The Casorso's were a storybook family to me when I was a child. They lived out in the country, just past Mission Creek, in a big, old white house, like the Waltons', a rambling, two-storied place with a wrap-around covered porch. They had for generations made their living off the land, raising pigs and harvesting the apple orchards. Their lives seemed clean and simple and domestic with a capital D.
In those years, my parents, small sister and I lived in four squalid rooms, heated only by the kitchen oil stove. We had a root cellar, that housed an ice box cooled with blocks of ice. We had a storm door through which my father once threw my mother on a Sunday afternoon, the crashing of glass breaking the sleepy silence and bringing alarmed and nervous neighbors out their front doors, all agog.
This made the Casorso family a dream family to me. I remember turning into their driveway with my grandparents on afternoon visits, dogs barking, running to meet us, children darting in and out, busyness all around. A hired hand or two could always be seen somewhere out back, gumbooting across the muddy field, bucket in hand.
In the dark, downstairs rooms lived smiling, toothless on Grandpa Louis. He looked the same every time I saw him, through decades of visits: the same whiskers, wrinkled face, overalls, battered hat and gap-toothed smile. He seemed either never to have aged, or to have been eternally old. He always had a pot of soup simmering on the stove for the multitude of laughing grandchildren streaming up and down the stairs. After school, it was a ritual for the children to have a bowl of Grandpa's soup after they had changed into their play clothes.
His son Augie (for August) and daughter-in-law Muriel and their children lived on the upper floor. In the years when I was going to Catholic school with the daughters, there were five girls, and the entire church congregation knew they longed for a son. Muriel's pregnancies were dangerous and difficult, and she was told each child might be her last. I remember anxious nuns leading us in prayer during her confinements. The Casorsos were strict Catholics, placing their faith in God, and somehow Muriel always pulled through. When the sixth child was finally a boy, we heard they placed him on the altar and dedicated his life to God. The seventh and last child was also a boy.
So the upstairs was a hive of activity. Muriel was always ironing or sewing or cooking, and while we visited, she never stopped. The children were well cared for, always clean and bright eyed and smiling. The family was Italian, and all of the children had brown glowing eyes and open trusting faces. They all sported simple, bowl-shaped haircuts. The older girls were each responsible for tending one of the smaller ones, for getting them dressed, washed and their hair brushed every morning, and bathed and bedded every night.
My Grandma told me that Muriel put a small Christmas tree in each of the bedrooms every year, as well as decorating a main tree for the family to share in the living room. Muriel told Grandma that she never knew how long she would live, and wanted to make happy memories for the children while she was alive.
Their family life, the goodness and honesty and discipline, was something I hungered for. I longed for domesticity, for family, for clean clothes and rules and mealtimes, so their life was like a fairy tale to me, and just as unattainable.
Margie, the oldest daughter, was in my class at school. She was innocent and modest, so good that there was some expectation she might become a nun. Lost in my own adolescent agonies, I admired her shining example, while knowing I could never manage it. She had led a sheltered and protected life. Nothing could get near enough to harm her and she faced the world with wide eyes, expecting only goodness.
Then she went away to college where she met a young man, Bill, who had "problems", and we heard that he was making Margie sad. In her inexperience and innocence, she did not know how to escape. He was wildly jealous and possessive, threw scenes, threatened her. As years went by, the stories got worse. They were engaged, to her parents' dismay, then married. And, once married, given her religion and her parents' example, there was no turning back. We heard Margie had a miscarriage. Then that she had decided she would have no children, that she couldnt bring a child into that kind of home, ruled by the tyrrany of her husband's volatile moods.
Her parents provided a cottage on their property so Margie and her husband could live nearby. But as for what went on behind closed doors, that was Margie's business and they left it up to her. She became a teacher at the Catholic elementary school and gave to her students all the love and care she would have given to her own children.
She attended Mass regularly and lived her quiet life of self-sacrifice and duty. Religion had taught us, concerning personal unhappiness and suffering, our reward was not to be expected in this life, but the next.
It seemed we had both met much the same fate, Margie through being protected, perhaps to much, and thus unprepared for life to be anything less than wonderful, me from not being protected enough, with no experience that it could be wonderful at all.
The other daughters grew up too, tall and beautiful. One became a gym instructor, into fitness and dance. The older son, the one they had hoped would become a priest, gave his parents some worry during his teens. The mother did not die and, in fact, still lives. The father is now the patriarch, Grandpa Louis long since passed to the spirit world.
The generations still gather at the big rambling old house that is the heart of their family, and pigs and apples still provide the family's livelihood. Everyone's eyes are wiser now. Real life happened to the storybook daughters, as it did to us all. But their laughter still rings out, the sisters still call from room to room, while they help their mother prepare holiday feasts, and tend the next generation of brown-eyed children.
That house and that family lives on somewhere in my memory. I picture the little girls all lined up in the pew at Sunday Mass, from the tallest to the smallest, in their ruffled pinafores and petticoats, white gloves and black patent leather shoes, looking out from under the brims of their sunbonnets with their grave, shy smiles and upturned round and innocent brown eyes.
The orchards still bloom every spring. I imagine that sometimes of an early morning or a soft summer sunset, the ghost of childish laughter echoes hauntingly through branches that even now remember those vital years when a herd of brown-eyed children in overalls lived off their bounty.