Category Archives: grief

death; loss; healing

Butchie.

Butchie'sBowl

 

The Italians in Erie have always been different from those at the other end of Pennsylvania.

Not sure why, probably settlement patterns. Perhaps the bricklayers all ended up in our port city.

But, Butchie was typical of Erie. He was a Sicilian and Calabrese mix.

And, most of these were deeply familial, multi-generational. All associated, historically, with the mob mystique that shrouded our town for so many decades.

Many of the rest of us, whether Italian of heritage ourselves, or among the scores of other ethnicities represented in Erie’s closely juxtaposed ghettos, regarded the short, broadly smiling, muscular men of his ilk as classed alike.

Most of them worked for the City. Streets. Waste management. Water treatment. Parks and R. They were the crews in charge of maintaining what kept the city going every day.

I confess. I always thought Italian men born and raised in Erie would be workers, to the core. Never did I assume, and errantly, that a single one of them would be at all like Butchie DeFazio.

We’d met in the late 1980’s at Denny’s Restaurant on Peach Street, the old Sambo’s. He’d always come to the counter with Roberto, the tailor. Didn’t know it then, but they were both committed betting men, wagering on the horses at the nearby Downs racetrack. There’d be a coffee, and then several minutes at the PackMan over by the wall, Butchie leaning against it and deftly playing the thing like a slot machine.

Butchie didn’t say much. He liked short words, quick phrases, thick with his tough, second generation accent and attitude. He seemed like a street kid, shy but never letting on, and the first man in town to have hair implanted right across the forehead. Many others would make the attempt, and we’d find out how the pain aborted their efforts; not Butchie. Like everything else we’d come to know about him, he wanted a clean line and would do whatever it took to get it.

In 1986 Mr. Veltri, who’d taught sixth grade at Lincoln, came in for dinner and told me about a vocal music position opening up at the junior high I had attended.  Mr. Ciotti was retiring; did I want to apply? It had been over 5 years since my college graduation day, and this role as waitress had settled nicely for me; short, intense shifts, nothing loading the frontal lobe after hours…..I liked my life. But, expectation beckoned, along with a faint memory of why I went to college in the first place. I took the interview.

The panel included administrators, Personnel, the district psychologist…what were my thoughts on marching band? Obliviously, I gushed; as lead bugler, my father had led his battalion in a parade for the US Army dignitaries. I loved parades!

When the letter from the district arrived, I’d been assigned to East High School.

As music teacher to the East High marching band, choir, chorus, “stage band”, and whatever else the principal called his depository for students not destined for academic superiority, I was both energized and scared; I hadn’t been around teenagers since student teaching years before, and this was the roughest neighborhood in town. Gingerly, I stepped into the bandroom to check out my new digs.

Butchie stepped in right behind me.

Never knowing he’d been employed by the district all this time,  I was astonished to discover that, he having bid out and vacating the position to the newbie, I was the winner of his prized legacy.

Mr. DeFazio hadn’t been at East very long – maybe a couple years. Figures. He’d not been at all understood, by anyone there, any more or less than I might have been. Politically, the East side belonged to the Poles and the Germans and the Russians, after all, and the Italians should stay on the West side where they came from.

He was heading to the elementary schools, he’d said – something I would do many years later, to stay, just as he. And, then he carried on with his usual flair. Only this time he peppered his delivery with complex chord progressions; a jazz pianist, he disclosed, he had “played out” in the Erie scene for many years, all in the past, he kept assuring me.

Turned out we’d both graduated from Fredonia State University. He’d been a piano major, no less. Then, the teaching degree, same as mine. Who was this masked man, and why had I never heard him play?

I asked him to sit at the nearby piano.

He refused.

He’d stopped playing, he said. Stopped playing out. Stopped playing.

I stared at him.

And, I never, ever found out why.

Years in, when I had moved to the elementaries, he would stop in out of the blue. On his final visit, a couple years before I retired, he brought me a huge box of videotapes to use – and, did I want them all for just 200 bucks?

