I know that there probably wasn’t a lot of dancing and dining by candlelight in my parents’ journey from Russia through Europe, but Al and I made sure we did twice as much of both to make up for Mama and Papa’s hardships. After leaving Vienna, we took a detour into Italy to visit Milan and take in an opera at La Scala in honor of my father’s story about his short-lived career as the world’s foremost tin-eared composer.
The way he told it, my family left Austria heading for Hamburg, where we hoped we would find a boat to take us to America. I was growing fussier and fussier by the day, apparently more than happy to pass the time on the road learning the full range of my vocal ability. Papa would sing to soothe me, but I had a hard time falling asleep to Yiddish lullabies when Papa sounded like an out of tune bassoon. His voice nearly qualified as child abuse.
What’s worse was that Mama noticed we were heading in the wrong direction and Papa wouldn’t turn the cart around. It’s nice to know that the age-old tradition of men refusing to ask for directions goes back to a time before we even had automobiles.
After a few days traveling toward Germany (according to Papa) or toward who knows where (according to Mama), we ran into three Italian soldiers who seemed to be looking for someone. They stopped our cart and searched through our belongings, but Papa and Mama kept quiet because they didn’t understand the language and, more importantly, they’d noticed a man hiding fifty feet over their heads in a tree. The soldiers eventually gave up and continued searching further on down the road.
When they were out of sight, Papa waved up to the man in the tree and he dropped down in front of our horse.
“Thank you,” said the man in Yiddish.
“How did you know we’re Jewish?” said Papa.
“I recognized the old lullaby you were singing before the soldiers stopped you. It was my grandmother’s favorite.”
“Was your grandmother tone deaf too?” asked my mother.
The man smiled and stuck out his hand. “My name is Charles Abuza. I’m Italian, but my father was Jewish, so I learned Yiddish from him and my grandparents.
“What are Italian soldiers doing in Germany?” asked my father.
“Here’s a better question. What is a nice Jewish family doing in Italy, thinking they’re in Germany?” laughed Charles. My mother elbowed Papa so hard he nearly fell off the cart. She explained the situation while Papa massaged his bruised ribs, and Charles suggested that we continue on to the port in Genoa instead of backtracking two weeks to Hamburg. He had a cousin who lived there who could help us get on a boat, and he would be glad to make the introductions in exchange for a ride.
“Won’t the army be looking for you?” asked Mama suspiciously.
“I doubt it,” answered Charles. “Our unit isn’t even issued bullets. I guess they’re afraid we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot. Anyway, I think those idiots were more interested in stealing my cigarettes than keeping me in the service.”
Mama knew that without Charles, Papa would probably steer us all the way to China, so she let him hop on the back of the cart and Phillip helped hide him under some spare blankets. With that, they struck out toward their new destination. Whenever we passed soldiers, Mama would smile and wave and Phillip would sit on top of lumpy, blanket-covered Charles.
Somewhere in the beautiful countryside outside of Florence, Papa pulled the cart off the road for a picnic lunch and Charles filled them in on what he’d done before the army, besides hiding from them. His most recent job was counting toothpicks into boxes at a toothpick factory, which he said was as boring as watching paint dry. His family was filled with musicians and he thought maybe he could get into the family business once he got back to Genoa.
"What do you play?" asked Papa
"Cards mostly, but I can also tune a piano. That’s the plan so long as the army doesn’t find me. I think I’m safe, though. The generals are still working on marching.”
“Be careful when they get good at it,” warned Papa. “The Cossacks learned to march on our heads. I’ll always be looking over my shoulder.”
Abuza took his identification documents from his pocket and handed them to Papa. His name had never brought him any luck, so he hoped maybe Papa would make a better go of it. Charles suggested Papa whip out his new papers the next time he met up with a Cossack and repeat the phrase “Vaffanculo!”
Papa stashed the papers inside his coat, thinking maybe he could sell them for cash in an emergency. He didn’t think he’d ever have any use for Abuza’s documents, since it was unlikely our little Russian bear could convince anyone he was Italian.
“If you can say ‘si’ and ‘no,’ and ‘parmigiano,’ you know all of the Italian you’ll ever need,” said the man formerly known as Charles Abuza. “Now let’s get going.”
Just outside a little town called Torre del Lago, our guide asked how we planned to pay the passage to America. Mama grabbed a sack in the back of the cart and showed Abuza two heavy silver candlesticks, an heirloom from her mother that she intended to sell to buy our tickets. That was all the proof Charles needed to trust that our family wouldn’t steal anything from him in the night. He led the family to a beautiful villa that had belonged to the Abuza family for ten generations, with big old windows that faced the Mediterranean Sea and, off in the distance to the north, the city of Genoa. It beat sleeping in the back of our cart, that’s for sure.
Charles told my parents his cousin Giacomo was staying at the villa to get some work done, but no one expected that work to be composing a tune on the piano. Giacomo, it turned out, was a recent graduate of the conservatory in Milan.
