His had been an interesting vital life, now fallen on hard times. But not in the way you'd suspect. At one time Rico had been full of life and adventure only to be struck down at fifty with severe arthritis. "Ahh, these hands," he would sigh desolately, gazing down at them, held out the few five or six inches his elbows would allow. Knarled, knotted and bent. Almost useless. Not quite.
Rico's life story begins in a small town near Naples, Italy circa 1925. His parents were small, peasant farmers but happy. His uncle Paulo, though...well, that was a different story. Paulo owned the one and only ristorante of any standing in Villa del Sol. And what a cook! Mamma mia! Nothing could compare to the incredible concotions created in Paulo's kitchen. The smell of fresh breads baking, of lamb or pork roasting as day moved to dusk. Ah, what pleasure for the olfactory senses for a young boy in a sleepy, sunny Italian village. He would follow his nose on weekends and after school seeking out Tio Paulo in his kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
By age ten, Rico had become an apprentice baker and was developing a fine appreciation of creative culinary arts: pastries and cakes in the shape of angels and swans. Icing and ices depicting roses, chrysanthemums and even grapes on the vine. Of all the exciting ventures in Paulo's kitchen, Rico took to baking and creating (as he would later say). He took great pride in his artistic endeavours and great pleasure in being on hand when they were presented to surprised, happy customers. Yes, these were indeed happy days. He would complete his apprenticeship and move on, reputation and skills in tow, to where? Naples? Rome? Venice? The choices were endless and he was filled with aspiration.
Things changed. Wartime visited even his beloved Italy. Conscripted into the Navy at age 18, Rico served as a cook on a battleship in the Mediterranean for a year. It was good: it was bad. The comrades he met and lost to the war. Young men. Good men. All full of hopes and dreams like himself. Dreaming of fine careers, the women they would love in every port, the places they would see and conquer for Italy; for Germany. It ended. Undone. Incomplete. So much lost.
At 19, the War for the Italians was over and it had not turned out well. Fearing reprisals should he return home, Rico abandoned ship and in time made his way to Argentina. There he would not be alone, he knew. Many other Italians were seeking refuge on the South American continent.
The 1940s and '50s were tumultuous, exciting times in Argentina. Eva and Juan Peron had risen to power, introducing economic and social reforms at such a rapid rate and such a broad scale that one hardly knew what to expect from day to day. Were they heroes? Promising good times, work projects, public health and education were all heady incentives for the welcome new immigrants from Post World War II Europe. Rico soon found a job driving trucks on the docks. The busy, busy docks. Bustling with commerce. Bustling with imports and exports, scandals, intrigue, corruption and murder.
"Yes," he recalls, he does remember the beginnings of the Mafia involvement in the formation of the Teamsters Union there. The truckers, the dock workers. He remembers all too well the bribes, the secrecy, the enforcement. He remembers. But what matter was it to young Rico? He was from a time a and place that understood such arrangements. He fit in well. Adjusted. Succeeded. Kept his mouth shut. But oh... he stories he could tell. If he would.
Rico's work eventually took him inland, driving supply trucks to a very large, private hacienda about three hours south of Buenos Aires. Who was this landowner? This quiet, refined gentleman who exuded power and authority and in whose presence one felt immediately obligated to respect and obey. It was not for Rico to ask. He did not. He did his job. Did it well: respectfully and without question. Eventually they became friends, of a sort. For Rico's station in life could never hope to equal the Ranchero's. But he did benefit. Rico's culinary skills were discovered and he had, on a number of occasions, been invited to be the "guest chef" at the hacienda for parties of dignitaries, politicians, wealthy Argentine business owners, union heads. This served him well. Soon he would be invited to be Chef at a very exclusive hotel in the City. It was clear sailing from there. Back to what he'd known he was born to do. Back to his kitchens and creations. He was happy again.
Over the years since leaving Rico had developed a penchant for travel. Since he felt he could not longer return home, he chose instead to head for another bright new horizon, Canada. He'd heard about the post-war boom. The economics and the rights and freedoms for all in this illustrious country. And he knew Italian immigrants were accepted and finding work. But reflecting back on his military service in WWII, he would not take that chance. He approached his old friend the Ranchero and was, with little difficulty, able to obtain an Argentine passport. And of course, his Spanish by now was fluent and his natural name would help him pass as an Argentine in Canada He emmigrated in 1959.
Once in Canada, he did not keep his origins a secret. At least amongst other Italians whom he felt were in the same boat. With their help he travelled from Toronto to Vancouver successfully finding employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a cook "on the line." He worked with rail crews in remote kitchens and stopovers for a few years but kept his eyes and ears open for opportunity. He knew he was better than this. With time he fanangled a sous-chef position in a busy CP Hotel in the Canadian Rockies. Then on to Vancouver with the company and a very successful career as Pastry Chef. He branched out. He began carving and sculpting food for presentation. He gained renown. He won a national competition in the 1970s and he proudly displays the newspaper clippings and photo under glass in his room.
But what went wrong in what looked to be a happy, productive life that should have had a happy ending? Rheumatoid arthritis. Like a time bomb ticking away in his body. Age and illness finally crossed paths. First his knees. Then the lower back. What pain to sit then stand. Then, God forbid, his hands. No, not the hands! These were his life, his love, his essence. To lose the things that allowed him to express himself; to share his ideas of beauty and love and philosophy. This was too much. He became increasingly angry. Frustrated. Irritable. Dependent. Now he has a reputation as being cantakerous and belligerent. He knows this. He lives in a one-hundred bed residential care facility and is wheelchair bound.
Has he indeed become a cranky old man? Is it the physical pain of arthritis? Is it the loss of life and limb? Of purpose? Of respect? Who cares about this old man? Who bothers to get past the gruff exterior. Friends have all gone on with their lives and drifted away. He is alone and unloved. He knows this. Sometimes he cries. Alone. At night, after they have helped him into pyjamas and bed. But he won't let them see. Won't let them know how he cries for the loss of his life. of his identity. His very existence. He wants to cry out "hear me--I am still here!" But he does not. They are too busy. No time. No interest. He sits and watches . What does it matter? How many here would be his intellectual equal anyway? His thinking lengthens the sense of distance and alienation he already feels. And the loneliness. No end to the loneliness.
Something has changed. Someone has been watching, observing him! Can it be true? Someone has studied him enough to know how to approach this embittered man and shows him a new way. A road back to life and people. A different road. Appealing to his sense of high intellect and interest in the world, he's been introduced to the computer. Only someone who had studied him well; who knew him would dare to approach him with such a suggestion let alone be able to teach him. A keyboard is fitted out so that he might control it with the use of his one or two stiff fingers. And more.
Someone has provided access to the world through Internet for him. A world outside of here. Outside of this dreary existence. A world where the deteriorating body cannot be seen or known. A world of like minded people. He plays chess now with someone in Europe, converses on subjects from astrology to travel, to cooking and art. He is inspired. Revived. He's begun to write poetry. A discovery: he is still creative. Staff and peers begin to catch on. They requisition cards and poems. He, himself, purchases a Print Shop for his computer to produce these.
Rico is less angry now. All of this does not mean he's happy, nor well-adjusted. He has much to deal with as his body betrays him. But now he has purpose, interest and human connection even if most of it is long distance. It doesn't matter. He now has reason to face each day. He will endure and it won't be so awful anymore.