Josh will never go back to South Philly again. He will never again have espresso and crunchy hazelnut biscotti with old Mrs. Primanti. He will never again show Bill Fisk at the camera shop his latest black and white photographs, as he did as a kid. He will never again order a pepper cheese steak with provolone at Pat’s to refresh his local boy accent. He will never again hear the tarantella at Termini Brothers.
He will never again feel the crumbling in his gut as he counts how many tiny front yards feature Mary on a Half Shell. The greater the display outside a worn out row house, the greater the need for Mary’s divine protection for those living inside. He will never again look for the trace of bloodstains on St. Nick’s playground, where he threw his first punch defending his young boy self for not having a Catholic first name.
He will never again see his parents.
It happened like this. Josh was invited to present a paper on origin stories at the Anthropology Society of America conference at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater in Philadelphia. The society offered travel expenses, so the little Chicago family took to the road.
Josh and Kiku mulled over his misgivings about visiting his old world family in South Philly. “You’ll see why I left, why I had to get out of there.” But Kiku and Josh’s mother Ana Maria had been enjoying a long, friendly correspondence ever since the engagement. Kiku found her forward-thinking, despite her inability to imagine coming out to Chicago for the wedding without her husband. Giancarlo apparently got ‘carsick’ easily, so she thought it best to stay home too. Kiku was excited to meet Ana Maria and share Sumi with her only living grandmother.
Josh and all the other di Palma men left it to the women to pass on family news and did not write amongst themselves. Josh was the one who went away, and his brothers were not curious about his life in the Midwest. Josh remained simpatico only with his sister Clarissa.
The day after the conference, where Josh’s work was received warmly, the little family parked outside his parents’ modest home in the still largely Italian section of town. Since he’d left years ago, a tiny Mary statue had sprouted on the window ledge by the door. Josh, Kiku, and Sumi got out of the car as the engine ticked and started to cool. Josh’s mother Ana Maria burst out of the house and hugged her long absent boy. Josh was awash in memory in the subtle cloud of his mama’s attar of rose perfume. He felt the sureness of her comforting arms. Kiku stood to the side cradling the baby and smiling at the Italian endearments exchanged by Josh and his elegant mother. Ana Maria then gently approached her new female relatives and said, “Benvenute, we are so happy to meet you at last.”
But before Ana Maria could usher them in, a terrible voice bellowed from behind her. “You have gone too far, Josh! There’s no way back now!” Seeing his youngest son’s mongrel family there on the threshold of his home and about to enter his world, Giancarlo di Palma was outraged. Even though he’d read the letters from Chicago, he still could not believe the sight of this Japanese madonna and child. Giancarlo was most shaken by the fact that this girl had the same kind of straight feathery black eyebrows as the Jap soldier who would have bayoneted him, had it not been for a Kansas City sniper with excellent aim. This scene still clawed at Giancarlo from that long ago filthy beach on a tiny Pacific island in the middle of the war. It kept him awake some nights, even now.
Ana Maria softly touched the cheek of the baby, then Kiku’s arm with ultimate sadness. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to those who would be lost to her. She bowed her head and let her apron catch her tears as she melted back into the kitchen, where she alone ruled.
As his mother retreated, Josh and Kiku and the baby were left staring at his father through the open door, waiting for something better to happen. Giancarlo’s look was wild, hurt, frightened. The whites of his eyes shone in the dimly lit room. Kiku could see her husband in this fearsome man, around the cheekbones and the nose. Kiku tried to hold his gaze because of this.
She came from people who had once been America’s enemy, as did Giancarlo. Yet the Italians in America were not imprisoned as the Japanese were. South Philly soldiers fought in the Pacific and interned Nisei soldiers were freed only to prove their loyalty in Europe. Long ago suffering too unbearably present.
Josh and Kiku both understood what Giancarlo’s look said: he himself could go no further. Sumi hid her head in her mother’s armpit. Josh’s father looked away from these new people, and to them he seemed suddenly old and broken. The door slammed and Sumi cried out from the loud parting.
Josh will never see his brothers Frankie, Renzo, and Dom again. They will burrow further into their circumspect lives, never straying far from the City of Brotherly Love. Josh will never see his sister Clarissa again, although she will continue to write that she must move away. And worst of all, he will never again be enveloped in the scent of roses, like that which is said to appear when Mary is near.