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Contorni - Carciofi

Carciofi...

Uncle Gio lived in a concrete block American Foursquare built in the early 1900's. The house was bought mail-order from Sears by my great-grandfather. Most of the older pre-Depression houses in Walnutwood are mail-order. Many came from Sears, but even more came from the Aladdin Company. Dad and I lived across the street in a white Lynn model Sears bungalow Grandfather built before World War II, well after the boom years for mail order houses had passed. My Dad's still there. Joe and I built new in a housing development near the edge of town. Our house is modular, not built from scratch, so we sort of half-broke the tradition, I suppose, in that our house was still a "kit" but we had contractors put it all together.

Uncle Gio imprisoned himself on his property for thirty-seven years, starting the day Grandfather died. He never once stepped past the gate at the end of his sidewalk until the day the jet engine fell from the sky.

He had no car.

"Where would I go, Renata, my sweet, my silly child?" he said to me once years ago. "My life is this little patch of ground."

He really didn't have to go anywhere. Much of what he needed was delivered by Clancy's Family Market… the only market in Walnutwood offering the service. He was well-stocked in everything from detergents to prosciutto to fresh produce from Plum's Farm. His clothes were mail order, all sturdy and sensible wear perfect for housework or gardening. Jeans, flannel shirts, work boots, winter jackets…everything he needed would arrive from Sears. When I was a child, I would help him unpack the boxes and stow everything away in his closets. Years after I stopped seeing him, I heard he bought a computer out of a catalog. He got anything he needed…tools, seeds, elaborate birdhouses…all off the Internet. Dad and I began seeing boxes from Lands End or LL Bean out on the sidewalk for the recycling pickup (Uncle Gio would drop them over his low wooden fence the night before).

When I was a child I visited my uncle nearly every day after school, waiting there until my Dad came home from work. (Let's not discuss my mother; she's gone and good riddance.) Some days I would help him in his garden, weeding or perhaps staking tomatoes. Other days, rainy days usually, we would play cards at his kitchen table, or perhaps go to the cellar to make fresh sausage.

Once a month or so, Uncle would present me with a small present from Italy…elaborate figurines, hats, little knickknacks, all kinds of things he found in one of his mail order catalogs. We would be sitting in his immaculate kitchen eating anise cookies and drinking cocoa when he would suddenly leave the room a moment and return with a small box. He would hand it to me, a treasure wrapped in simple brown paper and bearing exotic Italian stamps. I always wanted to study the stamps before tearing the thick paper off the box. Uncle bought me things from places I'd heard of…Venice, Rome, Florence…but also from places with mysterious names like Arezzo, Schio, Jesi or Casa Vatoni. He had a big map of Italy on his living room wall, and he would take my small hand in his and we would go to study it together. He put a push-pin on the map to show me where the gift game from, and taught me how to pronounce the name of town. He would try to teach me something about the places my gifts came from:

"Jesi…there is a statue of Pergolesi there. He composed the Stabat Mater. The Pope came once, a long time ago, and they built him an arch…

"Shio…known for wool. Alessandro Rossi, a giant in the wool industry, had a Weaver's monument placed there to honor his workers…

Every once in a while, though, his brow would furrow and he would stare at the map a long time, shrug, and say something like, "…Casa Vatoni. It's in the toe of the boot. That's all I know." Then the push-pin would go into the map, marking the spot.

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