things in the godfather that make me weep

field notes by missy j. kennedy

First you must understand that I never had a chance. As a girl, I was given an old jewelry box of my grandmother’s, which wound up in the back with a brass handle and played “Speak Softly, Love”—a song composed in 1972, known then simply as, “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Standing before a jewelry box, transfixed by a nameless melody, I began already to mix up a story about men and power with tenderness for the women in my family.

By my estimates, I watch The Godfather or The Godfather Part II at least once a month. My mother watches them any time one is playing on cable television that she is around to catch. Our eyes are trained to spot these movies from the kitchen as my father clicks through channels, by a single note of score or by the quality of light in a brief, dark shot before they cut to a commercial—“OH MY GOD, WAS THAT—? IT WAS! STOP RIGHT THERE!” 

“Again?” he asks helplessly, already setting down the remote in resignation.

Yes, again! Listen, these are not feminist movies, and I won’t try to convince you or myself otherwise. They are not even movies about women; they are movies in which things that happen to women are inevitably made to happen to men somehow instead—a familiar and unoriginal narrative sleight of hand. But these really aren’t your typical gangster movies, either. They are, of course, movies about gangsters, but not fundamentally.

Fundamentally, they’re gargantuan dramas about family. Lush, sprawling, and romantic, these are character-driven tragedies about power, yes—but also duty! Love! Betrayal! Growing old! Francis Ford Coppola’s sister, Talia Shire, who played Connie Corleone in the films, described them as “perfumed” by the real memories of their family. And I know that my mother and I think about family when we watch them. So I am somehow surprised these films enjoy a reputation for being so loved by men who love violence, for enduring through gangster truisms like, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” for being immortalized in a style more two-bit than is true of the narrative. (I’m sure Boris Johnson thinks The Godfather is his favorite movie but I know that it probably isn’t.) Because Michael Corleone does not see himself as a gangster at all—he is just trying to be a good son.

I asked my mother what it is about the movies that really get her. Naturally she said, “I can’t put my finger on it.” There are certainly horrific moments; there are also beautiful moments. There is, of course, a family. And for me, there is the intangible matter of the music box, because the music no longer plays, the grandmother no longer lives, and the child before both has grown.

But there are a few things I can put my finger on. (I’m assuming you’re ambivalent about this but, um, spoilers ahead.)

  1. There is, for starters, only one word for the young Al Pacino: Terrific! Arguably, Michael Corleone is the role he is best known for, but it’s also perhaps the least emblematic of his other performances, particularly in the young Pacino era (which includes The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather, parts I and II but not III, Serpico, Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon, Bobby Deerfield, ...And Justice for All, and Author! Author! but not, I would argue, Scarface). The character is quiet, calculating, cerebral—a far cry from his earlier role in, say, The Panic in Needle Park, which I defer to Durga Chew-Bose in her collection Too Much and Not the Mood to describe: “He bounces like he just landed a backflip, like he might be attempting another one, like he doesn’t know how to backflip at all but gets you thinking he can.” But there are a few moments in The Godfather where Pacino disarms Michael’s cool machinations and breaks into a more characteristic warmth. One is during his sister’s wedding, the film’s opening setting, when he asks his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton!), grinning and goofy for just one instant over the red-checkered picnic table: “You like your lasagna?”

