Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Italian Family

We collect family.

We’re born or adopted into some. The people we live with. The motley collection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, near and far who we meet over the years and are told we should love before we understand why. Years later, many of us marry into more family and split time on holidays and weekend trips with these people we’re not connected to yet, but in whom we have faith because they mean something to our partners.

With all due respect to my biological family, today I’d like pay homage to the family down the street. You see, from the age of nine onward, I’ve spent as much (and often more) waking time with my second family as I have with my own.

I tell people I’m half Chinese, half an English-western European mix from my mother’s side. That’s biological.

Culturally, I’m half Italian, with an invisible hyphen-Scalise at the end of my name.

As most folks reading this post know full well, Mike Scalise is my best friend. We met on the bus home from West Road Elementary, and bonded when I brought in an issue of WWF Magazine with Hulk Hogan on the cover. In the days that followed, I visited his house after school, where we played basketball and video games, drank cherry Kool-Aid, and discussed our fledgling philosophies on what constituted good music, film, and literature.

My earliest memory of Mike’s father, Mr. Scalise: as we were prone to do at the time, Mike and I grappled on the floor. He told me to “give me that leg.”

“I’ll give you that leg if you give me that head,” I said. Thinking my witty repartee had been lost in the scuffle, I repeated the line. Once. Then a second time.

It was only then that I recognized Mike had stopped wrestling. Only then that I turned around to find Mr. Scalise, a giant of a man looming over us, shaking his head. “Cut it out,” he said. Simple as that, we were up and on to our next activity.

It wouldn’t be the last time Mike and I would get into trouble.

In the winter months, bound by the indoors, we took to bowling on the ground floor level of the Scalise house, a blue, plastic ball, white plastic pins set up against a door that led to the garage Mr. Scalise had converted to a home gym. On the other side of that door, we would hear the clank of iron as Mr. Scalise benched and squatted in his power rack. Without fail, these bowling games would end after a particularly errant shot, when the ball slammed against that door or one of the walls especially hard, and Mr. Scalise emerged from the gym, sweating, hulking with a weightlifter’s pump, and told us to stop tearing down his house.

Years later I would tell Mike a wildly misogynistic joke that I’m too embarrassed to reproduce here, after which he would proceed to call a series of friends from school to share a laugh. After the third iteration, a knock came at the door. Mrs. Scalise, clad in her pink terrycloth bathrobe, awaited us. She had heard every word and instilled the fear of God in us the way only an Italian mother can.

Another time, a snow day kept us home from school. About as often as not, Mike’s older sister Nicole became our companion in such situations. I’m not sure who initiated the idea, but the three of us decided it would be a good idea to hide behind a snow bank outside the house and lob snowballs at the cars that passed by in the residential neighborhood. After about a half hour of play, we had our first direct hit. The driver stopped. Backed up the car. Got out and scolded us loudly enough for Mike and Nicole’s grandmother to come outside and see what the commotion was all about and, in turn, give the three of us an earful.

Lest you think that the elder members of the Scalise family were nothing but disciplinarians, I should point out that there was far more to them. From a very early age, I had the unmistakable sense that Mr. Scalise was one of the coolest people I know, fueled by watching an old video of him from his teenage years dunking a basketball with absurd athleticism and grace. And then there were the little kindnesses. A moment when I was 10 or 11 years old, walking with Mike and his mother in the supermarket. We stopped at a rack of candy bars, and Mrs. Scalise said, “Grab one.”

Mike tossed a Snickers bar in the shopping cart.

“Come on, don’t you want one?” she said to me.

I followed suit. A 50 cent gesture that didn’t put her out much, I’m sure, but that was, nonetheless, something my parents never did for me, much less my friends. It felt like charity, only better. Like love.

We grew older. Before long, Mike and I were teenagers, a step removed from parents, operating in our own worlds. Nicole went off to college. Then I did. Mike a year later.

It’s funny how leaving a place can make it all seem new again. I remember returning to the Scalise house when I came home for summer. Sitting in the living room with some configuration of the family, eating steak of the grill, shouting at Alex Trebek on the television through episodes of Jeopardy!. And I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the years to follow, after my own mother left town, my sister stopped coming home, and my grandmother passed away. I would raise toasts to Mr. Scalise, drink wine, eat ungodly quantities of home-cooked Italian food, and then we’d all linger around the table, laughing, cracking jokes, rolling dice.

Times change. I only go back to Utica but once year now for a few days around Christmas. Mike and I are no longer children, and this point is underscored each time Nicole and her husband John make their way through the door, bringing three of the prettiest little girls on earth in tow.

Gianna is the eldest, and only one of the three to remember me this year, but I treasure the fact that next year, Lucia probably will, too, and before long, little Aria.

Gianna tugs on my hand. “Michael Chin, let’s dance.”

Nicole touches my arm. “She calls everyone Michael Chin.”

And with that, I sweep Gianna off her feet, one arm to support her, her hand in my free hand, and I spin and I dance and I serenade her with “Jingle Bells.”

An hour later, we sit at the dinner table. Mr. and Mrs. Scalise revel in their roles as grandparents, Papa waving a single finger across the table at Lucia, Grandma helping Nicole feed Aria her meal. Gianna climbs up, straddling the space between Mike and I at the dinner table, her hip against my thigh, feet against his knee, and asks if we’d like to play a game.

I recall a story I heard long ago, from a time before I met any of the Scalises, when Mike was five years old. A teacher called Mr. Scalise at work. She told him Nicole had been walking her brother off the school bus and right to his kindergarten classroom each morning, hanging up his coat for him, kissing him, and telling him to have a good day. In the middle of a busy office, Mr. Scalise broke down crying, knowing in that instant that he had raised his children right.

And as I tell Gianna that of course I’d like to play, help her to the ground, and follow after, I hope one day these little girls might have similar stories to tell. That I might be a part of it. To share the stories. To play. To dance. To eat good food. To tell jokes and to throw snowballs. To make sure they know that they will always be loved.

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