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November 28, 2008

John Addiego on e.e. cummings

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Today's guest blogger, John Addiego --- author of THE ISLANDS OF DIVINE MUSIC --- recalls an unexpected, but life-changing gift he received from his mother at a time when he probably needed it most.

I remember a book my mother gave me for Christmas. I come from a large and generous family, survivors of the Great Depression who were barely able to feed and clothe themselves. They lavished gifts on each other and all of us kids in the 1950s. Every Sunday, we had dinner at my grandparents' house --- a huge pot of rigatoni in a roast beef and marinara sauce, feeding about 25 people. We had the same each Christmas Eve, followed by gift-giving; and in the beginning, everybody gave everybody else a gift. The geometric progression of 25 squared is 625. The local Woolworth's must have loved the Addiego family, though my grandmother always gave me soaps and colognes shaped like cars and baseball bats from the Fuller Brush or the Avon lady. When I was five or six, one of my aunts gave me cowboy chaps, and my dad said that a kid would have given an arm and a leg for that when he was my age, and I imagined this literally.

I think it was my Aunt Rose who came up with the name-in-the-hat process the next year to curb the useless consumption. I remember getting a Perry Como Live in Las Vegas record from one of my adult cousins when I was about ten, and I must have told him something like, "Imagine how excited I was when I opened this."

We may be heading for another time when the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and the men and women of my parents' generation still have a lot to teach us about giving and receiving. My mother gave me a book in my mid-teens that sits on my shelf, forty years later, frayed about the edges from use, and I want to tell you a little about this Christmas gift of long ago.

First, my mom comes from Scottish-Americans who found their way to California in 1845. She married into my dad's Italian Catholic clan, and when I was a child she always seemed Lucy to his Ricky Ricardo, a somewhat madcap blond bohemian in jeans and sweatshirts. She was a talented musician and painter, and she always read late into the night, and I've always hoped that she didn't sacrifice all of her best ambitions to motherhood. My parents split up when I was twelve, and there were hard years for her, and for the rest of us, too, but especially for her. Her husband left, her little brother died, her back needed surgery; her house started to fall apart, and she had two sloppy teen-aged boys, my brother and me, hitting wiffle balls across the living room.

Poor Mom.

When I was sixteen, I fell from grace as an athlete in ways similar to a character in my novel: my eyes got bad, my knee was badly injured. It seemed apparent that I wasn't going to be a Major League baseball player (not that this prospect had ever been viable). I started reading, and that Christmas Mom gave me a book of poetry, THE COLLECTED POEMS OF E.E. CUMMINGS.

Who would give a pink book of poetry to her sixteen-year-old son? The cover is piglet pink, the photo on the jacket flap a close up of a bald old man with deep, amazing eyes. I'd never seen anything like these poems, and I fell in love with their playfulness and sensuality, with their sprung rhythms and mysteries. I read them over and over, and I can still recite several of them; I carried this odd, pink book in my knapsack on long walks into the hills of the Berkeley Regional Parks and read them under eucalyptus trees and dreamed about my life's journey.

We don't know where we're headed. Our belts may tighten, and gifts may become more precious. As many of us hope that this new First Family will inspire us beyond fear and depression, I'm reminded of the simple, eloquent beauty of a book my mother gave me long ago at an age when I must have needed it.

Tomorrow, Eileen Goudge shares with us a collection of poetry she received at the age of 10, which she often still gives as gifts today.