My father was fifty when I was born. His family had given up hope that he’d ever marry, the bachelor farmer who took most of his meals at the local diner and returned home to his cows. By the time he married my mother (who, coincidentally, worked at the diner he frequented so much) and had me, most of my Panciera cousins were already in high school. I spent my childhood, instead, with the cousins from my mother’s side of the family. We shared a history of family picnics where our fathers and uncles competed loudly at horseshoes, of Christmas Eves sitting at the foot of Nonnie’s bed and balancing our plates on our laps because it was the only room left in the tiny apartment, of the food our mothers were famous for: my mother’s meatballs, Aunt Rita’s hotdogs and peppers, Aunt Lee’s eggplant, Aunt Sandra’s baked beans, Aunt Nanny’s coleslaw, Aunt Laura’s Portuguese sweet bread. We knew that our grandmother always had flat orange soda that she called sodie in her refrigerator, that she was desperate for one of her granddaughters to marry one of the undertakers’ sons who were so nice to her when she went to every wake in town. We knew our grandfather drank too much, but that he also doled out the Juicy Fruit gum he kept in the top drawer of his dresser.
My father’s parents, however, died before I was born. My knowledge of them and of the farm before I lived on it, was limited to what my father offered. Stupidly, I didn’t ask as many questions as I should have in part because I assumed I would never live anywhere else. But recently, my Panciera cousins have begun to fill me in in ways that I could never have anticipated.
Linda’s father was raised on the farm. His nickname, Boat, was written in the cement wall outside the milking parlor. My father had told me once, a long time ago, that his father had carved lions out of granite and that they kept guard at a cemetery tomb, but no experts on the history of Westerly granite had any record of them. I was told that Angelo Panciera had been a stonecutter not a stone carver. But Linda knew different and she showed me those lions in Riverbend Cemetery. I had passed them a hundred times before on my walks there but now when I do, I imagine my grandfather’s hands, the artistry he was capable of versus the nameless work he did to feed his family.
Marie’s grandparents bought our farm in 1911 with my grandparents. Two brothers had married two sisters and the families lived and worked together. Marie herself lived in her grandparents’ former apartment when her husband served in Vietnam. These days she lives in the house her father built, and when I saw her on Thanksgiving she said, “I have a mirror that used to hang on the farm. I’d really like you to have it.” I love this mirror, not for the reflection it tosses back at me as I stare into it, but for the idea that my father might have checked his young face in it, that my grandmother might have paused before it to pin up her hair before starting the day’s work. As I left Marie’s house, mirror under my arm, she asked if I would also like some of the nuts from the nut tree. I assumed she meant the tree in the back yard of my mother’s new house, but she meant the black walnut that had stood sentinel in one of our pastures. In a small plastic bag, there were the same nuts squirrels hoarded beneath the eaves in the attic. “I like to hear the mice in my own attic rolling them around every winter,” Marie said, and I knew, as perhaps only a cousin would, exactly what she meant.
My father died in 1991. Since then, I have run my fingers across the images that remain of him, more familiar to me now that the real lines of his face.
But it turns out, he wrote to his only (and adored) sister, Dolly, when he was stationed in England during World War II, and recently my cousin Carol brought us photographs he had sent, too. In one he stands beside one of the airplanes whose propellers he serviced; in another, he is astride a bicycle. A bicycle! It would not have surprised me more to see him waving from a hot air balloon or riding a camel through the Scottish highlands. On the back of the photos, in his crimped penmanship: A P38 with me in front of it; My bike and me. Just when you give up hope of having no more stories to smooth like stones in your memory’s pocket.
These things that I can touch — the tousled manes of the lions on guard, the oak frame of a real looking glass, my father’s young face so far away from the family he loved, are my favorite gifts of any season. I wish you all the same in this new year, that somewhere you have a loved one who has kept part of your history safe for you.