My earliest memory, at least the earliest that my mother can set a date on, was 60 years ago now, in 1962, in the summer. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle had two houses, right next to each other, with a narrow driveway in between, and vegetable gardens that my grandfather had terraced up the hill in back, just as his own parents and everybody else in his hometown, Tiriolo, Italy, had done, down the side of the mountain where their town was perched. I remember many a time going up there to pick a couple of tomatoes for my mother, or in the morning to fetch a few fresh eggs from the chicken coop, but I can’t say exactly when that was.
On this day, though, everybody was bustling about, grandma, grandpa, my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, with a lot of cousins here and there, and all kinds of furniture and whatnot going from one house to the other. They were, in fact, trading houses, with grandma and grandpa going into the smaller of the two, because, now that the six children were grown, they didn’t need the space anymore. It was a happy day. I remember that I sat outside, on one of the two concrete strips that they had laid for my Uncle Frank’s car—my grandfather never learned to drive—with the grass still growing up in between. I was three years old, and I think I enjoyed myself by tracing words in the dirt. That was a favorite habit of mine. I have no memory of a time when I didn’t know how to read.