  2. The Godfather sorts its men into two categories: men who are smart, and men who are not smart enough. This dichotomy sounds like it would play out insufferably; however, it absolutely breaks my heart. (We’ll discuss Fredo at length in my letter on the sequel. YES, THERE WILL BE A SECOND LETTER!) Clemenza (no first name in the first film), is one of the men who, along with Tessio (also just Tessio, like Cher) and Vito Corleone, began operating THE FAMILY BUSINESS behind the front of Genco Pura Olive Oil Company. We’ll watch this unfold in the flashbacks woven throughout The Godfather Part II. In the first film, however, Clemenza operates primarily as the established mob hen: smoothing arguments, delivering bad news, taking the heat, and cooking meatballs. “Mikey, why don’t you tell that nice girl you love her,” he coos over a vat of tomatoes—after Michael answers “I know” to Kay’s I-love-you over the phone—then bursts into song: “I love you with all a-my heart! If I don’t see you again a-soon, I’m a-gonna die!” It is an otherwise tense moment; Vito is in the hospital after an attempted assassination, and Michael is torn between duty to his father and his own future. So Clemenza tries to lighten the mood by teaching him (us) a recipe (Coppola’s) for good pasta sauce: “You start out with a little oil, you fry some garlic, then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it, you make sure it doesn’t stick, you get it up to a boil and you shove in all your sausages and meatballs, eh? And a little bit of wine, and a little bit of sugar—and that’s my trick!” Eldest son Sonny Corleone cuts him off here—“Alright, cut the crap, eh? I’ve got more important things for you.”—perhaps already beginning to doubt his loyalty at this point. But in the end, when we know it was Tessio who betrayed Vito, it is Michael who simply says, “Tessio was always smarter.

  3. One thing you must understand about The Godfather is that Michael, although the youngest son, is squarely within the category of smart men. But he’s also special, and Vito’s clear favorite. With Vito still in vulnerable health, the family takes precedence over all, even for its golden, college-educated hope—the one who’s supposed to fly straight and be something else. After Cooking with Clemenza, Michael heads off to the hospital to visit his father. Via a truly miserable pitstop to have three bites of dinner with Kay (again, DIANE KEATON!)—during which he cannot answer when she’ll see him again and instead tells her to go back to her parents’ house in New Hampshire and wait for his call, presumably when (or if) things die down—he arrives at the hospital where he expected, as he said moments before, to find detectives and the press at the scene. Instead, he finds only blinking Christmas lights in the silent night. Inside, the hospital appears empty; no one at reception, and at a desk down the hall, he finds only an unwrapped, uneaten sandwich, a still-steaming mug of coffee, a record player skipping over and over an ominous crescendo, “Tonight—, Tonight—, Tonight—,” and in this moment, everything changes. Michael runs to find his father, who seems to be the only patient in the hospital, and only then a nurse appears to shoo him out. We learn the police cleaned house ten minutes ago. Michael insists on moving his father to a different room—“Do you know my father? Men are coming here to kill him. Do you understand? Now help me, please.”—and once accomplished, peers out from behind the dingy door frame, keeping a nervous watch. Footsteps approach; a man in a hat, one arm tucked in front of his coat, out of sight. Little pink flowers, wrapped in white tissue—oh, it’s but Enzo, the baker! Michael tells him there’s sure to be trouble, and Enzo offers to help. Michael sends him outside before turning to his father: “I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now.” And a big, fat tear spreads down Marlon Brando’s face because his favorite son is here! Vito doesn’t seem to understand the implications of what Michael is saying just yet (probably because he’s barely lucid), but Michael does—he’s with Vito now, entangled in all of this now, too.

    And it is Michael who avenges his father, by shooting Sollozzo, the man who wants Vito dead, and the crooked cop in his pocket. When Vito has regained enough health to be brought home and briefed—Sonny reporting that he’s sending Fredo out to Las Vegas to rest, Fredo sheepishly telling his father, “I’m going to learn the casino business,” like an overgrown child—he barely acknowledges any of this and instead asks, “Where’s Michael?” After it is revealed what has happened, that it was Michael who killed Sollozzo, Vito closes his eyes, shakes his head, and dismisses them all with a wave of his hand. Later, we see Fredo shuffle into his father’s room like a sad puppy, presumably for one of the last times before heading off to Las Vegas. (Despite his rank as the second-born, Fredo, as you have probably guessed, is not considered smart enough by those around him.) But Vito is still inconsolable, frowning off into the distance. (Oh, Fredo.) The Sicilian countryside pans across his face as the scene changes.

