by cheri block
Interesting, Baby (not the waitress). Did I ever tell you the story of the time my grandfather Joe from the old country left me three tumulos in his last will and testament?
I don’t remember that one, Joe, I said, placing the digital tape recorder between us on the table.
Well, let me set the scene. My grandfather brought five kids and his wife Katharina to San Francisco from Ustica, a small island off the coast of Sicily. His brother’s kid, Frank, came with the family, so that meant he had five kids he was trying to support. He worked down on the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf shelling oysters.
The walking boss, what we would call a foreman today, told him he wasn’t doing a good job. He got pissed off.
You’re not doing this, right, the walking boss said.
I’ve been doing this since I was seven years old, my grandfather barked back. He quit the job. Right then and there.
He goes back into North Beach to his wife (now with six children, including Uncle Frank) and tells her, We’re going back to the old country.
She says, Not me.
Cheri, can you believe that a woman who spoke not one work of English and who had been dragged over to this country against her wishes, now decides that she is staying here without her husband? A woman with no job and five kids?
My grandfather Joe was a selfish and stubborn bastard, so then he says, Fine, I’ll take the kid who was born here, the American citizen, and go back.
So he grabs a kid and off he goes to the old country and then has eleven more kids over there in Ustica.
Wow, your grandfather was prolific, I comment, thinking back to the time when my old Springer Spaniel Maggie delivered eleven puppies.
Years pass. Now my grandfather is an old man but still working in the fields.
How did he die? I ask, trying to decide whether I should eat the last French fry.
He was heading back into town on his way to get laid when he died of a heart attack at age 92.
Ninety-two? He was going to get laid at the age of 92?
Yeah! Joe laughed, enjoying the grand paternal hoorah.
So, before he gets laid, he’s gonna have a bath and a shave. He drops dead on the way home from the barber.
Geez, I marvel.
Now my grandfather is dead, leaving two families and seventeen kids total, twelve in Ustica and five here.
One day, a letter arrives with Italian postage and I learn that my grandfather has left me three tumulos. I have no idea what a tumulo is, so I call the Italian consulate in San Francisco.
Come on over we’ll have lunch, the consul suggests. They always wrap business around a lunch. Of course, I am going to have to pay because they’re doing me a favor. I pick him up on Webster Street by the Presidio, a beautiful area of town over there and we go to North Beach. I spring for a bottle of wine, two lunches and lots of talk with my landsman— all of this just to find out what the word tumulo means.
After lunch, he reads the entire document but has no idea what this word means.
This has now cost me 50 bucks so far.
He’ll do me a favor. He’ll call Rome.
Una mano lava l’altra mano (One hand washes the other hand).
Three days later he calls to tell me his sources in Rome cannot find the origin of the word. They even went to the University of Pisa, according to the consul. They know tumulus (think Beowulf’s tumulus) but not tumulo.
So, I call my friend Paul, a history and Italian major at Cal Berkeley. He had lots of Italian dictionaries, including a Medieval one.
He finds the word in the old dictionary.
A tumolo is a square rod about 16 feet.
My grandfather left me three of those on the beach in Ustica.
The family over there is very much interested in putting all the tumulos together so they can open a restaurant casino.
How much do you want for my three tumulos?
Lira or dollars?
So I get $1000.00 out of the whole good god damned deal.
Joe, your grandfather Joe sounded like an amazing man, I observed.