The cough. The pain. Plural, in terms of companionship, is a good thing. Pleural, in terms of pain, is not. It rarely happens that I call out sick from work but today there was no choice. Cough and respiratory pain led the doctor to the assumption of pneumonia, not at all the way I’d intended to start my work week. “Rest,” he said, “And be sure to take care of yourself, I know how you are.” It’s true. To the dismay of my co-workers I trudge on, even when plagued with illness. The culprit responsible for my heroics? My mother. “It’s nothing you can’t get through. Now get up and get dressed, there’s no staying in bed.”
Oh the heroics, as though the world is dependent on my skills. The supposition is we all give ourselves far more importance than what is in fact the reality. Two days later the condition is worsened and the recovery far longer. So now what? I open the pantry cabinet and sort through the wide assortment of goods. And then it speaks. One box, a small blue and yellow bit of cardboard with tiny bits of pasta within. “Ronzoni Pastina”. Suddenly the world, my lungs and my heart, felt that much better.
The summer of 1973 started as any summer would. Sunday, June 24, was less than extraordinary–an early breakfast and ten o’clock mass. After, my mother left to visit my maternal grandmother who was hospitalized from a heart attack, a common occurrence, and returned home to finish errands. My parents had taken Randy and me to see Grammy the Saturday before. In those days children’s visits to hospitals were frowned upon by the rule makers.
“Be sure you kiss her…and hand out some extra love today.” Did our mother think we were heartless? “And so help me God, if the two of you pull any shenanigans it’ll kill Grammy and I’ll kill you.” Recourse– it was always attached to our mother’s directives. “Shenanigans”…I didn’t know for certain what a “shenanigan”’ was but wasn’t about to spend my life with the knowledge I’d killed my grandmother.
Sitting upright in bed, the hospital gown reminiscent of her normal shift-like dresses, Grammy appeared no different than she had two weeks prior. The room appeared large and sterile and an occupied bed faced hers. Downtown New Haven was just outside the windows and the sun shone through the closed sheer curtains softly. Attached to her seventy four year old body were wires, multiples of colored wires leading to machines that seemed to play in staccato. The constant “beep, beep” of the heart monitor sounded like a flat xylophone, while the oxygen hissing into her nostrils played accompaniment.
Grammy smiled widely when she saw us, her small hands reaching out. “Bello mio…Keithy…and Randy,” she whispered, as her dry lips slathered us with kisses, her breath scented with her last spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy. I just stared, apprehensive to touch the frail woman. The more I observed, the more the room unnerved me, as did the way she looked. Heart attacks had come and gone but this time seemed different. Perhaps it was her skin, with its off-tone of grey and its notable sallowness. She spoke in a breathy voice. “One time, me and Lizzy went downtown…” Her words were based in an all too familiar story about how the pigeons shit on her head and coat one day in New Haven. Of course we laughed as if hearing it for the first time, looking at our mother for approval. She smiled and we knew we’d done well.
But this Sunday, the green grass, freshly cut, felt soft beneath my small bare feet. Under the sugar maple next to our driveway I sat, the shade giving a respite from the curiously hot sun, and read. Glancing over the book, I saw my mother, frantic and unnerved, hurry to her car. “I’ve got to go…Mrs. Galligan is home if you need anything.” She threw her handbag onto the front seat and pulled away, the forest green Oldsmobile reversing from our driveway and peeling off down the street. There was no time to comprehend the haste as Mrs. Galligan walked from her house to ours.
“Your mother went to the hospital…why don’t you come and play with Michael?” Her voice was calm as if it were any other offer on any other day, but it wasn’t any other offer nor any other day. It was an offer of security and protection from the unknown soon to be known. I took her up on the invitation, walked home with her and played games with Michael until the phone rang. Mrs. Galligan spoke softly into the receiver, “I’ll send him home,” and I was on my way.
As usual, my mother prepared my lunch. Her body flowed as though nothing was wrong but her face showed sadness, her eyes puffy, as if she’d lost her best friend. She laid the Oscar Mayer bologna between two slices of white Wonder bread, spread spicy brown mustard on it and placed the sandwich on a plate with some chips. Then, pouring a glass of Lipton iced tea, sweetened, she set it in front of me and sat, resting her chin on her hand as she stared out the window. My mother never sat, especially when I was having lunch. It was nice to have her across from me–had she been wearing a tidy dress and strand of pearls rather than her printed shorts and cotton top she could have passed for June Cleaver.