  4. PICTURE IT! Sicily: the late 1940s. Michael is hiding out while the others take the heat back home. “Love Theme from The Godfather” blares as goats bleat and jangle down the hillside, and Michael and his two hired men, Carlo and Fabrizio, amble up past the herd in flat caps and shirtsleeves. They take him up the mountain to the village of his namesake, Corleone, whose young men have, it turns out, all been killed off in blood feuds. The new men in town come upon a field where women and children are singing, as if in Sapphic verse interrupted, while collecting flowers in baskets. And then, we see Apollonia. Rather, Michael sees Apollonia and goes slack in the face. Apollonia’s like, Whoa, a man (who happens to be the young Al Pacino), and stares back. And we’re off to the races! Soon enough, Michael has introduced himself and his intentions to her father, and is brought around in a crisp black suit to meet the entire family, with gifts, for a respectable courtship. Across a dinner table, Michael—hair slightly overgrown to show that an appropriate amount of time has passed—and Apollonia exchange a smile over the table, and we get another trademark Al Pacino grin, one of the last we’ll see in this entire franchise. And soon enough, Michael and Apollonia are making their matrimonial procession (the last goofy Pacino grin goes to the flower girl as they do). And then—then what? Bring Apollonia back to America? Start over? Before we find out, Apollonia is killed by a car bomb meant for Michael. This part of the movie is an absolute gut-punch, and it’s engineered to be in nearly every way—and Apollonia is merely the plot device to show Michael there’s no getting out now. While he’s briefly living the fantasy at her eventual expense, his sister Connie is beat up by her husband, a traitor to the family, merely to lure their brother Sonny to his death (a scene only written into the movie because the studio executives told Coppola his first cut did not contain enough violence), and Kay (DIANE! KEATON!) is ignored, sent away, and finally called upon again a year after Michael returns, needing a wife to be respectable, needing sons to carry on what he’s begun.

  5. The B plot of The Godfather is a powerful man turning into a harmless grandpa. You could almost miss it—Vito peering into a fish tank and tapping the glass while Clemenza and Michael talk business in his office. He also very abruptly begins wearing checkered shirts and cardigans. And before he dies (a true grandpa’s death, playing with his grandson in a garden), he and Michael have one last father-son moment for closure. They’re sitting outside, Vito going over and over the business ahead, forgetting things (to show that he is near his end), and he stops to ask the kinds of questions my mother asks me when she visits, each getting at the central question of, “Are ya happy?” Then, a moment of reflection: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.” And at this, my mother and I cackle. A deep, throaty, oh-you-silly-fool cackle. Like so many movies, these illustrate the many ways in which men in fact can be careless, how women and children are usually the collateral of that carelessness. But they do at least somewhat attempt to show that carelessness catching up with the man, eventually—even if he gets to grow old and grapple with morality over a glass of wine. “I like to drink wine more than I used to,” Vito tells Michael.

    Don’t we all, Vito. Don’t we all.

violet women

field notes by missy j. kennedy

Three years ago, on Easter, I bought an African violet for ninety-nine cents at a CVS. I guess this is what I do now, because it’s been three years and I have three of them.

I didn’t know anything about African violets. At the time I had only cactus and aloe, hardy varieties I knew well and had kept in the windows of various bedrooms since I was a kid, plus a rubber plant I’d picked up the year before—nothing flowering. I snapped a picture of my new violet at home and sent it to my mother. Some distant windowsill clicked into focus in her memory—she wrote back to me, with the heart-eyes emoji, to tell me that she recognized the variety. That my grandmother, her mother, had kept them, too.

On nearly every online forum discussing the care of African violets—of which there are many—you will encounter at least a handful of such wispy memory-women tending to violets somewhere in the periphery. THE OLDER WOMAN WHO KEPT AFRICAN VIOLETS is usually a relative—a grandmother or a mother or an aunt—but she is always a woman and she is always older.

“Kevin, my Mom also had African violets in many colors when we were kids,” one descendant violet-carer, Cilla, chimes in. (And who is Kevin? I scrolled and scrolled but lost interest so alas will never know!) “And my Grandmother and my Great Auntie Alice. And every other blue-haired lady I knew as a kid!”

Sometimes this blue-haired violet lady is mystical, capable of cultivating specimens with leaf spans that could swallow up a large pizza. In this case, the commenter is usually the recipient of such a monstrous pizza-violet, either a cutting or a whole fledgling to care for, and the reluctant new violet-haver is sending out smoke signals to the rest of the group.

