THE GRAPE ARBOR
© 2001 Edward Iannuccilli
Our dark brown and ivory three-decker house was located on Wealth Avenue in a congested middle class neighborhood of similar houses. In front, it had three porches, two front doors on the first porch level, many small windows, and a small yard with a patch of grass supported by a ten-inch wall. However, the back yard was very different. It was the location of the grape arbor, situated at the end of the long driveway, and separated by a tall hedge from my grandfather Vincenzo’s vegetable garden. He had planted the arbor in a central location in the yard surrounding it with apple, cherry, pear and peach trees when he had first moved to the house from Federal Hill in the late 1930's.
To the left side of the yard, and next to Mr. Rossini's fence, grew the now mature apple tree, my favorite, not because it was the largest, for the adjacent cherry was, but because its low angular branches allowed for easy climbing. On many a summer day, I would climb the tree, sit, and carve into the soft bark, usually my initials, sometimes a design. Often, I would hide there when people came around the corner to enter the house through its backyard door. There were times when my mother would call for me to come to lunch, but I wouldn't answer. The domain of the apple made me invisible.
Between the apple and the cherry, standing neatly against Mr. Caruso's cinder block garage to the rear of the property, grew the smallest tree, the pear. Not far from the arbor, the smaller peach blossomed on the other side of the hedge in the garden, while directly behind the house bloomed the cherry tree with its huge boughs dangling over the grape arbor. Alongside the cherry and overhanging the arbor stretched the clotheslines, which extended from the second and third floors of the house to the tall pole at the very rear corner of the yard.
Although it always seemed much larger in those early years, the arbor itself measured 20 ft by 15 ft. by 15 ft, just large enough to act as a garage for the 1950 Austin Healey car which I drove during my college years.
Wooden poles with the roots of the vines starting at each corner and twisting until they reached the top anchored each corner of the arbor. Spreading randomly but neatly, the vines covered the wooden rectangular crossbars forming the roof that afforded wonderful shade on hot summer days. Two benches were attached to the anchoring poles along the longest length of the arbor. Bunches of bluish-purple grapes hung in succulent clusters everywhere. Late in the season my grandfather would pick them and take them to his cellar wine press for the wine-making. But before that, they were wonderful to eat directly from the vine, or sometimes, even better, to throw at brothers and cousins during our grape fights. In the fall, the leaves turned a golden yellow, and in the winter, when the snow fell, the arbor’s top became a white roof.
I loved that grape arbor, not only because of its appearance, but also because I could always be sure that someone would be sitting under it when I arrived; either at lunch time or when I came home at the end of the school day. It was the first thing I saw when I rounded the corner to my yard. I just loved it. At noon, the person there was my great-grandfather, "Sho", or my grandmother, Domenica. Perhaps that was the best part about the arbor; there was the comfort of always seeing someone there.
One of my earliest memories of the Italian language involved "Sho" who in his late years did little more then eat and sit, without moving, under the arbor every day. When it was time for lunch, my grandmother would ask me to summon him in Italian, for that was all he understood. She would say to me in her wonderful broken English, "Go down to the yard and tell "Sho" Van gopp e mangia", which I promptly did and which resulted in one of his few moves. It was only years later that I realized that what she was saying in her Italian dialect was " Va ‘ngoppa per mangiare."
The arbor was always the center of activity and eating was one of them. For the adults, Vincenzo's homemade wine usually accompanied the food, usually pasta. People always seemed happy there, and I enjoyed everything to do with the festivities. Everyone looked forward to those gatherings of friends and family. Early evening meetings often lingered late into the night, long after the children were sent to bed. Because my third floor bedroom window looked out directly over the arbor, I was often lulled to sleep by the laughter and steady drone of the adult voices below.
As I reflect on those wonderful years, I now realize that the arbor was the symbol of good times, of family and friends, of comfort and belonging. Under the arbor, with the security of family, lay the essence of my childhood.
Return to Growing Up Italian Index
Return to Home Page