Grief and goldfish: How illegally smuggling 13 pet fish symbolised a journey from Naples to the New World

When Dan Ozzi's Italian-American grandmother died, he never suspected what would be the one thing that finally brought him closure...

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Indy Lifestyle Online

We found my grandmother on a Wednesday afternoon, the last cold day of spring. She was lying face down on the concrete floor of her garden, relieved of her soul. Like a true Italian grandmother, she died sweeping out there. In her hand was a broom, its bristles worn down to the very nub.

When you discover a loved one cold-bodied and contorted like that, a flood of uncertainty rushes over you all at once. You wonder how long they were out there. You pray they didn't suffer. You curse yourself for not having been there to prevent it. I could see all of these thoughts and more racing through my mother's head as she sat waiting to be questioned by the medical examiner.

My mother had taken on the truly thankless role of unofficial caretaker for her, stopping by her home every day or two to administer pills, drive her to doctor visits, pay bills, and the thousand and one other jobs that come with caring for an 89-year-old woman.

A crumpled tissue rested in her palm. I wrapped my hand around hers but she was somewhere else, too distraught to even clench mine back. I assured her it wasn't her fault but she wouldn't take that for an answer.

"Why didn't I visit her yesterday?" she kept repeating through tears. Each time she said it, it felt like a swift, brutal punch squarely to my gut. It wasn't until days later when we got the autopsy report that she felt some burden of guilt lifted. My grandmother had suffered a heart attack. There were no contusions on her hands where she would have braced herself for the fall. Her heart simply gave out and she was gone before she hit the ground.

It had been a heavy week for my grandmother's heart to bear. Three days prior, she visited her sister who, despite being 15 years younger than my grandmother, was in much worse health. She was in the hospital battling breast cancer and had been given only a few hours to live, but by some miracle had fought on for over a week. When they were brought together, they sat beside each other at the hospital bed and made everyone else leave the room to share one last talk.

The two had a funny way of communicating. Sometimes I'd overhear my grandmother's end of their phone conversations. They'd curse each other to high heaven in some unholy mix of English and Italian. Then they'd end every call the same way: "OK, ti amo, I'll call you tomorrow."

Durable marriage: Dan Ozzi's grandparents on their wedding day; they both came to America from Italy as children

What they spoke about in that room that day is theirs alone. They wouldn't tell any of us afterwards. But I like to imagine they sat there together one last time and said nothing. That they looked at each other's faces, worn and tired from their collective years finally catching up to them, and spoke the knowing language of silence that only sisters share.

We only know one thing about their discussion: my grandmother told her sister that she had talked to God, and that she had asked him to be taken first. She'd felt it wrong for her baby sister to leave this earth before her. She had begged of the Lord this one final request and He obliged her.

On the floor just inches from where we found her is an in-ground fish pond. My grandfather, who cancer claimed seven years previously, had built it. He was always making things out of nothing. Chalk it up to the Greatest Generation's let-nothing-go-to-waste post-Depression mindset, but the two of them never threw a damn thing out, they would only repurpose. The house was full of makeshift items that had become notorious in my family  – a shovel with the handle of a vacuum cleaner, a bee trap made out of an empty two-litre plastic bottle, and a tomato press powered by the motor from a washing machine. It still works today and will probably outlast us all.

To call it a "pond" is actually a bit generous. It's a hole, dug from the ground. No decorative stones adorn its perimeter and no fountain flows in its centre. Just cement walls, 4ft by 2ft, and about 3ft deep. The filter had broken a few years back and the water had become dark and muddled. But the fish in it were never happier. These were goldfish, not exotic or expensive fish. But in this small space, they'd managed to thrive  –  from our estimation – for about 10 years. They were massive.

In there somewhere is a metaphor for my grandparents themselves. Both were immigrants who came to the US with nothing. My grandmother's father left Naples for America when she was just a child, vowing to earn enough money to send for his family to join him. He was able to open a junk shop in New Jersey, sending his earnings back home to Italy. Almost a decade later, my grandmother, her brother and her mother were finally able to come over as well.

