Photo from the scrapbook of Lindy Stagnaro Dunn. Geoffrey Dunn will read from 'Santa Cruz is in the Heart: Volume II' at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Monday, Oct. 21.
Excerpted from 'Santa Cruz is in the Heart, Volume II: Further Writings on Local History, Culture, Politics and Ghosts,' published by Capitola Book Company.
For Tess, Cameryn, Sierra & Stevie Rae
This story is one that can never be published. At least not here, in Santa Cruz, not now, while certain members of my family are still alive. I suppose I could publish it someday, a different version of it perhaps, with a few details carefully omitted, a name changed here and there, a feeling or impression silenced.
But for now we have this story, my Aunt Francesca’s story, or, more accurately, my story about my Aunt Francesca’s life. And about my mother’s life. And my life.
Life stories have a way of being woven together.
This story is also about secrets, and about with whom they can be shared. We keep secrets to survive, to move on with our lives. We construct stories—or reconstruct events—as a way of smoothing out the rough spots, the ragged potholes, in our journeys. The long and winding road becomes an impossible passage without them.
This story, then, is our secret—yours, mine, my mother’s and my Aunt Francesca’s. And so, I ask, that it remain.
The author John Berger once wrote that an individual’s life is like an onion. Peel one layer of it away, and it reveals yet another layer, then another and then another, until there is nothing left of it, save the aroma.
I see my Aunt Francesca’s life more like a silver rose—more precisely, the Sterling Silver hybrid that my father planted in our garden in the late 1950s. Peel one petal off, and it reveals another—fresher, even more beautiful than the first, until there are only small, tightly-wrapped petals, each one darker, more difficult to behold. Then the wind blows the petals away.
My cousin says that this metaphor of a rose is something of a cliché, and perhaps he is right. But when the bush first bloomed in our garden, more than 50 years ago, I began taking roses to my Aunt Francesca, wrapped in wet newspaper, and she always loved them.
I will begin this story in the spring of 1984, nearly three decades ago. It will end six months later, in November of the same year, but in truth, the story is as long as my Aunt Francesca’s life, as long as mine, and, perhaps, as long as yours.
It’s a myth that stories have beginnings and endings. They wind backwards and forwards, like a clock without a spring. Time is an illusion. We create endings as a way to wrap them up, to present them like a birthday present, neatly packaged and contained with a bow on top.
Thirty years ago my life was in ruins, or so it seemed. My world had grown ugly, my despair deep and persistent. I was leaving town to live in Europe for six months—specifically, my family’s home village in Italy on the Ligurian coast. I was going there to heal, to find myself again.
It is somewhat embarrassing to note that those six months are the longest I have ever been away from Santa Cruz, but so it is. In my once close-knit family, this impending departure was thus something of an occasion. I made my rounds, saying good-bye to various aunts and uncles and cousins, until finally, the very last stop I made was to the wharf to say good-bye to Francesca.
Europe, as I shall note in due passing, had a special meaning to my aunt, especially Rome and the Vatican, where she had visited late in her life. When I went down to the wharf to bid her farewell, she held me by the hand, looked at me deeply with her sparkling dark eyes, and said, “Geoffrey, send me a postcard from Roma.”
She kissed me, and I was gone. Arrivederci.
This is what I know about my Aunt Francesca. She was born in Santa Cruz shortly after the 1906 Earthquake, the eldest daughter in an Italian immigrant family. Much of the mothering of her nine younger siblings would fall on her.
My earliest memories of my aunt are of her driving in a fish truck with my Uncle Batista. They would drive off the wharf together every night after work. I thought they were married. In fact, they were brother and sister, both, as I would later come to understand, the survivors of shattered marriages.
My aunt then lived alone on the West Side, in a white, wood-framed house, still standing, not far from where she was raised. It was located only a block from my childhood home, and so I was a frequent visitor there.
She had a pond with goldfish and water lilies in her front yard, and a large, dark living room with an upright piano, on which, for a short time, I was forced to take lessons. She placed the roses I brought her in a crystal vase she kept in the living room.
My aunt had two daughters, both married when I was born, and since they were nearly a generation older, I called them my aunts, even though they were my first cousins. Who their father was I didn’t know, nor was it ever explained to me, until I was in junior high school.
This is what I was told by my mother: that my Aunt Francesca had been married to my Uncle Pete, that he had contracted a “social disease,” that he had gone crazy, and that he had been sent away to an asylum in the early 1940s, where he had died.
For many years, that was all I knew of my Uncle Pete, and, really, of my Aunt Francesca, save for the fact that she was sweet and fun with me, if always a little, well, ethereal.