Writes one, Marilyn: “HELP!!!!!!”

But sometimes the matrilineal violet recipient is smugly in possession of the violet magic themselves, more commonly referred to as THE KNACK. So writes Lou: “My grandmother, mom, and I all have the knack for growing some beauties. Yet my sister and mother-in-law have no luck at all.”

I am getting the sense there is a hierarchy of language here. That to be in possession of a green thumb is merely charming—but to be in possession of THE KNACK seems either to indicate a mark of good breeding (Woe to the mortal, feminine failings of Lou’s poor sister and mother-in-law!) or a supernatural gift. Take note of the shift to a definite article, the vague and vaguely exclusionary connotation of this un-evocative noun! One with a green thumb may tend gardens, but one with THE KNACK may cultivate specimens.

I know what you’re going to ask me: Do I possess THE KNACK? Well, I’m not sure. My violets are doing rather well, but there is room for improvement. They flower every few weeks, though not continuously. I prune the dried blooms, water them about once a week (maybe less) from a kettle that’s been set out to warm, and rotate the pots a pinch when I do. I’m experimenting with how I feed them—milk, eggshells, coffee grounds—and trying out fluorescent lighting. I’ll probably move onto propagation from there, and what then?

I guess my hair will turn blue.

“Kevin,” confesses Margo in the forums. “I have become my grandmother!”

more than surface

excerpt from HUMANxNATURE

My brother the geologist shuffles in his sandals to kneel on the earth. He sifts some of it into his cupped hands, lifting the white sand to his mouth to taste. “Salty,” he notes, marveling. The White Sands National Monument is a gypsum field, an assemblage of bone-white sand dunes rippling in slow motion within the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico—the northernmost reaches of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. As a sand, gypsum is dissolved by rainwater, but here the air is dry enough to halt one of nature’s own processes. The monument grounds are flanked on all sides by mountains, the lucent San Andreas range and the earthier Sacramentos, and by operations of the United States military. Encompassing nearly 3,200 square miles, the White Sands Missile Range holds rank as the largest military site in the country.

United States military forces first began scouting this region in 1849. By then, the Mescalero Apaches had dwelled there for over 500 years; by 1880, they’d been forced onto reservations. Then, at approximately 5:29 AM on July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project detonated, on land deemed remote and uninhabited, the first test of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb meant for Nagasaki. The device fizzled, meaning a failure of design or construction released, in this case, over four and a half kilograms of radioactive plutonium—ten pounds—into the atmosphere. Witnesses observed light from the blast as far away as Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The hides of cattle on nearby ranches turned white. Upon the surrounding homes of over 20,000 New Mexico residents, ash from the fallout tumbled down like snow.

I first came to White Sands National Monument by myself, on a spring break road trip in college. From the top of a dune, the March sun blazed already with the heat of the summers I was used to. The wind roared, whipping sand hard across my skin as if to hiss, Out, out! I crouched down and let myself tumble gently to the hospitable earth below. There, all was still and silent, but for the militant scurrying of tiny red ants and flicks of lizards’ tails among the wildflowers—trumpeting Colorado four o’clock; desert dandelion, Mentzelia; and gypsum rosita, little rose—which it seemed no stretch to imagine one could hear. I let my fingers trace symbols in the sand. When I returned with my brother that July, and again on a trip with my parents the following June, I nearly expected to find those markings there still, as if I had left them on the windless moon. To my eyes, the only clue that any time had passed between these visits was the progress of the yucca plants: bare in March, creamy bloom in June, and busy ripening their green-banana seed pods in July.

Time seems to slow in a desert. It is no wonder we often bring less urgency to our admiration for these arid, quiet places than we do for our mountains and forests, where threats announce themselves in more obvious or alarming ways. Deserts offer us less on their surfaces than verdant places. With untrained eyes, scant visual cues are interpreted as evidence of stability on land whose climate is defined by being in crisis. In deserts, life already exists on the edge of a knife. There is an unfortunate tendency to look out on them as vast and empty—to instead see them as merely beautiful, or as fantastic backdrops for our own makings.

. . .

