When I was five, my parents came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that they were not cut out to be parents. So they dumped me off with my grandmother and grandfather and headed for Italy, the country from which their own grandparents had fled. My final memory of them was at Kennedy Airport as their flight was about to board, my father telling me to be a good girl, my mother making a last-minute dash to grab People magazine.
My father’s parents, Dorothea and Vincent, lived in a small, cramped house in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. He worked as a general laborer; she worked weekends as a housekeeper for a lesbian couple with an adopted son. Dorothea and Vincent did what they had to: they fed me, sent me to school, made sure I knew the Mass in both English and Latin, and seldom mentioned my parents.
When I was almost eleven, my grandfather—who distrusted doctors—hurt his back while trying to pry apart a frozen stack of 2-by-4s. He took to his bed for the weekend, the week, the months that followed. I looked after him on Saturday and Sunday when my grandmother was at work. Dorothea borrowed money from my grandfather’s brother, took a part-time job in a pet shop on Colonial Road, and publicly referred to her now immobile husband as mia sofferenza: my burden.
I liked my grandfather. He called me “Ro” instead of Rosaria, treated me as if I were already a teenager, and told me stories about growing up in a town called Bella, where there were wolves and spies and Fascists. One time, right after he got hurt, he called me over to his bedside, had me bend toward him, and produced a quarter from my ear. It was from a country—Canada—where neither of us had ever set foot.
When my grandmother got tired of lugging meals up the stairs, she called in a neighbor who helped move my grandfather to the couch in the living room. He’d been bedridden for three months, and had developed a cough he claimed was due to a lack of fresh air.
“Better he’s downstairs,” my grandmother said to me one night as we put away dishes. “Be easier to get him into the hearse.”
It was shortly before Easter that Dorothea brought home the first canary. The cage was hung in the corner of the downstairs kitchen, and in return for taking care of the bird, I was allowed to give it a name. I called it “Chipper,” and had my grandmother buy me a book on the proper care of canaries.
Canaries, the book said, have saved the lives of many miners both at home and overseas. Their sensitivity to carbon monoxide and methane gasses has signaled deadly danger far beneath the surface of the earth.
My grandmother brought home another canary that same week. I called it “Tweetie,” put it in the same cage as Chipper, fed and groomed them both, listened to their mutual song. Their twittering helped to mask the noise from the adjoining living room—the snoring, the coughing, the television—where my grandfather lay dying.
By June there were nineteen canaries in thirteen cages. Their care now became my major chore. Mia sofferenza. My school work suffered, my social life remained non-existent, my time with my grandfather all but vanished.
He died in August.
But the canaries remained. I listened to them every morning after my grandmother left for her work. For six weeks, while I cleaned the house and waited for school to start again, they sharpened their beaks on cuttlebones and kicked gravel onto my clean floor. Their constant crapping sounded like rain on a thatch roof. They continued to sing, to make fun of me, even when I struck their cages with the flat of my hand. I started to think of them as my grandmother’s accomplices, partners in crime who had refused to listen, refused to lift a hand or ruffle a feather, refused to do anything but tweet and flutter while a man was dying just a few feet inside the front door.
One morning I killed all nineteen of them by blowing out the pilot light on the gas stove, closing the kitchen window and the door to the living room, before going out to do the food shopping. When I got home three hours later, I aired out the house, called my grandmother, told her through phony tears that a mysterious tragedy had occurred, and begged her to come home right away.
Later that night, when I admitted what I’d done, she called me a murderer. “You could have blown up the house,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We can buy more birds.”
But we never did.
My grandmother had a stroke and was hospitalized less than a year after, and I was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Arizona. They treated me well. They taught me how to ride a horse and how to play the clarinet. They told me when my grandmother had stopped breathing. And they looked upon birds as wild creatures, often the harbingers of death, best kept outside, living in trees apart from the living.
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