“Did you have a nice time at the Galligans?” The art of the deal—she was buying time. “What did you and Michael do?” Between bites I was able to communicate.
“Well,” I began, while chomping on the white bread, bologna and an occasional potato chip, “We played outside and tossed the baseball for a while and then we played Monopoly. Mom, I can never miss going to jail. I land on it every time…” My words, enthusiastic, seemed important and then proud. “But, I won. It was Boardwalk…you always need Boardwalk…” My lunch was complete and my mother stood clearing the dishes. From the kitchen sink, as the water rinsed dish soap from the plate, she spoke to the double windows but it was directed at me.
“Chip, you know Grammy has been sick.” Of course I knew it, my grandmother had been sick since she was born with a heart related illness and now with Type 1 Diabetes. More often than not we would visit her at “The Home”. Sometimes I wondered if she didn’t put herself there purposefully to gain new friends. Pop had become a handful to care for after his stroke but who in their right mind would choose such a vacation? Suddenly my mother’s hands were on my shoulders. “Well…Grammy died today…that’s where I was…Auntie Gloria called and said she wasn’t doing well. When I got there she was gone.”
My heart hurt. It hurt for my mother and my grandmother. It hurt for me because I’d lost one of my best friends. My twelve-year-old heart hurt for Pop, not knowing if he would survive losing the woman who’d loved and cared for him all these years. No longer could I fake illness and go to her house for “special time” with the woman standing before the stove, cooking, laughing and cooking some more. We would never collect “S&H Green Stamps’ from the farthest drawer of the peninsula in her kitchen and paste them into little books– a task so she could buy new TV tray tables or amber-colored glasses to drink from.
I struggled to comprehend that my grandmother would no longer be at our house for Sunday dinner, her handbag clutched close by her waist, the tiny pearl necklace clasped around her neck and her bosom drooping because of an ill-fitting bra. Her frail hands, aged from years of housework, would never squeeze our faces, like a tourniquet stopping the flow of blood, because she loved us so much. I went outside and sat on the grass. Michael came down from his house and sat with me. My mother watched from the window, keeping an eye on her youngest, ready to intervene with consolation of necessary. My father, out shopping, was now home. He pulled me against his stomach, patted me on the head and went inside to my mother. The world seemed a strange place. My grandmother was dead and my tears failed to erupt…yet.
My grandmother Christine, or “Christie”, was cute. She was neither a beauty nor did she impress but to her credit she never tried to. A child of a working class Newark Italian family, my grandmother was not well-educated nor well spoken. She was loving, as loving and nurturing as they came. From life’s lessons she was wise, the type of wisdom used to survive moments and make sense from nonsense. She was filled with overwhelming humor and it spilled over onto those who listened. There was no makeup on her face, except a light coating of pink lipstick, nor exquisite jewelry around her neck. She did not wear fine clothing or any semblance of an “au-courant” hairstyle. As a matter of fact I rarely saw her in anything but a “shift”, a loose-fitting dress that slipped over her head, unless going shopping or coming to our house.
At home, Grammy’s hair, both fine and frizz, was always twisted into tight pin-curls, or rollers, and held together with hair pins. It would be covered with some type of scarf or a “babushka”. Even when done, her hair was somewhat disheveled because of its texture. On her chin, random hair always popped out of a little mole driving my mother crazy. Every week she’d lean Grammy back, shake her head and tweeze the hairs asking, “Mama, you don’t see these?” And, every week her mother, without much care, simply shrugged and said, “It keeps you busy.”
Over the shift would be an apron, usually blue with little flowers, while peeking from its pocket, a small hand towel or “mopine”. It goes without saying, from beneath the cotton dress, her bra straps, nude, never white nor black, were visible. Hers was a generation that would never have owned Chanel nor Ferragamo shoes. When she dressed, a sturdy, utilitarian shoe purchased at The Edward Malley Company, in either brown or black and a heel no higher than two inches, protected her feet. On most days my grandmother warmed her toes with house slippers, pink or blue, the type that resemble shag carpet, from the “Five and Dime” down the street.
