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Forget Me Not

by Carmen Ruggero

Table of Contents
Part 1 appears
in this issue.

After the New Year’s party was over, no one ever went home. Sleeping there was a whole lot of fun if you were a kid. Adults I thought were rather hard to please and should have traveled with their own mattresses. But not us; we slept anywhere. The house was divided equally and fairly in proportion to the needs of those who stayed: women and children slept in three of the available rooms, and it was everyone’s hope that the men all got along, because there was only one room left for them all.

The bathroom was also built separate from the house and presented its own set of problems. Especially in the middle of the night when one had to answer an urgent nature call.

When you peeked through the louvers and saw that the patio was awfully dark, and the moon barely stroked the honeysuckle with a hint of blue, and the dim street lights cast spooky shadows on the ground, and the bathroom was way, way out there — about ten feet away, or so, I’d say — then you had to ask yourself, ‘Can I hold it till morning?’ and if the answer was no, then you had to wake up Mom, who had to climb over Auntie Beatrice, and who in turn woke up Cousin Julio who scratched his head and yelled:

“What’s going on?”

“Shhh... I’ve got to pee,” I whispered.

Mom corrected me: “You’ve got to urinate,” while searching for her shoes in the dark.

The terminology went over my head, but what I really wanted to understand, was what made it so important for her to find her shoes when my bladder was about to burst!

“Who has to uterate,” Cousin Gina groaned from her spot by the wall.

“Sarah has to pee,” Julio announced, loudly.

A “SHSSSSSS!” Chorus blasted from various dark corners of the room.

The rampant urge spread like a contagious disease. Now every kid had to go. Finally, after tripping over each other in a frantic search for our shoes, a number of us filed out of there in the dark, under the moonlight, dancing pee-pee circles with our legs crossed, while patiently waiting our turn to the bathroom.

Our mothers were busy wasting valuable oxygen trying to hush our chatter when who should wobble out of the room but Auntie Nina: “Ah que sciagura! What a disaster! Don’t you people take care of business before going to bed?”

Julio was sly. He went by the jacaranda tree, and was back to sleep in record time.

Right above the kitchen, and separate from the rest of the house was Uncle Petro’s room. It was a single room. I remember the wooden steps leading up to it because the chipped blue paint showed what had been white and later green underneath.

I was sitting on the steps one morning, while waiting for him to come out. I was never allowed up there.

“That’s your uncle’s room,” Auntie Nina said. “And you leave it alone.”

I never asked why, I simply did what I was told. So I sat there and waited for him.

He had promised to show me his nickel trick right after breakfast. He must have done it a hundred times since I was born, but we both always pretended it was the first. He’d put out both hands tightly fisted.

“Which hand has the nickel?” he’d ask.

“This one.” And I’d slap one of them.

“No! Try again.”

He’d go at it repeatedly until he could sense my frustration. Everyone hits the odds occasionally, but I never could, not with him. He was the best magician in the world. Actually, I knew how the trick ended, and that was what made me anxious. Eventually, he’d reach behind my ear, and there’s where he found the nickel every time.

“It’s yours, go buy yourself a chocolate.”

Nine times out of ten, that’s how the nickel was spent. I can still remember running to the corner store and propping my chin on the counter’s edge: “I want a nickel chocolate, please.”

Finally, it was time for New Year’s Eve dinner. Uncle Marco sat at the head of the table. Though he was Nina’s husband, he was related to us all in a couple of different ways. I found that out one day while accidentally eavesdropping, and heard it said that he was also her cousin and the reason why their marriage was not blessed by the Church and consequently, I overheard, it was as bad as living in sin. But no one ever said what that sin would be. Adults spoke about it in hushed tones. They’d narrow their eyes and say things like: “It’s the children I’m sorry for.”

“Why? What did the children do?”

“Never mind,” Mamma snapped. “When grownups talk, children make themselves scarce.”

And so we did. The problem was that we had heard enough between their whispers to go into a dark and lonely corner and invent the dirt.

Now that sin, whatever it was, should have been a good enough reason for Nina and Marco to wish for immortality, I thought, knowing what eternity had in store for them. But it didn’t seem to worry them at all. They were a jolly couple, and always smiled despite the fact that their fate in hell was sealed.

Nina sat beside him to one side of the table. He was always served first and we all watched and drooled as the steamy linguini with clam sauce filled his plate.

After getting his portion, he’d then tell Nina to get the kids’ first. And so we got our serving while the grownups drooled.

When all the plates were filled, everyone waited for Nina to sit down. Uncle Marco would wave his hand in circles and say, “Mangia, mangia! Eat!”

After having stood on ceremony, everyone dug in like a pack of wolves after a winter’s famine.

Petro never joined us for New Year’s Eve dinners and after a while, his absence was accepted, if not expected.

Close to midnight, nothing but crumbs left on the table, and somewhere between the last drop of espresso and that glass of champagne to toast the New Year, some obscure relative I didn’t know even then and who liked to tell jokes, was presented with a wooden crate to stand on. Then he would tell his jokes; the grownups laughed and the kids skedaddled looking for something interesting to do like chasing fireflies up the jacaranda.

Not me. I stayed and sat on Auntie Nina’s lap. They had all moved their chairs around to get a good view of the showman. Auntie’s chair was by the big double doors, and the breeze on my face was better than that champagne the grownup were savoring (Nina always let me dip my finger in it — a very good reason for seeking her lap).

Her big body felt like a quilted pillow. “Bonna notte bambina — Good night little girl,” she’d say as she tapped my shoulder lightly with her broad fingers and swayed back and forth, then back, and then forth, again. As soon as I rested my head on her bosom, my eyes began to close ‘cause it’d been a long day and I was tired, ‘cause she was soft, my belly was full, and I didn’t understand the jokes. The muffled sound of chatter and laughter echoed in my ears as I gave in to slumber.

Uncle Petro usually came in late, poked his head inside the dinning room, and after exchanging polite greetings with everyone, he normally headed upstairs to his room. He liked playing cards in his favorite café with his friends, and would be at it for hours. And because he always arrived late, and I was barely awake when he did, I never noticed he staggered. All I ever noticed was his moon face and that big smile.

He liked the grape a little too much; I came to know that many years later. He was never included in our family gatherings — never told he could, or couldn’t be there, but maybe, sensing what people thought they could hide, he felt excluded.

On that particular night though, when he poked his head into the dinning room to say his usual hello and good night, Uncle Marco turned around, his right arm hanging over the back of the café chair, and faced Petro who was standing just outside the double louver doors.

“Come join us, Petro, we’re about to cut the fruitcake.”

Petro stayed put. The night was dark behind him, but his gaze glimmered as the light from the room fell on his face. He smiled, raising his tired eyes to Nina.

She gazed at him and smiled back: “Come on, Petro, join us; it’s the New Year.”

Petro walked slowly into the room. His humble presence was felt by all as he approached that dinner table for the first time in as long as I could remember.

“Someone get him a chair,” Marco gestured toward the wall where the extra chairs were lined up.

Cousin Emilia brought one close to the table for him. Petro’s head hung low as he smiled and nodded a thank you.

I jumped from Nina’s lap and run to his side. See, I knew I had a nickel behind my ear ready for him to find. On cue, he put an arm around me, fiddled behind my head, and as I knew he would, he found a nickel.

“Now tomorrow you go get your chocolate,” he slurred, “if it’s okay with your mom,” and then smiled that thick lipped, loving smile of his as he looked at me with his eyes half mast, and a gaze clouded by wine. A little nondescript shadow went past his face.

I didn’t understand. I smiled.

And that was my last recollection of him. Petro died shortly after that night. He died in his sleep and alone in his room above the kitchen, drunk.

Immortality. Everyone thought it was the grape speaking through Petro. But in his simple way, when he spoke to me that morning at breakfast time, when I was barely six, I believe he hoped that as children often do I’d listen beyond the words. He had gazed at me over the rim of his coffee cup, and his gaze said to me: “Ricordare il mio nome — Remember my name.”

Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero

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