One time, I’d asked him to stop over to the house. I thought maybe, if he did, he could play me some Chopin. I’d heard from Mary Ann, his sister, that he played a hell of a classical piano, too. I pled. I begged. He never came.

About four years ago, after his beloved sister Judy died, he moved from his house to the Glenwood Towers. And, he called me. Would I stop over? He had some music he wanted me to check out.

He looked good. Enhh…a little sugar, he said. A bit thinner, but still vital and on it like always. He took me to the storage cages. Here were boxes filled with Fake books, sheet music, and volumes of classical literature – the Beethoven sonatas. The Brahms. My God. The man had played everything.

He insisted. Ruthie, he called me, Ruthie, take it. Take the stuff. Take the Fake books…….I left most all of those, selecting a Brahms folio and some Beethoven. It was so good to see him.

A few months ago, Butchie died. He had been failing, Mary Ann said – getting ever thinner and thinner. But, true to form, never a peep about discomfort, never a need expressed, always tough, always cheerful. The casket was closed. I averted my face, feeling utterly exposed at the funeral. Why did his death feel like a tragedy?

Mary Ann told me, a few days later. He’d played his graduating recital at Fredonia, and the family was there. She said he came out, and sat at the piano, and didn’t move. He sat, for an entire seven minutes, without placing one finger on the keys. Then, he began to play.

She said the performance was stunning. Everybody in the audience felt it. And, everybody at Fredonia talked about it, for weeks and weeks thereafter. Samuel “Butchie” DeFazio was brilliant. A master.

I don’t know whether Erie will survive. Our city has been mismanaged by proud, short sighted people for decades. Entrenchment has seeped its dulling, molding poisons into the landscape and, in spite of a whole generation of emerging talent and intelligence, its families of longest standing – and, their legacies – are threatened with extinction.

One wonders how many Butchie DeFazios have been lost in that terminal shuffle.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo   6/24/17    All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Be a good person.  Thanks.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Diehl.

Erie, Pennsylvania has been straining, lately.

The Commonwealth is being alarmingly recalcitrant about sending sufficient funds all the way to its northwest corner, as if defying the entropic forces that pull all assets toward the valley is just too much effort, too much of a threat to the homeostasis of those driven to entrench an already archaic class war; as a result, the School District of the City of Erie is in total crisis – closing high schools, losing five thousand students with only the scent of enough loaves and fishes to feed those who remain.

And, even the contingent of otherwise-safely retired teachers bite their nails, wondering if the time will come when somebody decides to dip into their rightful, guaranteed pensions, that portion of their salary which they deferred for twenty five to forty interminable years on the promise of that guarantee.

Mrs. Diehl doesn’t have to think about any of this. She’s long been dead.

Her daughter, however, just passed away. Today. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s life ended in federal prison, her body succumbing to cancer, the disease which often overtakes those who are otherwise hopeless.

Marjorie, a troubled child taken in and adopted by the Diehl family, as accomplice to what would become the stuff of national tabloid news had managed to cap her life in Erie by participating in the most bizarre crime in the city’s history: the case of the “Pizza bomber.” Details of the morbid scenario included a frozen body, a bank robbery, and an innocent delivery man whose life came to an end in that bank parking lot in the blazing sun, the bomb strapped to his neck exploding in front of an entire flank of helpless law enforcement officers and medical personnel.

But, Mrs. Diehl had lived a generation before.

She first appeared at Lincoln Elementary School as a substitute teacher. In those days, substitute teachers paid their dues, and those dues were sure to be rewarded; show up enough times to cover the random classroom, and the offer of a secure, full time position was assured.