My grandfather, Louis, or “Louie”, put a dose of fear in you. Pop was large and loud with a gruffness that was off-putting. Born in Italy and by culture “Marchigiana”, my grandfather held a fierce loyalty to his heritage. Every week, sometimes several times a week, you’d find him gathered with the other men at the “Marchigiana Club” where they’d cook and socialize. It was a source of honoring, and holding dear, who he was and where he’d come from and at one point was named the President, a highly touted position which filled the family with pride.
“He wasn’t always this way, you know, gruff,” my mother would say, “He used to be much gentler.” Pop spoke with a thick Italian accent, having immigrated to the United States in 1911 when he was eighteen years old. With fifty dollars in his pocket, he joined his distant cousin, Fortunato, in New Haven and began work, like so many others, as a mason. But Pop went on to become an auto body specialist, well-known and highly respected and was able to sustain his family even through the Great Depression. With a solid body and huge hands, he looked every bit as he was–masculine.
There was never a moment when Pop wasn’t wearing suspenders (I swear he slept with them) and a wool, though sometimes straw, Fedora upon his head. His tie, perfectly knotted and always full length, adorned his neck when he came to our house. It wasn’t about elegance or fashion, it was just how it was done in his day. The deep, baritone voice that boomed beyond his ever-present cigar, spoke loudly. “Eda…these goddamn kids is in my way, get ‘em outta here!” Randy and I were unsure of our grandfather while Dennis had him in his prime. He never struck us, not even close, but his voice caused you to stand at attention.
My grandfather, in my lifetime, was never warm and fuzzy. The huge Italian man was never the kind who’d scoop you up on their lap and tell a story of their youth, and he had so many. One afternoon in the garden at their home we had “a moment”. Pop smiled at me and I smiled back, hesitantly, as we picked vegetables from his garden. Bending over, he picked two ripe, bright red tomatoes and handing one to me said, “Eat her, she’s good.” I didn’t have the heart nor the courage to say I hated raw tomatoes. For me to dislike a spherical, homegrown, sweet tomato was sacrilege. For my Italian grandfather it would be inconceivable, perhaps more so than his grandson being gay. To appease him and keep our moment I bit into it and chewed desperately trying to avoid the taste. Then, when he wasn’t looking I spit it out. Yes, Louie’s grandson was a closeted “tomater-hater”. Our encounter was far from earth shattering, but, if for only a moment, it was memorable in that Pop’s generosity and gentleness evoked the man he once was.
When I was in sixth grade my mother took a part-time job to earn extra money. Dennis had graduated from The University of Notre Dame and Randy was at Fairfield Prep so the extra income was welcome. I was less than thrilled at school that year.
“Maaa…I don’t….feel well.” Frequently I would fain illness so my mother would keep me out of school and deliver me to my grandmother. “I think I have a fever…” Coming from the kitchen she felt my forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a temp—I’ll get the thermometer.” I lit the lamp next to the sofa. I’d perfected the plan. It worked before and it would work again. “Open up Chip and hold this in…three minutes. I’ll be back.”
As she rounded the corner into our dining room I tapped the small glass cylinder against the now warm light bulb. “One…two…three…four…” it usually took eight seconds for a reading of 99.8, just enough to give credence to my illness but not enough to call Dr. Michel. “Okay, let’s have a look…99.8….well, that’s that, no school today…I’ll call Grammy…” My plan, as always, had worked like a charm.
My mother would drive me to my grandparent’s house along with a little duffel carrying anything I may need–comic books, crayons, a sweater and of course St. Joseph Children’s aspirin. Grammy would greet us, her hair in the babushka and the smell of food wafting from the stove and embedded on her hands. As always, she’d reach out, take my cheeks into her palms and squeeze. Hopefully she hadn’t been cleaning a fish. “Quando sei bello,” she’d say, her voice full of love. “How’d you feel?” The answer would depend on the proximity of my mother. If she was close by, “Eh, so-so,” I’d say, wavering my hand. “What’s for breakfast Gram?” For someone not well I was anxious to eat.
