Art In Conversation With Art
Artist John Madott had many conversations with daughter Darlene Madott, a Toronto lawyer and award-winning author, in the last years of his life, while painting together. “Touching Calabria” was one creative offshoot of these. It won an award in the 2014 Accenti Writing Contests, and was later included in one of Darlene Madott’s books.
(A Short Story in Little Time)
“I’m firing the architect,” I said, “I wouldn’t set foot in my Church.” My father encouraged, “The best is always the next.”
“You have a steady hand.”
At ninety-two, my father’s bricks were as if laid by a master mason.
“A church has to be solid. There’s no fudging with the walls of a church.” I stopped painting.
“Says who?” His hands folded on his lap, he inclined his chin to the left, unable to turn his head fully toward me. His left shoulder had atrophied. My father had this quizzical look about his dry lips, a smile of mischievous rebellion.
The mild heart attack wasn’t so bad. It was the drugs that compromised the kidneys. Then the surgery to put the portal in his body for dialysis; plugged in every night and unplugged in the morning. Sometimes, the visiting health care workers didn’t hook up everything properly; my eighty-six-year-old mother would have to get down on her hands and knees and sop up the puddles of fluid. It had ruined the hardwood floor of their bedroom. After sixty-seven years of marriage, they were still sleeping there together, albeit in separate beds.
We were Sunday painting, again. But now we were sitting in the metal lawn chairs in the Woodbridge basement, staring at our canvases. These were illuminated by the bar of six lights recycled from his home movie-making of the 1950s, and a stand-up lamp with a naked bulb, its light directed by a wired-on open shoebox. Fire hazards, both, but comforting in the darkness of the basement, surrounded by decades of his paintings.
I was painting the central piazza of Tropea, Calabria, from a photograph taken on my trip the summer before this winter. My father had placed his own painting of the Tropea piazza off to one side, so I could catch up to him. He worked on his during the week, and had two on the go. My father’s subject was a landscape of his mother’s mountain village, Jesuite.
We had been driven off course by an errand and arrived at Montalto Uffugo at about four o’clock in the afternoon. The Calabrian town was slowly rousing itself from the siesta. At the gas station off the main square, I had asked if there was un albergo qui vicino, knowing that we could not make it back to Tropea by nightfall, and that I had not accomplished the task I had set for myself on this trip to Calabria.
The town didn’t have a hotel? I found other words within my limited vocabulary, and finally, agriturismo?
The gas station attendant’s eyes widened in warning. With the international tongue of the body, he warned me against staying there, in the mountains of Calabria, on a farm. Seeing my concern, he suggested it might be possible, in one of the smaller towns, as we climbed the mountain, to find a room. He directed, with his hand, upward.
The pines reminded me of Vancouver. Was it any wonder my father had an affinity to the west, to the mountains, carrying the memory of Calabria’s mountains in his veins, as the grape carries the vine?
As we painted, my mother clattered pots in the kitchen overhead, creating our lunch.
“How do you concentrate?” I asked him. Focussed on the canvas, he didn’t hear the question, nor the pots overhead. “You know you married the best cook on earth?”
“Do you tell her?”
“She still needs to hear.”
Downstairs, in the basement, simple words of radiant gratitude:
“It’s good to work with you…”
“I think, this summer, we’ll paint a winter scene.”
“You’ve given me hope.”
“Every time I’m with you is a special occasion.”
“I guess I had to be, to make you possible.”
I can still see my father’s garage, United Signs and Truck Lettering, on Lawrence Avenue, near Caledonia. The garage door was large enough to admit a transport truck. On winter nights, these great creatures had entered, the clumped snow and salt dropping from huge wheels. As the beasts dripped, my father had wiped off the panels and prepared his work for the next day. He was always working, our dinners in the apartment above the sign shop interrupted by a doorbell.
He was always there. After school, before climbing the metal stairs to the apartment above, I had sat in my convent-school kilt on the lower steps, and read out to him, or just talked. His mahl stick in hand, seated on the overturned coke case, he had listened to my day.
His patterns had filled the racks, close to the ceiling. Like an archivist, he had designed the racks, so he could locate any pattern, from years ago, filed according his own unique order. Sometimes the customers would argue with him about these patterns, claim they were included in the price of a job. My father had known they would take his patterns to some shoemaker – scarparu – who would do the work for less; not the same work, of course, impossible that these could be of the same quality. He was the best, But quality was not what had mattered to these customers. It was simply a question of price.
“What happened with the work you did for Tony Ucello? – the one with the bakery on Lawrence?” The question filled the seams of our silence. He never questioned the questions.
