Who Is George Washing Machine?
Dec 01, 2019 02:50PM
● By Amy Packard
He gets his love of words from his mother and his optimism from his father. The executive editor of the Finger Lakes Times in Geneva, New York, frequent contributor to Mountain Home, and author of the just-published George Washing Machine, Portables, & Submarine Races, Mike Cutillo always wanted to write a book. He might be surprised to realize his non-fiction account of his Italian-American family is truly a love story.
It’s not just his parents’ love story, though the account of how his father and mother met and married is both epic and entertainingly narrated. Rather, it’s the abiding love of family and how the Cutillos, with Mike’s father at their center, draw together old friends and new, close family, distant cousins, and new acquaintances—who might be cousins if the family tree is examined far enough back—under the same joyful umbrella.
The title comes from Michele (it’s Italian for Michael, pronounced Mi-KAY-lay) Cutillo Sr.’s happy malapropisms. His self-taught English is filtered through his early years speaking only an obscure Italian dialect. Once explained to him, his colorful language-bending delights him as much as it does his audience. And it’s clear Michele does not suffer from stage fright.
Born in the small Italian village of San Salvatore Telesino, the elder Cutillo left school early to work on the family farm. He was a locally-famous soccer player, to the dismay of his parents, who were happier when he applied to and was accepted into the local police academy. He planned to live his life in Italy until, in 1955, he unexpectedly met Pasqualina Sylvia Tucci, a young American woman who accompanied her grandmother to her birthplace in Italy. Despite the language barrier, romance flourished, fed by frequent letters the couple exchanged—each written in their own tongue and having to be translated—culminating a few years later in a marriage proposal. Getting to America was another difficulty, because the U.S. consulate frowned on potential emigrants who wanted to travel here to marry. Sylvia solved the problem by returning to Italy and marrying Michele there. He accompanied her back across the ocean to upstate New York, and in the course of their journey they celebrated their wedding three times. Michele taught himself English mostly by watching television, eventually settling in as a metal-worker and machinist in Syracuse in the company of other Italy-born workers.
In his later years, Michele indulged his love of soccer by watching matches on cable’s international channels, and Mike has taken him to soccer games and tournaments in Italy and other European venues. In fact, the book’s cover features Michele in a soccer stadium in Dortmund, Germany, where the two watched the FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals in 2006. That cover puzzled Michele who asked, “Why are you putting me on the cover when it’s your book?” Mike tells his father that he’ll understand after he reads the book, which hasn’t happened yet.
Other readers, however, will surely fall in love with this man who’s delighted his family, and strangers who came to feel like family, by offering a meal or lifting his voice in song with his brother, Enzo, and a family friend in a three tenors-style rendition of Italian favorites at several village restaurants when father and son visited Italy together. Does Michele have a good singing voice? Mike hesitates.
“He’s got a loud one. He can probably carry a tune,” he says cautiously, adding, “Everyone who meets him loves him. He just loves life and finds joy in a lot of things—including singing loudly.” Michele has returned to his homeland more than fifty times, Mike more than twenty, often taking groups of friends as well as his father on tour with him, discovering off-the-beaten-path food artisans, long lost family members, and unforgettable eateries.
On one of those trips, the now-late Zio Enzo—Michele’s only brother, who stayed in Italy and became a general—took Mike aside to ask whether Michele was a smart man. “He speaks three languages,” Mike replied. Zio Enzo spoke only one. “Is he a good father?” Zio Enzo wanted to know. Mike assured him that Michele was one of the best. “He’s a sweetheart, very kind,” he told his uncle.
The pleasure of good meals—sumptuously described—is an appetizing motif throughout the book. It was the senior Cutillo, who missed the flavors of his youth and wanted to recreate and share them with friends and family, who cooked many of those meals. In fact, for more than a decade before Sylvia’s death in 2008, he was the family meal-planner and chef. Mike and his wife, Jan, now share their home with Michele, a living arrangement that definitely has its gastronomic perks. When Mike and Jan work late, they often come home to find Michele has cooked something lovely for them for supper.
And the day’s last meal nearly always includes homemade red wine. After serving an apprenticeship with his father, Mike became the family winemaker, crafting Cabernet, Barbera, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese juice from California into semi-dry reds that complement his father’s cooking style. On occasion, they’ll make a white wine for a family member who prefers something lighter. Wine makes its first appearance in the book as cut-up, wine-soaked peaches add their flavor to a glass and to the enjoyment of a leisurely summer afternoon. Wine is mentioned at every description of a mouth-watering meal, perhaps prompting readers to work up a thirst. And at the end of the afternoon—as well as at the end of the book—the reader is urged to try those peaches!
As the years have passed, Michele has become more of a homebody, so, these days, the best way to meet him and fall in love might be through Mike’s written tribute to his father and his family. George Washing Machine, Portables, & Submarine Races is available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon for $15.95.