At Christmas, my father, Joseph Scalia, always brought home the scraggliest, sorriest tree he could find and decorated it with colorful lights, balls and tinsel. As children, my siblings and I failed to notice the tree’s condition; we were too enchanted by its blinking-light magic and the gifts beneath it.
My mother said — and we later recognized — that he wanted the cheapest tree available. But we knew why the cheapest, Charlie Brown tree appeared glorious to him.
When my father was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1927, the city was expanding, building wide boulevards and structures such as the Teatro Massimo opera house, then the biggest in Europe. And when he turned 4, Palermo’s new Boccadifalco Airport opened. But despite the city’s progress, a mean and dire poverty marked my father’s childhood.
His father, a baker and a soldier in the Italian army, could not adequately provide for the family. My grandfather was recently heralded as one of il ragazzi del '99 — the “boys of ‘99” (1899) — who were drafted into World War I at the tender age of 17. When I learned of this honor, I wondered if post traumatic stress disorder impeded his ability to work.
Whatever the reason, it fell on my father to help out. He often told stories of earning extra money while in elementary school by completing multiple copies of math homework that he sold to his classmates (with varying errors on each to avoid detection).
The advent of World War II brought the Germans into Palermo. As a teenager, my dad delivered his father’s bread by bicycle to their camps. He told us he’d once stolen a case of canned goods from them, believing it something to eat. But the stuff inside the cans smelled so horrible, his family thought it spoiled and tossed it. Many years later in the United States, after he married my mother, he encountered the same food contained in those stolen cans: sauerkraut, a staple on Baltimore Thanksgiving tables. Had he known what it was, he and his family would have eaten it.
The Allies invaded Sicily in 1943 and in July heavily bombed Palermo’s harbor and surrounding quarters. My father was 16. When he and I visited Palermo in his early ‘80s — his final trip and my first — scorched shells of houses still stood in the city center, skeletons with walls singed black from those long ago explosions.
Passing these structures, my father told stories he’d never shared before: His family had fled three such houses, bombed by America, the country he now called home. When they had nowhere else to flee, they hitched rides on trucks to the countryside. Before their flight from the city, during one of the bombings, he and an older friend ran for cover in a nearby cave. This other boy — taller, older, faster — pushed my father out of the way to reach the cave first. Still running, my father feared the bombs would kill him, that he wouldn’t reach the cave in time. Instead, a bomb hit the mountain side, collapsing the cave, killing the other boy, his feet still in shoes poking out of the rubble. The randomness of death struck my father, and he felt that one’s death date is noted, writ large in God’s cosmic book on the day of one’s birth.
Cheating death and scrambling for survival never affected us, however. When we grew old enough to notice the condition of the Christmas trees, we teased him, and the Charlie Brown Christmas trees became a family joke. He purposefully bought the worst looking ones, masking their disadvantages by placing them atop a train garden, the electric rail cars stealing their thunder.
Early in my married life, pregnant with my first child, freshly returned to Little Italy in a newly-purchased house after a year of renting in (and hating) suburbia, my then husband and I were struggling paycheck to paycheck while I completed my bachelor’s degree. My father proudly presented us with the first Christmas tree in our new house, a barely 3-foot dwarf pine with hardly any branches, but a treasure in a two-for-one sale. We decorated it with cast-off balls and bulbs circa the 1950s, its few branches drooping under their weight.
Perhaps because of his impoverished childhood, my father generously helped all of us as adults. He taught us — inadvertently — that the sorriest, most pitiful looking Charlie Brown Christmas tree infused with love offers better magic than the fanciest, fullest and most beautifully decorated tree in a house torn by meanness, bullying and strife. He taught us to laugh at ourselves as he did when we teased him about those scraggly trees he proudly carried home.
Days before he died this past March on his 90th birthday, he held vigorous conversations in Old Sicilian with invisible people, explaining why he came to “America.” He knew that in God’s cosmic book of death dates, his number was up, and wished me “Good luck” before he left home and hearth for a different world.
Rosalia Scalia (www.rosaliascalia.com ) is a writer in Baltimore.