Sunday, June 14, 2009

FICTION-"CAN OF PEAS"-A Simple Can of Peas Changes the Lives of Immigrants and Their Children

The protagonist of this story "Can of Peas" grew up believing that a humble can of peas saved her parents from certain death on the rocky immigrant boat of their passage from Italy to America.

But was it a can of peas or something that sounds like a can of peas that saved the lives on that vote and changed the fortunes of the believers soon to be born of the survivors?

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Can of Peas

I held the yellowed, crinkled piece of paper tightly in my fists. I did not, literally, know whether to laugh or to cry. I could, given any tiny impetus, have screamed to the gods above, raised my fist in a strange combination of hilarity and anger and irony and, screamed and screamed and….

“It is a can of peas,” I remember my mother telling me in her sing-song English with her funny Italian accent. I was only five or six years old and had somehow climbed up to the tiny window above our small kitchen sink to reach that round object that had captured my toddler fancy since I’d been born. Or at least so my mother told me. I bowed my head and did a quick sign of the cross in reverence to my dear departed mother who’d so carefully cultivated and passed on the history, wisdom and sobriety of the family’s cherished can of peas.

“You can learn a lot from a can of peas, Nina,” my mother told me. By then I was holding the can in my little girl hands, twirling it round and round, ready to roll it across the floor as if the toy I thought it surely was. My mother’s hands prevented me from abusing the can of peas in any fashion and my childish self was frustrated. I wondered about all the adoration of this can and for what? I couldn’t even roll it across the floor, watch the faded and old-fashioned label rotate as the can rolled over the cracked linoleum, maybe catching one of our cats’ eyes in the action?

Mama chucked me under the chin and carefully removed the can of peas from eager fat hands and for about five more full years I never gave that odd can of peas sitting in the alcove of that little window another thought.

Then my father opened his factory canning peas and tomatoes. For this was America after all, home of the free and the brave and in our case, the well off who’d finally found their riches in pursuit of a happiness that found an eager market selling a product for which people were willing to pay.

Oh we were not fabulously wealthy, the Biancos of Bianco Canning Factory fame. My family’s canning factory was located right outside of Baltimore’s Little Italy. We canned two products: tomatoes for the tomato sauces that would dress the pizzas in Little Italy or cover the huge pasta bowls for which this part of Baltimore was famous. Also,
Bianco’s Canning Factory was also the only place in the state of Maryland that canned peas.

“Hi Mom. Has Donnie been out yet?” I looked at my beautiful daughter then asking about her brother and wondered for a second just where I was and why.

“He’s in the back,” I said distractedly to Bennie, short for Bernadette. “He’s giving a private tour to some local bigwigs. He’s hoping to get some funds to finance a world wide tour featuring his art.”

Bennie’s eyes glowed. She was so proud of her little brother. I noticed a crowd of people behind her and I smiled. Bennie said she was bringing everybody she worked with to Donnie’s private art show and it looked like she had.

“Come on, guys. Let me give you an upfront and personal tour, all special by the sister of the artist whose work you will be seeing tonight. He’s taking bids on EVERYTHING so don’t hesitate to ask for a price quote if you see anything you like. If all goes well Donnie will be going on a world tour with his art. I’m betting none of you has ever seen the lowly pea presented in so many forms and fashions.”

Bennie’s voice faded off as she led her entourage off for their personal tour and I had to smile. For Bennie was right. My artist son Donnie had always been infatuated with the family’s business icon and he’d painted, drawn, penciled or sketched cans of peas, boxes of frozen peas, peas still on the vine, peas sitting on a plate swimming in butter and, in one very controversial work of art that first brought Donnie to the attention of the Baltimore Sun, a beautiful green pea actually nailed to a cross, a spear piercing it’s round middle, ruby red blood dripping from the wound.

I was the first one to get angry about that picture. It was a sacrilege as I saw it. I’d tolerated Donnie’s unusual fascination with peas since he was a toddler, even the drawing of a pea wearing a sexy yellow bikini. Donnie was an artist, my husband, sweet Sal now departed for ten years, and artists do not think like most of us, so Sal explained to my dismayed self. For myself I’d just as soon Donnie take a few accounting courses at Baltimore Community college, maybe minor in this art stuff but get a degree and a normal life and pursue that artistic side as more of a hobby.

Both of my children had enough money in a trust fund established by my parents that they didn’t have to work a day in their lives if they did not want to. I however had not been raised in a huge house with a live-in Nanny, a cook to make my meals, with money enough to pursue hobbies and obtain the latest technological baubles. I knew what it was like to live in a tiny home in the projects, to have the winds blow cold through cracked doors on winter nights, to listen as my parents worried about rent, food, shoes.

I looked at Donnie’s huge oil painting of a box of frozen peas that hung above my head and sighed.