Pop, already eating at the table spoke up, “Eh, Eda, the kid, Skeezix, he look aw-right to me.” They say you can’t con a con-artist and Pop may well have been one. He could never, or would never, use my English name, or any of my brother’s names for that matter so he just renamed us all. Mine was “Skeezix” after his favorite cartoon character.
“I’m a-have peppers and eggs.” He’d motion with his thick hand and point to the chair. “Skeezix, Come.”
“No thanks, Pop, I just want cereal.” He was a man of few words and this would go no further. The truth was I really wanted Frosted Flakes.
“Louie, the kid wants cereal, leave him alone,” My grandmother’s defense was unnecessary but it made her feel good. She opened a new box of Post “Shredded Wheat” put it in a bowl and poured milk over it. Shredded Wheat?
“Gram, I really want Fruit Loops or Frosted Flakes.” I hurt her. I know it. She looked like she’d disappointed me. My mother had disappointed me by not packing cereal in my duffel. Note to self.
“It’s all we got, the wheats.” I stared down. The large, rectangular piece of cereal bore a strong resemblance to a Brillo pad, but I put it in my mouth. The shredded wheat broke apart and little bits of hard, wiry strands got caught in every part of my teeth. My face told the truth. Pop put forkfuls of eggs in his mouth and chewed slowly. He stared at me over his brown plastic eye glasses wondering what would come next.
“You like,” he asked knowing full well I didn’t. He turned the page of the newspaper, looking at his wife. When Grammy wasn’t looking he tore off two pieces of bread and buttered them. Between he fit a forkful of peppers and eggs. His massive hands squeezed the slices into a tightly fitted bread and butter breakfast sandwich and he passed it to me, nodding. “Eh, dun starve you self.” Maybe Pop did love me. Clearly actions speak louder than his accented words.
This couldn’t be happening, she couldn’t be dead. Just two months ago Grammy had stayed with us for a week recuperating after a heart problem. Pop had a stroke several years earlier causing his temperament to change aggressively making him a handful to care for. I’d given up my room and “doubled up” with Randy for sleeping purposes. Dennis was married and out of the house so there was no issue, although knowing Grammy she’d have slept on the sofa. “Oh great, I always wanted a dick weed in my room,” Randy lamented. “You know what you’re going to get in your room?” my mother asked and he walked away. Somewhere in his heart my brother loved me, somewhere.
“Hen, we need to redecorate Keith’s room before my mother gets here. I want to paint and buy new curtains and a bedspread. It has to be nice and fresh.” This was the most exciting part of having my grandmother with us– the redecorating.
Mine was the smallest of all the bedrooms. When Dennis lived home it was even smaller because Randy and I shared it. Bunk beds, a desk and dresser comprised our domain. There was a set of windows at the farthest point which looked out to the backyard and a single closet which housed our shirts and long pants. Though intimate or perhaps for that reason, this was the room where my brother and I talked endlessly about neighborhood kids, dreams, girls, television shows and where, in another story, he answered all of my questions about being a boy, a curious young boy. Those four small walls on Orchard Road housed a wealth of knowledge, much like the Library of Congress.
“I want the room painted, something cheerful and soft,” she said. It had been “Corn silk”, a muted combination of pale yellow and green, but now was now being updated to “Lemon Chiffon”, a delicate but uplifting yellow.
The name alone was exciting. “I’m going to be sleeping in a “Chiffon” room.” It sounded so elegant but when I said it to my friends it sounded effeminate. When I said it to Randy he told me I’d better shut up or he’d have to kill me and dispose of my body in the backyard. “Can’t you paint his room blue,” he begged my mother. “Nonsense, I’m not painting it for him…it’s for Grammy. I just let him pick out the color.” I smirked. “You play her like a fiddle,” my brother whispered.
And so, with the impending arrival of Grammy it was done. The room was “Lemon Chiffon” and the curtains, once a depiction of colonial scenes, were replaced with frilly, white lace curtains drawn back with lace ties. The former matching bedspread found a home in the basement linen cabinets and the new spread was chenille, soft, snugly, creamy Chenille. I was in heaven and began counting the days until the room would be mine once again. And with that the task of convincing my mother to let the newly decorated room remain was up to me. There would be time to fiddle.
