envious type and I was cool with most of the players.  I went to the games just like everyone else and cheered the team on.

One day during eighth grade, all of that changed. That’s when I saw her. The girl who developed faster than the others walking around campus. With a jersey on. A light blue meshed jersey with the number “88” worn over her short-sleeved shirt.  The eights curved over her breasts, making those numbers stand out even more. I knew the guy who wore that number.  He was a quiet type who was in three of my classes.  Having seen the team play before during that season, I knew he didn’t play much, if at all.  I saw him on the sidelines, but don’t really remember if he got in the games or not.  But he was on the team, she was wearing his jersey, and all I could do was watch her saunter around campus. All throughout that day I tried my hardest to not show that I was jealous.  I don’t think I talked much to either of them or to anybody else.  My mind was filled with the image of that girl and that jersey.

I just started getting mad at everybody.

I was mad at my doctor for not letting me play football like the other boys.  I was mad at my parents for listening to and agreeing with him.  I was mad at all of the football players for being so popular.  I was mad at her for wearing that jersey.  I was mad at myself for being a chubby kid. Then at lunch, everything came to a head.  I was eating my lunch with my friends when I saw her at an adjacent table sitting with a bunch of other girls, still wearing that light blue “88” jersey.  As my friends continue to chatter along, I sat quietly.  All I could do was stare at her, my eyes wishing that this day wasn’t so and that she would notice me begging to be noticed.

“Look at me!!”  I wanted to scream.

“Look at me!!  I don’t have a jersey but I got all my math problems right!  I spelled every word correctly on my English paper!  I know where the cranium and the clavicle are on the human body!  I know all about Jamestown!   Look!!  I even do well in Spanish class!  Look!! ¿Cómo está usted?!?   Muy bien!”            

But I stayed silent.  I didn’t say a word to anybody about how I felt.  Things were what they were.  The football team was tops in this school and the only thing I could do was go along with the flow.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 8)

VIII.

I cannot escape my Americanism. I’ve got that flat, American accent. American pragmatism and optimism inform how I approach the world. Though here I’m, “So, Where are you from? Certainly not from here.” Abroad, I was always gringo. Any disavowal of the nation that took in my immigrant ancestors from Scotland centuries ago, even though it then forced the children those ancestors had with southeastern tribes to uproot to Oklahoma, would be disingenuous. And even though, as the story goes, my father’s great-grandfather walked off the reservation as a teenager to become a West Texas cotton farmer, this was not a story we were told. Not, at least, until I was fifteen. Where you are from, West Texas, the Nation West, Puerto Rico, Scotland, southeastern Virginia, these places never really mattered.

What mattered was if you were on that train, heaven bound.

Despite my discomfort with the U.S., like a good American, something at the core of our national experiment attracts me. At the end of the 18th century, Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan land-owner and intellectual, traveled the original 13 states. How courts followed the rule of law, how the nation was structured around the small family farm, rather than the large plantation, amazed him. Neither rule of law nor small family farms existed in Spanish Colonial America, where large plantations were the norm and money and power bought you rights and privileges and placed you beyond the law. I think of de Miranda’s travels and think if only the cultivation of one’s garden were the national virtue, if rule of law was not a privilege principally afforded to the powerful, if all races, all creeds, all nations were always welcomed and given home.

After a life spent wandering from place to place in service of the church, my wife, kids, and I now live an hour from Cane Ridge, the very spot where our movement began. For four years we’ve called Kentucky home. I’ll always long for the Caribbean, always feel like moving after a year or two, always think the only real mountains in this world are the Sangre de Cristos.

But I’m happy to be here and know people who still cultivate the land for sustenance rather than profit.

I’m happy to eat vegetables grown here in this soil, on these rolling hills.

I pledge allegiance to the small country, to this earth that feeds me and to which I will return as dust.

Two years ago we planted asparagus root in our backyard. For two years, we’ve weeded and watered the plot, waiting for the root stock to establish itself. Anticipating that spring when we can harvest them.

Next year, when those first shoots appear and grow tall, we’ll have a feast.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 7)

VII.

My apprenticeship in learning to love this world has been long and slow. As animals, we all love the physical world, some with more suspicion than others. When this love becomes inordinate, excessive, the church calls it sin – avarice, lust, gluttony. Animal appetites that must be kept in check. Heaven has a way of doing this. Still, our bodies pull us.

I would love to be a gardener, to learn how to love and care for the land that feeds me, but I’m not. Moving as my family did left no time for gardening. A year and half in Nicaragua, before mother’s blindness, before the Contra began to kill foreign medical personnel; a year and half in Costa Rica, before my parents were caught in the middle of the UN and the Costa Rican government; a year and half of living in north Louisiana as my parents tried to get visas for Colombia, before deciding on the Dominican Republic. A year and a half leaves little time for a garden. And, when each of those year and halves are divided between three houses, there is no point even to try.

I’d seen gardens; eaten from them before. Neighbors in Rome, Georgia gave us tomatoes, okra, carrots grown in their backyards. The bungalow-style hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Nicaragua had a banana right outside our front door; our first house, a mango in the patio. In Santo Domingo, an avocado. But these were not gardens to be tended, cared for. Other people did that; or, as in the fruit, it was there for the taking.

