Breaking Free

My first home was the apartment in my Uncle Charlie’s house on Manton Street.  We shared the house with him and his five daughters.  My earliest memory is of his wife in her coffin.  I was three years old.  During a lull in the train of mourners that came to the house, my brother Frank and I darted into the parlor for a quick look at the wax-like figure.  The corpse was a stranger: my aunt had departed.  Voices at the front door!  We retreated undiscovered.  Would my cousins have objected?  I doubt it.  Death was no stranger in that crowded neighborhood.

As a little girl my mother had the quickest fingers in the village – shelling fava beans, culling wheat berries – and she had a quick mind.  Her father, a corrosive wit who made enemies, spared her the hardest work.  He allowed her to remain in the village school for an additional year or two after she had completed its only three grades.  The teacher gave her extra assignments and she helped with the youngest students.  Her letters to Sicily, written as an adult(with a third grade education), were poignant for their grammatical errors, for their artless syntax.

My father used to shave himself while sitting at the kitchen table.  I can still hear the hiss of the straight razor as it glided over his pink skin. “Pink, that’s why I married him,” said my olive-skinned mother.  He adored her in his gruff way.

I was conceived in error.  We were in the midst of the Great Depression and my father was out of work.  Born only a year before me, my brother Frank was a cantankerous baby.  My mother briefly considered an abortion but abortions were criminal, dangerous and expensive.  How fraught marital sex was before cheap contraceptives became available.

Wives were doomed to many pregnancies.  Husbands sensible to their wives’ dilemma had somehow to deal with their sexual imperative.  To have many children was to have a richer sex life:  ten children in a row meant twenty years of unrestricted sex.  And a life of poverty.

I was a happy, responsive baby.  My name was Calogero but everyone called me “Pasta D’Angelo” – angel food cake.  My cousins lined up to hold me, even six-year old Angie.   A sad-eyed neighbor came just to hold me almost daily.  She asked my parents if she could keep me.  “Do you think he’s a lamb?,” replied my father indignantly.  My mother was gentler with her.

When Frank and I were four and three years old, my cousin Angie, aged nine, would sit us on the front stoop to teach us the alphabet and our numbers.

My cousin Eleanor took me to the grand, old Alhambra movie house one Saturday afternoon.  At intermission time she escorted me to the men’s room. “Take your time,”  she said.  When I emerged, she was talking to a tall young man, Vince Damiano, her future husband.  She handed me a nickel, “Here, go buy a candy bar.”

Our families ate together at Christmas and at Easter.  Uncle Charlie was a rustic. One year, at Easter he arrived with a live lamb in a sack strung over his shoulder. He put it in the cellar where Frank and I played with it.  Next day when the lamb appeared on a platter, Frank and I refused to eat it.

In the summer we canned tomatoes, filling dozens and dozens of large Mason jars. We ate pasta frequently, usually with tomato sauce which we called gravy. The tomatoes had to be washed, cut and funneled into the gleaming glass jars which had been sterilized in cauldrons of boiling water.  It was a busy time.  Frank and I stayed out of the way but it was wonderful to breathe the steamy, fragrant air.  Afterwards we stored the filled jars on shelves lining opposite walls of the cool alcove at the rear of the cellar.  Uncle Charlie’s side was twice as big as ours.  Three or four weeks later came the peaches.  These were festive times.

However, five sisters living in close quarters were bound to have differences, loud quarrels sometimes.  I watched and listened from my post on the second floor landing.  I looked down into the stairwell, my face pressed against the spindles of the railing.

Could you blame them?  They had no privacy, no personal space. They slept in the rear room which was next to their father’s bedroom. They had to pass through his bedroom to go to the bathroom in the hall. No wonder they quit school, found jobs, saved their money and married early.  The house grew quiet as they left, one by one.  I spent less time at my post on the landing.

After dinner, my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table; it was our private time together.  She loved to hear about my school day.  She would sing songs:  “O i bambini che vann’ alla scuola, studiano un pochino e poi se ne vanno.” – “The little children go to school. They study a bit and then they go.”

My mother said that I was the daughter she never had.  Her first child, a girl, had died in infancy.  My mother confided in me.  She worried about Steve and Madeline, his future wife.  Steve, my oldest brother, had been an only child for eight years before Frank was born.  The firstborn son of a Sicilian mother!  He and Madeline were too young!  She wanted her sons to be educated.  That’s why she went out to work every day.

I listened, leaning against her, my cheek on her cool, plump upper arm.  She worried about my father’s being out of work, about her mother in Sicily.  She worried and she worried. She’d pass her hand fondly over my face.  I was no worry.  Not yet.

I discovered the local public library.  It became my observation post into a new world.

We moved away sometime in the summer of 1939 when I was ten years old.  On Saturday afternoon, as usual, Frank and I went to the local movie house.  They always showed a newsreel, two animated cartoons, a cowboy film, the chapter and a main feature.  All the neighborhood kids would be there.  Pandemonium reigned.

We returned to the apartment three hours later and we were puzzled to find the door closed.  Frank pushed it open. The room was bare.  He ran to a corner of the room and sat with his head downcast between his upraised knees. He cried and cried.

I was lifted by joy.

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3 thoughts on “Breaking Free

  1. It’s a hot day in Portland, and the heavy, still air reminds me of growing up in Washington, D.C. These reminiscences are just as evocative: A hot, empty tenement flat in Philly. The image leaps off the page. Keep ’em coming, please!

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