As I understood it, the can of peas was considered some sort of divine revelation in my side of the Bianco family. The Biancos were originally from Sicily, a dirt-poor clan that dabbled in crime although nowhere near the glamour of the Godfather. My grandparents somehow bribed a ship’s captain to board a bunch of us in stowaway for a trip to America, back in the day when such things were possible and when immigration authorities willy-nilly stamped new arrivals’ fake passports as if genuine, often giving them new, more pronounceable names in the process. There were eighteen Biancos on that boat for a trip to America. As I understood it there were cousins, second cousins, third cousins, uncles, aunts. Few kept contact with each other once on land but my grandparents were on that boat as was my 14 year old mother and her secret love crush at the time, her 16 year old boyfriend.

The boat hit a terrible storm while at sea and the story was told to me many times through the years, by my mother and my father, but their English was heavily-accented and it all happened when their memories were young and fresh and told when their memories were older and half-forgotten. As best I understood, it was a can of peas that saved everyone on board, the same can of peas that occupied that special perch in the kitchen window of my early childhood as I believed.

Now just how the can of peas saved the lives of all passengers on that horrific journey is not clear. As I remember my mother’s tale of the event, and as I splice it in with my father’s version of the story, all were asleep on the boat, including all stowaways then hidden deep in the bowels of the boat. Suddenly the sound of a can rolling around on the oak flooring of the ships bottom woke up one of the babies on board. The baby started crying and soon its parents woke up. The sound of the can rolling around grew louder although I’ve concluded that maybe it was the sobs of the baby accompanied by the movement of the awakened parents that woke all the stowaways but soon everybody was up and about and my father grabbed the can of peas to stop the noise. In short time somebody went up on deck and found the captain of the ship passed out cold.

A storm was tossing the ship as if were a toy on that restless ocean and this is how that can of peas likely got dislodged although no one knows how the can of peas got down on the lower level in that all foodstuff was, obviously, stored in the galley, clear on the other end of the ship. A couple of the adults managed to get the captain awake. He had an awful hangover and worse, his crew of five were totally missing.

The story is that the adults all pooled their talent and resources and managed to bring that ship to shore. The rest of the crew, it is believed, fell overboard from their drunkenness but thank God, as my father would tell me after making a thoughtful sign of the cross, the captain didn’t fall off the boat as even with all the stowaways helping, nobody knew how to pilot that boat.

I think that there might not even have been any “crew” on that boat, that the captain was the only guy in charge and once he got drunk and passed out, well the can of peas rolling around did somehow, according to the stories, wake everyone and save the day.

But this is all just speculation on my part. My parents were young teenagers, it was dark, they were terrified. They lived, they married, they did well in their new country. And they figured they owed it all to a can of peas.

Stranger things have happened is how Sal would phrase it with a playful mocking wink at how much my parents respected a damn can of peas that Sal figured probably had nothing to do with nothing.

Sal didn’t much appreciate our own son’s obsession with all things pea related but for the most part he would shrug. “He’s got talent, Nina. He’s got a nice trust fund. What else is money for but to give you freedom to do what you want to do?”

My parents, Donnie’s grandparents, didn’t help much. Through the years the lowly pea, either canned, frozen or raw in the garden, became an icon for all wisdom, for deep thought, for meaning religious.

“Peas mature in a pod, maybe five, six…even seven or eight them all in a pod. The snuggle next to one another and they don’t argue or fight. They get along until as a group the peas mature until they, as a team, burst the confines of the pod and are free.”

“When peas are frozen they take on a totally different texture than when they are canned. Their skins remain firm and a pea eaten from a can is a whole different thing than a frozen pea, both of which are far removed from the raw pea from which they all started. Shows the ability of the pea to be many things, depending on the need.”

“The vine of the pea is a most beautiful thing. It twirls around, using tendrils to attach itself to anything nearby, climbing high to allow its pods to hang far from the dirt and to quickly dry from the rotting rains.”

Of course I paraphrase the above statements given through the years by either my mother or my father. My father did raise peas in our backyard but as far back as I can remember, we never ate a pea one in our house, Italians that we were we had no particular allegiance to the humble pea that could be better used on a beloved zucchini. In fact, I think my Dad took a loss on the line of canning peas and most of his profit came from canning tomatoes. Peas grow better in cooler climes so canning factories up around the Great Lakes made money from canning peas while tomatoes love Maryland’s heat and humidity.

But the legend of the peas grew like the sweet pea vines in my Dad’s garden and while I could have laughed it off and left it behind with my childish things, my son’s fascination and obsession with the vegetable wouldn’t let me leave it alone.

Now I held the crinkled letter, left at the front desk for me by my cousin Sabrina. She found it in an old suitcase in her grandparents’ attic. Sabrina phoned me earlier in the day, excited at her find.