I first saw her, seated, at the upright grand piano against the wall, which ran parallel to the teacher’s desk in virtually every classroom at school. She wore perhaps a dark green Chanel styled suit – boxed jacket, small lapels, simple sheath skirt; on another day, a dark blue and black plaid shirtwaist, its full, pleated fabric draping the piano bench. Her lipstick was scarlet, and her hair raven black, classically curled around her ears and neck with the dramatic upward swoop over the forehead which marked a woman of real class who’d come of age in the 1940’s.

It was customary, during the 1960’s, to begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a silent prayer. But, if the teacher played the piano, there would also be a song. And, this is why I loved Mrs. Diehl.

Already seated as we entered the room in the morning, Mrs. Diehl would already be playing that piano. Full on, with the grandest of gesture, her arms arching and diving from bass to treble, the strains of “America the Beautiful” resounded like a cross between a rousing march and a triumphant anthem. There was nothing, absolutely nothing rudimentary about this woman or the music she made, and the result was utterly infectious. Had we slept restlessly the night before, or endured the screechings of a “We Can Do It”, post-wartime mother frantic to get her children off to school so she could get to the machine shop without being late, the sound of Mrs. Diehl at the piano dispelled any and all angst of such a hyperventilating morning with one, windswept burst of song.

Furthermore, after we had stood to Pledge, to pray, and to sing, only to dutifully be seated, Mrs. Diehl would continue to play. And, for myself, a budding young musical student already being chauffeured off to the Erie School of Music every Thursday at 4:00pm for my own piano lesson, I was deeply transfixed, listening, watching. Several minutes would pass, as Mrs. Diehl, never once making eye contact with any of us, her countenance intently introverted by her voluminous musical mind, played song after song. She would become my first true model of performance, giving herself totally to the enterprise, instinctively knowing and manifesting the inherent value of the music itself.

Other cultures on this planet also know the inherent value of the musical art. They make certain to include music and music related activities in as much as 50% or more of their student curriculum. And, research scientists who devote their efforts to the study of the human mind and the brain which drives it are consistently putting out data in support of the multi-level value of music as both a discipline and art form. Now, there is enough evidence to defy all detractors; those who make music, and specifically those who play the piano, have some of the most highly developed brains on the human spectrum.

Mrs. Diehl may have been a superior musician, but she was also a woman of compassion. No one knows for sure how or why she adopted the girl who was called Marjorie. But, she did. Yet, just as every human is capable of both strength and profound weakness, of confident stride and defiant misstep, Marjorie made a rocky pattern out of her life. And, Mrs. Diehl did not live to see the culmination of her daughter’s actions, a blessing indeed; diagnosed with mental illness, Marjorie very likely did not receive the benefit of music therapy in her lifetime and, in the end, even her mother could not alter the behavior potential of a starling child, though she had made the effort of a lifetime.

But, Mrs. Diehl did contribute to the nurture of hundreds and hundreds of Erie’s children, mentoring other teachers as well, and is remembered by many as a remarkable educator. She also left distinctive, inspiring musical renderings in the minds and hearts of everyone who entered her classroom. Lest the community of Erie and those who view it from afar regard the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong as a tragic stain, a moment of honor is due her mother, whose efforts painted an elegant, graceful picture of enduring nourishment. Perhaps her story, and those of Erie’s best teaching professionals, should be celebrated instead.

Erie, Pennsylvania could use just such recognition and encouragement.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  4/4/17       – All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect for those whose story is told herein.

littlebarefeetblog.com

The Ides of October.

macbethtartanbias

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CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

In spite of Ancestry.com’s insistence that her saliva-spat DNA read 55% Southern Mediterranean, she was no Greco-Roman scholar. Nor was she specifically able to hold forth on the literary genius of Shakespeare, beyond an appreciation for his Stratford-mounted plays. ( 17% U.K., or no.)

But, with appropriate portense, her high school English teachers made sure they’d all met MacBeth. And, during her maiden visit to Scotland in ’84, the most brightly colored plaid scarf beckoned her purse and she’d succumbed. Right. A perfect accent for the navy Pea coat, every winter thereafter: the curse of the MacBeth tartan.