A few years and a hundred kilometres away in a town called Nusco, my grandfather left his own family to board a ship named The Rex to America, alone and only 13 years old. At 18, he was drafted into the army and proudly served America in the Second World War. He was deployed back to Italy where he fought against his own brother, a soldier of Mussolini's army who perished in battle. Four years later, my grandfather would name his firstborn son after him.

But despite coming here with only the clothes on their backs, they died rich in their pursuit of the American dream. They had three college-educated children, four grandchildren, and a house full of handmade contraptions and photos of better times.

Now that they were both gone, our trips to the house would become less frequent. We'd need to come by only to clean it out and prepare to sell it. But if on one of those visits we came in and found the fish belly up, we'd surely be haunted for the rest of our days. We knew they needed to be moved and we knew exactly where to move them.

In the cemetery where my grandparents' bodies rest is a pond. A proper pond, that is. L-shaped, expansive, and immaculately maintained, with various depths and nooks, surrounded by a tranquil garden of Japanese greenery, and a stone bridge across its centre. It's a placid pool where those in mourning of its resident ghosts can look into their reflections for some sense of serenity. It's filled with dozens of koi, large, colourful, and peaceful. We knew we had to move the goldfish there, where they would be given a new life.

We also knew that this was illegal.

At worst, we figured this constituted destruction of private property. And given how well-kept the pond was, I'm sure the grounds crew would not take kindly to the idea of some strange people dumping foreign fish into their pristine water.

So on a Saturday morning, five days after we laid my grandmother to rest, my family embarked on The Great Goldfish Cemetery Caper.

It was the first truly beautiful day of April. The kind of day my grandmother lived for. The kind of day when she would sit in her garden on a plastic-wrapped chair (she didn't believe in taking the plastic off of anything), with a towel draped over her head and let the radiance of the sun hit her face. She was always pushing a home remedy of sorts on me: "Make sure you get a good tan in the summer because it locks the heat in so you'll be warm during the winter." I've yet to find any science or facts to support this theory, but then again, she did make it to just four months shy of 90, healthy and dark-skinned, so who am I to argue?

The heist plan was fairly simple – scoop the fish out with a skimmer, drop them gently into a five-gallon plastic bucket, drive them over to the cemetery, and set them free there. Easy. Literal fish in a barrel.

First, there was the extraction. We sprinkled a few food flakes over the water and watched all the fish scurry to the top and counted them carefully so as not to leave any behind. We counted 13 fish.

Italians have a superstition about fish and numbers. Seafood dishes are traditionally served on Christmas Eve and they must be served in odd numbers. Odd numbers of fish are said to be lucky. So it was imperative that every single fish make the transport safe and sound, lest we all be hexed by the curse of some disgruntled Catholic saint.

While they were at the top feeding, I slowly dunked in the skimmer, which was entirely too small to handle these beasts. As soon as it touched one fish, panic passed through all of them like a current and they disappeared to the bottom of the murky water with no intention of returning to the surface. So I improvised.

I took a steel grate that was cut in half and tied a rope to it, creating a pulley system of sorts. I couldn't help but feel my grandfather, a man who once built a rocking chair out of some old pipes, smiling down on me for that one.

I let the basket sink to the bottom and pulled it back up. On the first attempt, I caught one. The first one was simple, being the largest and slowest. I let him jump into the waiting bucket. That would be the last easy catch. The rest of them would make me work for it. I don't know how they managed to hide so well down there in such a small area but sometimes 10 minutes and dozens of attempts would pass without even seeing one.

Eventually, after dumping a foot or so of water out of the pond, I started having some success. One by one, I caught them. As I reunited them in the bucket, I gave each a nickname, something my grandfather was famous for doing to everyone he met. Richard, Shoo Shoo, Leapy. All went into the bucket one by one until I had them all. I sealed it up with the lid and wrapped the whole thing in a black plastic bag to look at least somewhat less conspicuous. On to phase two – the drop-off.

There's a massive four-storey high, 150-year-old gothic brownstone archway that serves as an entrance to the cemetery. As my family drove up to it with our cargo, we felt like we were committing the crime of the century – the first people to ever smuggle prisoners in to Alcatraz. "Just act normal," I said as we inched closer.

