My father gave me history.
First, the globe.
The sphere was held in place by a brass plinth and a curved half-moon, also of brass, that connected the plinth to a decorative screw top. A ball of colors—turquoise oceans; pink, pistachio, and lemon countries; ruby letters dotting expanses of land and sea; black numbered grids of latitude and longitude; white ribbons wrapping the continents as if they were gifts. The world was composed of names Daddy read and we pronounced together. I tasted the syllables in my mouth. Argentina, Morocco, Armenia, Italy, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Home. Shape, order, color, language holding together many different places. The world was enormous, yet Daddy and I held it in our hands.
Next, the spin.
When we gave the globe a push, his smooth fingers over mine, I marveled that places meant geography in time. The world moved and we moved with it. Our home spun along with all the other homes and families on the planet. Daddy and I were part of the spin, day and night, winter and summer, a long time ago and yet to come. Even by ourselves, we were never alone. We were two of many on a spinning orb in the cosmos, a place “as vast as God,” he said.
Later, jump ropes.
Wooden handles as blue as the globe’s waters. Ropes that school mates Janice, Ivy, Cheryl, and I turned in lively recess games of double Dutch. “Of course they do,” Daddy assured me when I asked aloud if he thought girls in Holland did the same in their schoolyards. “And not just Holland, either.” I was mystified. All over the spinning globe, in real life, children were singing and jumping. They might be wearing sneakers or clogs or sandals or boots or no shoes at all. It didn’t matter. They all played.
Their words took me anywhere and everywhere I wasn’t. To King Arthur’s Court, Atticus Finch’s courtroom, the American Revolution with Johnny Tremaine, Dickens’s guillotine in Paris, a meadow with Black Beauty, a sinister palace in Siam. They showed me people don’t only play. “We hold different points of view, beliefs, prejudices,” Daddy told me. “Even you and I. Sometimes we fight for them. It is not always easy to know if and when we should.” Family squabbles, tribal feuds, horrific wars. Pain. “Why,” I asked, many times over. Many times still. “Human frailty,” he said. “Original sin.”
He sent me to places on the globe, first near, then far ones. New York, Boston, Washington, D. C. San Francisco, New Orleans. London, Paris, Ghent, and Bruges. Innsbruck. Tuscany. The Venetian Lagoon. I was smitten, hooked, done for, sure. Travel was for me. Intense, downtown, in the piazza, on the Tube, ferrying across The English Channel, mucking in the Florida Everglades, yodeling with friend Lila from a basket over an Alpine valley. Becoming as “native” as possible. Hungry for the world. Eurocentric that he was, Dad’s tickets all read West. Later, despite his inevitable, “Be careful…,” other directions, continents, cultures beckoned. Ironically, a man happiest with his family surrounding him in his own home created a daughter whose bags are always packed for take-off.
My father gave me history. The stories I write with him in mind continue our narrative now that he has left our spinning globe. They are how I understand him. They are what he taught me. He is the reader to whom all my narrators speak. A few months ago I introduced him to Michael of Rhodes, an historical figure who, at sixteen years of age in 1401, joined the Venetian fleet.
“Michael had just turned five, old enough to keep up with his father’s pace to the short dock in the cove his mother could see from the doorway, old enough to accompany Theodore to the pre-dawn dropping of the nets. Sitting in the rowboat within sight of the big harbor and chewing on a crusty piece of the previous night’s bread his mother had handed him after crossing her arms against her chest to say good-bye, he watched the ripples in the water against the coming dawn. Then, just as the sun rose, he heard what had sounded like a chorus singing. He turned to look. That was when he knew.
It was not so much the looming galley itself, but more the synchrony of the rowers that mesmerized him. Their cohesive movements, matched with their booming voices that became one voice, urged him to abandon home, even though he could not yet reach the door latch to let himself out or in. Even then, he yearned to join this crew of men. With them he would be able to become a part of something bigger than himself, than his parents, than the island of Rhodes. The seas and the lands that sprang from those seas belonged to the rowers, he believed. They would become his, as well, he decided then and there. He had dropped the bread crust, forgetting sustenance for a moment, hungering instead for adventure.”
In the room where he lay ill when I composed this piece, my father is no more. His breath marked meter for my words, his suffering my wish to honor him. Nothing to be done now his bed is white and bare. So I stand and circle the space, our private, transient globe within the universal sphere. Then, remembering the tide-pull of his eyes each time they took me in, I kiss each wall before I go.
In memory of Carmen F. Donnarumma
July 26, 1922-March 18, 2013