by douglas john imbrogno | april 21, 2023 | thestoryisthething.substack.com
I have been organizing my photos while trying to bring the manuscript of a book-length “sorta memoir” to a close. It has been hard (or I have let it become so). I have been bedeviled by the usual hindrances. A months-long, medium-grade, often enervating set of illnesses. Daily life’s thousand-paper-cut hassles. And the lassitude that comes of trying to do too much, then wishing to find a solitary Air BnB, beside a chuckling blue-green ocean where the deadlines can’t find me.
I describe the book’s current status like this: I am rounding second with a head of steam on my way to third. I am terribly eager to make home plate without getting thrown out somewhere along that perilous way. It really is some of the finest writing I’ve ever committed to paper or pixels and I have done a lot of writing in my day. (“I’ve told about 10,000 stories, I’ve rocked the boat and played the game …” as I sing in my relatively new tune “Minor Glory”).
And, come on, already! Isn’t it about time this boy birthed a book into the world? (Well, there is this one, which has been translated into Italian and German since it was published in 2020, although I served only as its conceiver, compiler, and editor).
Our interlocutor is no longer a boy, of course. Except maybe in the depths of his psyche or in those shadowy Jungian nether regions where all our adolescent family-of-origin wounds gather to sing bad karaoke at a Star Wars bar. Or when the kid surfaces (let’s dub him young Martin, my Catholic confirmation name) after spying a familiar candy box or wrapper from childhood. Cinnamon Imperials, maybe, or Milk Duds or Chuckles.
He is always there, this Martin of the Shadows, worrying old hurts and wishing they might at last be acknowledged. That they may be expunged, expressed and drained, finally, of their ancient charge. I’ve been doing some therapy-adjacent ‘inquiry’ work in my 65th year with a spiritual friend that is really, truly helping with all of that. Our Boy is a survivor, after all, although it was close there for awhile. For several whiles, really, and in several countries.
We talk about that in the book-to-be, Martin and I. And it will be an actual book, I assure thee. This first book. One of several on my Muses’ Books-To-Be Bucket List. And I must say, they are bossy, loud-mouthed, and insistent Muses. Even if they are also vagabonds, tramps, knockabouts and bindlestiffs who may disappear for months — sometimes years — at a time.
Yet they and I have definitively decided. One book, just to start. And can we please do more than one?!? We shall give it a go, then, even if my number gets called earlier rather than later. Then, I will have to wave in annoyance to silence those gathered around my sick bed/death bed, crying out:
“Shut up, por favor! Just a minute, folks! I have to upload this final chapter …”
Because you never know if you’re going to be here one rotation later of planet Earth, on its long perambulation around old Sol. So, please keep me spry, dear Universe, until I punch off into the ether that final chapter of The First Book to my publisher. Or to a hybrid publisher. Or to me, the self-publisher.
It will be one or the other — or the other — of those.
Our Man — since he happened to become one of those while young Martin was attending to other matters — will soon turn 66 years old on the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker. That name may obscure Joe’s far more familiar role to you, since he was a foster dad to Jesus Christ. I am informed by a quick punch-up of the interwebs that while Saint Joseph’s primary feast day is March 19, it happened that in 1955—two years before I came squalling into a Virginia hospital room—Pope Pius XII added a second day in the calendar to honor Joseph. And that is why May 1st is celebrated as the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker.
And St. Joe, it turns out, is a good role model for an author rounding second and headed for home on his first, fledgling book. Says this website:
“As a carpenter, St. Joseph worked very hard. His manual labor was difficult, and he is a great example to all of us in our daily work.”
The reference goes on to say that some fellow named St. Padre Pio dubbed Joe a stand-up guy. One gets the sense that were there Yelp reviews back in the year Zero (as the new Christ-centric Gregorian calendar ramped up), Joseph the Carpenter would have had 5-star reviews, receiving high marks for reliability and stick-to-it-iveness. The Padre says of him:
“Go to Joseph with extreme confidence, because I do not remember having asked anything from St. Joseph, without having obtained it readily.”
So, since I share a celebratory day with such an exemplar of getting it done, I draw inspiration from St. Joseph that I will finally reach ‘The End‘ of this sorta memoir. The book is tentatively (although not definitively) titled: “CRAZY DAYS HAPPENED: Confessions of a Fallen Altar Boy.”
