When my mother died, I finally went home for a year. I had been a successful musician and music critic for more than 40 years and enjoyed a decent measure of success. As a musician, lot of what is inside is often revealed, and my coming home was a return to a part of my life that I resolutely closed behind me long ago.
Our green and white house was second from the corner, where summer screens enclosed a wraparound porch and a pine tree sheltered my mother’s prize red maple. We were a big noisy Jewish family, and we lived next to the nice Italians who were also pretty noisy whenever their clan gathered for cherry picnicking.
When Giacomo Vianello moved next door with his abundantly pregnant wife and three daughters, the two couples hit it off instantly. My mother loved gardening and Giacomo always had a seedling for her, and Rosa Vianello was a religious Catholic who loved my father’s rabbinic tales. When little Rosanna was born, I was sent over with a fragrant apple strudel and strict instructions not to go in—just deliver.
My second floor bedroom overlooked the Vianello’s backyard where a cherry tree of massive proportions reigned. This paean to verdant magnificence rose majestically from a gnarl of rich brown roots, and from my window I would watch Rosa Vianello hang out laundry while Giacomo dozed.
It was an early summer afternoon when I met Joseph Bozzato for the first time.
I was about eleven and sitting on the steps with Rosanna on my lap, talking to Mary about religion. The differences between our cultures were fodder for endless discussions—my father being a rabbi and the Vianello’s being devout Catholics. We were talking about candle lighting when Joseph came out through the back yard.
“Hey, Mary, what’cha doing here?” he demanded. “Your mother’s looking for you and she wants to show off Rosanna.”
“Okay, okay—I’m coming,” said Mary and reached for the cherub in my lap. “Gotta go,” she whispered.
Suddenly Joseph saw me, and sat down. “Who’s this?” he said, turning to Mary.
“Oh,” said Mary. “This is my best friend, Rachel. She lives next door.”
There was a moment of silence, and I took in the tousled black haired boy whose strong eyebrows titled clear blue eyes. No one ever looked at me that way before and I got up to escape when I felt a touch on my shoulder.
“Wait,” said Joseph. “You come, too.”
Mary looked at him.
“No, Joseph, she…” Mary faltered, and continued, “she just said that she’s gotta go.”
“Liar,” said Joseph quietly, and went back the way he came. Mary quickly followed with Rosanna in her arms. I ran home.
In the Vianello backyard, the picnic was in progress. From my window, I saw Mary and Joseph arguing in the “Madonna of the Garden” nave. Abruptly Joseph turned, looked up at my window and saw me.
All of a sudden pandemonium broke out. Someone had climbed the tree, chosen a sturdy limb heavy with fruit, and was sawing it down. Then, with an excruciating crack, the heavy limb broke, and after wildly swinging like a mortally wounded bull, it was powerfully wrestled to the ground. Thereupon, everyone swiftly deflowered it of its plump, delectable fruits.
In the limb’s place, there was an expanse of blue sky; it felt like a tooth missing.
I did not see Joseph again that summer.
The next summer, on the way to the library, I did meet him. I didn’t realize that he was there until I heard a soft, “Rachel?”
My smile was spontaneous.
“Can I come?”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
So we went to the library, he carried my books, we talked about our families and when we were almost home, I saw Mary running toward us.
“Oh boy, Joe, are you gonna catch it.” She was out of breath and her eyes wide with fear. Turning to me, she said, “You’re crazy, Rachel. Your parents are gonna kill you!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but when I got home, I went straight to my room and watched as Joseph was accosted by Mrs. Vianello and another woman, probably his mother. My interest was suddenly diverted by a great shout and like the year before, with a terrible crack, a huge limb painfully tore itself from the tree and was forcibly tamed into submission—and ravished of its fruits by a multitude of grasping fingers.
Another expanse of blue, and another tooth lost.
I did not see Joseph again that summer.
The next summer, I wasn’t home on the afternoon of the Vianello’s picnic; I had a babysitting job. My mother had taken me aside and gently explained why a friendship with Joseph Bozzato was not “a good idea”. She was wise, this mother of mine, but something in me sustained the barest of hairline fractures. I don’t know how Joseph found me in Kelly Park. A shadow fell over the baby in my lap and I looked up into Joseph’s clear eyes.
“Rachel,” he said quietly. “Are you running away?”
“What are you doing here?” I said. “I have a summer job and you should be over there, cutting down the tree and picking cherries off its carcass.” I began to cry. I don’t know if I wept for the destruction of the tree or for the futility of our friendship, but my heart was cracking.
“Why can’t we be friends?”
“Go back, Joseph. Go back to your people and let me stay with mine.”
“Why is everyone so stubborn?”
“Joseph,” I pleaded, “please, listen to me and go back.”
“Why should I listen?”
“Only because I’m asking you, Joseph.”
Then he said, “Rachel, I’m going because you’re asking me to. I don’t want you to cry. But it’s wrong.” Then he slowly reached out, gently smudged away my tears, and left.
I didn’t see him again that summer, but the next day I saw another great expanse of sky. The tree stood lopsided now. The trunk was valiantly sturdy but the heavy boughs were few and far apart.
The next year I went to summer camp, and when I came home, I looked at the mutilated cherry tree and could only see tragedy. That fall, I was accepted into Julliard and began my musical education in earnest.
The void that Joseph left was never filled, and there was comfort in that; I missed him and knew that he missed me, too, and my mother and Mrs. Vianello remained fast friends. I would never leave the fold—and Joseph would remain the devout Italian Catholic of his upbringing. My career in music took center stage, Italy was always on my itinerary, and I always searched the phone books for Bozzato, Joseph.
I was in Sweden when someone informed me of my mother’s death and the necessity of my immediate return. I gave notice, effective right after the evening’s concert, and took a flight back.
One day, soon after my return, I found myself in my old bedroom, overlooking the Vianello backyard where Mary argued with Joseph a lifetime ago. There was only a black piece of broken marble where the “Madonna of the Garden” once stood, and the yard was completely overgrown. Then I saw where the cherry tree had been—now, only a low, black stump.
I went downstairs and out, over to the Vianello’s. It was strange, unfamiliar territory and I didn’t belong here, but I went into the back and sat down on the stump and began to cry. I wept for the loss of my wise mother, my dreams, my expectations, and the realities and necessity of coming to peace with my life such as it had become. And, I wept for the boy, Joseph.
Then I smelled the cherry tobacco and shaving cologne.
It was Joseph, the man.
“Rachel,” he said. “When I heard that your mother passed away, I knew you’d be here.”
Seeing the protest in my tear-stained face, he held up a hand.
“Wait, let me finish. Every time and everywhere you played in Italy, I was there, and when you played, you were mine, alone. Like there was no one else in the world. Maybe they heard you, but Rachel, you were only mine.
“But I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel, here, at the cherry tree.”
Then he held out a small planter containing several pale green shoots.
“Here,” he said, his voice breaking. “Take this.”
He put his hands around mine. “They’re from the cherry tree. Plant them where you will, to honor the tree that was—and to cherish the love that could never be. Rachel, you will be in my mind’s eye until my eyes can see no more.”
He bent his head and brushed his hand across his eyes.
Then he turned, and walked away.
Story by: Leigh Dolinger
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