Grammy, Pop and Aunt Gloria, my mother’s unmarried sister, moved from New Haven when the “tide turned” and their neighborhood began to deteriorate. New Haven was witnessing riots as the racial disparity of the country was climaxing. The Black Panthers were showing muscle to protest racial struggles and my grandparents felt safety was becoming an issue. It was time to leave city life behind and move to quieter existence. The sale of my grandparent’s houses meant the entire family, my mother’s aunts and uncles, would all move within a few miles, if not blocks, of one another in West Haven. Of all the houses though, for me, Grammy and Pop’s was the most special.
Eleven Bellevue Avenue was nothing more than a small, deep red brick Cape Cod style home. It had a peaked front entry with leaded windows on either side. There was no garage but a long, narrow driveway running from the street alongside the house and ending at the backyard. We always used the side door which opened directly into the kitchen. Below the brick and concrete stoop was the most fantastic wine cellar. It was actually a “hatch-a-hutch”, compact, with a rickety wooden door that pushed open and Pop stored his homemade wine there. I can still feel the coolness and smell the damp, mustiness of that small space. We knew there must have been spiders and probably other unmentionable life taking up residence but if it didn’t bother Pop it didn’t bother us.
From stem to stern, the house on Bellevue offered a more contemporary life. A new house, new furniture, a big yard and above all else a Stereophonic cabinet style Hi-fi equated the good life. Early American decor filled the small Cape and a vast collection of Hummel figurines adorned an entire wall of the living room. The kitchen was well stocked behind the knotty pine cabinets with speckled Formica counter-tops. The open area off the dining room allowed for telephone seating, complete with a bench and compartments for phone books and note pads. The main bath was small but a masterpiece. Ours was black and pink, one of those odd 1950’s combinations, but theirs was stark white, black and lavender. Grammy would put bath soaps and lavender-scented sachet out along with purple towels and wash cloths. Periodically I would fake having to do a “number 2” just so I could spend time in the pretty, prissy room and then flush the toilet for good measure. In contrast to my love of the room Pop installed an open toilet in the basement– his choice was more rugged and old world.
Aunt Gloria lived upstairs on the second floor. The staircase brought you to a ladies boudoir, laced and flouncy, with a golden-colored Chenille coverlet and frilly lampshades on the lighting. This space was every bit a 1940s movie scene. A smaller sitting area opened to the side of the large room where my favorite piece of furniture could be found. Against the wall, nestled near a small but useful window, sat a dressing table and chair. The oval table was flounced, like a southern Belle’s oversized ball gown, draped in mounds of crisp cream eyelet lace. Before it was a small, round chair draped from just below the creamy satin seat to the floor in the same eyelet material.
On the table was a vast array of perfumes, their bottles pieces of art. Her collection of lipsticks lay on a small mirrored tray, white handles on either end, and edged with white enamel all around. The perfume bottles, most atomizer style, were in multiple sizes, impeccably crafted and always half full. I would seat myself before the table, the mirror before me, and pretend I was a grand lady going off to an elegant social event. I’d pick up the ornate metal hairbrush and pretend to caress my flowing hair, then sweep it into an imagined French twist. Carefully, without disorganizing the pristine table, I’d stare at my lips and pick up one of the cases pretending to fill them in with a deep Merlot colored lipstick. Finally, lifting one of the many perfume bottles, usually her “No.5”– I’d pretend to perfume myself as my final moment of preparedness.
“Chip, come on, say goodbye….we’re going home..Now!” My mother startled me and I squeezed the atomizer spraying myself with No.5. As I passed her downstairs she looked at me. “Did you spray yourself with perfume?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Boys will be boys,” she said, shaking her head and motioned for me to kiss my grandparents goodbye. “Boys will be boys.” My mother claimed to be stunned when I came out as gay.
The preparations were made by my mom and Aunt Gloria for Grammy’s funeral. It’s a verified fact that the art of the funeral was elevated by the Italians. Mourners were imported if need be, hair must be done and fainting is optional but food is imperative. My grandmother chose, or rather, was summoned, to leave this earth just beyond the fervor of the movie, “The Godfather”. The Mafioso around the world had a brilliant spotlight shown on them through the eyes of Hollywood and Mario Puzo. Now, on a bright Sunday afternoon in June, in the year 1973, the cameras rolled in our home.
