The first time I heard the name Cacciamani I was five years old. My father said it, and then he spit. The spitting I had seen before. I watched my father spit out his toothpaste into the sink. I had seen him spit once while mowing the lawn when he claimed to have taken in a mouthful of gnats. But this particular spitting, the spitting done in association with the word Cacciamani, was done directly onto the cement floor of the back room of Roseman's, our family's florist shop. That floor, like everything else in my father's world, was kept meticulously clean, nary a leaf hit that floor, and so even as a child I recognized the utter seriousness of his gesture.
"Pigs," my father said, referring not to himself for what he had done to his floor but to the name that had led him to do it.
I wish I could remember the rest of this story, how the Cacciamanis had come up in the first place, but I was five. Fifty-five years later, only the highlights of such childhood memories remain.
Commentators, the people reading their opinions on the news, the people on the op-ed page of the Globe, love to say that hate is a learned thing. Children mimic the appalling racial slurs of their appalling parents, every bitter, contemptible piece of narrow-mindedness is handed down from generation to generation like so much fine family silver. I doubt it is as easy as this, as I know my own two daughters have picked up a few things in this world I will not take responsibility for, but then I think of my father and the small, shimmery pool of his spit on the floor. I hated Cacciamani with all the passionate single-mindedness of a child without even knowing what or who it was. I decided it was a fish. My father, who loved just about everything, was not a fan of fish, and so I assumed the conversation must have gone something like this:
My mother: Howard, I got some nice fresh Cacciamani for dinner tonight.
My Father: Cacciamani! [Spit] Pigs!
For the next several years I imagined pale-fleshed, rubbery bottom feeders, the dreaded Cacciamani, snuffling around blindly at the bottom of Boston Harbor. No doubt my mother intended to fry them and serve them up in a buttery lemon sauce.
When exactly I made the transition from fish to family, from family to rival florists, I don't know (again, remember, this was the distant past). It hardly ruled my life. My path did not cross with the Cacciamanis', and when it did, they had to be pointed out to me like a patch of poison ivy I could have walked right into. We did not go to the same school. Their son went to the idol-worshiping, uniform-wearing Catholic school, while my brother and I attended perfectly normal public school. Their name was rarely spoken and when it was there was a great fanfare of unexplained wrath that I gladly participated in. We were a liberal family, aware of the recent persecution of our people and therefore unlikely to persecute others. As far as I knew, the only prejudice we had was against the Cacciamanis. It didn't extend to other Catholics or all Italians, just those people, those wretched, worthless fish. A prejudice can be a lovely thing to have, which is exactly why so many people have them in the first place. A prejudice is a simplification: Every member of this group is exactly the same and therefore I never have to think about any of them. What a time-saver! Of course, it didn't save me much time because back then there were only three Cacciamanis for me to hate, a father, a mother, and the son. I remember seeing the mother at Haymarket several times on Saturdays. She was beautiful, tall and thin, with black hair and red lips. Still, I thought it was an evil sort of beauty. Then their son grew up, married, and had six children, many of whom married and had children of their own. The Cacciamani clan grew by leaps and bounds and as far as I was concerned the whole lot of them were worthless, a fact that was reinforced when Tony Cacciamani tried to marry my daughter Sandy when they were in high school.
So that was how I came to hate Cacciamanis. Now let me tell you how I stopped. It was five years ago when I came to hate my husband, Mort. Mort ran off with Lila, the thirty-eight-year-old bouquet-grasping bridesmaid he met at a wedding while delivering flowers. Apparently he met her at several weddings. She was practically a professional bridesmaid, many friends, few dates. There went Mort and Lila. After that I knew what it was to really hate someone on your own terms, for your own reasons, which is much more poignant than hating on someone else's behalf. I didn't know I had ceased to carry an axe for the Cacciamanis. There was no conscious moment: I hate Mort and so expunge the record of the Cacciamanis. I simply hadn't thought of them for years. And then one day, while attending a seminar at the downtown Boston Sheraton called "Making Your Small Business Thrive," I practically walked into a man with the name tag romeo cacciamani. I probably would have recognized his face, but I saw the name first. I steeled myself for the great wave of fury that was surely coming. I planted my feet and took a breath, but nothing, not even a twinge. What came instead was this thought: Poor Romeo Cacciamani; his shop must be going bust, too, if he's at this thing.
He tilted his head a little and squinted at me. I think Romeo Cacciamani needed glasses. "Julie Roseman," he said, reading my tag.
And there he was, a nice-looking Italian guy sitting right at sixty. He was wearing pressed khaki pants and a white polo shirt with a sprig of chest hair flourishing at the throat. No gold chains. I was so surprised by my utter lack of hostility that I wanted to laugh. I wanted to shake his hand, and I would have except I had a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee in one hand and several folders of tax spreadsheets and workmen's comp advice in the other. "Romeo Cacciamani," I said with wonder.
Excerpted from Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray. Copyright © 2000 by Jeanne Ray. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.