As I grew older, I heard bits and pieces from my mother about my Uncle Pete: that he was a great guy, that he had been a good father until he took ill. Little more was ever said. What happened between him and my aunt, my mother asserted, was their business, certainly none of mine. Their story was their secret. My aunt was part of my life; he was not. It was simple. There was nothing more to say.
I am sitting in a sidewalk café outside the Vatican. I have bought my aunt a postcard of Rome and the Sistine Chapel and am writing her a note. “Dear Aunt Francesca,” I write, “I am having a glass of wine in your honor and am toasting you here. In a few days I will toast you in Venice. Love, your nephew…”
I have been in Italy now for many months, and am feeling better, on the road to recovery. Time is truly a great healer. I sit back, take a sip of my wine, a hearty Italian red, and think about my Aunt Francesca.
During my early twenties, following the break-up of my own world, my aunt and I developed a personal bond. We were both working at the wharf then, I cutting fish, she as a hostess in a restaurant, and she would visit with me daily at the cutting tables on her way to work. I felt very special that she did that, going out of her way each day to come see me, always with a smile on her face. Often, after she was done, I would drive her home at night.
By then I had learned a few more bits about her life: that she had moved out of the family home when she was only 18; that she had worked her way through a small business college then located in Santa Cruz and had taken a job as a secretary with a local doctor—all this in the 1920s, when young women her age and the daughters of Italian immigrants did not do such things.
My mother showed me some old photos of her. Francesca was a classic, dark beauty in her youth, and she loved to dress up in the style of her era. She was a so-called “flapper girl,” strong, independent, bold, and, given her ethnic background, certainly an anomaly. I think it’s fair to say there was something devilish about her smile.
In her later years, she was still an immaculate dresser. She had her hair done regularly, and she had taken to wearing false eye-lashes. I must confess that they seemed to me a bit much, given my own personal aesthetic at the time, but she wore them proudly, with dignity.
Sometimes, for a brief break on late Friday afternoons before the evening rush hit at the wharf, I would take my aunt to the Catalyst Club for Happy Hour, to listen to the Dixieland jazz, which she loved. She always ordered a single glass of champagne. Afterwards, I would drive her back to work.
When she was 62, she made a six-week journey to Europe. It was a dream come to fruition and turned back into a dream. She had saved up her money for a dozen years to pay for the vacation. She spoke about it daily for the rest of her life.
“You’ll love it there,” she would say to me in her trademark sing-song, upbeat fashion. “You just have to go!”
I can hear those words as if she is sitting next to me. I finish my wine and, later, mail the postcard.
When I return from Rome to my family’s village in Liguria, I sit down at yet another sidewalk café, this time with a cousin of roughly the same age as my mother and a few years younger than my aunt. He had lived in Santa Cruz most of his life, but in later years returned to Italy, where he retired and assumed the role of the ex-officio town mayor. He had more money than our cousins in Italy on pensiones and he could afford to buy them coffee and small bottles of Austrian beer.
I told him of my visit to Rome and about toasting a glass of wine in honor of my Aunt Francesca.
“Your poor aunt,” he says to me. “What that girl went through.” Perhaps because we were no longer in our hometown, with all of its hidden walls and social conventions that keep secrets boxed in and welded to their place, my cousin felt free to reveal what he did.
This is what he told me: that during the 1920s, when my aunt had first moved out of the family home, that she had been virtually excommunicated by her family for years, in particular by her father—my grandfather—who forbade anyone in the family to mention her name. She had met the man who would become my Uncle Pete while dancing at the Coconut Grove ballroom.
“She went through hell,” my cousin continued. “Even after Pete left, and she was broke and had to move back home with the kids, the old man was hard as hell on her. But she never gave in to him. She always took care of those kids and carried her head high. She’s a tough gal, your aunt…”
I felt a heavy weight in my chest, the silence of my grandfather bearing in on me. “One thing I’ll say about your mother,” he added. “She always stuck by her sister. She used to visit her when no one else would, bring her clothes and food for the kids. She was always good to her.”
And then he added an interesting caveat: “They did the same thing to your mother when she ran away with your father,” he said. This, too, was news.
The story weighed on me through the rest of my stay in Italy. I thought about it on the train through France, on the ferry across the English Channel, on my way to London, on my return flight home.
My poor Aunt Francesca, I thought. My poor mother. All that pain and hurt welled up inside. I had known my Aunt Francesca all my life, of course, but like the inner petals of that metaphorical rose, I felt as though I was actually discovering her for the first time. I wanted to take her for a glass of champagne at the Catalyst upon my return.
At Heathrow Airport in London, I discovered a telephone where, if you pressed the receiver down ten times quickly enough, you could make a free call to the states.
