|1914 Illustration for James Joyce's|
The Dead by William Bock
"Buono, Zio Augusto! Buono, buono! Delizioso!" My mother, Alba, her sister Nina, and two brothers, Aldo and Vincent, along with aunts and various cousins would all tell him, trying to look pleased, even making smacking sounds. Applause. It was awful wine. You could have peeled paint with it, but they dearly loved their "Zi'Augusto, a jolly, round-faced, leathery skinned retired factory worker who had lost three fingers on his right hand in some long-ago mishap, drawing my morbid childhood fascination.
I got to thinking about these old stories in the course of attempting a fictionalized family memoir based on the Alessandrini clan in which my mother was a central figure. Transplanted from Rome, the Alessandrinis had their share of hardships, but seemed in a perpetual state of celebration when they gathered, no matter the occasion, or even talked with each other on the phone.
|Veloz & Yolanda|
on top of their game, 1939
I cherished the memory of those Boston get-togethers, though they faded as I grew into an adult preoccupied in my own family and profession across the continent in California. I took their lyrical ebullience for granted, not appreciating its rarity and the energy it took to maintain it. It wasn't sentimental in the least. There was substance to it. I grew up an only child, wishing I had a brother or sister until I encountered so many siblings who treat each other coldly at best, and often miserably. I couldn't understand it. All their lives, my mother, her siblings and the cousins were there for each other no matter what. They even helped each other build houses as their families grew. Their enthusiasm for each other could at times their wives and husbands complain of feeling excluded in later life, though I never was aware of my mother drawing such a line when it came to her brothers and cousins.
and son (me) 1939
My grandfather, Alfonso, an accomplished musician, took up barbering to earn a living, then descended into an alcoholic depression that ended in his years-long confinement in a state hospital in that era of warehousing the mentally ill. My grandmother went to work in a shoe factory to feed her kids, while my aunt Nina took care of her younger siblings.
Recently I got to reminiscing about the family with one of my Boston cousins, Gerard Alessandrini. We go months, sometimes years, without a word between us, but when we connect it's as if no time has passed at all. I was 16 when he was born. Our childhood family memories cover different decades but are remarkably consistent in texture and tone.
Gerard was in town to open the Chicago staging of Spamilton, the acclaimed parody based on Hamilton that's been packing audiences since it opened last September. There's no doubt that Gerard is heir to the Alessandrini wit and panache which he's parlayed into a brilliant career as a Tony- and Obie-award-winning career as a playwright, parodist, librettist and performer since he opened his successful Forbidden Broadway comedy review that has run continuously in New York since 1982, and other towns as well.
Gerard's Chicago show proved as much a hit as the New York original. My inamorata, Eleanor, my son Zach, and a friend were in stitches through the whole performance when we saw it a few weeks ago. Gerard's satire bites sharply, but in ultimately good nature, which is why so many of the stars he's parodied have come to see his reviews over the years. He's very Alessandrini in that way.
|Scene from Federico Fellini's|
1972 film Roma
Alessandrini-like characters have shown up perforce in my writings, for example, in my short story, "Onion Station" which ran in Chicago Quarterly Review a while back. I wish I could talk to them now. I'd ask many questions I regret not asking over the years. Isn't that always the way? I'll be content to talk with my handful of cousins and pore over what memorabilia we can gather. If nothing else, it will be a way for us to remember together and know one another better. If those blithe Alessandrini spirits are by chance continuing to party on another plane, as I like to think they are, then they will smile at our efforts, I hope.
Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and oughts. He has been editor of San Francisco magazine and California Business, and has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies.