I am lucky. I am descended from a mill hand. My family story fits in a loaf pan.
His name was Giovanni Colino, and he was my grandfather. I never met him, except at the dinner table through my aunts — his daughters — during family gatherings and holidays, somewhere between "Silent Night" and leftovers. His memory, glimpsed through the flicker of birthday candles, always tasted sweet.
He was born in the Abruzzo region of Italy, where sheep grazed on the mountainsides, and if there was a flat spot in the rocks, someone had built a church on it. He fought the Austrians in the War to End All Wars then slipped a gold band on the finger of the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
He took his new bride across an ocean to Cleveland. They settled on the West Side in the crook of the Fulton Road and Clark Avenue elbow. He changed his name to John, which was easier on the hiring man's ears. He walked through fire in a steel mill and raised four daughters at an age when a modern man might be choosing a graduate school. He was a short man, but to his daughters he held up the sky.
John Colino's Cleveland bristled with mills that popped up like castles in a child's storybook. Half of Europe came for work, crowding into places like Duck Island, where you could smell the river, and the Stockyards, where you inhaled mostly cow.
They brought more than their labor.
From Birdtown to Little Budapest, a spell was conjured out of flour, eggs and yeast. It worked magic under aliases: hoska and challah, bociu and langos. Bakers seasoned their bread with bacon, sweetened it with raisins and stuffed it with cabbage to fill the stomach and fortify the soul.
In this whirling new world, bread was a piece of the old you could hold in your hands.
Men sat in warm kitchens after a shift, toasting one another with homemade wine and pitying their countrymen who had missed out on this paradise, even as a Cleveland winter found every seam in their little wooden houses.
Then a cold wind blew everything away.
People called it the Great Depression. Folks who would not kneel before a king now stood meekly in line for charity.
John Colino's children were never afraid. Gemma kept them fed, somehow, and John kept them safe. He took a job feeding the lions at the Cleveland Zoo and held hard times at bay with a pointed stick.
It would be nice to say everyone was pious as The Waltons while waiting for prosperity's return, but it would not be true. As their clothes got threadbare, some let their meanness show through. The meanest called themselves La Mano Nera — The Black Hand. They were low-rent thugs who preyed on their countrymen.
In the old country, the gang had perfected extortion into an art form. Transplanted to America, The Black Hand sold murder like something weighed on a candy store scale. For a fee, a lover could erase a rival, an ancient grudge might finally be settled, or wives trapped in loveless marriages might free themselves of their
Even John Colino could not keep the violence away. And when it struck, it struck close enough to rattle the windows.
A neighbor kept his new motorcar in the alley. He had taken to wearing a white Stetson hat, like Jimmy Cagney in the movies. He could not have drawn more attention to his sudden wealth if he had painted himself gold.
One night a pistol thundered. After a pause — the neighborhood was listening now — it thundered again.
What happened next, my mother remembered as clearly as a 6-year-old can remember from peeping around grown-ups' knees.
The neighbor's body lay in the street, his white hat resting in the gutter. Slapped in black paint on the garage door was a single handprint.
If evil came to the Colino doorstep that night, it would not have to knock. Their front door was never locked. Children wandered from one dinner table to another. If you were away, a neighbor might need to borrow something. My aunts were not sure there was even a key.
So John Colino ordered his girls to bed then moved a chair between the door and them and just sat. If anything tried to touch his family, it would have to go through him.
He was sitting there the next morning. My grandfather kissed his children goodbye and left for the zoo. It was a nice walk, and flat, mostly, until you got to Brookside Hill.
Life got no softer for the Colinos, but their bread did.
In 1937 or 1938 — my aunts were always hazy as to dates — John Colino started walking the few blocks to Mazzone and Sons Bakery to fetch a loaf. He liked to tear off a piece of fluffy bread, dip it in a plate of olive oil and hold it to the lips of the child in his lap.
There was always enough of the good life to go around, if you tore it into small enough pieces.
One day he brought home cookies, and his daughters ran outside to see if it was Christmas. He did it again the next day, and they knew Old Man Depression was finished.
John Colino fought Hitler from a steel mill swing shift. His children listened for his boots on their steps and ran to the door — they never did get a key — where their father stood with a loaf from Mazzone's under his arm.
One night there was a knock. A man from the mill said there had been an accident and asked if they wanted a priest.
My grandfather left behind no monuments. But I can still touch his world, a little, with a fork.
I stop at Tommy's on Madison for kolachke, or get strudel at Mertie's in Middleburg Heights behind the blue curtains, or buy potica bread from Wojtila's in Euclid, made fresh that morning from a recipe that has not changed since the Hapsburg Empire. It is like looking into a family album.
The mills are brownfields now, but the bakery endures. Funny what lasts.
John Colino rests on a hill, or what passes for a hill in the middle of Cleveland. Across Clark Avenue, Mazzone's is open for business. The place has princess cookies and jelly doughnuts as big as softballs, but I pass them by. John Colino was not cake. He was bread.
If you are lucky, family is a sharp, prodding thing, like a hunger.
So I take the bread in my hands and tear off a piece. It is good to be home.
12:00 AM EST
January 20, 2010