Mark K. Spano
Three Excerpts from Kidding the Moon
One is in thrall to Mistress Soul.
—James Hillman from Anima
In my grandmother’s kitchen there was a high stool with two little steps that pulled out from under it so my short plump grandma could reach high places. The stool was covered on the seat and backrest with a slick variegated yellow material that was popular in the 1950s.
When I was very small, possibly four years old, my mother sometimes left me at my grandmother’s. My Aunt Flora was one of two unmarried Aunts, Flora and Chi-chi who lived in my grandparents’ home. Aunt Flora had a wonderful record collection of 78s, and I have most them now. One of the records that she had, that I could not find in the mass of old records inherited from her, was the original recording of Eartha Kitt singing “C’est Si Bon.” I have since bought it on compact disc.
At age four, I loved Eartha, and I loved “C’est Si Bon,” one of Eartha’s most popular recordings. So, Aunt Flora, being the indulgent soul that she was, would play the song for me again and again. Each time she played my favorite song, my four-year-old self would climb the three small steps on the yellow covered stool, stand at the very top viewing and in full view of my adoring fans. I would then gesticulate and purr like the exotic Miss Kitt to the thunderous applause and deafening cheers of Aunts Flora and Chi-chi.
Applause had always given me a light heart and a child’s ascending spirit. Even if I was doing the applauding, the joy of approval, my approval of something (usually a performance of some kind), another’s approval of me, lifted me into the clouds. Even at four I craved the poetic act. It would be years before I would experience how my frequent and spontaneous acts of pure imagination that so delighted a few including my maiden aunts and myself would collide with the behaviors consigned to young boys in the world of my upbringing.
Where We Lived
Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if a
thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their
perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
—Italo Calvino from Invisible Cities
I grew up in a downtown neighborhood wedged between commercial and industrial areas. There was always noise from trucks and freight trains. Kansas City was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. There were smells from the stockyards and grain elevators. There were rats, and there was dust. Anything that sat still for even a few minutes was covered with dust. The day after a snowfall that snow was grey. If the snow stayed a few days, it was soon black.
My parents had lived in our apartment since my father had returned from the war some four years prior to my birth. We moved from that apartment when I was sixteen to a three-bedroom duplex around the corner that I found through a friend of a friend and arranged the entire bit of business myself with the wife of the owner of the duplex, the mother of my friend’s friend, but that’s not so important right now. I was born into a family that would be now described as “blue collar.” During my more rebellious years which have been most of them, I found such terms as “blue collar” to be the patois of a system that could deny the obvious by use of euphemism, a euphemism that is readily believed by those it has ill-described, instilling them with a vivid sense of progress, real or imagined, within the great sausage works of the American economy.
My father worked in a steel mill. When I was a small child, much steel was being made in the United States in open-hearth furnaces. The steel mill where my father worked was a loud and hot place. I only know this because of stories my father told. He never took me or my brother and sister to his place of work. I always wondered why.
Ah, those hopes and cares
Of our early years! God gives to good looks
Lasting power amongst men and women:
—Leopardi from Sappho’s Last Song
The monastic strain runs deep in the Italian temper.
—Camille Paglia from Sexual Personae
Whatever terrible, wonderful things I have said about my parents or they have said about me, they were not boring people in a life on a Midwestern landscape that was, in fact, dull beyond description. My parents gave me passion, color, and a lifelong curiosity. Both of them are readers, studiers, and talkers, and I am all of that, and for those gifts I bless them.
My parents met each other during the utter depths of The Great Depression. My father was six years older than my high school-aged mother. Their age difference raised more than a few eyebrows, but this caused much less of a fury than the fact that my father was Sicilian. For my mother’s parents, this was quite literally the kiss of death.
Both my parents were stunningly attractive people. For Italian immigrant families, good looks were critically important. Good looks spoke to one’s marriageability, and marriageability meant family, and family was everything. Over the years, I witnessed some detours along a more or less logical sequence of beliefs, but mostly these ideas about beauty endured more firmly than the law of gravity.
My father was and still is a violent and cruel man. He never liked me. Now, in his nineties, he at times wants to like me but does not know how.
As a young man my father looked like a cross between Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Anthony Quinn in La Strada. He had a way of looking glamorous even while exhibiting incredible brutality. For the first ten years or so of my life, I had great hopes that my father would grow to be a parent to me. This was not to be. By age eleven, I consciously began to estrange myself from him, deciding it was in the long run a safer course of action.
Violence and cruelty are different things. Violence is driven by anger, and acts performed in anger are under the influence of a spirit whose visit is often only momentary. Cruelty, on the other hand, is deliberate, premeditated, as they say in court. The fleeting presence of violent spirits does not make acts of violence easily excusable but does make them a bit more easily forgivable. Violence does, though, make us wary, alert, uncertain about what might come next from out of nowhere. Blanche DuBois believed, “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing…” Blanche needed an absolute to be convincing on stage for cruelty is less easily forgiven, and it is carried with us in ways not instantly forgotten.
Living in extremely close quarters with my father and the other members of my father’s family required the continuous inventions of every manner of escape from my father’s volatility. The necessity of these inventions provided me an education in quick-wittedness and problem solving that surpassed anything taught to me in school.
Because of my early life I knew life was cruel and violent. I knew I could be a target of violence at any minute. “We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow,” Oscar Wilde reminded us. These years were a harsh tutor, but a far better teacher than any of the nuns and priests who attempted to educate me in my early life.
My life at home created in me a tension and edge that made me alert. More importantly, this circumstance engendered a desire within me to seek something other than the mayhem I knew. At a very early age, I looked discerningly at the world around me.
When I was five, we went as a family to the Ozarks. All five of us were confined for hours in our fifty-one Chevrolet, an even more restricted space than our tiny apartment. My parents screamed at one another over wrong turns. My mother screamed about her frustrations as a map reader. My father volleyed back at her ineptitude at the same. Both my brother and I barfed out the window and down the side of the car, never having ridden so long or on such winding, hilly roads as the Ozarks presented. Through it all, my sister just sat silently.
The only memorable occurrence of our first and last family vacation was a visit to a Trappist Monastery. On the Sunday of our vacation, we drove several hours through the Ozark hills because my mother was insistent that we should attend mass. My mother was a strict adherent to Catholicism and employed what might be described as a theoretical religious compassion. She was full of deeply felt intentions of what she might do for another if she were ever to have the requisite time or resources, which she never seemed to be able to find.
I loved the tiny abbey in the Ozarks. It was this experience that had given me the idea that I would grow-up to become a priest or possibly a monk. The place was beautiful. The monks were so congenial, not at all the like priests and nuns from our parish. It was unlikely that they saw many children, and being something of a rarity for the monks, my sister, brother, and I were accorded very special treatment.
Years later, when I told a friend this story of my five-year old’s love at first sight with the monks and the monastery, he replied that I simply wanted to live in a community of sequestered single men. Until his comment, I had never interpreted my attraction to monasticism to be a suppressed wish for my own all-male harem, but I won’t rule out the
Mark K. Spano has recently published an award winning and critically acclaimed novel entitled Midland Club. He also recently completed a definitive documentary on Sicily entitled Sicily: Land of Love & Strife. His forthcoming work of creative nonfiction entitled Kidding the Moon will be published in 2018. He also speaks on writing and on the culture and economics of Sicily. He holds advanced degrees from Marymount University of Virginia and