Mining the memories for a smile of recognition

November 04, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

They live on the same floor of the same Massachusetts nursing home now - the 94-year-old former Rose Popolo; her 85-year-old sister, Sadie Bell; their 83-year-old brother, Frank Popolo, and his 90-year-old wife, Aunt Genie - so I get to see them all in a single visit. On a recent Saturday evening, I coax all but Aunt Genie, who's asleep in her room, down the hall to a faux-Colonial sitting room. I pull up chairs. We sit. We talk. My mother is quiet, but she's smiling. She's very happy about the pizza I just delivered.

Aunt Sadie seems to remember me, and she seems to know that Rose is her sister and Frank her brother. But she looks at us quizzically, as if not quite sure.

Uncle Frank, in a wheelchair, also seems to remember me, but he wonders where I've been.

"I'm in Baltimore now, Uncle Frank," I tell him. "Been there for 30 years."

"Hell, that's nothing," he snaps. "I've been with the post office 35."

He calls me Greeko now. He seems to call everyone Greeko now, even the nurses. Uncle Frank was always a smiling, pleasant man - a father of seven kids who still managed to take genuine interest in the lives of his many nieces and nephews. He worked in real estate. He sold fencing. And he worked for the post office - so long that he still remembers street addresses from his first routes, and he starts reciting some. Along the way, he mentions an address that my mother instantly recognizes - 151 W. High St.

"That's our mother's house," she says from the chair to my left. "That's where we grew up. There were 10 of us kids."

"High Street?" Sadie frowns.

"There was a house and a barn," my mother goes on. "We played in the barn. I was Harold Lloyd, and Mary Sullivan was Lillian Gish."

My mother loves to tell this story. When she was a girl, two of the silent film stars were Lillian Gish and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was a comedian famous for performing slapstick and dangerous stunts for the camera. My mother and her lifelong friend, Mary Sullivan, re-enacted scenes from movies in the loft of the small barn. My mother played Harold Lloyd.

"And you fell from the barn loft," I say.

"She what?" Aunt Sadie says. "She fell?"

"I did not," my mother says, shocked at my assertion.

"That's what you always told me, Ma," I said. "You were playing Harold Lloyd hanging from the big clock on a building in one of his movies, and you fell and landed on your hip. And that's the hip the doctor replaced in 1968, when you were 54."

"I did?" my mother asks. "She did?" says Sadie.

I guess I am playing the part of memory therapist. I'm grateful for the gifts of hearing and of memory, and for having listened carefully to the details of family stories when they were first told to me so that I can return the favor. Perhaps I can use the old stories to revive memories and remove the baffled looks from the faces of my mother, her sister and brother - at least for the moment.

"Ma," I ask, "do you remember picking peas for your Uncle Rocky?" "Oh, yeah," she laughs. "Uncle Rocky Spagna." She pronounces the name, "Rookie," and smiles excitedly at the memory it provokes.

"I remember that," Sadie chirps. "Oh, yes. Uncle Rocky."

"Up on Page Street," says Uncle Frank. "Uncle Rocky had a farm," my mother says, "and all us kids went there and picked peas and beans for him. He gave us each chewing gum so we wouldn't eat the peas."

"He did?" Sadie frowns again, then laughs. "Oh, my God."

"He was a smart man," my mother says.

"Aunt Sadie," I say. "You were a nurse at the VA Hospital. Do you remember that?"

"I was a nurse?" she says.

"You took care of all those men who had no arms, some of them, and no legs, some of them, veterans from World War II and Korea."

"I did?"

"That's right. ... You lived with your mother, Mary, on High Street, and then you married Uncle Kenny. You were married at St. Michael's Church in 1971. My brother, Eddie, and I were the altar boys for the wedding."

"You were?" she laughs. "He remembers so much."

"St. Michael's was on Main Street," Uncle Frank says from the wheelchair. He's been quiet but listening carefully. He seems to be evaluating different elements of the conversation for authenticity. Occasionally he utters "Greeko," as if there's something he doesn't quite believe - or because he's intrigued by what I say. "I remember your fence company," I tell him. "You sold split-rail fence, Uncle Frank, and my father bought some from you."

"It was called Pleasant Fence," he says. "It was on Pleasant Street."

Trained professionals care for my mother, my aunt and my uncle and his wife now, and that is just the way things are. There doesn't seem to be much we can do but visit and tell old stories and present well-worn family facts. The past seems a more pleasing subject than the present, anyway. And there's always hope that a word or phrase will spark a happy memory of a place or a moment, and that the baffled frown gives way to the smile of recognition.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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