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My father was originally from Montreal. After finishing high school, Frank became an auto mechanic working in Côte Saint-Luc. He couldn’t get ahead and concluded it was a dead-end job so he moved to Toronto where his married sister lived. Frank opened a small business in used car parts. It took years but that grew into a large scrap metal company.
“Listen Lenny, don’t get into this nonsense,” my father told me. “Make your life easy. Go to school and become a lawyer, engineer or accountant.”
So taking his advice I became an accountant. Thank God, I’m doing okay.
My mother’s history was more obscure. Her two sisters were never willing to tell me much about her past. That changed when Barbara reached her eighties. She began talking about the Grim Reaper and feared he would soon find her. At that point her stories began flowing. I wasn’t sure, however, what was true and what was the product of an aged mind.
The most startling report was the revelation that my father, Frank, was not my mother’s first husband. Barbara had been married before.
“Of course, I was married before. I’m sure I told you and Sarah about it. Not much to say really. It was over and done with in less than a year. We’ll talk about it another time. Not here.”
The Sunday following the party I spent at my mother’s apartment. The caregiver was away and I served Barbara tea and cake. This is the history I got from her that day. My mother was born in Saskatoon in 1933. Just before the Second World War she moved with her parents and two sisters to Toronto where her father worked as a watchmaker and jeweller.
Barbara learned to play piano and dance. She was a great jazz and ballet dancer and in her late teens began teaching in a studio. During a visit to see relatives in New York she auditioned at Radio City Music Hall. To her delight she was hired and joined the Rockettes, a precision dance company. After two years with the Rockettes she found work dancing in a Broadway musical. It was then that she met her first husband, Enzo.
“He was such a handsome boy, only a year older than me. Enzo had straight black hair and a big grin. He was a good-hearted guy, always kidding around, laughing. A bit of a ladies’ man, but I thought he was ready to settle down. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes.”
“Was this guy Jewish?” I asked.
“Really Lenny, at your age you’re still so naive? I was in love.”
The young couple moved to Staten Island where Enzo had family. “I knew his parents lived down the block from where we moved in. But I was surprised that his four brothers and all kinds of other relatives lived within a ten minute walk from our place.”
I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked, “Was it a nice place?”
“It was a small bungalow but in good shape and we had nice furniture,” she said with a sigh. “Enzo worked with his dad importing furniture from Italy. High-end stuff made from teak and cherry wood.” Barbara stood up. At a snail's pace she walked with her empty tea cup to the kitchenette and placed it in the sink, then returned to the sofa. “Enzo didn’t want me to work, so I said sure. He made good money and there was no mortgage. His father bought us the house, if you can believe it!”
Barbara asked me to hand her a pillow for her back, which I did.
“Giovanni who sent those flowers is Enzo’s brother. He has got to be in his eighties now. He was a bruiser of a man.” She gave me a hard look. “The Rossis could be bad for your health. That’s all I’m going to say about that.” She turned her face away from me toward the window.
“So what happened? Did you get divorced?”
“He died a year after we were married. He drowned off South Beach not far from where we lived. I cried for a few weeks then packed my bags and moved back here to live with my parents.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Lenny, I have pictures of him and his parents. There are also some of me from the time I danced with the Rockettes. Why don’t you bring them to me? They’re in the brown suitcase without wheels. You know the one I mean.”
Although my wife and I lived in a large condominium overlooking the lake there was no room for all the things we removed from my parents’ home so I had rented a storage locker up in Vaughan. That is where I hoped to find the suitcase with the photos my mother wanted.
The following weekend I drove out to look for my mother’s old luggage. I was curious to see the pictures myself. An unhappy security guard led me to the locker. The brown suitcase without wheels was of course sitting under two heavy cardboard boxes, which I removed. The luggage was locked and I had no key. I rummaged around a carton filled with kitchenware, found a large knife and pried the suitcase open.
The first things I saw were a couple of purses, several sets of leather gloves, some yellowing receipts and appliance warranties. Held together by a thin string was a bundle of Israel Bonds. At the bottom of the suitcase I discovered two manila envelopes. In the first one I found the black and white photos my mother had requested.
Newspaper clippings filled the other envelope. Two of the articles were about my mother’s first husband. The body of Enzo Rossi was discovered on a Staten Island beach. He had been shot several times.
I sat in the storage room for twenty minutes unable to take in this information. Who the hell was this woman who claimed to be my mother? How did she get mixed up with such a crowd? How was she able to keep this secret from my sister and me for all these years?
There was only a canvas bag left to peek into. It was surprisingly heavy. Inside I found a handgun. The pistol was so rusted I had trouble reading the manufacturer’s name stamped on it.
Beretta, it read.