“Beware the ides of March”, saith the thespian from the stage, in character to warn Julius Caesar of his impending murder on the 15th of the month. Yet, curiously, had she not found October to be most pivotal?

Indeed; for her, the ides of the tenth month were to be approached with caution, as they would bring with them events of undeniable shock, a cut to the very core, challenging paradigms and forever altering the course of her life.

Specifically, on or about the 18th.

Beginning on October 18, 1981, her college boyfriend, whom she’d loved with every fiber of her as yet unclaimed hymen, told her that he had lain with the psych major with the green eyes and the overbite who’d met them both on the cafeteria steps, the stare of an unblinking flounder meant only for him. Upon hearing this revelation, she’d torn up the entire Temple Street hill from the center of town, kicking and screaming through terrified, dying leaves, finally veering into the driveway of her apartment to fist pound the side of the house in rage and disbelief.

A year to the day later, she would give it up on a foam rubber mat on the floor of a generic apartment to a Hungarian Don Juan who, five days hence, was already moving on the paprika-haired piano major from the House of Mercy.

Nearly every year following, the ides of her October would press in.

Once, a pink slip; at other times, an unexpected death. Being stood up for a home cooked chicken divan, signaling the end of yet another wobbly attempt at Being The Girlfriend. Occasionally, a suddenly new someone, or next enterprise. But, always a one – eighty, as if some spectral plumber had put a plunger to the top of her head, twisted, and physically plopped her onto some obstacle course, in unspeaking terms: “Now, you will be going this way. Don’t bother watching your step.”

So, it was with lessoned trepidation that she approached her ides, should they occur to her in real time; but, when inattentive: blindsided.

Such was the case in 2016.

The boys and their mother bounded into the kitchen with their customary aplomb, the youngest always ready with a minxy commentary infused with a delightful inflection that rendered him irresistible. The eldest, enduring a growth spurt these days, had been arriving more thoughtfully, less likely to have anything to say, but still sprinting to the sofa and the latest of her storybooks to bury his whole body behind the throw pillows until time came for his turn.

These were her prize students. The firstborn a cellist, he’d won a scholarship competition only months before; the younger on violin, their mother an experienced violinist herself, this was a family that was committed both to the process and the philosophy which founded it. She was a Suzuki-registered instructor, they were a Suzuki family, and nothing would ever break their equilateral triangle, ever.

Except the ides of October.

The announcement came so casually. The youngest, in the midst of disclosing he “hadn’t practiced” because they’d been in Kentucky.

Kentucky? No family there, no reason? The little one said it:

“We’re moving.”

She’d had other families leave the area. One, after less than a year, all the way to the Southwest. But, this family had been part of her life for over four years, and had begun to occupy her fantasies, those of a private teacher hoping for at least one student who’d see it all the way through to a major career. Never in a million did she expect them to just disappear.

The tears were immediate. What would she ever do without them? Their mother cried, too. Hugs, and more tears. The ministry had called the boys’ father to another parish, several states south, and there was no argument; they would be gone by mid-December.

The glorious maple across the street, visible through the living room windows, was grateful for another unseasonably warm October day. Much rain and cold had threatened to swipe its leaves before they’d reached peak performance. But, even as she watched, more orange flames seemed to ignite before her eyes. The season would run its course; the leaves would be spectacular once again, and then they would descend.

She had become more tenacious as she aged. Always in search of solutions which sustained, less inclined to accept finality in any form. Technology was a ready tool; they could Facetime on a Smart TV, after all, every week. This would even be fun.

The MacBeth tartan had been hiding in the bottom of the bureau drawer. Whether or not it could still wield a stab to the heart from that vantage point was up to the gods.

But, there was no denying the power of October. Like the fortune cookie foretold:

” There is nothing permanent except change.”

Et tu, Brutus?

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  10/18/16     All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect.

littlebarefeetblog.com