Leonard was a man who loved straight lines. He would devote entire mornings to edging the lawn along the maze of narrow walkways and garden paths that he had laid around the summer house. And then there was the ivy to tend. He’d set his ladder and climb up to trim the tendrils that had crept above the line on each tree that for him constituted the limit of the ivy’s growth. Back on the ground he’d snip the runners to keep a neat thin border of earth between the bed of ivy and the lawn.
The landscaping reflected my great-uncle’s predilection for clarity and order, as did the house he had built. It was a modest Craftsman-style bungalow with a low-pitched hipped roof and generous overhanging eaves that provided berth for front and back porches. There was no hallway or other wasted space in the house. The dormer had been made into sleeping quarters for house guests from the city and the basement outfitted with a kitchen and a long trestle table for family meals in the summer months. It was an efficient, simple, and in its quiet gentility a beautiful house. It was Leonard.
The house was built on a level plane that had been sliced out of a hill and girded at the back and front with stone-and-mortar retaining walls. There was another wall on the side of the house facing the street that ran up the hill, and a pair of lower-lying walls on the banks of the driveway that led to a detached garage.
Perhaps to temper the harshness of all this stone, Leonard had trained ivy over the walls and up the trunks of the pair of Norway maples and the black oak that stood on the eastern side of the property. Friends from the city who visited us for the first time always remarked how beautiful the ivy was. They said it reminded them of the grounds of an English country house (a house I was sure they had only seen in the movies), or the vine-covered abbey in a stained glass parable.
The only access to the house, apart from the driveway, was by the stone steps that cut through the line of ivy-covered fortifications at two points and led up to the front and side doors of the house, respectively. It was like Leonard in a way, hard to approach. I suppose we could have scaled the walls but my brothers and I would no sooner trespass on the ivy as we would cross over the low brass gate that separated the altar from the pews in church.
He spent countless hours tending the ivy, picking out leaves that were turning brown or had fallen from the trees above, snipping away at shoots that trespassed the imaginary borders he had placed on trees and earth.
“Don’t you get tired of taking care of it? I mean, you never finish.” I asked, as if grooming the ivy was a task like the reading list which my school had given me for the summer and which I was dutifully working through.
“Ah, that’s the wonderful thing about ivy,” he said. “There’s always something growing, and something dying. People look at ivy and some think it’s beautiful and some think it just attracts bugs, which you know isn’t true, but regardless, they all just see a thing, like a lawn or a field or the sky. They don’t see it’s alive.”
Though he must have only recently retired, he was an old man to a boy of 12. I imagine he was always thin but as he grew older, he seemed to scrunch up further, as if he were crawling back into the small space from which he had been born. He seemed lost in the billowy Oxford-cloth shirts he must once have looked so smart in; his shirts lay on his slight torso like sheets laid over furniture in a summer house closed for the season.
Other men might have changed their wardrobe as they advanced in age, but Leonard only changed things when they were beyond repair, and he took too good care of things to need much change in his life. He would never have thought of buying something simply because it was new and in fashion. And thus he kept his old black Chrysler sedan, a majestic ocean-liner of a car that was hopelessly out of fashion, the kind of car one saw only in film noir and which he drove at a maddeningly slow pace. Leonard kept his car and replaced his shirts, when threadbare, with exactly the same kind of shirt. He stood defiantly still as fashion and time advanced, and this aged him more dramatically.
This thrift, which, as my grandfather told me, had marked Leonard even as a young man, had enabled him to put himself through school and get the kind of job one needed to dress in button-down shirts for, and at a newspaper, no less. He made money, enough to buy the brownstone in the city and the summer house, too.
He had the family name changed, and insisted his brother change it, too long before my father was born. “You must be judged for what you can do, not how your name sounds,” he once told me. “Americans looked down on the Italians,” he explained, “not that I could blame them entirely.” His family was from Genoa, and he had the Northerner’s disdain for his compatriots from Campania, Abruzzo, and Sicily, who made up the majority of the Italian immigrants in the city.
The family name was probably odd in its native Italian, a queer sequence of syllables that was close enough to a chain of words as to vaguely suggest a meaning of sorts. Leonard changed the family name in the simplest way possible, by lopping off the Italian ending. A clean cut and off went two syllables.