My father standing, machete raised, in the acrid smoke of plastic, dead rodent, human feces, and weeds is my first memory of a garden. An alley, that had once been a park with trees and benches, ran the length of our first house in Santo Domingo. Out of desperation to control the rats, to keep the path clean, and to shame the drunks who used the alley as their voiding ground and the neighbors who dumped their trash in the weeds, Dad decided that part of his mission was bringing civility and order to the alleyway. As I remember it, the work of civilization, of slashing and burning, of debris removal, of purifying fire took the full year we lived in that house. But it wasn’t all fire and sweat. At some point plants were introduced: Spanish Sword and Purple Heart. We children were enlisted to tend the fire, to move the broken, discarded cinder blocks, to water the plants.

How we hated the work; after all, we’d be moving soon.

Though an introduction to something like a garden, it did little to teach love of land and place. It taught duty. It taught toil. It taught vigilance against weeds. I’m sure that had we stayed in Costa Rica, things would be different. I remember, still, the drive down from the mountains of San José to the eastern coastal jungle. We went to visit a young Honduran agronomist, also a missionary. It seemed he knew every plant, that he could walk out into the growth and chop down a young palm to harvest its heart, barely checking to see if it was the right kind of tree. Had we stayed in Costa Rica, we might’ve gotten to know Carlos and Roxana better, might’ve learned to care for land in a different way, and might’ve lived in a country with no historic connections to the U.S. No William Walkers. No multiple Marine invasions. No puppet dictators.

If there was something in our family that always called us back to this present, physical world, if there was something we celebrated, it was food, sensual, fragrant food.

Father loved the food of his childhood and mother didn’t simply oblige him, she lavished him with Bolognese from carrots, celery, garlic, and onions chopped and sautéed with ground beef, then stewed for hours in tomatoes, wine, and herbs. But it wasn’t all Italian all the time. Mother found a way into the cultures of those countries we moved through by learning to cook their food. She knows how to prepare green and ripe papaya, knows how four different countries turn avocado into dip, knows what to do with plantains depending on their ripeness.

The foods served at the family table are home, are comfort, are love and care. As a child, food is not something you think about. You instinctively accept it or reject it. I’m sure there were many meals beyond Omar’s hot dogs that we kids rejected. After all, mother worked hard to broaden our palate. What I remember, though, are not the struggles to get us to eat new food, but the hours spent learning how to make Nicaraguan tamales, the way she would ask questions of cooks, watch them to learn how they prepared foods like gallo pinto or picadillo. In our home, it was routine for lunch to include three, four, five extra guests – people who would appear at the door for a visit or consulta con el médico right as lunch was being served. If the fare were local, they would praise mom for her prowess. Otherwise, they would receive a culinary introduction to another country’s food. At the end of the meal, even the most tentative and shy of eaters would be won over.

Mom taught me to love saffron, cilantro, bread fruit. Taught me to cook, taught me only to barely ever follow a recipe, should instinct or lack of ingredients dictate otherwise. And she has passed on to me this love of food and cooking, this adventure into the world of the senses.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 6)

VI.

Home, if I had to choose one place, would be a tract of land, just north of Santa Fe on Highway 84. A few miles beyond Camel Rock runs the Pojoaque arroyo, soon after crossing the bridge, there on the left, on a hill, the adobe house. A long eastern wall of windows faces the Sangre de Cristo mountains; the western wall, the front porch, looks toward sandy barrancas that rise up five hundred feet above the spruce and sage brush. My grandparents lived in that house from the early eighties until my paternal grandfather’s death in 2000. We went there as often as we could. Maybe the landscape, so beautiful, so hard to live in, sank deep into our souls because its beauty, its harshness, are at once of this world and at the same time remind us that our time on earth is not for long.

The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I lived there. Having changed my major three or four times, I had, just that spring, finally declared English. I was lost. I went there to help my grandparents, to be their handyman and gardener – though I am neither. I went there because I had nowhere else to go and needed family.

Santo Domingo, Rep Dom. I’m 19. Home on summer break. It’s the end of another medical mission tour.

I didn’t go to high school, nor did I home school in the traditional sense. Instead, halfway through the tenth grade, I began to work as my Dad’s personal assistant – patient triage, pharmacy, running national and international errands for him. When I wasn’t working for Dad, I translated for work groups. On the side, I was to have kept up with my studies, reading an old college history textbook, working through geometry on my own. Instead, I spent that time reading CandideMoby DickCatcher in the RyeHuck Finn and studying German. After two and half years of this, any inkling of self-discipline was gone. Any facility with math sloughed off. Though we should’ve known my dream of becoming a doctor, like my father, was but a dream, I marched confidently into chemistry and calculus and embryology. Further complicating things, the summer after my sophomore year I’d decided that I couldn’t be a missionary for the church of Christ in Latin America, I didn’t see the point of trying to get people to switch to my brand of toothpaste in the hopes that with it their pearlies would be pearlier.

That summer I read Whitman, played bocce and drank beer with my grandfather, sat on the front porch and had conversations with my grandmother, dug fence posts, watered his pear trees, built a retaining wall, linseed oiled the wood on the adobe house, drove up to Chaco canyon to tour the ruins. I worked the land every day: hoeing, weeding, watering the trees. Both my grandfather and I ignored the hard fact that his pear orchard was a chimera. They never produced fruit; and, now, they are not there. But it was a lesson in tending a plot of land, in living in a place with a contentious history, in learning how to be both of these United States and something other.

After all, the First Peoples and the Hispanic of the southwest have been working out their relationship to the larger nation for centuries.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.