My grandmother had been born in Newark, New Jersey where clusters of Italian immigrants huddled and made their life. Her parents left Newark and migrated to New York when she was a small child and then moved north, her family ultimately settling in the Fair Haven section of the small city of New Haven. Much of her extended family remained in Newark where they grew and prospered. During their youth, my mother and Aunt Gloria were sent for two weeks each year to visit relatives, primarily their cousin Mike and his extended family.
“Mike would take us everywhere but we never told Grammy and Pop we’d go on runs with him delivering boot legged alcohol around the city.” Prohibition made Michael’s business both dangerous and lucrative. The escapades made the girls realize the monotony of life in New Haven. “They’d put us in the front of a pickup truck and stop all over selling the liquor.” Later, when Mike grew into adulthood, his business grew to encompass several Pizza Parlors. The picture was there. Call Brando. “Cut and print!”
I wasn’t allowed to participate in the funeral. “You’re just too young, Chip, you don’t need to see any of this.” The protection of my mother was well intended but did not make for a resilient young man as life moved forward. For me, the youngest, there was no last viewing of my beloved grandmother lying in the coffin. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to walk through “Parlor A”, smell the pervasive scent of embalming fluid mixed with the scent of the flowers and watch as Aunt Gloria dramatically acted bereaved. The youngest hadn’t the privilege of witnessing the pomp inherent to the intricate Catholic service. No, I didn’t get to see Grammy that last viewing, wax-like and sleeping.
After Mass, friends and family gathered at our house for a luncheon. The dining room table was set as a buffet with an array of sandwich meats, salads, rolls and lasagna. There were meatballs and sausage off to one side and the smell of coffee brewing wafted from the kitchen. Perhaps it was indeed more appropriate to be exposed to “homey” odors rather than “funeral-homey” odors. At the end of the room, Italian pastries and cakes lined the wall with a massive tray of cookies Aunt Carmel had baked. With each pass a pignoli or anginette would disappear– I’d started before anyone had arrived.
First through the door was my mother, followed by my father and brothers. She found me and pulled me close, though in truth I was longing for a full “cheek squeezing’ from Grammy. When Sara, my grandmother’s sister, arrived with her husband, Anthony, they came right to me. Uncle Anthony, small in stature and incredibly soft in demeanor, took my face in his hands and kissed me, proclaiming, “So beautiful, this boy…so beautiful…an angel.” I’m sure my mother was thinking, “Take the angel on a bad day, I dare you…” I squirmed with modest discomfort for none of the men in my life had kissed me and it felt oddly correct.
Aunt Sara, with precision, came at my face, her hands all too familiar, latching on to my cheeks and clasping with all her might. “Quando sei bello!” she exclaimed and I stepped back. The resemblance to her sister was undeniable. Could it be that God knew my longing and delivered Aunt Sara right to me? The simple answer must be that a family “squeeze” gene runs through the Perugino women. The power of those two tiny hands was instantaneous. They made a miracle, as though Lourdes had come to Orchard Rd. How could a woman, with tiny palms and fingers, make everything right again, even the pain of having someone departed? On some level, from some abstract plane, my grandmother had made herself known. And without warning, though a bit late, my tears finally arrived.
As the guests gathered in the living room and conversation flowed, I gazed out the front window. My mother was engaged with my Proto aunts when I interrupted. “Mom, I’m sad.” She drew me in, massaging my head. “I know Chip, we all are. But no one liked to laugh more than Grammy. Think about that.” Digging deep inside I thought about some random story she may have told, or any of the three jokes she repeated, but nothing was working.
Then, two long, black Cadillac El Dorados arrived. Out stepped two men dressed impeccably in suits, one pinstriped, the other deep charcoal grey. They entered our house with two women in tow and a third, younger man following. Like Pop, they wore Fedoras, and on their thick stubby fingers were chunky pinky rings. On some level there was an elegance about them, though their speech told a different story.
