San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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May 23, 2002

Il Giardino (The Backyard)

I looked through the cracked and sun-faded wooden fence into my old backyard. Things were different, but not much had changed. There were noticeable physical changes, and it was obvious that upkeep wasn’t on the list of things to do. The back porch had been flipped around to face the opposite way, and the new owners had fenced off the backyard, cutting the driveway in two. Old memories rushed through my mind like a tornado. Playing with Ramona and the other kids, tipping over on my Big Wheel and scraping my elbows, Snowball the cat, nearly splitting my skull open on the concrete while playing slip and slide. Then the memories faded, replaced by the vision before me.

I hadn’t really thought about the house for years, since my parents sold it and moved. I never realized how much of an impact it had on my life. I spent the first ten years of my life in that house. The once thriving and well-kept playground of my childhood was now a dead, empty square of concrete. Long ago littered with toys and my father’s tools, it now laid empty except for the occasional weed sticking through cracks here and there.

I spotted a lone black sock sat in the middle of the yard. I immediately thought of her: Bettina. Did she still live here?

She could never quite get her laundry to stick on the damn clothesline or even stay in her basket. One piece of clothing always seemed to escape and find the ground. I still remember the smell. It was funky. So funky, that we kids would steer clear of any stray laundry. She was married to a friend of my parents, an elderly Sicilian man who we referred to as Mastru Pe’. In English, it translates to Uncle Pietro. Their story was that he found her in Tijuana, living on the streets, and married her out of pity, or to save her. They rented the apartment on the bottom. The Flores’ stayed in the apartment up top. Señor Flores was never around, because he was always working up North or even South, near Mexico. He always came around during rent time, paid and set off again.
The backyard had served many purposes—during the day it was a war zone. It was my father’s and Pietro’s workshop and our playground. Tools, lumber and toys were always strewn about. There used to be a couple of old bathtubs filled with dirt that served as a makeshift garden where my parents planted tomatoes, eggplant, Sicilian zucchini and flowers. At night, sometimes, the backyard would be transformed into a meeting place.

Occasionally, my parents would host “feste” or potlucks, in which fellow immigrants from around the neighborhood came by.

Most of the Sicilians knew each other from the old country, and were from the towns of Porticello, Santa Flavia, Aspra and Bagheria. These reunions were fairly big affairs, as I remember. There were normally about 30 to 40 people all immersed in separate conversations. The sound was magic, even musical, and almost drowned out the sound of the airplanes that passed over our heads. The house is directly underneath the landing path of airliners that stop at Lindbergh Field. The people all spoke in the Sicilian dialect, in varying tones and volumes. Mouths moved in rapid succession, questions and answers accompanied by exaggerated sweeps and movements of arms and hands. From that wall of sound, I tuned into discussions of L’America, u presidente, u soshu security, etc. These were accented by comparisons to the old country, the inevitable subject. Food was also an important part of the “feste”. It was usually sfingione, a Sicilian deep-pan pizza, followed by espresso (made in the large cafettiere) and cannoli. Other times, depending on the occasion, pasta al forno was prepared. At the end of the night, when I was tired, I would go to my mother and rest my head against her back. I would listen to the sounds of her breathing and voice through her body. This sound lulled me to sleep without fail.

The British Airways jetliner roared over my head, shaking me out of my trance. Chipped paint and cracked wood obstructed my view again. I felt sad, a longing for the old days, my Big Wheel, the festas. They live in my memories now, I guess. Better that way. I still come down to the old neighborhood to see my grandmother and great aunt, but never pass in front of the old house. It just isn’t the same.

Posted by sfilippone at May 23, 2002 10:14 PM