Often the items we save from the past have become icons; meaning had streamed into them. So I have brought from South Carolina my parents’ photos from BB. “before babies” as my mother used to say. My father, Leonard Henry Fortunato, was as handsome as an Adonis with head thrown back, as he stood with his family posing for the camera. It was probably 1928, he just back from a year in Ferrara, Italy, where he had studied the violin and, I later came to suspect, had fallen in love with a golden-haired beauty. Among his family, that summer afternoon, passion tossed in his dark curls as he stood at one end of the family curve; his father John B., and oldest brother Stanley, at the other end, holding up the hammock of the softer sag of women and girls. Behind him his mother, the one he would weep for, years later, disturbing me at the breakfast table from concentrating on the Snap Crackle and Pop of rice crispies. “Oh, Leonard,” my mother would complain, as if she could see through the back of her head. By then, married fifteen years, she had acquired a staunch, starched exterior–housewife and mother.
But earlier, before she met Leonardo over the library desk at Dusquenes University, Pittsburgh, before she left the midwest for the east coast, her college graduation photo caught her beauty like a madonna just emerged, still dewy, hair pulled away from soft features, with eyes that longed for something she could name.
My parents fell in love first with notions of themselves. Then across that library desk, their separate inklings of romance came together into a wave and captured them. Now I set the photos in my third floor study and sit in one of his soft reading chairs to regard them and their beauty, because as a child I soon lost the sense of them as romantic and glamorous. After several years living in the Old Citadel, the medieval patina wore off and my mother fought rats and cockroaches; my father tried to subdue his fear of not living up to the uniform he wore to teach at The Citadel. She was sharp-tongued and dismissive of his dithers; he eventually raged and cried out at her disrespect. Oh, just remembering, I put my hands over my ears.
Yet, yet, I would not have wanted them to remain beautiful youths forever. They had serious lessons to teach me, and their voices called me to attention. We must learn to save, salvage. My mother put her genteel, well-heeled childhood behind and made do with very little. She made over my father’s trousers into rompers for her girls.
She took us to the Thrift Shop for dress-up clothes, Halloween, pretend dress up, dancing to records of The Sugar Plum Fairy. She made us doll clothes from scraps from the apron cloth bag. Aprons commissioned by the Presbyterian Church to sell at Thanksgiving for the poor. The night before Christmas, if I awoke before time to get up, I heard her sewing machine whirring as she tucked tulle onto a bit of polished cotton, for my Madame Alexander doll’s dance dress. Because Sissy and I had two beautiful dolls, bought with Papa Max’s money in the Chicago train station. Mine with dark hair; Sissy’s with blond. The different in coloring mimicked our own, with painful consequences. But that’s another story. This is a story of making do, of wearing hand-me-downs from our wealthy North Dakota cousins. Of learning to prize, even as we grumbled at our mother’s ingenuity. What is new is not necessarily better, because what is affordable, made by hand, made with attention and care, late at night, carries with it a charm that can never wear thin. In the absence of warmth, in the rather remote Dakota chill of her personality, these marks of her affection carried the assurance that she would attend to more than our needs; she would charm us with silent beauty, leaving us to animate it.