For as long as I can remember I have looked into the sad eyes of gentle Italian men and wondered.  I think it started with my grandfather, a soft-spoken man whose eyes held tales of sorrow locked inside for so long that they loomed like ghosts in the night.  Each morning he would sit in the slatted lawn chair by the fig tree behind our house on St. Mary’s Avenue and take the sun as if it were food for his soul.  My father, who often sat with him in total silence, would stare upon our small world with those same sad eyes.

Sometimes I wonder if  I, being so much an American that Italy is a foreign country to me, can ever understand the sorrow of old paesani sitting in the sun.  And of what is this tender sadness made?

My grandfather, a skilled tailor, came to this country from Sicily.  Eventually he made a fair living sewing suits of clothing for all manner of people.  He made me my first suit for Easter Sunday, 1951, when I was three years old.  I remember him measuring my arms, chest, inseam as I stood, patient and excited, delighted with so much attention from this mysterious old man who loved me with a passion I took for granted.  I recall the rich cloth that he cut to size with sharp shears, then pieced together to make a suit fine enough for celebrating the eternal resurgence of life in the Spring.

The story I am about to tell you is, like that first suit of mine, cut from whole cloth, that is, from the lives of the people of St. Mary’s Avenue.  I have pieced it together from what I saw, from what I felt, from what I overheard in steamy kitchens on Feast Days when I was supposed to be not listening.  Basting these precious pieces together, I have fine-stitched them with what I could not know but surmise so that the suit, the story, might be a proper fit for sad-eyed Italian men and the mysteries they carry within them.

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