We drove through the front gate and the security guard peeked in at us as we crept by. From the backseat, I gave him a wave, a 40-pound cylindrical plastic bag resting on my lap. Nothing suspicious about that.

We pulled up to the future scene of the crime and scoped out the area. Some stray security guards scooted by in their golf carts and we waited. There was just one more member of the grounds crew walking around. He was stocky and stern with a shaved head and goatee. I wouldn't have noticed him on most days but given that at that moment he could be the man who busted me, he was terrifying. After he finally ducked out of sight, my mother, my sister and I made our move while my father kept the getaway car running.

The plan was to deliver a bouquet of flowers to the tomb where my grandparents' coffins were kept to appear as though we were just paying our respects, then on our way back, we'd casually swing by the pond and do the deed as quickly as possible. I did have three backup plans in my pocket should anyone catch us.

Number one. Fifty bucks, I figured, if anyone questioned me, I could slip them a grant and try the old "you didn't see nothing" routine. This, in Italian culture, is what's known as the ancient art of Greasin' 'Em.

Number two. My younger sister, who was seven months pregnant. She would accompany me as my insurance policy. Surely, no one would arrest a waddling pregnant woman at a cemetery. This was my solid and air-tight logic.

And number three. A sob story. I figured if the situation got dire, I could lay on a real tearjerker about how it was my grandmother's dying wish to have her beloved goldfish delivered to where she was buried. Pathetic and desperate? Sure, but not entirely untrue.

When we got to the tomb, we delivered the flowers and the good news: her fish were about to be brought to her resting place with her, all 13, safe and sound. And then we delivered the bad news.

We looked at her name on the vinyl label stuck to the marble wall – the letters not yet even etched permanently in the stone – and broke it to her: her sister had passed away that morning. Her broken heart had taken her health with it. Wherever her spirit was, it was soon to be joining hers.

As the three of us approached the pond, we reminded ourselves to make the deposit stealthily and then get out of there as quickly as possible.

My mother and sister stood over me, keeping a lookout. I knelt down beside the pond, opened the bag, and removed the bucket's lid. As I knew from years of winning goldfish in plastic bags as prizes at carnivals, you're not supposed to just dump fish into a new habitat without letting them assimilate to the water temperature first. Which is all well and good when you're doing so legally, without the risk of getting arrested or at least a summons. But since time and efficiency were not leisures here, I'd have to pour them in. This would be fine, I thought, since both ponds were outside and likely only off by a few degrees. I was also worried about mixing the two kinds of fish, but I'd done some research beforehand and learned that since koi and goldfish are of the same family, they can coexist peacefully.

I gently tipped the bucket over the pond's shallow end, trying to reduce the splashing noises that echoed throughout the cemetery. The water slowly poured out and the fish eventually dove in with it. They landed and passed the first hurdle – they didn't instantly die from temperature shock. Then came another moment of truth. The koi immediately swam up to them and for a split second, I was sure that these goldfish, who suddenly seemed small by comparison, would get torn to pieces. But they didn't. They looked curious about their new neighbours, drifted beside them, and appeared to even welcome them. Mission accomplished.

Once it was done, the hilarity of the situation suddenly gave way to something else. Something that felt a lot like closure.

My mother pulled my sister in close by the arm and rested a hand on her waist, atop the mound that was her granddaughter-to-be.

"They're home now," I heard her say.

The thing about grief is, it's wild and unpredictable. Much like love or death, you can't control when or how it will hit you. It comes when it comes. I'd been relatively stoic throughout the funeral that week, to the point where I felt guilty for my lack of emotion, as if my shortage of sorrow projected that I didn't care. But standing on the edge of that pond, holding an empty bucket in my wet arms, the catharsis of the moment hit me all at once. Grief laid her hand on my shoulder and I started to cry.

Meanwhile, at my feet, a dozen goldfish swam off to explore their new home. But the smallest one stayed behind in the shallow end, its face painted with fear and uncertainty. It poked its head out of the water and we looked at each other for a moment.

This 13th fish floated there for a few seconds, letting the radiance of the sun hit its tiny, shaken face. Then it turned away and darted off, embracing the warm grace of the unknown.