Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond

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9780807072455: Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond

The author of the acclaimed novel Revere Beach Boulevard writes his own story of place, class, family, and love

Sentimentality is cheap. Real emotion is difficult to render. Memoirists walk a tightrope between sentimentality and simple feeling. What gives Revere Beach Elegy its vitality and worth’ is the author’s taut prose and his fearlessness to run across that tightrope.” Greg Lalas, Boston Magazine

In Revere Beach Elegy, Roland Merullo returns to his childhood heaven of Revere, Massachusetts, to begin an intricate, impressionistic portrait of his rich and complex life. The tough codes of Revere’s working-class streets mix with the warmth and affirmation of family forty cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to form a background against which Merullo’s later wanderings are always set.

I’ve never met Roland Merullo, or even read anything he’s written before now. Yet today I feel as if I’ve known him my whole life. . . . At the close of Elegy, the reader is comfortably walking alongside a man who has grown into himself, accepted and embraced his past.” Ray Suarez, The Washington Post

Praise for Roland Merullo’s Revere Beach Boulevard:

A great novel ambitious, heartfelt, generous, and oh-so-skilled.” Richard Russo

Roland Merullo is the author of Revere Beach Boulevard, A Russian Requiem, and Leaving Losapas. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and daughters.

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About the Author:

Roland Merullo is the author of Revere Beach Boulevard, A Russian Requiem, and Leaving Losapas. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and daughters

