Friday Feb. 17, 2017

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My Father Was a Young Man Then

Only 16, when he came from Italy alone,
moved into the Riverside neighborhood
full of Italians from Cilento—all of whom
spoke the same dialect, so it was as though
they had transported those mountain villages
to Paterson. At first, America was terrifying,
English, a language they could not master,
but my father was a young man
and he became friends with other young people
and they learned how to take buses and trains
or to borrow a car, and off they’d go
on the weekend to Rye Brook or Coney Island,
free from their factory jobs on the weekends,
reveling in the strength of their bodies,
the laughter and music and the company.

My father was a young man then,
and even when he died at 92,
he never lost the happiness
that bubbled up in him,
the irrepressible joy of being alive,
the love of being with friends.

I imagine him in that time
before he married my mother,
before we were born,
before he had a tumor on his spine
that left him with a limp.
Imagine him with his broad smile,
his booming laugh, his generous spirit,
his sharp intelligence,
imagine him as a young man,
his head full of dreams,
his love of politics and math,
the way he carried those qualities
all the way into old age,
though his legs failed him,
though his body grew trembling and frail,
his mind never did.

When I’d arrive at the house
all those years after mom died, he’d smile
at me with real pleasure,
the young man he was at 16 would emerge,
sit in the room with us
and laugh.

“My Father Was a Young Man Then” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan from What Blooms in Winter. © NYQ Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded in Geneva, Switzerland. At that time, it was called the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.

In 1859, a Swiss man named Henri Dunant was in northern Italy on a business trip. While he was there, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, the last battle of the Italian war for independence. Nearly 40,000 people were killed or wounded in the battle, and Dunant was appalled that no one was offering them any aid. He dropped what he was doing and began organizing the locals to help all the victims, regardless of their partisan affiliation.

It became Dunant’s obsession; he abandoned his business and eventually went bankrupt. But, in 1901, he was awarded the very first Nobel Peace Prize.

It was on this day in 1904 that Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly had its premiere at La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy. The audience hated it so much they hissed and booed. Puccini closed it after one night, revised it, and opened it later the same year. The second time around it was such a hit that there were five encores, and Puccini had to come out in front of the curtain 10 times.

It’s the birthday of novelist Mo Yan (books by this author), born in Gaomi, China (1955). He is the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in literature (2012). Yan is best known for his novel Red Sorghum: A Novel of China (1986), which spans more than 50 years of the Shandong family, who own a sorghum distillery and join the resistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War. “Mo Yan” means “don’t speak” in Chinese. Yan was born Guan Moye, but his parents were always warning him not to speak his mind outside the home, which he ignored. He says: “I was lazy. I had a greedy mouth, and I could not stop talking. There really wasn’t much about me worth loving, and that often drew a sigh from my mother.”

Mo Yan was born into a peasant family. They were the largest clan in the village and even had two trees, an apricot and a pear. He was 11 when the Cultural Revolution began and left school to work on a farm as a cattle herder. Later, he worked in a cotton factory before enlisting in the People’s Liberation Army (1976). He began writing as a soldier, completing his first novel, titled A Transparent Radish, in 1984. He followed that with The Garlic Ballads (1988).

When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan said: “For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.”

Today is the birthday of British crime novelist Ruth Rendell (books by this author), born in South Woodford, London (1930). She wrote more than 60 books, under her own name and also under her pen name: Barbara Vine. Two dozen of her books featured Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, a rural policeman who was overweight and a little sloppy, but also a happily married father of two. Readers loved him, and TV adaptations of the Wexford books were reliably popular with viewers. Rendell said she never got tired of writing Wexford, because she based him heavily on herself. “He doesn’t look like me, of course, but the way he thinks and his principles and his ideas and what he likes doing, that’s me. So I think you don’t get tired of yourself.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®