Originally published, and continued, in HUMANxNATURE. If you missed our Kickstarter, you can read the rest by subscribing to our Substack newsletter.

heart leaf

field notes by missy j. kennedy

Every now and then, one of my rubber plants grows a heart-shaped leaf.

The other one, the younger one, doesn’t do this. But it’s happened at least a few times now on the older one. It has one of its little heart leaves right now. When the first one opened like that, like a heart, I was pretty captivated. I meant to study what happened to it, that first heart leaf, to see if it would somehow unspool itself into a full leaf or if it would drop itself to try again—a sacrifice—because maybe the idea is to try for full leaves, not accidental heart leaves, and the plant saw what it had made instead and said, ohhell, while I, in my ignorance, said, !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

But it was the same as when any new leaf finally opens, which begin as little red sheaths that pop up and slowly unfurl. You try to sit and watch and wait for it but it just happens while you’re at work instead.

I can’t find any information online about why my rubber plant sometimes grows me these valentines, or if it means there’s actually something amiss with it or its care. This is, of course, my fear. But I’m not too worried because the plant is otherwise thriving. Growth has been steady and full, with plenty of shiny, waxy leaves and a new baby shoot coming in straight up from the roots. It leans slightly because it’s getting too big for the pot and it’s time to repot it in something bigger. (I will have to do this next weekend, pretending my bathtub is a patio and the faucet a spigot for an outdoor hose.) It’s becoming more of a floor plant than a desk plant, but I don’t have any floor to spare in this apartment, so I guess it can just have the desk when the time comes.

Rubber plants, ficus elastica, require a few simple rituals. They need only bright, plentiful light that isn’t too direct—precisely the kind I get because I only get the kind of direct light that pours in and scatters little prisms across your walls during golden hour in the summer. Though you’d think that would happen in winter, too, just earlier, and that I’d catch it on the weekends when I’m at my desk by the window, but that never seems to happen. I water them a little less, maybe every other week, in the winter. But in the summer, it’s every weekend, hoisting them onto my hip like I imagine a parent might do with a toddler and carrying them each to the bathtub for a shower. Then you need to dry off the leaves, and then you clean them. Water and vinegar will ward off pests, but you can only use that every so often. Water and lemon juice is best for weekly care, and good for shine, too. So is water and milk, which is probably what your grandmother would have used—it’s probably what my grandma used, too, since she kept them. I keep meaning to ask my mother if she remembers.

This letter was originally sent via TinyLetter on February 11, 2019.

yucca brevifolia

field notes by missy j. kennedy

The Joshua tree is a yucca, the yucca palm, yucca brevifolia; its leaves are daggers and they do not flower every year, but as rainfall allows. They bloom from about February until April the years they do, in that particular sun-warmed cream of all yucca, greener in the middle and on the pistils. Then their yucca moths flutter in and pollinate, laying their eggs in the bellies of the flowers. 13,000 years ago, now-extinct ground sloths would then hulk in and eat the ripe fruits, spreading the seeds across the deserts as they went along their way.

This particular yucca is particular to the particular region of the United States which includes portions of Arizona, Nevada, and California, and which of course includes Joshua Tree National Park. Due to climate change, researchers estimate that, of the total population of Joshua trees found on earth at the beginning of the century, only 10 percent will remain by the end of it.

Which is to say: today’s Joshua trees are likely some of the last.

Amidst the government shutdown, many national parks have remained accessible even with their workers furloughed and funding frozen. As you have no doubt read, it has taken less than twenty-four days to absolutely inundate these places with our garbage and our waste. To plough over delicate earth with our cars and to cut through these trees to make way for ourselves where we do not belong.

Land protected by national parks is stolen, and now only tenuously guarded from further destruction and depletion. And this land contains fragile and irreplaceable multitudes, beings that most of us could probably not name even if we were given three guesses, which will run out of places to run to as we stammer in ignorance of their existence. That we may also hike and camp upon such land is absolutely inconsequential to the stakes—but our choices matter when we do. Now, and ever, tread lightly. And if you don’t feel the stakes in your bones, don’t tread at all until you do.

This letter was originally sent via TinyLetter on January 14, 2019.

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