“When you said your cousin was in the music business, I thought he also tuned pianos,” laughed Papa.
“Giacomo is a serious composer,” explained Charles. “That’s a fancy word that means he writes music and makes no money.”
Mama took Phillip upstairs to give him a much needed bath and Papa stayed downstairs, rocking me to Giacomo’s beautiful playing and fretting about securing our passage to the States. Charles tried to assure him that with Mama’s candlesticks we’d have enough to sail around the world twice, so Papa tried to relax and began humming his usual horrible, tuneless lullaby. On the other side of the room, Giacomo stopped playing to listen.
At this part of the story, Papa would always insist that Giacomo took down the notes of his horrible melody. He played it a few times on the keys and then they hummed it together. Since Mama was upstairs she couldn’t confirm or deny any of this, but for her whole life, she would always stick her fingers in her ears when Papa sang his tune. If Giacomo wrote down Papa’s melody at all, she insisted, it was to make sure he never used it.
In 1931, Al and I wanted to take a few days to travel around Italy and get in some of the more romantic stuff we could do in Europe on a honeymoon. After all, the Abuza family exodus wasn’t exactly the stuff of love poems. We took in the sights via gondola in Venice, but Al just spent the whole time coming up with shitty business idea after shitty business idea while I shot them all down. An old Vaudevillian and a bad businessman might make a great couple, but boy, were we lousy at being lovebirds.
First, Al thought maybe he would invest in a hotel and theater in the middle of the desert in some ghost town named Las Vegas. I told him he was seeing a mirage.
Then Al thought maybe he should open a bank. I suggested he take a cue from Black Tuesday and take a leap off a tall building.
Eventually I requested “O Solo Mio” from our gondolier and convinced Al to slide over and check my fillings—anything to keep his motor mouth from running.
Sophie in Venice, visible on the far right of the boat.
Our next stop was in Verona to see Juliet’s balcony. We found a small army of brokenhearted weepers sticking little notes into cracks in the side of the building where the family who inspired the Capulets supposedly once lived. It looked to me like any tenement on Delancey Street.
We sat on a low wall and stared up at the balcony for a while. Al concluded that there was no way anyone would pole vault up two stories for a flat-chested fourteen-year-old virgin, let alone commit suicide for love. I offered to test Shakespeare’s theory, so long as he drank the poison first.
Juliet’s balcony, Verona.
In Florence, we found ourselves sitting on a bench at L’Accademia in front of Michelangelo’s David. We did everything we were supposed to do. We sat in silence. We read from our little guidebook. We admired the craftsmanship. And, eventually, we dissolved into chuckles because neither one of us could do anything but stare at his marble schlong.
“Well,” said Al. “At least we know he was Jewish.”
“Come on,” I said. “I’ve got a sudden craving. Let’s see if there’s anywhere in this town where I can get a foot-long frankfurter.”
Michelangelo’s David and the leaning tower of Pisa
In Pisa, we stood in front of the leaning tower and Al was disappointed that we couldn’t climb up to the top floor for a little funny business. Thank God—after two weeks of eating pasta, if they had let me inside I would have toppled the whole thing over.
I read from our guidebook that Galileo was from Pisa and that he’d invented the thermometer and the telescope, which elicited a surprisingly sincere tip of the hat and moment of silence from Al. He explained that he owed the inventor a lot, since his friend Benny Rabinowitz owned a telescope when they were growing up and only charged him a penny to watch Irene Blatsky, their stacked neighbor, take a bath.
During our last stop in Milan, I dragged Al to La Scala to see Puccini's Turandot. I didn’t know much about opera, and all Al knew was that he was not interested. He promptly fell asleep as soon as they dimmed the lights. I, on the other hand, was in love. I don’t know whether I was more impressed with the golden building itself or the singers on stage, but I’d never experienced anything like it.
La Scala Opera House in Milan
In Act Two, I recognized a melody during one of the big arias. It took me a minute to place it, but I was listening to Papa’s terrible lullaby floating out of the mouth of one of the world’s best tenors.
I had a hunch so I checked the program, and I was thunderstruck. Sure enough, Puccini’s first name was Giacomo. Perhaps Charles Abuza really was related to Giacomo Puccini, and perhaps Papa’s little melody had traveled from Russia to Italy and wound up in his opera. More likely, maybe Papa heard this record somewhere and strung together a story that made for a better tale. It’s clear I didn’t get my gift for song from Papa, so maybe, instead, he handed down my gift for inventing stories in the name of publicity.
I didn’t really care either way. I was just happy that Papa was there with my snoring husband and me, his song echoing through La Scala instead of a steamy restaurant kitchen in Hartford.
If you would like to hear what Sophie’s Papa supposedly inspired Cousin Giacamo to write, listen to the aria "Nessun Dorma" in Turandot sung by Pavarotti. At approximately 1:10, you can hear Tucker’s father’s alleged melody.