Sunday 8 September 2013

Wood and Memory

 The post that follows is personal.  It is in the tradition of memoir-like and self-revealing blogging; and I am posting it here because this blog started off as a hybrid that was intended to encompass both my professional and private personae.  In the last eighteen months or so it has rather evolved in to a more professional beast, with digital history and policy overwhelming more personal topics.  But this transition was not intended.  In other words, if you are looking for a nice post on 'Big Data', or the politics of Open Access, please look away now.

Wood and Memory

I did not know my uncle very well.  Richard Pozzini ('Dicky') was my mother's much younger brother, and I only knew him for a couple of years when I was ten and eleven, and he was in his late twenties.  At the age of 28, in the late 1960s  he killed himself.   As a child, my brother and sisters and I were protected from the full impact of his death, and it was seldom spoken of.  A couple of years later, Virgil and Gina, Dicky's mother and father, my grandparents, moved into a small apartment above a garage attached to my parent's house in San Francisco, and for the next eight or nine years, I lived in and out of their home.  I never heard my grandfather, Virgil (Nonno), mention Dicky in all those years, nor did Dicky's mother, Gina (Nonni), then, or in the thirty years to her death in 2001, ever voluntarily discuss him without being prompted.  Nor has my mother, Dicky's older sister, talked much about him - few fond memories of a shared childhood.  He was always present, in carved objects and panels, in the models he made as a child, but mainly in the silence he left behind.  
Gina, Florence, Virgil and Richard 'Dicky' Pozzini. c.1949.

But I remember Dicky, and I want to record my memories of him, and just take some time to think about him, and to do something to memorialise a wonderful and creative life that nevertheless ended in despair.

Dicky did many things - he was a farmer, and a cyclist, a photographer, a student of Italian literature, a member of the Peace Corp in Brazil and an artist; but my memories of him are as a student of nature and a maker of things.

A series of a bird sculptures made around 1968 or 69.

He grew up on the smallholding his parents Virgil and Gina bought in the early 1930s, as immigrants trying to recapture the rural lifestyle they had left behind in Northern Italy: fourteen acres of grapes and walnut trees in El Campo, Woodbridge, just outside Lodi in the Central Valley of California.  The area is now famous for its wine, but then it felt like the dry, hot factory floor of California agriculture.  Dicky's parents made a hard scrabble living combining wine making and market gardening with whatever work came to their very skillful hands.  In my memory they seemed to be experimenting with a new crop, a new strategy to make money every year.  Virgil made all their furniture, and Gina made all their clothes.  Dinner was as likely to feature song birds or hare, as meat from a butcher. And while there was always food on the table, it never felt like there was a lot of money in the bank. 

The 'Ranch' was really just a classic California subdivision, with a small bungalow, a tank house, a windmill (which had been replaced by an electric pump by the 1960s), a well and a few out-buildings.  And it was never big enough to support them as an exclusively agricultural concern.  Gina went to work in the fruit (processing peaches and cherries through the hot nights of summer) and Virgil made furniture and fitted kitchens for his better-off neighbours in the workshop.

Dicky grew up driving tractors, and working in the shop, helping with the wine; fishing and hunting the river trout and small birds of the neighbourhood; and just getting on with all the gathering and processing that a small holding required.  It was a life of making and repairing, processing and planning for the next season; and it required huge imagination as well as simple hard work.  One of my earliest memories of Dicky is helping him make sausages in the tank house kitchen (reserved for processing large batches of food).  While I was allowed to turn the handle, he stood over the meat grinder expertly tying off each link as the meat filled the casing.  But it was not all work.  He also took us on adventures to the river, and taught us how to make whistles from a a bit of reed.  He was the first person I ever saw use a cast-net for river fishing. 

But more than anything, from an early age he was a wonderful craftsman.  My brother still has the perfect miniature model cars Dicky made as a child (reflecting designs from the 1910s and 1920s), and my parents have the carvings of birds, and of a bunch of grapes and a rooster that he made.  The panels always hung on the wall in my grandparents' living room.

