Take me home to die.
August 27, 2014
GEORGIO SAW FEAR in his father’s eyes as he sat beside the campfire on Houston Creek, or maybe it was sadness. The old man had come to Texas searching for a home. But he had only found a place to stay for awhile, and his time was running out. His eyes had turned as gray as his hair, and a thick white beard hid the wrinkles on his face, and he didn’t laugh much anymore.
Georgio knew that his father had seen the end time and had suddenly felt like a stranger upon the land that bore his crops and fed his children. The old man wasn’t afraid of dying. Georgio was sure of it. There was a time to be born and a time to die. His father had known it all his life. The old man was not afraid of the devil himself and had always said hell was just a place to cool off from one of those Texas summers that sapped the soil and fried his vegetables on the vine.
A month earlier, he had come to Georgio, his first born, about sundown as the frogs began to complain down along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. “I’m dying,” he said softly.
Georgio had tried to protest, but his father wouldn’t listen. It’s all right, the old man said, He had expected to die someday anyway. His years had already been long enough, and they had been good and bad but mostly better than he probably deserved.
His father looked out across the gently rolling plains as he had done for the past forty-six years. He knew them well. But they didn’t belong to him. Not really. They had kept him alive and their dirt had stuck beneath his fingernails, and their rocks had dulled his plow. But they were foreign to him, and he wanted to go back home. Lately the old man had been thinking a lot about the home of his childhood.
“I want you make me a promise, Georgio,” he said firmly.
“Don’t let me die here. I want to be buried in the earth of my fathers. Carry me back to Italy, to sunny Italy, before I die.’
“It’s a long way, papa.”
“Promise me, Georgio.”
The old man kissed his children and grandchildren goodbye, placed a handful of wildflowers on the grave of his wife who had left him so many years ago, and climbed into the oxcart. For a moment, Georgio thought he saw a faint smile tug at the corners of his father’s mouth, and he heard the old man whisper, “Italy.” He seemed stronger than before, and the gray cloud had faded from his eyes. “Italy.” The old man could not wait to touch the soil of homeland and let it hold him close forever.
The journey turned southward, and the oxen were headed toward the port of Galveston. There, Georgio knew, he would a find a ship to carry his father home. For the first few days, the old man spoke loudly and often of his years on a farm outside of Rome, of his family and his mother who wept and refused to see him the morning he sailed away to seek his fortune in a new land of promise. He wondered if he would be able to find any of his kin and if they remembered him or had even heard of him. Maybe he was just an outcast and would come home and no one would care.
He had told his mother that someday he would return as a wealthy man to walk with dignity and respect down the road outside their farm home. The old man sighed. He was only returning to die. But maybe someone would carry his coffin with dignity and respect down the old road. He suddenly felt very tired. The miles were exacting a heavy price. He grew weak, then silent, and the gray cloud found its way back to his eyes.
He sat staring at the campfire on Houston Creek, chilled even though the night was warm, alone even though Georgio sat beside him. “Are we going to get there?” he asked his son.
The old man closed his eyes, and Georgio thought the old man had drifted off to sleep. He pulled the blanket tighter around his father’s shoulders and threw another dried oak limb onto the fire. He, too, was tired. It had rained early that morning, warm and gentle but enough to turn the black land into a quagmire. It had slowed the old cart to a crawl and drained the strength from his oxen.
Beyond the trees, Robert Aycock sat in the dim candlelight of a house that served as both a grocery store and a post office for the settlers scattered along Houston Creek. He was a perplexed man. Around him were the makings of a good town, and all it needed was a name. He was having a hard time finding one.
Most of his neighbors wanted to call the hamlet Houston since they all believed that old Sam Houston had once camped out along the creek that wound among their farms. So Aycock, being the postmaster, had applied for the name, but, alas, the post office rejected it. Texas already had a Houston, the letter said, and one was plenty.
Aycock was too frustrated to sleep, and he hard someone knocking on his door. He opened it and saw a frightened Georgio.
“My father’s extremely ill,” the young man said. “Can I bring him inside?”
Robert Aycock rushed with him back to the oxcart and helped carry the old man into the darkness of a bedroom. The hot air was stifling.
For days, Georgio sat beside his father and held his hand, waiting to see those gray eyes open again. On a Thursday morning, Robert Aycock walked into the room as the old man eased out of his coma and turned his head toward the window, watching as sunlight streaked across the prairie. His voice was faint and drifting. “Italy,” he said softly. “Sunny Italy.”
Aycock saw Georgio close his eyes and wrestle with his conscience before speaking. Then the young man answered, “Yes, papa. It is Italy.”
The old man smiled broadly and tightly grasped Georgio’s hand. “Thank you, son,” he whispered.
That afternoon, Georgio borrowed a shovel and dug his father’s grave beneath a live oak on the banks of Houston Creek. He grieved, but not for his father’s death. “I lied to him,” the young man told Robert Aycock. The old man had depended on his son to return him to Italy, and Georgio had failed. Then he had lied. It would be a burden and a sin that he would have to shoulder for the rest of his life.
Aycock shook his head. “You did your best,” he said, “and I’ll make sure you didn’t lie to your father.” That night in March of 1880, he sat down and wrote the Post Office Department a letter. His hamlet at last had a name. It was then, as it is now, the only town in America called Italy.
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