Copyright © 2019 Paola Corso. All Rights Reserved.
DEATH BY RENAISSANCE by Paola Corso An Excerpt MY VERY OWN CLEANING LADY I always thought I’d do my own cleaning, never forget the working-class way of Italian American women like my mother who kept a broom beside her front door as if it were a sign that read, “we work hard, we clean hard so wipe your damn feet on the welcome mat before you step inside.” The broom was a sign that well-off mericans didn’t understand; they saw it as clutter that belonged in a tool shed behind a fence in the back yard with the snow blower and the leaf blower and the lawn mower. Then I moved to Brooklyn, bought a co-op apartment, had a baby and a contractor who skipped town in the middle of renovation. He left me in dirty living hell with a nursing newborn, 650 square feet of filth and six ounces of breast milk every four hours, dust he knew my own prosperity created because I could afford to add on a second bedroom. I was another ‘merican in this immigrant’s eyes who’d just pay  to have someone else clean up after him. It was all I could do to take a shower but I ignored signs in our lobby that advertised “PhDs who clean.” It wasn’t in me to hire someone, even a scholar gathering dust samples for a doctoral thesis. I still thought money would never change hands to get the apartment clean when my mother came for a visit. She wanted to but didn’t ask why not a house in Pittsburgh, why I waited so long to leave my job and have a baby. She filled a bucket of water, scrubbed the floor on her knees one square foot at a time Payback for all those Saturday mornings I helped her clean. As she rinsed her rag and said the contractor’s name in vain, I rested on the sofa with my son, remembering dust to dust. . . . EXPRESSED My father drove 382 miles from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn and didn’t find a parking space. His welcoming was a $60 ticket and sticky sap all over his windshield from the sycamores on our tree-lined street. We moved the car to a legal spot then took a taxi to Home Depot to buy light fixtures and to Home Depot again for a toilet seat because I couldn’t leave a nursing baby for longer than a few hours at a time. After my father hung the ceiling light, he picked up operations instructions for a Purely Yours breast pump. I sat at the kitchen table with my nursing bra flaps down, exposing breasts hard and engorged while he rigged tubing to the machine, set the dial, and handed me the suction cup. When my milk began to sputter into the bottle, he winked and left me with a pitcher of water to drink as I expressed one breast at a time in calibrated dribs and drabs. The room grew dark, but he came back to switch on the ceiling fixture he had just installed. And in his light, my eyes gradually began to adjust to the bold pattern of the newly hung wallpaper, to the full bottle of milk in front of me, waiting to see my cream rise to the top in the freezer before the faint tint of blue. . . . THE DOCTOR MAKES HIS DIAGNOSIS* I have two cities but only one home that is my mother’s womb with one long umbilical cord that reaches across thousands of frequent flyer miles. I have two apartments and one window filled with pleats of light and a sooty curtain that no matter the color is a checkered gray. I have “an abiding devotion” to my birthplace, so when I go back to Pittsburgh, I’m stupida for living in Brooklyn and when I’m living in Brooklyn, I’m mad with longing. I have an “afflicted imagination” that incapacitates my body, causing nausea, loss of appetite, high fever, pathological changes in the lungs, brain inflammation, and cardiac arrest. I have a “lifeless and haggard countenance,” an “idleness conducive to daydreaming” about thick village milk and Iron City beer, about the sounds of bagpipes and Terrible Towels whipping in stadium winds. I have three college degrees and seven bookcases but rely solely on “associationist magic.” When I climb the stairs to the torch of the Statue of Liberty, I imagine being at the top of an idle factory smokestack. I have a “highly contagious disease” but curable if you purge my stomach, induce torture and pain. I can be ridiculed, laughed out of my homesickness unless you see me as a working-class woman who does a white-collar job with blue-collar hands. *Swiss Doctor Johannes Hofer coined the word “nostalgia” in his 1688 medical dissertation Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia.
Read Paola’s Ellis Island essay in The New York Times
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