WEDNESDAY: The Italian Neighbours


Copyright is held by the author.

CLOSING DAY came at last. After a year of waiting, delays, and living with few possessions in rented accommodation for six months, we moved into our new bungalow.

So much to do. I started to arrange a workshop in the basement, but my wife Linda, had other plans.

“I’ll make you a list,” the love of my life said. She passed me a sheet of paper with 25 items scribbled on it.

Fatigue settled into me.

“In the spring we’ll need a deck, fencing, landscaping and the basement finished,” she added.

I flopped on the sofa.

The next day a 12-inch snowfall interrupted my chores. We lived in the Snow Belt now, and shovelling the new driveway took much longer. My back ached. Who knew a distance of 60 miles north of our former home would make such a difference in the weather?

“Add ‘buy a snow blower’ to the list honey,” I said.

“Don’t bother with anything less than 10 horsepower up here,” said the guy at Home Depot. The cost: $1,200 plus tax.

At least we moved in before the big thaw came two weeks later. The frozen ground turned to a sea of mud and slush. When the neighbours moved in next door, their moving truck sank into the driveway up to its axles and had to be rescued by a tow truck. Linda felt sorry for them and we took over a tray of her homemade lasagna as a welcoming gift.

An olive-complexioned couple around our age answered the door. “Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness. I’m Marcello Montemurra and this is my wife Francesca,” the man said.

“You’re welcome. I’m Ray and this is my wife Linda. We live next door.” Linda wasn’t smiling. As we walked home, she said, “Oh my God. I made lasagna for Italians.”

“Italy may have invented it honey, but they don’t have a monopoly on that dish. Yours is delicious.”

“They make their own pasta and sauce. It’s like taking low grade coal to Newcastle,” she moaned. “They’ll hate it and are probably laughing at us right now.”

“It’s the thought that counts dear.”

“Humph,” was all she replied.

The arrival of spring drew our fellow homeowners out to survey their 50-by-120 foot parcels of land. It’s interesting how a camaraderie develops between pioneers in a new housing development who are otherwise complete strangers.

A number of Italian families had moved into the neighbourhood. It certainly wasn’t the hard-as-a-rock, solid clay soil for growing things that drew them to the area. Those seasoned growers of plum tomatoes and giant zucchinis assured us that obstacle could be overcome with a pickaxe and two cubic yards of garden loam delivered to the driveway. A pickaxe? Linda added that chore to my to-do list. I wondered where to find the nearest chiropractor.

We became friends with several of the Italians. Our next door neighbour Marcello was an accomplished person. Originally a poor immigrant boy from Milan, he was a retired university professor. Marcello and my wife Linda, originally Dutch, debated which of them had the humblest beginnings in Canada and the most strenuous climb to middle-class prosperity. Marcello and I both loved history and discussed the Renaissance for hours while sipping cappuccinos on his patio in the summer sunshine. That backyard area bore a wall-hung sign that read, “Café Buona Vita,” which in English translates approximately to “Café Good Life.”

Marcello’s pet peeves focused on government and taxes. A liberal professor’s pension meant his old-age security stipends were clawed back. That infuriated him. Railing against government obsessed that man, and the subject kindled fire in his dark eyes and passion in his voice.

Maria and Antonio, a friendly couple, lived on the corner; her a retired clerk, and him a plumber. They were proud parents to three girls and seven grandchildren. In the spring and summer, their garage was divided in two: Maria’s half for preparing pasta sauce from scratch in a huge kettle fired by a propane burner, and Antonio’s, for making homemade vino; red only, of course. Everyone on the street received a bottle.

Antonio, always smiling and joking, would go out of his way to help anyone. Maria distributed homemade pasta and panettone at Christmas and knitted outfits for newborn babies.

At 66 years old, Antonio sported jet-black hair the colour of shoe polish. “Good genes,” he said, thumping his chest and curling tanned arms to inflate wrinkled biceps.

“It’s more like good hair dye,” Marcello whispered when Antonio was out of earshot.

Vito, and his wife Carmella, lived a block away. He resembled Al Capone; she, Sophia Loren. As far as I know he wasn’t a mobster, but did brag a lot.

“They gave me the best lot in the subdivision,” he boasted, claiming that perk resulted from having an inside track with the builder, also a man of Italian heritage. We didn’t believe it. Vito’s house sat on an odd-shaped lot at a dangerous blind curve on the busy, main entrance road to the development.

“If that’s a perk, then I’m a pepperoni pizza,” Marcello said when Vito wasn’t around.