“It’s neat, Nina. Did you know that the old boat they cross the Atlantic in almost sunk?” I told Sabrina that I’d heard that story often. I asked her if she knew that everyone on board was saved by a can of peas.

“Yes!” Sabrina responded with zeal. “It’s the neatest thing, isn’t it? In fact, my grandparents had one of them at their wedding!”

I was busy this morning but the notion that my cousin’s grandparents, however on earth they were related to me, had a can of peas at their wedding did stop, briefly, in my mind, as I tried to imagine the concept. Sabrina, who I think was probably my fifth or sixth cousin, said she would leave the old letter she’d found from her grandmother’s sister in Italy to her grandmother at the front desk of the gallery when she stopped by to see Donnie’s show. She wanted me to get a price for archiving the thing. Sal dabbled in the art of archiving and Sabrina felt that this letter was valuable and would be cherished by the Bianco descendents of the day and the descendents to come.

“Dear Cassie.” I read the Italian greeting, all I could understand, from the yellowing note written in the small neat handwriting of what was obviously of a woman’s script. Sabrina’s Great Aunt wrote the letter in Italian but Sabrina had it translated. I held the original document in one hand and the translated version in the other. I pondered that errors in translation might have caused what had to be a huge error in how it all originally came down.

“I am so glad for you and your new American husband Benjamin. It is so wonderful that he has a good job selling outdoor furniture and how you influenced him to that career. Your little boy looks just like you!

“It’s been so long since I saw you. I pray to the Virgin Mary that Rocco makes enough money that we can come to America to visit you. I worried for so long if you made it safe to America and I wonder if I made the right choice in staying behind. But I had little Rocco and you were only ten years old. You could start a new life in a new land. I had a husband and two little children.

“It’s just as well that I didn’t know how harrowing the trip was. That awful storm! How you had to hold onto the ship’s canopy to keep from being swept overboard. How the baby’s bottle rolling around in the ship’s hold woke you up. I cannot imagine a ten year old child going through such a thing.

“I am sure that Jesus forgives that you got pregnant before you married Benjamin as His own mother was not married when He was born, do not forget. Besides, neat how you remembered how that ship’s canopy saved you, how you talked Benjamin into taking a job selling lawn chairs, awnings, canopies. It’s wonderful how well you’ve done and your house is huge. And gorgeous!

“Yes, Maria, a canopy does cover and protect. There is a symbolism there. Look at how well selling them has served you and your family!”

The letter went on for two more pages but it was just the more normal verbiage of an older sister from the old country writing her lucky young sibling living happy and rich in the great country of America. My eyes would read, then stop and stare, at the story of the ship’s canopy, how Sabrina’s grandmother remembers holding onto it during the raging storm. Ships do have canopies, as my research indicated. But surely it was a coincidence? Perhaps it was a flag pole that Sabrina’s mother called a canopy? Or the whole story got confused and interchanged in the translation?

But it was a baby’s bottle rolling around the floor of the ship that stormy night, according to Sabrina’s grandmother. It was not a can of peas as my parents believed. The “can of peas” was a canopy that saved the lives of those on board. Or maybe it was the baby’s bottle that saved the lives. Maybe there was no canopy. Maybe there was no can of peas. Maybe my parents’ version of events was right and Sabrina’s grandmother got it all wrong. I didn’t know. I knew the ship went through a storm. Something rolled around in the dark of the hold. Either a canopy or a can of peas were given attribution for saving the stowaways.

“Mom!” I quickly folded up the letter from Sabrina’s grandmother and its translation. My son was hurrying toward me and he looked excited.

“They are going to finance my tour, Ma,” Donnie told me. “Tomorrow I am packing and on Thursday, I am heading to Europe! And every single painting has a bid on it, Ma. Before the night is over I will have all my artwork sold. But don’t worry Ma,” Donnie told me, a twinkle of joy shining bright in his eye, “I am only too happy to paint more peas. It was a can of peas that saved the day for my grandparents and it will be a can of peas that will make my future. Hell I could paint anything but an artist needs to have a symbol, something that keeps him different from the rest of the pack. The humble pea is my symbol.”

Of course I did not say, or will I ever say, a word about that letter to Sabrina’s grandmother from her sister.

My father’s factory canned peas. My son painted them. Sabrina’s grandfather sold canopies.

This great country blessed us all. There was a belief, a talent and the willingness to work at it.

In the end, it’s all that really mattered.
To the Main Blog…Over a Million Page Views


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The protagonist of this story "Can of Peas" grew up believing that a humble can of peas saved her parents from certain death on the rocky immigrant boat of their passage from Italy to America.

But was it a can of peas or something that sounds like a can of peas that saved the lives on that vote and changed the fortunes of the believers soon to be born of the survivors?

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