I called my mother. She sounded thrilled to hear from me. I asked her how everyone was. “Fine, fine,” she said. “Everyone’s fine.”
“And how’s Aunt Francesca?”
“Oh, she’s been a little down with the weather,” she said. “But she’s fine, too.”
The following midnight, less than 24 hours after that phone conversation with my mother, my plane touched down at San Francisco International. My friend Mark picked me up. I spent the night on his couch.
The next morning, Mark, my friend John and I drove down to the wharf, where I expected a grand family welcome upon my return.
It was a brisk, clear autumn morning. Santa Cruz looked fresh and clean again, and I eagerly anticipated beginning my life anew here. We turned onto the wharf. I saw the familiar faces of my old Filipino friends fishing for anchovies. Great grey pelicans dove violently into the bay. It felt good to be home.
About half way out I began looking for members of my family. I didn’t see any, though I noticed that above one of the businesses, a flag was flying at half-mast.
Finally, I saw my mother’s distant cousin Aldo, just ready to retire from his job as a cook. He was excited to see me.
“There’s my boy!” he yelled with a big smile. “We missed you down here. The knives are all dull…”
“What’s up with the flag at half-mast?” I asked him.
His smile froze. “That’s for your Aunt Francesca,” he said. “Didn’t anybody tell ya? She died last Thursday…That’s why there’s no one down here… Her funeral was this morning.”
Thirty years later, I have finally recovered from that moment. So many things I wanted to say. So many questions I wanted to ask.
I have forgiven my mother for her lie, but I have an anger that still simmers over it from time to time. In a family wallowed in a sea of denial, I suppose this was but another bucket of water. “I didn’t want to ruin your trip,” my mother would later explain. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
In the weeks after I returned, I learned bits and pieces about what had happened. It seems that my aunt Francesca had another secret.
My aunt had died from complications due to breast cancer. Apparently she had suspected she had it for quite some time, perhaps as long as several years, but she had not told anyone, including her doctor. A few months after I had left for Europe, she collapsed one evening at work, shortly after which her condition was finally discovered.
The cancer had spread so thoroughly throughout her body, that there was little hope for recovery. During an exploratory surgery, her heart gave out. I imagined the doctor cutting her open and finding both the faces of my Uncle Pete and of my grandfather on her tumor.
She was 75 years old.
Later, I learned from my sister that my postcard from Rome was at her bedside when she died.
Over the past three decades I have discovered a few more bits and pieces about my Aunt Francesca, and a little more about my Uncle Pete as well.
The first story came from one of her daughters. When she and her sister had gone through their mother’s belongings, they had found their father’s wallet, neatly saved, untouched for 50 years, along with several family documents.
As for Uncle Pete, it turned out that he hadn’t died in the 1940s.
Shortly after returning to Santa Cruz, I had lunch with an old family friend. She was getting up in years at the time, and said she had a story she wanted to tell. She was a little worried about it, but no, she said, she was going to tell me anyway.
My Uncle Pete, she said, had recently died in San Jose, where he had been living for decades. Moreover, she claimed, my Aunt Francesca had visited him there before he died.
A light flickered inside my head. Perhaps three or four times I had driven my Aunt Francesca to the train station in San Jose, where, I believed, she took the commuter run to Palo Alto or San Francisco for shopping and visiting with friends.
Then I remembered one occasion driving over Highway 17 with her, when she brought up the subject of my Uncle Pete. “Oh, he was a handsome man,” she said. “And very talented. I wish you could have met him.”
She said it happily, without any trace of bitterness.
To this day I think about that often: Not the slightest trace of bitterness.
It was the only time she ever mentioned him to me.
I left her off at the train station. She seemed excited, lost in thought. She waved good-bye, then turned, and disappeared into the depot.
With her, she carried all of her secrets—a lifetime of them—a bag weighted and full, though I did not know then how heavy it was.
Now her secrets are our secrets. Yours and mine.
Please don’t tell anyone else.
Upcoming 'Santa Cruz Is in the Heart' Events:
October 20 (Sunday). “Slow Adventures Are in the Heart:A Self-Guided Walk Along the San Lorenzo River.” The San Lorenzo River winds through the heart of Santa Cruz, literally shaping its culture and history. But what do you really know about it? Margaret Leonard, the founder of Slow Adventures, encourages people to embrace the delights of a self-guided adventure. Local luminaries will be planted among the walkers with expertise in local history, birds, and wildflowers. 10 a.m. to noon. Free. Meet at MAH. 705 Front St.
October 21 (Monday). Book Signing and Reading. Bookshop Santa Cruz will host a book signing and special reading from Geoffrey Dunn's Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II on Monday, October 21, 7:00 p.m. Free. 1520 Pacific Ave.