By Sarah White
In 1998 I began taking Italian conversation classes at the Italian Workingman’s Club on Regent Street, on Madison’s near-west side. In the class I met Frank. He lived not far from me on the east side, so I offered to drive us both to class. Thus began several years of weekly conversations with Frank (in English) as we came and went.
Facts about Frank’s life gradually came out during those drives. He was taking Italian in hopes of contacting relatives in Sicily. His parents had immigrated before he was born. He had never seen the Old Country or talked to his relatives there, but he had the address of a cousin. If he could master enough Italian to write a letter, he could reach out. If he got a response, he needed enough Italian to talk to his cousin on the phone. That was the goal.
Frank was a retired mail carrier. He liked to garden. Like a good Italian peasant, he had a big vegetable garden in the fenced side yard in addition to the well-tended peonies and irises out front. I observed that he had planted a circle of hostas around a nice little birch tree and placed two metal lawn chairs, the old fashioned kind, in front of his house.
Frank had a wife who was disabled; I never met or even saw her. One time he said she had some ailment that forced her to sleep sitting up in a chair. I wondered what that meant for their love life, but of course I never asked. He was a slight little guy, and I worried about whether he could manage whatever assistance she needed.
Frank began to talk about fixing up his basement to create a guest suite. He had an idea that if he was able to contact his cousin in Sicily, at some point relatives might want to visit him in the U.S.
And you know what? It all came to pass. Frank learned to converse in Italian. He reached out to his cousin, got a response, went to Sicily, and found an extended family of likeable people. A niece wanted to study in the U.S. He helped her apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she came to live in his basement suite for several years while she completed school. I like to think about the cheery new life that must have brought into Frank’s household.
By that time I had dropped the Italian class, after about four years. I learned about Frank’s progress with his master plan when I’d run into him at the neighborhood grocery store.
Eventually, I saw a for-sale sign in front of Frank’s house. Maybe his wife died and he chose to downsize. Or maybe they moved to assisted living. I like to think they moved to Sicily to rejoin his family; I don’t know and probably never will.
Every time I wonder if it’s worth having big dreams, I think of Frank.
© 2019 Sarah White