ida mercer loved john campanella and he loved her back

life’s grand plot is a mystery.  but i felt it’s turnings and machinations, it’s intersections and parallels and all of its random pieces humming together as i read about my grandfather.  the one on my father’s side who is half-italian and half-black. whatever and all that that means to you.  my chinese grandfather on my mother’s side is no slouch either but i know a lot about him.  i didn’t know … that my white great-grandfather, john campanella, and my black great-grandmother ran away together 3 times before they married in 1907.  when i discovered these bits something pointy inside me shifted into a neat, perfectly matched groove. i felt my generations.  i felt older than time.  i felt tethered to a tapestry of inctricate and timeless proportions.  i felt the name, ida mercer (my black great-grandmother), fill another hole of exact height and depth as the information. 

there have been other books written about the youngest son of that early miscegenating couple who were my great-grandparents.  but something or some timing compelled me to pick this one up.  perhaps it’s the fact that it was just published and was in plain sight of my lazy eyes.  campy, some called him. 

and the story of his birth and rise to baseball’s hall of fame is as dense, random, and complex as his family legacy.  what is here of the campanellas today is a minefield of political, economic, cultural, racial and social contradictions (and drama).  the stories are sad and triumphant.  it is no wonder roy campanella’s life took similar turns and tangles that resembled all of ours.

and i think about how maybe God works backward.  but it’s probably just me, an ant, the captain of a small, small sea.  i think as if i am the sun around whom all the other events of life center.  but i am actually a long line of men and women destined to ramble into one another.  to be created and to create. 

so it is perhaps no coincidence that i found myself in philadelphia in my mid-twenties, circa 2002.  the city where roy campanella was born and raised.  but it is of greater intrigue that i discovered a philadelphia all my own, ignorant of a grandfather who played baseball in the streets of a neighborhood i’d learn the name of 9 years later.  oh, i knew the general area – the northeast – with its wide Boulevard with a capital B, large houses and slight scent of depression.  its blue collar and unemployed white people with fringes of black.  but if i’d known to look for lehigh street from the eyes of a granddaughter … it just wouldn’t have been the same.  for better or worse (and i like to think for the better) when i encounter my grandfather’s history in nicetown and i hear of ball clubs from norristown and conshohocken and lower germantown, i still have a knowing.  i know something of those places that are just black letters to some.  i know the streets of those areas, i know the look, feel and texture of their varied peoples.  i know and i tingle with the overlap.  as if i laid my footprints on the streets of philadelphia where my grandfather walked.  and i never even really grasped that.  until i was long gone from philly and never going back.  except maybe for brief visits.

because some of the irony is that my chinese grandparents live a mile from norristown in a wierdly named suburb outside of philly called king of prussia whose biggest claim to fame is that it houses the 2nd biggest mall in america.  it was all meant to be.  and my hip bones settle into my pelvis.  grounded in the middle of a giant, spinning earth populated with billions of people.  and somehow this knowing unshakeably grips my invisible parts:  it was all meant to be.  i was supposed to be in philly only half-aware of how significant my location was.  roy campanella was supposed to marry ruthe (another story).  and roy was intended to be one in a billion with an exceptional talent for baseball at the age of 15.  ida mercer and john campanella had to fall into a deep love and cross color lines despite all odds and much discrimination.  the white campanellas were meant to disown the black ones.  the white campanellas were meant to travel here from sicily in the exact year of the 1800s in which they did.  in a parallel universe – new york city – my chinese great-grandparents were destined to birth, jocko, so he could go on to marry a lily and create a penny.  

i mean, literally, my brain was about to explode in the bookstore.  i felt all these parts of me coming and going and re-combining.  i felt my DNA singing and shape-changing.  and then i thought of the dean sisters.  the 8 strong-boned, lightish complected, native american remnant, sisters of whom one was my great-grandma, fannie.  and how we favor.  how my sister and i look like them.  and i think how this is just the tip … how many people and events and pieces and parts and times and dates God had to orchestrate to just make me who i am, and my sister who she is, and all the other people we know and love and their times and dates and their people who they know and … and then …

and then my brain officially blows up. 


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