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

What a Father Leaves

On a June day when the world was at war, my father came into this life in a
simple wooden house on Tapley Avenue, in Revere, Massachusetts. He died,
without providing any advance notice, in a slightly fancier home on Essex
Street. A little more than sixty-six years separated that birth and that death,
a little more than a mile separated those two houses. Though he was an
ordinary man in many respects, he knew extraordinary sorrow at an early
age, and, later, extraordinary triumph, and among the tempers and memories
he bequeathed me was the conviction that it is possible to find a solid bottom
beneath those tidal sweeps of good and bad fortune.
His childhood was typical of the childhood of millions of first-
generation European immigrants in the first quarter of the twentieth century;
he was a small piece of a large family that was caught between the strictures
of the old world and the promises and possibilities of the new. His parents—
Giuseppe Merullo, a tailor, and Eleonora DeMarco Merullo, a housewife—had
come to America from poor hilltop villages in southern Italy, settled briefly in
Boston"s North End, then married and moved a few miles north to the city of
Revere—the countryside then—where they bought a house and began to fill it
with children. My father was born in 1916, after Philomena and Carmen, and
before Gloria, Violet, Anthony, Joseph, and Robert, but no tangible proof of
his existence has come down to me from those years, no snapshots of him
as a boy, no school papers or early artwork, only scraps of anecdote passed
along by his brothers and sisters, who remain close to each other and to me.
His family was, by turns, relatively wealthy and relatively poor.
Giuseppe—Joe, as he came to be called—owned his own tailor shop and
lost it in a fire, owned one of the first automobiles in the neighborhood and
lost it to medical bills after a fall, owned the house on Tapley Avenue, lost it
in the Depression, then bought it back again in 1938. At one point in the
1930s, Eleonora had to sell her wedding ring to buy food, and the nearest
tailoring work Joe could find was in Rockland, Maine, a twelve-hour drive to
the north, in a car with no heater.
The streets were dirt, street lamps shone beneath crimped metal
hats the color of poorly cared-for teeth. The Merullo children slept two to a
bed, kept warm in winter by bricks that were heated in the coal stove, then
wrapped in a towel and placed beneath the blankets at their feet. The family
put up their own vegetables and made their own wine and root beer. The boys
tilled the garden, shoveled snow, smoked cigarette butts they found on the
sidewalk; and the girls listened to opera with their father on Sunday
afternoons, cared for the babies, learned to cook at their mother"s shoulder,
were courted by boys from similar families on chaperoned outings.
The Revere of those days consisted of clusters of plain wooden
houses set among rolling fields, its politics controlled by men of English and
then Irish descent, its underworld run mainly by Jews, its three-mile crescent
shoreline (America"s first public beach) fronted by amusement rides, food
stands, and dance halls that drew tourists from as far away as the West
Coast, its social life revolving around a synagogue and a dozen churches,
men"s clubs, the Revere Theater on Broadway. Six square miles of salt
marsh and low hills a stone"s throw from the metropolis, home to Italians,
Poles, Russians, French Canadians, Irish, English, Jews, Scots, Germans,
and a handful of blacks, the city was—unfortunately and perhaps unfairly—
known primarily for political scandal, underworld dens, and racetracks. In
fact, though, it was not much different from places like Brooklyn, Jersey City,
and South Philadelphia: a certain rough humility, an emphasis on family
loyalty and the vibrant, sometimes violent, life of the street, a brew of
American ambition and European tradition that would, in future generations,
bubble over into something more sedate and suburban, leaving room for
different immigrants, new dramas.
It was in that hothouse of hope and defeat that the seed of my
father"s life sprouted. I know that he was a good, perhaps even a brilliant
student, that as a young boy he cared so much about his clothes that he
would take out his handkerchief and spread it carefully beneath him before
sitting down on a neighbor"s concrete wall, that he was baptized Orlando and
went to school Roland, that he spoke Italian before speaking English but
carried no trace of accent into adulthood. Those are the few puzzle pieces
that survive. The remainder of his first eighteen years is a wash of American
history almost identical to the history of twenty million other Orlandos,
Patricks, and Sauls.
My father belonged to the generation of Americans we are now in
the process of forgetting, a generation that had the misfortune to make the
leap from high school into adulthood with the chasm of a world Depression
yawning beneath their boots. In 1934, he graduated from Revere High School
with honors, but there was no tradition of college in his family (his older
brother and sister had dropped out of high school to help bolster the family
income), no money for tuition, no clearly marked route along which his
ambition might travel.
In the farms that spread across western Revere then, he found
work with a produce company called Suffolk Farms, picking carrots and
cucumbers for twelve dollars a week. Over the course of the next few years,
he moved up to a public relations position, studied civil engineering in night
school, and when he"d earned his certificate, left Suffolk Farms for a job on a
surveying crew. "On hot days," he would tell me forty years later, "I couldn"t
stand to be out there in my clean clothes while the other guys were sweating
with their picks and shovels. Some days I took off my shirt and climbed down
in the ditches with them and helped them out for a few hours."
That remark speaks volumes about him, about the confusion of
longing for better and loyalty to his roots that runs like a refrain through his
life. Even after he"d abandoned pick and shovel and surveyor"s transit and
climbed up into the high, fragile branches of Massachusetts State
Government, he could not bring himself to leave Revere. He still met his
childhood friends at Wonderland Dog Track one or two nights a week for an
evening of modest losing, still seemed to feel as comfortable lunching with
judges and senators at Dini"s in Boston as he did with city workers,
plumbers, and bookmakers at Louie"s corner coffee shop a few blocks from
where he"d been born.
The remark speaks to something else, as well. My father was a
gregarious man, and cared—sometimes to a fault—what impression he made
in society. Like many Italian-American men, many men of all ethnic groups
and races, he was shadowed by a societal definition of masculinity that has
more to do with being brawny and tough than with any of the finer attributes.
He worried that his arms and hands did not look strong enough, he worried
about how he had dealt with and would deal with pain. Surrounded by war
veterans, star athletes, and street fighters, he was pricked by a nagging devil
of doubt because he was none of those things.
I am taking liberties here. He never said any of this to me. Such
tender introspection would have been as alien to him as corned beef to his