The stump of syllables that remained, however, was just as foreign as the original from which it had been cut, but now unidentifiably so. It was even more alien than the original, though Leonard couldn’t have known that. It was a name caught in the act of hiding itself, like an inept magician whose clumsy prestidigitation turns the spotlight from the act to the performer.
The new family name bore the scars of its surgery, drawing attention to itself, begging for a story to be told. “What kind of name is that?” I was asked in school and then later, still years later. “Where does it come from?” I was asked, and then I was obliged to confess Leonard’s amputation of our longer and decidedly Italian name.
Although the chain of sounds in our abbreviated name could not be found in English, it was not entirely fictitious. Unbeknownst to my uncle, the stump that remained from his effort to Americanize our ancestry was a quite legitimate, if admittedly rare, surname in Bratislava.
Like many of the men in my family, Leonard smoked, but he was the only one who smoked Pall Malls. He was also the only one in the family who could know what they were named after, and certainly the only one who had walked along this grand street in London and past the gentlemen’s clubs that lined the road.
I could imagine Leonard in one of these clubs, sitting in an armchair immersed with his evening paper in a grayish cocoon of smoke, from which he would emerge to exchange small talk or political commentary with another club member. Though he had never stepped foot in any of these clubs, he had fashioned what might have been a corner of such establishments in the city brownstone he had bought for him and his brother and his brother’s family. Two armchairs, each with a sentry of a floor lamp, were set opposite each other at the far end of the dining room; a long bookcase stood against the wall that separated the two chairs. It was to these corners that Leonard and his brother retreated in the late afternoon before dinner to read their papers and smoke.
He smoked his Pall Malls through a cream- and amber-colored horn cigarette holder. I would watch as his long, slender fingers lifted the holder up to his mouth and then to the air as he exhaled and then let it fall to the ashtray at his side. It was how a spider would smoke.
The holder had browned over years of use. It was the tar, my uncle explained. Though I had heard the word on the television ads for cigarettes, the tar I knew was the syrupy black gunk they used to repair the roads in town, but Leonard said there were tiny particles of it in the smoke, too. I imagined the particles in the smoke mixing with the vapor of his breath to leave a droplet of this syrup inside the tube of the holder, day after day, year in, year out. If the word was made flesh, breath could become tar. He was leaving a mark and when he died there would be this crust of Leonard in his cigarette holder.
No one saved Leonard’s cigarette holders. His shirts were given away to charity, I was given his escritoire when I left for graduate school. The car was sold. No one tended the ivy at the summer house. The dead brown leaves speckled the carpet of ivy, which thinned to reveal patches of stone and earth. The ivy started climbing higher up the trees, unkempt and unseemly. It grew wild, not the wild of a tiger or a proud river but the wild of the deranged. I was glad that Leonard could not see it.
My father went down a few times in a half-hearted attempt to maintain the property, as he said. He cut the lawn and aired the house and once had the shingles on the garage roof replaced, but it was too much for him. He was not a caretaker and he couldn’t be bothered with the ivy. He had someone rip it out, but then he had to have the walls repaired where the ivy had found a crevice in the mortar and rooted there and broken apart the mortar.
I kept my last name in my second homeland. I had the chance to alter it to make it sound less foreign, but I knew that tacking on an ending would have repeated Leonard’s folly in the opposite direction. Nothing could be grafted back onto to this odd-sounding stump of a name, nothing other than the melodic trochee in which it once ended.
Besides, I had already adopted the native equivalent of my first name, and I bore it as one lives in a rented summer house. And it evoked its own share of questions. “But you’re not from here, are you?” people would ask me when introduced to me, and some, luckily only a few, in a tone of voice that suggested that this name was an insignia of an honor I neither deserved nor earned.
The authorities transliterated my last name into Greek, and in doing so made the requisite conversions to accommodate letters for which there are no Greek equivalents or for which there are more than one. The resulting script looked odd but the name, when pronounced, was close enough to the sound of my American name.
When my Greek name, however, was then transliterated back into English at a later date and for other official purposes, the complicated cipher of the original conversion was dropped in favor of a letter-by-letter replacement. This new name was different not only from the name I was born into, that Slovakian-sounding stub which was Leonard’s assimilative legacy to our family, but also from any other name in the world. I now have a name that traces back to no ancestor and betrays no homeland. It is a name without connections, a name with roots that go nowhere, like a runner of ivy set in a vase.
Image: German surgical instruments in ivory and silver gilt, ca 1600