“That asshole.” His body was suddenly agitated in the lawn chair, as if the past was present, all over again. “He ordered a sign for the mosto per vino, grape season. And then he didn’t pay. And then he has the nerve to come back the next year, wanting another. ‘You pay me for last year’s, first.’ ‘We’ll settle up both signs together,’ Ucello says. ‘Like hell we will. Is that the way you do business? You feed your family this way, with what you steal from another man’s family, his children’s mouths? You can stick your business.’” My father gave the Italian salute, fist raised in defiance.
“I didn’t know, at the time, he was mafioso. It was Angelo, the guy with the coffee truck, warned me about Ucello – did this thumb-nail-across-the-throat thing, warned me to be careful. Tony Ucello ended up in the trunk of his big-shot status car and here I am, at ninety-two.”
“You had guts.”
“Life takes guts.”
As we climbed, my man hugging the mountains of Montalto Uffugio, my fear mounted, not trusting to the road, to my man’s command of the gears, whether we would find shelter anywhere, whether we could make it back, in the dark. The sun was descending. Parts of the mountain road were already dark. Then, at one curling bend in the road, a transport descended.
“Turn back,” I commanded.
My man continued to climb.
“What do you want me to do, pull a U-turn off the mountain?”
A narrow laneway descended at a perilous angle off the left side of the road. My man pulled ahead of it, on the shoulder of the oncoming lane, and began backing into the narrow lane. I threw open the passenger door, and leapt out, trembling. A woman on a Vespa stopped and asked if I needed help.
“Ho paura.” It came out of me like a cry. “I’m afraid.”
I looked at my father, in the basement where we were painting. As a young girl, I had been so proud of him – the only artist in the neighbourhood, in the world, as I knew it. He had been champion weightlifter of Ontario, in the lightweight division, could bench press twice his own weight. Such a strong man. Without fear. I looked at him and thought, my father postponed himself. Signs and trucks for the likes of Tony Ucello.
“He doesn’t talk.” I had taken my mother out for a glass of wine. The wine was a necessity.
“Mom, how can he make small talk?”
“It’s so silent. We used to be able to get out, like this, even for a coffee.”
“I told you, use the cab chits. Doesn’t matter what it costs for a Tim Horton’s coffee.”
“In the spring…”
“Don’t wait. No matter how bad it is, it can always get worse. At least he can still walk, climb the stairs. Use the cab chits, while you can.”
“Our world has become so small…It isn’t fair that it should happen like this. We did nothing to deserve this…”
In the delusion of the opiates they give him for the pain, he is climbing again the mountains of the West Coast. It is World War II. One of the men is spooked on the ropes, tugs at my father’s back. The man, with his fear, could peel them all off the side of the mountain, like a string of flies, caught by the same tape.
When the opiates wore off, he told me of a real dream he used to have, as a young father:
“We were on a ledge, at the side of a mountain. I had to get my little girls to safety. I knew I could jump up and hold my weight. ‘Use my body as a ladder,’ I’d tell you girls. Then I’d worry. How would I catch you, if you fumbled? Could I reach back to support you, and still hold our weights? The dream kept adding problems. Which one would climb first? It had to be the youngest, so the oldest could catch her, if she fell. But would I have the strength to take the heaviest, last? Problems. So many problems...”
The image he painted was of a father, who would not always be there, to protect.
In Jesuite, the strange woman on the Vespa negotiated our room, while we stood helplessly in the foyer of a hotel, closed for the season. The pool had been drained, the dining banquet facility, with a capacity of hundreds, lay empty, its windows boarded for the season. A fish tank, off to the side of the front desk, gurgled with dirty water; the fish looked desultory, as if knowing itself neglected and about to die. My man gave the proprietor our passports. Married? Yes, we lied. It would take about thirty minutes for the staff to re-open and air the room, to make our bed.
“Go ask some questions,” my man said, as we approached a cluster of women. The houses were dense, embracing for comfort at the base of a church.
The entire town appeared to be paved in ceramic, the walkways in front of the houses meticulously clean. Two women lingered on a patio, just off an open kitchen, where another two women cleaned up after the evening meal. I announced myself, shyly, as being from Canada. Had they known of a Rosina Iantorno, my grandmother?
One of the women knocked on the nearby door of the Signora Francesca, who had lived in Canada, raised a family there, and was now returned, alone. An ancient woman came to the door. We spoke to each other in two broken languages. Yes, she remembered a Rosina Iantorno. So many years ago…Rosina had married a man from San Vincenzo. He had taken her away to Canada. They had never returned.