mother"s kitchen. And yet, I have a storehouse of small clues that stand in
for his words. I see the footprints of that same devil on the carpet of my own
home. I see the strength to be taken from traditional masculine stereotypes,
as well as the wreckage they wreak in me, in brothers and cousins, in
friends" marriages. Once in a while, in the midst of a discussion of the roles
women have been made to play in our society, I hear an echo of my father"s
voice: "Sometimes on hot days—"
In 1940, he married, and began working as a draftsman for a
Boston firm called Stone and Webster, his first real office job. The work
consisted of designing power stations and submarine periscopes, and he
liked it well enough. The following December, when America was pulled into
the war, he tried three times to enlist, but was turned down because of a
punctured eardrum, forced to watch as the world convulsed and bled and the
men of his generation went off to face their appointed sufferings.
For someone who felt embarrassed about working in a shirt and
shoes next to bare-chested men with shovels, the idea of being left behind
while neighbors went to war must have been next to unbearable for him. But,
other than to state the facts of his case—the punctured eardrum, the three
rejections—he did not speak to me about it.
As fate would have it, his own sufferings found him soon enough:
on March 26, 1942, his wife of thirteen months died in childbirth. Again, only
small pieces of this woman"s life have drifted down to me through the shifting
seas of familial memory. In the few snapshots I have seen, she is a happy
girlfriend and then a happy newlywed, thin, dark-haired, pretty. I know that
she was waked in her wedding gown, that, in the weeks and months after her
death, my father"s suffering seemed bottomless. "We would just be sitting
down to dinner," one of my uncles told me only a year ago, "and the phone
would ring. It would be the caretaker at the cemetery in West Roxbury, where
Vi was buried, asking us to send someone over there right away because
Roland was sitting next to the grave, weeping, and the caretaker wanted to
close up and go home."
But the sense of this grief has reached me only third-hand, and
only years after my father"s death. Though I often wish it had been otherwise,
he did not talk about grief and tragedy with me and my brothers. Every once
in a while, during some poignant pause in the busyness of his life, he would
be alone with one of us and make a comment like: "Someday I"ll tell you
everything. Someday we"ll sit down and I"ll tell you things." But what these
things were we had little idea, and the promised "someday" never arrived.
Perhaps in deference to his second wife, my mother, he never
spoke about his first marriage in our presence. I learned of it by a chance
remark. Playing in the backyard one summer afternoon, I was summoned to
the fence by our elderly neighbor, Rafaelo Losco, who handed over an armful
of greens for me to pass on to my grandmother. Rafaelo had another man
with him, a visiting brother or friend, and the man was running his eyes over
my face with such intensity I felt as though a blind person were fingering my
eye sockets and lips. "What is your name?" he demanded.
"Roland."
"Roland"s son?"
"Yes."
"I"ve known your father forty years. I knew his wife when she was
growing up. His first wife, I mean."
I only nodded, and turned away with my armful of escarole, but
the words claimed a place in my memory. His first wife. I was old enough by
then—seven or eight—to know something about secrets, to sense that this
piece of information had been kept out of my reach for a reason, and I did not
mention it, not to my parents or grandparents or brothers or friends, for close
to two decades.
It seems peculiar now, that in all the times I must have been alone
with my father during those years, I never asked about his first wife, or even
let him know that I knew of her existence. It seems strange that he and my
mother, and their parents and brothers and sisters, conspired in such a
silence when it would have been so much easier all around to tell the story,
once, answer the questions, and be done with it.
But ours was a Catholic world in which marriage was supposed to
last for all eternity, and this was the 1950s and 1960s, when the ethos of
emotional confession had not yet broken the polished shell in which we lived.
And I believe there was an element of superstition involved as well, remnant
vapors of an ancient stew of belief and mystery: to speak of tragedy would be
to invite it. The closest any relative ever came to raising the subject was
when one of my father"s sisters asked me, in private, what I thought
happened when people who"d been married more than once died and went to
heaven. Which spouse were they in heaven with, did I have an opinion? Had I
heard anything about this at Sunday school?
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the fact of my
father"s first marriage lay in the deep, undisturbed shadows of our family
consciousness until the winter of 1978. In that year, I began knocking down,
piece by piece and without spite, the edifice of expectations my parents had
been erecting since my birth. I"d taken my college degrees a few years
earlier, and, after a stint with USIA in the Soviet Union, I"d turned away from
both an academic and a diplomatic career. With much fanfare, I joined the
Peace Corps, went off to a primitive island in the Pacific, then quit after less
than six months. Penniless, long-haired, hosting a menagerie of tropical
bacteria, I returned to America and found work driving a cab in Boston, a job
which seemed to crush the last of my parents" hope for me like crystal
beneath a greasy work boot. In the space of eighteen months, I had gone
from being a source of pride to a source of embarrassment, and in December
I put the finishing touches on that swan dive into dishonor by announcing that
I was moving in with my Protestant girlfriend.
As a boy, I"d seen a neighbor burst into tears at her daughter"s
engagement to il protestante, but it was 1978 now, and such "mixed"
marriages no longer shocked Revere"s papists. My parents had met Amanda
before my Peace Corps venture, and approved of her from the start. The
problem was not Amanda"s religion or nationality (my mother, though
Catholic, was of English ancestry, so that could hardly be an issue) or even
the fact that we were having unblessed sex. The problem was that, by moving
in together, we were openly confessing to this unblessed union, making it
public, running up the flag of disgrazia for everyone in the family, in Revere, to
see.
There were harsh words that night in the house on Essex Street,
hurt feelings on both sides. My father, mother, and I shouted at each other
across a widening chasm, tore at the sticky filaments that bound us, took
turns pacing the kitchen, accusing. It had a different feeling than other
arguments, the words were sharper, the consequences heavier. I was trying...

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Roland Merullo
Editorial: Beacon Press (2002)
ISBN 10: 0807072451 ISBN 13: 9780807072455
Nuevos Paperback Cantidad: 1
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Descripción Beacon Press, 2002. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Nº de ref. de la librería DADAX0807072451

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