El Campo was anything but an easy life.  Virgil was a disappointed man who had spent twenty years living in all-male quarters in mining towns, and lodging houses - a victim of that largely male diaspora suffered by the Irish, Italians and Poles in the first decades of the last century.  He was given to alcohol  and socialising; and drank a fair portion of the wine he made.  He always hankered after a return to Italy, but following his marriage in 1929, he never went back.  He could be violent to his wife and children, and has always been held up by my mother as the canker at the heart of that particular knotty world.  She herself was largely protected from him by her own mother, but as a boy Dicky was expected to tough it out.  But, Dicky also had good friends, and a varied life at the heart of a small community.  His childhood certainly did not leave him fearful, or unambitious, frightened of the world, or unable to make friends.

After high school, Dicky went to Italy cycling through the North - to visit relatives, and I suspect, just to get out of rural America.  By all accounts the trip was a hard one - with little money and less support -  but it must have been enough to spark a desire to study Italian literature, which he did for a couple of years at San Francisco State.   I don't know how long this lasted, though he never finished the degree.  And soon enough, he was off to Brazil with the Peace Corp, and a couple of years later, following a short stay back at the Ranch, returned to Brazil to help set up an agricultural co-operative in the rain forest.

The co-operative eventually failed, and Dicky found himself back in San Francisco in his late twenties, and in need of a living.  With three or four false starts behind him, I suspect returning the US was very hard.  In that particular world, there was not much sympathy for failure. 

I remember driving up to Lodi with him in what must have been one of his first visits to see his parents after returning for good from South America.  We drove the eighty miles or so in the most dilapidated pick-up you can imagine - there was no key, and Dicky had to hot wire it every time we stopped.  Virgil and Gina had given up the Ranch the year before and had moved in to a small house in Lodi; and the afternoon was punctuated with Virgil and Dicky arguing, while Gina and I listened from the kitchen.   I will always remember Virgil saying, 'If I thought you were going to return, we would never have sold the Ranch'.

Dicky and me (aged 10) around 1967 or 68.

I doubt Dicky could ever have gone back to El Campo, but it seemed a powerful accusation to me at the age of nine or ten, still shocked by the loss of a much loved childhood haunt.

Dicky did not talk to me about the argument, and we drove back to San Francisco pretty much in silence (I was a kid).  And in the next month or so, Dicky went about setting up a wood working shop on Valencia Street, and tried to figure out how to make a living.

For the next year or so he was a frequent visitor to my parents house, and a regular presence in our lives.  I remember visiting Muir Woods with him once, and being allowed to use his Rolex camera for a few close ups of plants and insects.  At weekends there were the craft fairs where he sold the small pieces he was making by then.  It was San Francisco in 1968 and 1969, so all the work was psychedelic, loud and colourful.  As kids we were encouraged to make 'God's Eyes' and scented candles. 
I don't remember how long this lasted - probably not more than eighteen months.  My parents heard of Dicky's suicide late on a Sunday night, on our return from a long weekend trip to somewhere I don't remember. He had shot himself.

From here my memories are about how not to deal with a death like Dicky's.  The silence, the mismanaged attempts to protect children from hard adult emotions.  The awkward attempts to explain the truth; and to work through the guilt that wracked my parents' and grandparents' lives for years. 

But that tragedy and experience is not the point of this blog.  Instead, I just wanted to remember a person, Dicky Pozzini.  He was a craftsman and an artist, a socialist, and a generous soul.  Lives are made of people and experience, and Dicky is one of the people who has shaped my life, and whom I  simply want to remember.

These days I am doing as much woodworking as time allows; making stuff, because making stuff is important.  And every time I cut in to a piece of black walnut, with its evocative smell so familiar from my childhood, or let my gouge reveal the curve of bowl on the lathe, I think of Dicky.

Two fish sculptures made by my son, Nick and I in 2011.  The walnut was laid down to cure by Dicky Pozzini in 1968.