So, unless I fail to make it through to the next revolution of the Earth (you just never know, do you?), I hope to slide gloriously into home plate, with St. Joe as a kind of third base coach, wheeling his arms like a hyperspeed windmill, urging me homeward. ‘You got this, son!!!’ Sooner rather than later, I hope to inform you on social media (and, also, directly in your email box since you free subscribed — didn’t you?!? — to this site’s newsletter at thestoryisthething.substack.com) that my ‘sorta memoir’ is now actual.
And for sale. And, most importantly, for reading.
But about that photo at the top of the page. That’s me, standing in a centuries-old stone and masonry house, midway down a cantilevered Calabrian hill where my Italian grandparents first met as young, beautiful people. My father was later born in a small house at the bottom of that hill, not one thousand feet from where my Italian grandma grew up in a house at its crown. (You can peruse this background in depth at “The Key to My Grandfather’s House,” a link I recommend to Italophiles or anyone whose immigrant roots still reverberate in their souls, from whatever land they or their people hail.)
It is a cool photo, yes? It pleases me to share its fine Rembrandtian color scheme, its angled ‘god-light,’ as someone once described laser-beam sun-shafts like that. Then there’s the ‘New-World-Boy in Old-World-setting‘ vibe. (I will admit I do miss that expensive leather jacket, purchased on a whim in Vegas, which I gave away to Goodwill years ago in a fit of anti-cow-abuse righteousness.)
But the story of this Italian house is also worth sharing. My Italian roots — and the complexities of being raised by a dad whose fiery Latin blood often boiled over like an untended stew on a hot stove — figures significantly in my “Confessions.” A good man and good provider, he was. But a consistently loud and often traumatizing one, when he wasn’t trying to balance the emotional ledger with jelly doughnuts brought home from The Jolly Pirate or meatballs stewed for days in a heavenly spaghetti sauce.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS
The room where my brother David, my Italian relative Roberto, and I are seen standing is a two-story house built by Pietro Napoli and Caterina Vivacqua, my great-great grandparents. They birthed a son named Michele Napoli, who married Luisa Nigro, who bequeathed my Grandma Caterina (Catina) Napoli to the world (among a host of other daughters). She later married Eugenio Imbrogno, a dashing young Italian army veteran who moved into the house at the bottom of this hill. And that is where my Dad was born in 1928. Which is why — if you’re still with us — you are even reading this.
One thing leads to another, right? There is a direct line between the people who went about their daily lives in what must be a 19th or even 18th century Calabrian household, hewn from local stone, and the guy who is typing these words right now at his writing desk in the Appalachian foothills.
At some point, one of them — we think it was my great-grandfather Michele — put in the winemaking operation you glimpse in the photos. Another brother of mine saw the photo of me and wondered if that nearby ledge was a kind of bar or counter in the room. I will share the explanation given by Leonardo Lappano, my delightful Italian uncle once-removed, responding on Facebook:
That was where they made the wine. In that kind of hole, they put the grape which was trampled by (usually women) with bare feet. Then the grapes and the crushed stalks were placed in a press and the “must” (grape juice) was extracted. After which the must was put into barrels to ferment to be transformed into wine.
In the photo above of Roberto — standing beside what looks like a monster screw — he poses with an internal piece of the wine press and its wheel for pressing grapes. But, writes Leonardo: “I don’t see that sort of barrel where the grapes to be pressed were contained.” He Googled up what that barrel might have looked like:
So, there you have it. The backstory of a photograph worth a second glance, from an Old World setting pondered in this New World by an unfinished sorta memoirist — who really should be getting back to the manuscript any day now. Alas, I have violated a dictum my mother once typed out on her IBM Selectric and then push-pinned to the kitchen bulletin board (a sort of pre-Facebook timeline back in the 1960s and 70s). Here it is:
‘Don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Do it. And then talk about it.’
Got it, Mom. Me and my Muses are off to our garret to do the necessary work. Consider this partly a long self-pep talk. And I also hereby dedicate this pep-talking post to every one of you among my readers in the midst of trying to bring a book — or any significant project in your life — to completion.
Meet you at homeplate?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Jeff Seager for editing assistance and feedback on this essay.
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“The Key To My Grandfather’s House”: What unites us is that we are all immigrants of one kind or another. Here is one family’s tale out of the hills of Calabria to the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio and beyond.
Rounding up a father’s life in bits and pieces: Fathers can be mysterious guys, especially if they were members of the Greatest Generation who didn’t talk about things like their ships being torpedoed in the Atlantic and whose go-to form of anger was volcanic utterance. But in the bits and pieces of a father’s life, I find the man he was.