Now the group of women had grown. A walk began, to show us the old monastery of Jesuite, a primitive cell, where a single priest had prayed and died in isolation, and for which the town was named. One diminutive guide, closer to the ground than me by a foot, bore a stick, searching the underbrush with a trained eye, lifting.
“What are you searching?”
“A mushroom picker, what she did all day she couldn’t cease doing in the night. I had seen the mushroom pickers elsewhere in Calabria, the work arduous, even for the young.
“Appartiene tutto a lui. Non ho paura di niente e di nessuno,” she volunteers. (Everything belongs to him. I am afraid of nothing and nobody.)
I hadn’t asked.
“Nessuno deve dirmi quello che fare. Non appartengo a nessuno. Non ho proprio paura di nessuno.” (No one tells me what to do. No one owns me. I fear nobody.)
On an impulse, I reached out and touched her, gently, on her cheek:
“Sei molto gentile.”
Startled at my touch, she looked up from the point of her stick, taking me into the silence of her eyes.
“No, sei tu che sei gentile.”
“Your grandfather walked seven kilometers between villages from San Vincenzo to Jesuite every Sunday to court your grandmother, and back again, in the evening...To think, you were there...”
I had stood on the road in San Vincenzo, overlooking the valley, listening to the sound of men hammering, constructing new out of old, building…Was it for the sons of the returning rich?
“Where are the men?” my man had asked in Jesuite.
In San Vincenzo, with its men on rooftops or scaling scaffolding, I took a picture of my grandmother’s town, tucked and secretive across the valley, almost hidden in the dense dark growth.
A young Rosina stands beside the chair on which Rosario sits, her left hand with its wedding band worn on the middle finger placed delicately on his broad shoulder. His eyes, dark as the shells of roasted chestnuts, stare with male confidence at the camera. Everything of my grandmother’s face has faded in this photograph, except her eyes, doe eyes, soft and fearful. Her mouth has vanished into sepia silence, a silence that seems to go on, forever.
“Do you remember the hallucinations, Dad? The delusions you had, at the beginning, before the hip surgery?”
“You wouldn’t bring me down. I was hanging from the ceiling.”
“Oh, Dad, that wasn’t real. You weren’t really hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t help you from the bed. You couldn’t walk. Your hip was broken.”
“Then why did you ask?”
Signs and trucks for the likes of Ucello. What my father had not accomplished now haunted his eyes.
In emergency, the nurse had given him an overdose of the pain medication. He couldn’t breathe. His arms flailed and ran for their lives, his life. One articulate word: Problem. Breath intake, throat closed like a trap. “Surely one of you can be spared?” I asked at the door where a motorcycle victim was dying. One nurse administered a shot that reversed the last. My father’s unfocussed eyes returned. Awareness of the pain. Relief in awareness of the pain.
“I see the tops of trees,” he says from his hospital bed. They have moved him from emergency to the room where he awaits hip surgery. He refuses morphine. Better the pain than delusions. But it is slow to leave the body. He loops in and out.
“Just a step. I had to try. Just a step…”
A fall from the side of a mountain to the ceramic kitchen floor.
“Let it go, Dad.”
“She’s just glad you’re still here.”
“They gave me a window,” he says suddenly, with wonder. “Is there a garden outside my room? Are those pumpkins on the ridge?”
He sounds excited, almost hopeful.
It was Jesuite my father was painting, at the time of the fall, from the vantage of his father’s town of San Vincenzo, in Calabria. It would be his last painting.
With my back to his bed, I describe the view from my father’s hospital window. I paint a garden, the tips of trees reaching skyward, about to burst their spring relief. I paint a garden, where there is a parking lot.
Who will mix my colours? Who will mix my colours, when you are gone?
Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and award-winning writer. Author of a growing collection of books, her short fiction has garnered literary awards, including the title story of her 7th book, Making Olives and Other Family Secrets (Ripasso), which won the Bressani Literary Award in 2008, and also included “Touching Calabria,” a winner in an Accenti Magazine competition. Her collection of linked short-stories Stations of the Heart (Exile Editions, 2013) again won the Bressani Literary Award in 2014. That collection included “Waiting”, short-listed for the Vanderbilt sponsored Carter V. Cooper, Exile Short Fiction Competition 2011-12 in the established writer category. She was again short-listed in 2017 for “Winners and Losers,” a story which grows out of her legal background. Madott is currently at work on a collection of linked short-stories under the title will be published by GUERNICA, spring, 2023. Her literary contemplation “Dying Times” was published by EXILE Editions, fall, 2021.
Webpages: www.DarleneMadott.com& www.DyingTimes.com