Monday, July 13, 2009

You Didn't Know Him

Giuseppe Tiso detto Pippo
18/8/1934 - 1/7/1999

I only made it to my father's funeral thanks to the kindness of our local parish priest, who agreed to hold the service on a Sunday to allow Justine and I the time to arrive from New Zealand. I am very grateful to have been able to be there for Mum and to greet our friends and family, but of the service itself I'd have to say that it was hardly a fitting farewell: a eulogy delivered by somebody he had never met, under the auspices of a God he had long since stopped believing in, followed by a few words and embraces of circumstance exchanged amongst loved ones on the steps of the church. No wake, no ‘celebration of a life’, just a strained and painful formality, something we put ourselves through, only dimly aware - but not enough for it to make a difference - that there was the alternative of different arrangements. We were too shocked and unprepared to do anything other than the done thing.

Of much greater comfort was the three hour car trip we embarked on later that week - violating, I suspect, a number of municipal regulations concerning the transportation of the deceased - to deliver his ashes to their final resting place, in the village where my mother was born. He had driven the family along that same route every other weekend for over thirty years, and he knew its every twist and turn, as was evidenced by many a trip back on Winter nights blanketed with fog, when the few other drivers foolish enough to brave the conditions always seemed to work out very quickly that the safest thing to do was to get behind our car.

Pieve di Coriano (Mantua), the church where my parents got married in 1961.

On this last trip he had been reserved at our destination a place near his parents in law, who had loved him a great deal more than his own, and there we were greeted by our local whanau. While I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I’m genuinely comforted to know that he is in that place and in that company. He wasn’t born there, he had never lived there, but it was his true homecoming.

In Corso di Porta Romana, Milan, 1998

Matariki demands that we remember our dead, but it also invites us to ask: is there a memory of place? I think of that often in relation to Dad. He was born in the house on the right of this picture, above the workshop where he spent at least half of his waking hours for nearly five decades. His was a family of upholsterers with a working class clientele - for prolonging the life of a sofa or chair was in those days still far less expensive than buying a replacement - and the area was itself predominantly working class. But it was also central and beautiful and over the years it became inexorably gentrified. At the same time the furniture industry and the nature of his profession changed, until it was only the wealthy who could afford the services of the few artisans left - a fact that frequently offended, if not his sense of social camaraderie, certainly his classically trained taste for what was beautiful and proper in the area of soft furnishing and interior design.

For the most part, however, the uprooting he suffered without moving an inch was the result of material changes in the neighbourhood: when the apartments in the public estate around the corner came up for sale, few of the tenants had enough savings to buy them, and everywhere else people of the old guard were dying or being evicted, or less frequently opting to sell, until finally in 1998, when Dad sold the workshop to go into his brief semi-retirement, it too was gutted and turned into a loft, in a move that swiftly erased all traces of its previous purpose. Yet it still came as a personal shock to me that when Dad died, less than a year later, there were people in the building where he spent his childhood and his entire working life, some of them long time neighbours, who didn’t even find out, let alone come to the funeral or express their sympathies.

How quickly can a person be gone? How quickly a group, a certain category of people? If you walk down that street these days you no longer hear the local dialect, which in Milan is both a generational and a socio-economic marker, as well as the key to a significant portion of the city’s repertoire in literature and the arts. I myself understand it, but cannot speak it, and have no ability to pass it on. My sister and I are where that part of our family heritage comes to an end.

Corso di Porta Romana, then known as Corso Roma, some time in 1943,
about twenty houses up the road from the previous picture.
(Photo by Vincenzo Carrese)

I say that Dad never strayed from Corso di Porta Romana all his life, but that’s not quite true: in 1943, when the allies started bombing the city, he and his older brother repaired under the care of their paternal grandmother in Vergobbio, a small town in the mountains above Varese. Dad was eight at the time, and that adventure enabled him later to say things like “I was in the war, I know what hunger is” while reaching for a second or third helping of a favourite dish.

Mum told me recently that they took a detour to Vergobbio not long before he died, on the way back from seeing a client in Switzerland, and that he got choked up when he looked at that old house. He must have been happy there, which likely can’t be said of his childhood as a whole. He was born with club foot, and had to undergo a number of corrective operations and spend months in a cast before he could walk. You have to wonder if that was the cause of his mother’s obvious and lifelong favouritism for his older brother, or rather the fact that his parents by then no longer got along.

