As Time Goes By

 Dooley Wilson, Ingrid Bergman, "Play it, Sam." 1942

I turn 87 on the 16th of this month. That means I was five years old when Ilsa Lund asked Sam to play As Time Goes By. No wonder I've been a lifelong romantic (who writes about time travel a lot.)

I vaguely remember first seeing Casablanca at a theatre with my mother. She elbowed me from a Hershey-bar stupor to see one of her Hollywood bit-actor friends, Frank Puglia, as a Moroccan vendor selling Ingrid Bergman a scarf. I posted about Puglia here in 2020. (See "The Phantom of Dream Streets.")

It was 1943. I was a precocious kid who could read the funnies and the headlines of newspapers delivered to our front steps every day. I hid under a marble-topped coffee table during air raid drills, laughing at the game of sirens, closed drapes and wardens waving hooded flashlights. 

My mother, wth my Nonna Rosa, c. 1960
My Rome-born Nonna Rosa, still kept milk in an "ice-a-box." She didn't own an electric refrigerator, not being sold in wartime in any case. As a boy, I watched the ice man trudge up her wooden backstairs, balancing massive, dripping blocks on a black leather shoulder pad. He would chip me an ice-cream-cone-shaped icicle to savor as he climbed back into his truck.  

In real 1943, FDR conferred with Churchill in newly liberated Casablanca. The Nazis were still winning World War 2, but the papers said the allies were turning the tide. We lived in the poor part of glitzy Hollywood.

My single mother took me on a train to visit her extended Italian family in Boston at Christmas and summer. Soldiers and sailors packed the lounge cars, kids really, young as my uncles and cousins somewhere in uniform, and my father welding P-38 fighter-bombers at Lockheed Aircraft.

Eighty years later and fascism is resurgent worldwide, this time wearing business suits, leveraging lies, dark money and signature bibles, spewing racism and resentment, and winning again. But God-help-us-if-not , as in 1942, democracy could be  turning the tide.

I worry motr for my proudly diverse, extended family than for myself. Four daughters, bright, loving, tireless, idealistic, and making me proud, each distinct from the rest, with nine adult grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

My personal life has always outdistanced my professional one. A rich list of friends has dwindled with age, but still includes ex-partners, colleagues, collaborators and two surviving former wives.

My inamorata Eleanor Spiess-Ferris and I have shared a dozen good years together. She's a far more accomplished visual artist than I can hope to be as a writer. She thinks deeply as she paints as continual voyage of discovery. I agree with her that with each work we learn something about the next, although tenuously for me.  

I recently discovered how outlining can morph into synopsis, then narrative, then prose, as a continuous process rather than separate steps. Maybe that's obvious to seasoned writers, but I've always tended to compartmentalize and measure too much. This tended to make me impatient with what I saw as structural stuff.

I don't claim wisdom, but I've seen enough to write the memoir that I'm working on and hope to finish before it all finishes me. I've met all kinds of characters, strange, wonderful, good and evil. Many find their way into the fiction I took to creating earnestly only in the past decade. 

I've travelled to many places, been lucky and been in some tight spots. I've had my brushes with the grim reaper.  - notably from peritonitis as a child, most recently three years ago from heart failure, sidestepped by dint of high tech intervention, as surgeons inserted a coronary stent. I'm something of a cyborg with my stent, an artificial heart valve and a pair of optical lens implants.

I was only five in the first instance. We still lived in Boston, Mass. I was gravely ill with abdominal cramps for more than a week. Our family doctor, a prominent board-certified medico, insisted that I had influenza. 

An opera-loving friend of my mother, happened pay us a visit. She was an osteopath. She examined me and called for emergency hospitalization. I had a ruptured appendix and was wheeled into emergency surgery. It was touch-and-go. I was in a coma for three days. 

I was saved with war-rationed Sulfonamides - relatively new antibiotics discovered in 1930s Germany. (Unbeknownst to us this had been at I.G. Farben, the chemical combine notorious for making the Zyklon-B gas used in Nazi extermination camps.)

I owed my young life to sulfa drugs and a timely diagnosis by my mother's osteopath friend. She was an osteopath because in the 1940s, as a woman, she could not get into a medical school and become an M.D. 

Osteopathic Medicine was an oft-taken path for female medical practitioners of the time. So I heard my mother tell the story often during my boyhood. No wonder I've been a lifelong feminist, an odd man out of the cultural norms with which I grew up, fellow traveller in the struggle for new ones.

Turning 87, I don't have much advice to offer except to be aware that every bend you round could be your last. But never let that truism discourage you from the journey. 

It's later than you think, but never too late. Everyone I know senses that our world is up for grabs much like that of Ilsa and Rick in 1942 Casablanca. 

Dubiously, I blow out my 87 candles in two weeks wishing at least to outlive my country's current Trumpian malaise. Just give us a glimmer of the transcendent compassion-anchored, rational necessary for humanity's survival at this point. 

In the meantime, all we can do is keep being the best version of ourselves we can muster, and hope that lady luck -- like my mother's 1940s lady medicine woman - pays us a timely visit before the ice man cometh.


Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous. His epic novel Ophelia Rising continues to earn kudos as does his holiday novella, Milagro on 34th Street.  His nonfiction books include High Treason (with Vladimir Sakarov, Ballentine/Putnam), and Sports Psyching (with Thomas Tutko, JP Tarcher).  His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His stories, essays and articles have been published widely in print and online since the 1960s.


Peter Leyland said…
Great to read such a positive piece Umberto. I love the image of the ice man trudging up Nonna Rosa'a steps.
I see you are writing a memoir and it seems to hold a richness of experience after almost 87 years. it's amazing what connections our life experiences have. Your mention of I.G. Harben is a good example. I notice we share some life experiences. I too was brought up by a single mother and regard myself as a feminist. She lost my Dad to the ravages af multiple sclerosis (and yet he had flown over the Mediterranean spotting ditched pilots in WWII). How does one make sense of that?

Anything you want to share about memoir writing I'd be happy to read. I've got a whole bunch of stuff that I don't know what to do with. Yes, The Iceman is on his way, but as Andrew Marvel says, 'let's make him run'. I hope you have a great 87th birthday.
Peter Leyland said…
Farben of course!!
I love this - great memories and advice! Hope you have a very happy birthday when it arrives.
I am due to have a new heart valve soon to go with my artificial hip, artificial lens etc etc so it's encouraging to know you've been there already.

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