Vito had been the manager of a small company before retiring and proudly pulled a dog-eared business card from his wallet as proof at every opportunity. “When I was a manager” prefaced many of his comments.

That impressed Antonio, but Marcello rolled his eyes, mumbling something about “a big fish in a small business pond.”

Vito claimed his homemade wine was superior to Antonio’s, but their grape juice was purchased at the same place. I couldn’t taste any difference. Marcello didn’t make wine. “Too much trouble,” he claimed. “The LCBO is two blocks away.”

Get-togethers at Vito’s home always included him singing opera arias while playing the guitar.

“I hope he managed that company better than he sings,” Antonio whispered.

“Wonder if Caruso will perform tonight,” said Marcello before every get-together at Vito’s house.

Vito made acerbic comments about Marcello and Antonio in turn. “Don’t forget to bring the plumber and professor with you,” he reminded me. Vito derided Marcello’s education. “That man uses too many big words.” To Vito, Antonio was a lowly tradesperson. “He spent his life clearing sewer drains,” he scoffed.

For several years we enjoyed parties and outings with our Italian friends in the neighbourhood.

“Why don’t you teach us how to play bocce ball, Marcello?” I suggested one summer.

“It’s mostly peasants that play that game,” he replied.

“Do you have a bocce set or not?” Antonio asked, visibly offended by that remark.

“Yes, I do,” Marcello admitted, and retrieved it from his garage. We had fun playing bocce on summer evenings. Vito usually won. That was something else for him to brag about.

Our Italian neighbours threw a big party during the world cup. That street festivity even brought out a reporter from the local newspaper. Italy played in the finals that year and it seemed that every Italian on the globe had a personal interest in the outcome.

After four years residing in the neighbourhood, things changed. A plague of misfortune struck the Italians that year and the next.

Marcello received a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in November. I cleared snow from his driveway and walkway that winter to help him and paid regular visits. Politics and the Renaissance were still our topics of discussion. We drank cappuccinos made with his new, expensive machine while sitting at the kitchen table looking out at the deep snow.

“All I want is to see my grandchildren grow up,” he said one day in January, tears flooding the corners of his eyes.

“Of course you will Marcello,” I assured him.

He died in September that same year.

Antonio was next in line to suffer adversity. First, his daughter and son-in-law who lived nearby lost their home due to financial problems, and then separated. After that, he contracted an aggressive cancer and died in May the following year after much suffering. He made one last batch of red vino and retained enough good humour to apply labels to the bottles which read, “Finale.” He gave me one.

“Raise a glass to me, when I’m gone,” he said.

I still have the bottle, but can’t bring myself to drink it.

Of the Italian men, only Vito remained. We noticed that his braggadocio diminished after the deaths of his Pisano’s. Being more humble to fly under God’s radar perhaps? It worked—sort of. He slipped on ice in front of his house that December and shattered a hip. He survived, but was left with a limp and the inability to play golf the next summer.

Vito and Carmella sold their home that fall and relocated to a condo apartment. “I’m gonna take it easy now. No grass to cut or snow to shovel,” he shrugged. I noticed he was weepy the day they left. He’d miss his large, immaculately kept garden and workshop.

Antonio’s widow, Maria, moved away to live with one of her daughters the next spring. She sends a card every Christmas with a note, “Visit me if you ever come to British Columbia.”

Francesca, our next door neighbour sold her house a year later and went to live with her son in Milton, Ontario. On moving day she gave me a crucifix and chain that had belonged to her late husband, my good friend, Marcello.

“He never forgot your kindness the day we moved in, and how you helped him when he got sick,” she said. I hugged her and we both wiped away tears. I wanted to ask her if they had liked Linda’s lasagna, but didn’t.

The neighbourhood just isn’t the same without the Italian neighbours and I miss them.

[sgmb id=”1″]

  1. They make great neighbors, don’t they, Ray? I wish I had more. Thanks for the touching reminisce.

  2. Ray/Michael
    With regards to Italian neighbours, aren’t you both being just a tad patronizing..?
    Stereotyping/generalizing is never a good idea whether it be flattering or insulting. Neighbours should be judged on their own merit and not their ethnicity.
    And just for the record, Scots are not all cheap…..??

  3. Raymond, your story made me smile. Your main character moved beyond his initial assumptions about his neighbours to developing a closeness and insight that was heart warming. People move in and out of our lives, and it’s important to find the best in each one. You reminded us of this. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *