Close to Where You Want to Be
The inspiration behind The Saint of Lost Things
This essay originally appeared in The Algonkian magazine.
If you have heard of Wilmington, Delaware, it is likely because it is the city to which you send your credit card payments. Or you're a DuPont. Or you've seen the hurricane footage (except that's Wilmington, North Carolina). Most likely, though, Wilmington, Delaware conjures up the same images as, say, Bridgeport, Connecticut or Kensington, Maryland—that is, no images at all. For most, it is one of those charmless East Coast cities you drive through to get somewhere interesting. "Close To Where You Want To Be" was once its motto.
When my father emigrated to Wilmington with his mother and brothers after World War II, he did not consider the city second-class. In America, nothing was second-class. Compared to the tiny mountain village in Italy that he had just left, the ten-block neighborhood of row homes and shops surrounding St. Anthony's Church was a metropolis. More importantly, his father and friends and hundreds of paesani waited for him there, and together they would make their mark on the new country.
He was in his early twenties, a young man with the persistent dream of opening a restaurant. There were relatively few sit-down places at the time, and only one—Mrs. Robino's—was specifically Italian. Popular with americani (a group that, in my father's mind, included any non-Italian immigrant), Mrs. Robino's became synonymous with the Little Italy neighborhood in the decades after the war. Weekends, a line formed outside the door of the little Union Street walk-up, and yet my father refused to eat there. He heard the sauce was too sweet, the pasta overcooked, the meat low-quality—nothing like in the old country. Mostly, though, he was jealous.
He had the equivalent of a sixth-grade education, so the only jobs offered him were on the assembly line at various factories. But no matter; he had plenty of time. He lived at home with his family and worked as many shifts as he could squeeze into a week. Every Friday he signed over his paycheck to his father, who put it in the bank and provided him with a modest allowance. He spent the money dating American girls, knowing full well he'd only marry an Italian. So when the time came, he and his brother took the ship back to the village and found wives.
My mother was not naïve enough to believe America was paved with gold, but she did imagine the easy life she'd seen in Hollywood films: a house with a yard, many children, weekends of parties and ballroom dancing. There was never enough money, though, despite the fact that she and my father continued to live with his family. Soon she agreed to take a job as a seamstress—a temporary thing, just until they could get by. Forty years later, she retired.
During those forty years, my parents made good on every vision they shared: the house, the children, the parties, even the ballroom dancing. But my father's restaurant dream was repeatedly deferred. He did shift-work at Ford, Chrysler, Boeing and the Sunbeam Bakery, and passed up numerous viable opportunities to open pizza shops, diners, and cafés. It was never the right time. Mostly, though, he was afraid. The Depression and the war still raged in him. He believed the world was always on the verge of hunger and collapse, and to risk his and my mother's savings on a venture as unpredictable as a restaurant would endanger the lives of his children. How selfish I would be, he thought, to sacrifice their future for my silly dream. My mother—herself a child of business-owning parents—agreed. Once the kids are older and settled, they thought; then maybe we can gamble a little.
But of course that time never came. No matter how stable my and my siblings' lives seem, my parents fear we are always on the brink of needing rescue. So they continue to save more money than is necessary, deny themselves pleasures simple and extravagant, and take great pride in the fact that they will leave us an inheritance.
I can't help wishing my father had been more selfish. How wonderful it would have been if he'd truly embraced the American dream: seen his name in neon in the window of a Little Italy restaurant, and welcomed both paesani and americani to his tables. I have seen the longing in his eyes when we've passed even the dingiest pizza shop. Now that he is approaching eighty, and all opportunities lay irretrievably in the past, his longing has turned to heartbreak. I fear it gives him little comfort to have gotten close to where he wanted to be.
I wrote this book partly because I wanted to resurrect Wilmington in the early 1950s—its tensions and mysteries and possibilities. I wanted to hear the music and peek under the roofs of the houses in the Italian neighborhood. I wanted to see through the eyes of the immigrants who built it. But mostly I wanted to show my father a glimpse of what might have been.
Christopher Castellani, 2005