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A Family Tree: Love is in the Heir
by Lori B.

 

            Luigi Barbera (my grandfather) was determined to find a better life for himself. He knew if he stayed in Naples, Italy much longer, he'd end up poor, or dead, or maybe both. And now that the long arm of organized crime had touched him (he'd been asked -- no, told -- to join their ranks), he knew he had to make a move. So at the age of nineteen, he decided to follow his brother to America, and to change his name once he got here. He didn't have to change his name, though. The customs official at Ellis Island did that for him. So as of 1910, Luigi Barbera was reborn as Louie Barber.

            That same year, eight-year-old Angeline Tata boarded a ship with her sister and grandmother in Sicily and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Through coincidence, or maybe divine intervention, Angeline grew up only a few blocks from the grocery store that Louie Barber now owned.

            Seven years later, Angeline (a short, lively beauty with curly black hair and a voice like an angel) walked through the door of Louie's grocery store. She was humming O Sole Mio (which she'd learned by listening to her mother's recording of famed Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso). For Louie, who'd listened to Caruso back in Naples, it was love at first sound. He'd rushed to Angeline's side, helped her to select the very ripest tomatoes, and then proposed marriage. Six months later, Angeline was a donna sposata (married woman) with a child on the way.

            Louie kept selling tomatoes, and Angeline kept singing. As the store expanded, so did little Angeline, who was now not only short but constantly very round. Soon there were five bambinos (Rafael, Alfonso, Antoinette, Giuseppe, and Rosario) who, like all the other kids in the neighborhood, were known by their Americanized names (Ralph, Al, Anne, Joe, and Roy). They'd all inherited Louie's determination and Angeline's singing talent. Four of them became professional musicians. Ralph played trumpet, Al taught piano, Anne sang, and Joe played sax. Roy picked up the guitar for a while, but he became an electrician instead. (Unfortunately, he didn't put his two talents together and invent the electric guitar.)

            When Ralph, the eldest child, was eight, Louie came home with a trumpet and handed it to Ralph, with the one-word directive: Suona (Play). Five years later, when Louie died, Ralph went to work shining shoes and playing his trumpet on street corners. He was a kind and generous boy. He turned over most of his money to his mother, and he made sure his brothers and sister had food on their dinner plates before filling his own. He joined a neighborhood boys' club, studied hard, and kept on playing that trumpet.

            In 1943, during World War II, Ralph enlisted in the Army, and he took his trumpet with him. One day, the sergeant summoned Ralph to his quarters and told him that another sergeant had just died. There would be a funeral that day, and they needed someone to play Taps. So, even though the rest of his company was shipping out, Ralph was told to stay behind for the funeral. It was a lucky twist of fate for Ralph. His buddies weren't nearly so lucky, because their destination was Normandy Beach.

            During the remaining days of the war, Ralph would often take his trumpet into the woods to practice. One day, some other GIs joined him with their instruments, and they created a dance band that entertained the troops. When the war ended, Ralph returned home, secured a job as a government clerk, and played in bands at night. He was 27 years old, he'd been playing trumpet for 19 years, and he'd gotten pretty good at it.

            One night, while on a break at a restaurant gig, Ralph wandered into the kitchen to give the cook, Lillian, a compliment about the food. He'd been playing there for a while and he liked old Lillian and her cooking. But instead of seeing Lillian, he ran into her daughter, Donna. Ralph returned to the stage and played better than ever. After all, he'd just met the love of his life.

            Donna wasn't supposed to be working that night. In fact, she wasn't even on the books. But the regular server had up and quit, and Lillian had called Donna to see if she could help out. Another lucky twist of fate (for Donna, for Ralph, and, as it turned out, for me). 

            After Ralph finished his set, he hurried back to the kitchen. Donna wasn't around, but Lillian was, and Ralph noticed the family resemblance between the two tall, gracious women.

            "Lillian," Ralph joked, "Your food was delicious tonight. If you had a daughter who could cook like you, I'd marry her."

            "Well, I do," Lillian said with a smile, "but maybe I shouldn't be telling you that."

            "Too late. I think I'm already in love," Ralph replied.

            "Well, I guess you'd better come to my house for dinner, then," Lillian conceded. "I had a feeling you two might hit it off. Donna loves music."

            Ralph came to Lillian's house the next night. Dinner, prepared by Donna, was a hit. Ralph and Donna started seeing a lot of each other. About a month later, Ralph got down on one knee and told Donna she had beautiful hands -- hands that would look even better with a ring on them. Donna agreed, and soon they were married. Nine months and five days later, I arrived. 

            The branches of my family tree are heavy with lovely fruit (or should I say tomatoes?). They include the names Luigi, Angeline, Ralph, Donna, Lillian, and many, many more. And sprouting from my own branch now are my own two daughters, and a grandson, and another bambino on the way. I've been lucky to have grown up in such a loving family, and to know a little of its history. I can certainly feel the love that has trickled down through its branches and into me. And yes, I can truly say with all my heart that love is in the heir.

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