“Michael,” my mother said as the first man kissed her, “Thank you for coming.” I’d never met “the cousins” from Newark and here was Michael, the most revered. Before me was the man whom I’d heard so much about. The cousin who’d taken my mother and aunt on what today may be considered “drug runs” stood within an arm’s reach. “This is my little guy, Keith.” The seemingly huge, though in fact rather short, man reached out his hands and headed toward my face. Seeing the massive palms I thought, “I’m going to suffocate.” My mother nudged me. I took the facial squeeze and pretended to love it. “Quando sei bello,” Mike said, “He so beautiful.” Indeed there was a gene and it was not simply the women who carried it. That was the only answer. As Michael and the rest made their way to the dining room table I suddenly had a revelation.
Though never good at math, the numbers were adding up. My mother, holding me to her hip, stood with Aunt Gloria. “Mommy, are they part of …” It was like a gunshot. A speeding bullet. She and my aunt exchanged rapid-fire glances while hushing me by putting her hand over my mouth. “Shut up,” she said, “Don’t talk about it.” As always, her wisdom shone through with a well thought out answer to my question.
Before leaving and offering kisses all around, my cousin Michael made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. “ Keet, you gotta come to Newark…I give you all the pizza you could eat, eh?” I nodded appreciatively as his hands caressed my face once again. In the days to follow I thought of Michael and smiled. My imagination took over and I created a colorful scenario in my head. It was true, we’d lost my grandmother and that was sad, but our family, with little to no excitement, became far more interesting that day.
Grammy’s and Pop’s basement was fundamentally a grocery store. Along the concrete walls were numerous shelves stretching from front to back. On each shelf were groceries and paper goods, not simply an “extra” for the moment you forgot an item, but stockpiles. In cases were cans of tomatoes, perhaps ten to twenty, olive oil in clusters of six and dried pasta in packs of twelve. Paper goods, napkins, plates, tableware and cups were multiplied by tens. To the naked eye my grandmother simply hoarded. “You never know when you need something or someone runs out. I can help.” But the river of her obsession ran far deeper.
“I had two younger brothers,” my mother once told me, “The baby and Joseph. The baby died as an infant and Joseph died when he was four. The flu killed him.”It was difficult to imagine Pop losing his two sons and the finality that meant for his family name in America.
“Grammy got so depressed she went on a spending spree, trying to hide her pain. She would go out and buy clothes, groceries, even toys for Aunt Gloria and me. Pop couldn’t stop her. He had to hire a woman to take care of the house because she couldn’t. As fast as he made money she blew it.” It was unfathomable to think of my grandmother in such a state. “Finally, Pop told her she had to stop. He cut off her money. It almost broke them.”
Among the clutter and groceries in the basement was a box. It was neatly stored on a table in the center of the room, as if regularly viewed or held in high esteem. Opening the four cardboard flaps I began to investigate. Inside, lying across the top was a shirt box, tattered and smelling lightly musty. I put it aside. Below were several photo albums and some old, yellowing children’s clothing. There were note cards and ribbons and quite frankly nothing purposeful. Curious, I rifled through, removing the musty little shorts and shirt and sorted through the goods unimpressed. Lifting the top off the shirt box, I discovered a black and white photo within an off-white, now aged, cardboard protector. Opening it I was stupefied. There, in a small white casket, lay the body of a young boy, silent and sleeping. He looked like a cherub, innocent and wax like. The coffin was surrounded by two torchieres and multitudes of flowers– roses and lilies. The banner across the tufted satin lid read, “Our Baby”. It was the first time I’d seen death in person. I ran. I ran upstairs. I leapt onto the sofa in the living room. My mother came to me.
“What’s the matter with you? You look like you saw a ghost.” I wouldn’t speak. I couldn’t for there were no words. “Come on, what’s the matter?” My head shook from side to side. For a moment in time, and for once in my life, my voice was crippled, and then, “I saw something. Downstairs.” She waited. “Okay, I give up…was it a mouse?” I felt like this was an interrogation and I was the criminal. It was far easier to simply stand and lead her downstairs. Opening the door I descended, step by step and led my mother to the table with the opened box. Next to the now disheveled items lay the portrait. As my mother took hold of it her face showed instant recognition. Opening the protective cover, her expression tightened as she stared off toward the corner of the room.
