“Remember Colombino,” said my dad, “no matter what you do in life, always do your very best.” Now Colombino was not my given name; it was my Dad’s way of telling me he loved me by calling me “little pigeon” in Italian. He was never demonstrative in his affection – I seldom saw my mother and him embrace, but I knew he loved me, and he showed me in so many ways.
One way was his daily invitation, when I was old enough to leave my mother and the back of the store where we lived, to come “help” him in his shop. A cobbler who learned his trade when he emigrated from Sicily at the age of 16, he considered repairing shoes and leather garments an art. He never used anything but the finest materials and was so meticulous in his stitching and dyeing that customers seldom could find where the tear had been.
Because his little shop was located in what is now known as Wrigleyville, he became the repair expert for the Chicago Cubs, and I remember players coming in to pick up a glove or shoe right before game time, dressed in their white, red, and blue jerseys. Dad, ever polite but not a great one with language, Italian or English, would smile and nod his head.
He tried to pass this pride of workmanship down to me, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t room for error. He would say patiently as he started to teach me his trade while I was a pre-teen, “No, Colombino, don’t hold the shoe like that; try it like this . . .”
One of the most profound lessons I learned in that little shop on Clark and Sheffield, which bordered on Chicago’s famous “El” tracks, was that there was always time for beauty even while eking out a living in the midst of the Great Depression. Amid the noise from the “El” train practically passing over us, Dad and I would listen to the radio – everybody’s favorite pastime while I was growing up. Usually we enjoyed the same kinds of shows: I Love A Mystery, The Shadow, and Gangbusters. But it was on Saturday afternoon when I was home from school and helping with the weekend repair work that the conflict would arise.
Always an avid sports fan, I would turn on WGN to listen to the Big Ten football teams battling it out. And of course, being from Chicago, I was especially in love with Northwestern University football, which was very hot during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Very gently, my Dad would pull his 5’4” frame away from his machine and switch the station, saying, “No, no, Colombino, no football. It is time for the opera.” He would turn the dial to WMAQ, and the smooth voice of Norman Ross, Sr. would flow out of the console, describing the afternoon’s opera from the Met. There was no convincing Dad that the Wildcats needed our attention. Any other time I could usually get my way, but Saturday afternoon was sacred. Dejectedly, I would continue to shine the shoes Dad had finished or work the stitching machine on some simple repairs, while the music of La Boheme or La Traviata filled the shop, competing with the groaning of the machines and the shuddering of the “El” train.
Dad was not satisfied with the fact that he had “won.” He wanted me to share his love of opera. He would say, “Now listen, Colombino, this is where Violetta is talking to her lover’s father,” or “Now Rudolfo is telling Mimi who he is, and they are beginning to fall in love,” or “Listen, listen to the trumpets; the great march is starting, and the stage is in two parts, one higher and one lower. Oh, it is such a beautiful procession.”
Eventually in spite of myself, I started to listen, and the beautiful Italian librettos came alive as Dad explained almost word for word what was happening, describing the scenery as he remembered it. And little by little, I began to look forward to Saturday afternoons myself; and to my surprise, I began to identify the arias and even the tenors and sopranos. To my greater astonishment, I stopped missing those Saturday afternoon football skirmishes.
It was many years before I could afford to see a real opera on a real stage. But when I finally did, I was amazed that I remembered the plot and recognized the scenes and the hauntingly beautiful music. Then, as Madama Butterfly came on stage with her little blond boy and introduced him to her Lieutenant, I realized something was missing. It was too quiet in the opera house. Immediately, memory clicked in, and the music and drama took on an added meaning as my mind produced the wonderful cacophony of the “El” tracks and the shoe repair machines.
Suddenly, I could see my dad at the finishing machine talking to me in his sweet tenor voice, and I could smell the tomatoes and garlic and onions my mother was cooking in the back room kitchen. I sighed; the performance was complete. They say you can never go home again, but I do every time I listen to Tosca or La Traviata or La Boheme, all described to me so many years ago in the most beautiful broken English I have ever heard!
Lydia Lombardo is our OLLI contributor, but the story she shares belongs to her husband, Vincent (at right), who told it to her as he remembered it.
Lydia is a long-time Great Books participant and has taken OLLI courses in literature, writing, and history. She recently took part in OLLI-USF’s blended learning pilot and enjoyed its hybrid content: art appreciation, memoir and poetry. She is a member of OLLI’s new Write Time for Poets SIG.