My grandfather, whom I never met and whom my father never mentioned in my presence unprompted, must have been an interesting character - an anarchist sympathiser and a pacifist, he spent his service during World War I in a military prison - but whatever sympathy I can muster for his politics, I doubt he was any great shakes as a parent. I know for a fact that he insisted that my father be pulled out of school at fourteen to take his place in the family business, in spite of the entreaties of his teachers. Not that Dad ever expressed any regrets about that, and besides he got his own back years later when he helped my mother prepare for the exams that she needed to complete her degree, of which he was very proud.

In that as in all things, he seemed to work well with the hand that was dealt to him, not letting his lack of formal education interfere with his love of literature and art, or his physical disability interfere with his desire to become a mountaineer. He continued to enjoy his profession, even when the going was tough, and was involved for a long time in the local chapter of the artisans’ association. More importantly and of more tangible, lasting value, he taught the trade to a number of apprentices, including the one who eventually took over the business.

(They were my nemeses, those guys, for he spent so much time with them that I’d always end up acquiring the name of his current apprentice - and so it happened that I learned to answer to the name of Giancarlo, Antonio, Gianluca or Giorgio as well as my own.)

My father died ten years ago on the first of this month, and sometimes I feel like I have done little else since but measure that loss. Of the people who have come into my life since, including my children, it pains me that they never knew him, that the memory of the sheer pleasure of being around him is not something we can share, and it creates an empty space, however small, in all my new relationships. He was the funniest person I’ll ever know, and possibly the kindest. But my telling you this means very little. You didn’t know him.

You didn’t know him, and how do you explain a person? I am no Merc, whose words and art are a shrine to memory, nor is my loss measured on the same scale as his. It is a most ‘common theme, the death of fathers’, and to lament it so at this far remove, perhaps unseemly. Perhaps too in that deficit of memory lies humanity’s ability to move forward, just like the death of the body is what affords new organisms the share of resources needed to survive. It’s best to let it pass, to carry what we can within ourselves.

Yet it bothers me to compare the paucity of the record that is left of him with the far larger one I've already amassed, and I worry that by virtue of the sum of those documentary traces I will be thought more of than him, and for longer. In this regard, I've been haunted of late by the slightly clichéd but nonetheless resonant words of David Eagleman, that reached me via Deborah and Kerryn
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second in when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, some time in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
It bothers me that I'm unable to unpack the author's assumptions regarding individuality, memory and kinship; it bothers me that he put it so elegantly and that it rings so true; it bothers me that I cannot pinpoint what bothers me about it. Ultimately, it may be that old hobby horse of mine: that there are lives that lend themselves better to today's means and technologies of memory, persons whose names are more likely to be spoken for longer not because of their value or accomplishments, but because they made themselves more available and easier to remember. So many of us - including I suspect a majority of my readers - spend a significant portion of our days memorialising ourselves in blogs, on Twitter, on homepages and image accounts. If it's true that Facebook is changing the meaning of the word friend, so too Twitter is changing the meaning of what it means to mention somebody and get mentioned in return ('…your name is spoken'). And it doesn't matter that it is primarily a means of communication, rather than biography, for it leaves a trace and articulates a privileged space of memorability.

We are perhaps in the early stages of a new class division along the axis of memory, between those who have the time, the will, the access to the technology, the knowledge required, and others whose lives and works are less compatible, and will likely become an underclass of the sooner-to-be-forgotten.

You may not think that it's a problem, or an altogether new problem, and that at any rate it's more complicated than that. Perhaps so do I. For that matter, my eulogising my father on a blog, giving him a Web presence and a name online, blurs the issue some. But there is no link that I can point you to, no definitive resource that I can get you to browse, and even if you chose to read this far, it changes so little. You didn't know him, and I regret that. I think you would have liked him.

Justine got to know my father well, and for that, and their mutual appreciation and love, I am enormously thankful. So I'll end where I began, with the companion picture of the one at the top of the page. Both were taken in Tours, France, in August of 1997, a few months before Justine and I moved to New Zealand. You'll notice that in the first one my father was carrying a camera around his neck: it was with that camera that, moments later, he took the picture below. I'll insist that it's a still a photo with him in it, because of that look and that smile that was being exchanged between the two most important people in my life.

Goodbye, Dad. We love you and we miss you.