WALKING WHERE OTHERS HAVE WALKED
I never knew my maternal grandfather because he was torn and shredded to death in a stone crusher in West Suffield, Connecticut, while working for the Connecticut Quarry Company. The machine was used to make trap rock. Obviously, there was no open casket. The wake took place in the front parlor of his home and my mother, who was 15 years old at the time, remembered that blood had trickled out onto the floor.
When Leone Baroni, my grandfather, left Italy and arrived at Ellis Island on April 6, 1909, he was 21 years old. When he died on September 2, 1931, he was 43 years old. He left behind a wife and six children at the start of the Great Depression. Although I never knew him, I was always aware of his presence. My mother and grandmother would tell me stories about him. We would visit his gravesite annually, if not more, in Saint John’s Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut.
I have two sepia photographs of him: in one photograph he’s sitting with his firstborn son, my late Uncle Pete, on his lap with my Ruthenian grandmother standing next to him; in the other photograph he’s standing next to my grandmother in their wedding clothes. He was a short man with dark eyes, dark hair, and a dark bushy mustache. Handsome. Not well-educated. I also have an oval-shaped portrait, about the size of a coaster, that used to be attached to his headstone. Over the many years, one day it just fell off, and my mother picked it up and kept it. I now have that portrait in the top drawer of my bedroom bureau.
In 2003, while teaching in Italy, I took a train to visit my Italian relatives (third and fourth cousins) in Castellano, which was my grandfather’s home town—I actually stood in the room where he was born. Castellano is a mountainside village that overlooks the valley and the city of Rovereto. I walked through the village to the church, to a genealogy museum to see the Baroni family tree (I could trace my lineage back to 1577), and to the cemetery. After dinner, these relatives also showed me numerous photographs of my grandfather, some the same ones I have and some I had never seen before. It is a strange sensation to have a family member in your life who was never there.
Later in the semester, I traveled down to Rome. When I stood in front of the marble sculpture of The Faun, by Praxiteles, in the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museum, I knew that I was looking at the same art work that Nathaniel Hawthorne had looked at in 1858; in fact, this sculpture inspired him to write what would become his final novel The Marble Faun. I had set out with purpose to find this sculpture when in Rome for my first time. Then the thought occurred that I was also walking through the same halls and the same rooms as he had. I was walking the same floors.
I never used to think about walking where others have walked until I went on a weekend trip in 2005, once again teaching in Italy, to Rovereto to visit the city and to go to a new art museum known as MART (Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto). When I got off the train at the train station, I looked up at Castellano. As I walked to the art museum, through a park, I realized that more than likely my grandfather had also walked these same streets. I was walking in Italy where my grandfather had walked.
After going to the art museum, I sat down on a park bench to think over my grandfather’s early, untimely death and looked up again at Castellano. I was gazing at the landscape, a rather beautiful mountain landscape, that my grandfather had left for a new life in America. Ever since then, I have often thought of walking where others have walked—this thought has been both conscious as well as retrospective and I have thought of writers who have been important to me, as a reader and as a writer.
I have walked along the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, as had Ernest Hemingway. I have walked the sidewalks in London, Britain, as had T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Virginia Woolf. I have walked the streets in Salem, Massachusetts, as had Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have walked the sidewalks in Greenwich Village in New York, New York, as had Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter. I have walked the paths in Amherst, Massachusetts, as had Emily Dickinson. And, finally, I have walked through the Rose Garden, which has 800 varieties of roses, in Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut, as had Wallace Stevens.
Sitting on that park bench, in 2005, in Rovereto, Italy, I realized that I shared the same sights, felt the same sun, heard the same language that my grandfather had experienced. There is a connection not only to place but to history and to consciousness and to time itself. There is an overwhelming sensation, as Stanley Kunitz would say, of the world as one continuous tissue
I was where he was. I walked the same village streets as he had. And then I was tumbling and spinning and feeling my skin rip and my bones crunch and my entire body being torn apart, crushed, shredded, brain and blood and muscle and bone and heart, breath and thought collapsing into darkness that is the darkness of God. His fellow workers had to scrape him out of the Cone, a stone crusher, cylindrical with a round opening that the machine gyrates to crush the stone against the outer walls.
Ted Wojtasik is the author of two novels, No Strange Fire and Collage, and many short stories published in various literary journals, such as Cold Mountain Review, New Delta Review, and Cairn. His first novel received a Silver Angel Award from Excellence in Media and a gold-starred review and “Editors’ Choice” in Booklist in 1996. His second novel was one of five finalists for the Lambda Literary Award in 2004. He served on the Literature Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003. His short story “Scars and Frost” received honorable mention in O. Henry Festival Stories 2000, a short story competition, sponsored by Greensboro College in North Carolina. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in 20th-century American literature from the University of South Carolina.