In 1955, my father was born in Francavilla al Mare, located along the Adriatic coast in Italy. It was an isolated village, surrounded by sand with one lone church as its landmark. It was made of beige brick and on sunny days, it created a mild contrast with the blue sky. Light pink on a blue canvas. In the summer months, locals and visitors flocked to the beach and during the evenings, they would enjoy pizza at the trattorias with their families.
My father came to Canada in the 1970s. He struggled to learn English, and one day declared that he would no longer speak Italian in the house to better master the language of his adoptive country. I never asked much about his past. It appeared grim. I know he had no formal education. When he was 10 he contracted tuberculosis, as did Rocco, his father, and my father almost died. Rocco did die, leaving my father in the care of Rita, my absent-minded and often selfish grandmother. She earned little as the housekeeper of a wealthy family in the neighbouring metropolis of Pescara.
Rita considered education too expensive for her five children, and so they went to work. My father became a barber. He still is. He has owned the same shop for 40 years. My father told me often about the hardships he experienced upon arrival in Canada.
“They called me paki,” he would say bluntly, sans emotion. Men of his ilk emoted little, mostly anger. “And a WOP. They thought I was stupid.” My father learned English well enough, but he never learned to spell it. That still brings him shame.
I was born with a mane of red hair. Some believe my mother cheated. Even as a baby, I looked unusual next to them. A white sheep in a family of black ones. My skin was speckled with freckles. As I grew older, my name defied my image. Many still ask if I am Franco. Then they ask if I am from northern Italy. “No,” I say. “But my younger brothers look Italian, dark hair and olive skin. They tan, I burn.”
I know these tiny things. About my father, and my roots. Francavilla al Mare is busier now. Wealthier. The church still stands. On the sand, as it did over 65 years ago. My family is long gone.