The Fruits of Guilt: Exploring My Roots
by Joy Davia

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award Winner--Upper Division

From the writer: This story reflected the heightened sense of urgency I felt toward my grandparents while studying abroad. Revisiting my father's hometown in Italy only further emphasized these feelings. I finally realized I was feeling guilty for the way I treated them before they died.

From the teacher; In my London WRT 305 course "The Uses of Creative Non-Fiction for the Traveler," I wanted to motivate students to use writing to broaden and deepen their experiences of living in a new city, to help them "process" the rich contradictions of travel. Joy Davia's story shows the possibilities "genre blur" can provide, as Joy uses multiple techniques to convey her travels -- to Portobello Market, to her Dad's hometown in Italy, and into her own memory -- and to show us how leaving home can help us find our roots.

From the editors: Davia traveled to Italy with a mind full of questions and a muddled view of her life and heritage.  During her stay there, her personal mysteries were unlocked one by one, and she truly began to understand what she couldn't grasp as a child.

I traveled to my dad's hometown, Lenola, Italy -- a town that teetered on the side of a mountain -- with an urgency I could not understand. Wandering through streets barely large enough to fit a car and peeking around hidden corners that revealed everything from a child chasing after a football to an elderly couple conversing, I hoped to find the reason behind this inner urgency. I expected this trip to satisfy my growing need to explore my ethnic roots -- something that had become much more important since I left America to study in London.

As an American stranger in my dad's hometown, I relied on the goodwill of my great aunts and uncles to introduce me to distant relatives and show me around this tiny town, with a population of only 4,000. However, as my late grandmother's look-alike, I at times felt like a ghost -- especially in the way my new acquaintances reacted upon meeting me. In one such instance, one of my grandmother's friends clasped her hands around my head and slowly started to cry -- repeating, "Assunta, Assunta," my grandmother's name, over and over again. This reaction caught me slightly off guard. Although I knew I somewhat resembled my grandmother, I was not prepared for the violent reactions to my appearance. I felt uncomfortable. Why did it bother me that I looked so much like her?

This feeling reappeared when my great aunts presented me with a small token of their affection -- a pearl necklace and a black velvet purse laced with gold and silver decorations. This small gesture prompted a reaction that I failed to display at even my grandparents' funeral -- I almost started to cry as my eyes welled up with tears. I wrapped my arms around them, earnestly wanting to convey my gratitude. I remember the countless items my grandmother bestowed upon me as a child. A creamy blue jewelry box and ivory rosary beads that I accepted but ungratefully buried in my dresser drawer. But this flashback only caused my inner urgency to grow into a more uncomfortable feeling. What I wouldn't give to resurrect those gifts.

This feeling was also surprisingly familiar. One Saturday morning as I was walking down Portobello Road, I remember being overcome by this feeling. Moving beyond the sharply designed Hawaiian shirts, pink boas and hand-made jewelry, I was hit by a force that targeted my inner weakness -- food. Although the powerful smells of freshly baked breads and pastry were the first to reach my senses, it was food with hardly any smell that made me halt.
I found myself surrounded by an assortment of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. As my eyes wandered over everything from speckled melons to plump cooking apples, I began to yearn for my grandfather's garden. Italian born and raised, he moved to America with his wife and six children in the late 1950s and took a job as a gardener at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island.  But his pride and joy was his garden -- a massive undertaking that consumed most of his yard. I do not remember much about my grandfather; my grandmother was the domineering force that ran the family. He seemed to prefer sitting along the sidelines, meddling in his garden or relaxing in his easy chair with his ever-present smile plastered on his face. I remember his clear blue eyes lighting up as he gently guided my five-year-old self through rows of fruits and vegeta-bles, looking for something I could not remember. The faint smell and variety of Portobello vegetables collaborated with this memory. His garden, to a five-year-old, was like an enchanted forest. Corn and sunflower stalks towered like trees down one row over my four-foot frame, while scores of small plants bearing peppers and tomatoes stood in single file down another.

Pea pods. I suddenly remembered what I was looking for and searched the stands in earnest for them. However, I could not find them and continued my walk down Portobello Road.

But I could not walk away from my disappointment. Like the longing I suddenly had for my grandmother's gifts, I wanted to gently squeeze the pea out of its pod and relish its sweet juices. Pushing my way past shoppers milling over their choice of produce, I wanted to stifle this uncomfortable feeling, but I could not escape from the hoards of vegetables and fruits. A sea of green and red captured my attention and I once again stopped. Reaching toward a batch of grapes, I remembered an image I had maintained as a child, uncles and grandfather throwing off their shoes and socks and trampling through scores of grapes in my grandfather's basement. Until one day when my grandfather showed me the mechanism he used to turn grapes into wine, I used this image to rationalize the wine making process. I purchased the grapes, but my uneasiness failed to subside. It was not until I left Portobello Road that I felt more comfortable. Why do memories featuring my grandparents often generate this uncomfortable feeling?

Then it hit me. I felt guilty. Guilty that my only recollection of my grandfather was his garden, and guilty that I blocked my grandmother's attempts to connect with me. We were two of the few females in the family -- she had one daughter out of six children, and I was one of three girls in a sea of 1 5 cousins. But, she intimidated me. As a stickler for discipline, my grandmother always threatened to bring out the belt whenever one of her grand-children misbehaved. She was also easily frustrated by my inability to understand her. As a child, I lacked the patience and drive to figure out what she meant through her broken English rants and frantic hand gestures. Ironically, I used some of the same mechanisms in my trip to my dad's hometown -- hand movements and my limited Italian vocabulary -- to communicate with my great aunts and uncles. But this time, in Lenola, I enjoyed rather than dismissed the challenge of bridging the communication gap.

Why did I feel, for the most part, more comfortable in Lenola than I did in my grandparents' house? Whether it was the language gap, my grandparents' old age or the funny smell of mothballs I attributed to their home, I hated it when my parents left me alone with them. I remember retreating to the living room to watch television or play solitaire, hoping they would forget I was even there. For a while my grandmother tried to teach me to crochet -- which I did learn, while later losing interest. My most vivid memory of my grandmother, however, occurred when I was much older and had just finished making my confirmation. She walked into my room as I was lying on my bed opening gifts, with my boyfriend sitting next to me and my best friend in the corner. Apparently overlooking the presence of my girlfriend and thinking I was alone in my room with a boy, she erupted into a tirade of hand waving and Italian phrases that no one would decipher for me.

But despite the weak bond between my grandmother and me, despite my indifference, she still made efforts to reach out to me. Here she was, bestowing upon me a valuable personal gift, and all I could remember were a few trinkets that I thought were pretty. I long to remember these gestures, the unique Italian customs and rituals that I dis-missed as a child. I resent my immaturity and wish both my grandparents did not die before I was old enough to appreciate them. But, although I am now more painfully aware of this lost opportunity, I will not make the same mistake twice. I must take advantage of my father's elder brothers and my mom's parents' aged knowledge and work to strengthen my relationship with them.

The gifts from my great aunts and the Portobello vegetable stands were merely the keys that unlocked the floodgates to forgotten memories -- memories drenched in guilt. I do not know how I am going to rid myself of this guilt, but I do know the clues lie in searching for the forgotten presents I long ago abolished to the deeper confines of my room. Nevertheless, there is one thing I do know -- my newly acquired pearl necklace and velvet purse will never see the bottom of my dresser drawer.

Maybe one day I'll pass them on to my own granddaughter.


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