“This was my brother Joseph, you know, the little boy I told you died. Grammy was very, very sad. She had a photographer come to the house and take his picture. It wasn’t really strange, Chip, lots of people did that.” She returned the photo to the shirt box. “But she was so, so sad.”
Opening the larger box she placed the photos, with the utmost tenderness and respect, on top of the clothing, touching the tiny pair of pants lightly. “But you don’t have to worry about this, okay?” She closed the box top, secured it and we left the past behind. Years later I realized Grammy or Pop or both must have stared at the photo, keeping even the saddest moment of their past close to them. Nodding toward the overstocked shelves my mother said, “She never got over it.” I understood, a parent never would.
So what would happen on those “sick” days at my grandparents’ home that made me want to visit so frequently? Love, pure and simple from very simple folks. Soup or sauce was always on the stove and an apron always on my grandmother. My own mother never wore one, except when frying food. There could be a whole fish being cleaned by the sink, and as matter of fact as common as combing her hair, Grammy’s small fingers would “pop” the eyes out and giggle as I cringed.
“What kind a sandwich you want?” From the refrigerator an assortment of cold cuts, never the type my mother stocked, would appear. There would be “head cheese”, a gelatinous creation of pork scalp with no cheese anywhere in sight, liverwurst, or “liverwish” as she called it, P&P loaf, a combination of ground meats , pickles and pimento and of course the standard Genoa salami and Bologna. Pop would pull out chunks of Provolone or Italian table cheese, unwrap a loaf of Marchigiana Bakery bread and make a meal.
“You wanna soup,” she’d ask but there was no point to the question because you would get it whether or not you wanted it. She would dish out, always in colorful ceramic bowls, homemade chicken soup with “alphabets” or pastina with an egg and cheese swirled through. Pop’s favorite was “Shkadol and beans” as he called it, and no matter the food he’d make it snow blankets of Pecorino cheese until anything discernible vanished from sight.
Once lunch was finished we’d retreat to the living room, Grammy with her collection of S&H Green Stamps, Pop with a newspaper and me simply with them. He’d sit in his upholstered rocking chair in the corner of the room. The adjustable brass floor lamp next to him, its printed shade tilted in his direction shone light on his newspaper. I’d sprawl out on the sofa, shoes off, and rest against my grandmother’s thigh. Grammy would set up tray tables and place the cigar boxes filled with the little green stamps on the metal scenes of rural America. As she pasted the little stamps on their respective spaces in the books I’d glance over at Pop and then back, wondering what life was like when my mother was my age.
“Turn up the Hi-fi,” Grammy would say. I’d shuffle over to the elaborate, Early American maple console, flip through Aunt Gloria’s collection of LPs and choose either Vicki Carr, Dean Martin or someone who’d recently made a name on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sometimes the choice would be a live recording, such as Joey Bishop, Milton Berle, or The Smothers Brothers. The comedians would “do their shtick” for people such as my grandparents, who enjoyed pasting “S&H Green Stamps’ or smoking a cigar as they listened.
I’d mosey over to the gilded wall cabinet or curio which housed the Hummel figurines and stare at them, sometimes wondering what the little girl and boy sitting together on a tuft of grass would be like if they came to life. She with a polka dot sweater and little scarf around her head and he with a blue jacket and cap. And then I’d step back and look at my grandparents. Grammy in her shift, with her babushka around her head and Pop with his tan sweater, suspenders and ever-present cigar in his mouth. Through their combined loss and respective illnesses I wondered if they thought life had been good to them.
I know now how wonderful my life was for having had my grandparents in it, if even for just twelve short years. I don’t think of Grammy and Pop as often as I used to. I haven’t “visited” them at the cemetery and rarely mention their names in conversation. Many years have passed since their deaths and many changes have occurred, other deaths and illnesses and of course, day-to-day living. Recently I opened the pantry door in search of comfort. There it was, the blue and yellow box. “Pastina”. As I swirled the egg and cheese into the hot pasta I smiled. Savoring each spoonful, the dish transported me through time. I didn’t have to tap the thermometer against the light bulb or travel very far. Along came a sick day and with it Grammy and Pop. And they helped me through my day off, yes they did, as they always had.