The Mousetrap

Ok… here we are, 47 years ago, around the time this picture was taken. I believe that’s my brother. It’s raining. No matter.

We are standing in the doorway of a small toolshed behind a small, white, red-trimmed house built 47 years earlier by my grandfather.  This particular little workshop is situated about as far as you can possibly go from the town in which he was born. In this small and slightly ramshackle structure are the tools he uses and the spaces in which they all belong. They sit, stand, and hang, all at the ready for whatever necessity or whim might happen to capture his sense of responsibility, his attention, and, likely, often, just his imagination.

The walls are adorned with every kind of yard tool: rakes, hoes, shovels, spades, and others whose purposes are, in my six years of experience, mysteries. A rusty well-used scythe hangs there too. The concrete floor is stained with oil, and, likely, his blood and sweat. There sits the massive, round, pedal-driven grinding stone mounted in the ancient wooden contraption he’d built especially for it. Behind that is a work bench; attached to its edge is a heavy cast iron vise. I think it’s green. Behind the vise sit numerous old coffee cans filled with every kind of nut, bolt, nail, and screw you could possibly ever need in a lifetime. He’d indeed spent much of his life collecting them. He created this space as only a creator could.

I see this, this spot of time, vividly, even the smell: a musty combination of gasoline, oil, decomposing grass, metal, and wet wood. And here we are, one hand in my grandfather’s as he rummages around with his other to assemble those things we need to take care of a situation needing attention. Mice.

My grandfather emigrated from Italy in the early 1920s. I believe 1922? It was soon after the First World War had ended, and soon after he was released from an Austrian POW camp located not far from his home town, not far to the north of Venice. My grandfather was a conscripted soldier in the Italian Army. However, he apparently refused to accept the role of a soldier and would shoot into the air above the heads of his Austrian neighbors who had likewise been commissioned to shoot at him.

Since he was able, years later, to be here in this workshop with me, I like to think that those Austrians shared the same pacifist rebelliousness. I like to think that there, in the Alps, the Italian and Austrian conscripts shot over each other’s heads, more in favor of sparing the lives of neighbors than in doing what the common mousetrap mercilessly does to mice. He spent the remaining years of the war in a prison somewhere on the other side of the Italo-Austrian border, not so far from home.

After the war, and his release, and as soon as he could, he, his wife, and my young uncle (God bless them all), packed their bags, boarded a ship in Genoa, and left. Via Ellis Island, they journeyed to about as far away from all that nonsense as they could possibly get: the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada, at the edge of a small logging town in what was then one of the farthest reaches of the civilized world. Incidentally, the whole notion of “the civilized world” needs a little more consideration, but that’s for later.

So, here, in his workshop in 1971, my grandfather wants me to help him make a trap to catch the mice that are terrorizing his wife. And so we do. He quietly, but unforgettably, goes to work to transform an odd collection of items into a devise fashioned to capture the vermin responsible for the recent acts of terror. He builds a mousetrap, but one fashioned according to his principles and world view, and surely inspired by his life experiences, to spare their lives.

He was my teacher. I learned this from him. I have never made anything quite like that mousetrap in my own life since then. However, there is much that I have done that I would never have been able to accomplish, nor perhaps understand as well, had it not been for that one experience with him.