Weekdays my father would rise early to wait on the street corner for the trolley car that trundled him to the ferry boat that brought him to Camden, New Jersey. Crossing the wide river lifted his spirits: the expanse of water, the tugboats maneuvering the big barges, the ships anchored in mid-river. He washed windows for the RCA Victor Company, in one of those vast buildings that was mostly windows. He could see a patch of river from one side of the building.
Sometimes he’d see Maria ‘la pazza‘ bustling towards him from her job at Z’u Peppe Caltagirone’s bakery. Maria wasn’t crazy (pazza), just furious to earn a buck. She had a sickly husband, a bricklayer, who was often out of work. She’d clean our house if our lady didn’t show up. Z’u Peppe Caltagirone was my mother’s uncle by marriage. His wife, Aunt Jennie, was a Spinelli, like my mother’s mother. We called her Aunt Jennie instead of Z’a Vincenza because she spoke English, having come to this country as a five year old. Z’u Peppe knew some English. He’d get up at one o’clock in the morning to fire the oven, to begin a work day which ended only when the fragrant loaves were ready on the shelves. Then he’d hang the OPEN sign on the plate glass of the entrance door.
Some of his customers would be waiting across the street in Sam Colazzi’s variety store. They’d buy the morning paper there and they’d play the daily number, the same 3-digit numbers, day in and day out. Sam knew them by heart: Rita Patrone 437, Johnny Barrels 906, Lucy Rainardi 521. Bucky Gentile 666, Joe Polak 711, etc. They could have greeted each other by number.
“Franny Petrella changed her number? How come?”
“She dreamt three 3s”
“Sam, gimmie three 3s, just for today.”
Sam half-sat on a stool behind the counter, He quietly called out their numbers as they approached, to confirm the transaction and to accommodate last minute dreamers: Pearl Harbor?: 712. There was no paper trail at Sam’s. Not that the cops ever looked for one.
Maria would arrive at the bakery at five in the morning to clean up after Z’u Peppe as he worked through his routine. She’d scrub the big mixing vat. Its slow-moving, horizontal helical blades had transformed flour, water, salt and yeast into a glistening, long-muscled dough. This sinewy dough, deftly massaged into loaves, made for chewier bread. Then Maria would wash the large lidded container, as big as a deep bathtub, where the dough had risen secretly. She’d scrape the flour-smeared table where Z’u Peppe had cut and shaped the dough into loaves. Finally she’d sweep the floor clean.
Maria was a short, compact woman in her late forties. She always greeted my father respectfully, addressing him as Z’u, which was Sicilian for Zio, for Uncle. We addressed our elders as Z’u, even non-relatives. We called the women “Z’a”, for Zia, for Aunt. In direct address we used not the casual tu, nor the polite Lei, but the old fashioned ‘Vossia’ which is a corruption of the courtly “Vosssignoria”: “Your Lordship. Your Ladyship”.
“Buon giorno, Z’u Nardo.”
“Buon giorno. Maria.”
As she passed by, my father noted the powdery white smears on her skirt which was drawn snugly over her hips. The white ovals bobbled as she hurried past. My father pictured the sacks of flour piled table-high along one wall of of the oven room. Maria’s job at the bakery was to clean up, but she was also Z’u Peppe’s mistress. Not for love, for Z’u Peppe was not a lovable man. His wife, Aunt Jenny, and his daughter, Pip, knew about Maria but they said nothing.
Jenny was partly responsible for this state of affairs, but she wasn’t blameworthy; indeed, she had behaved admirably. Z’u Peppe was a wife-beater. When Jenny could no longer tolerate his abuse, when he turned on their son Joe, she retreated to the guest bed room, never again to share Z’u Peppe’s bed. But she did not go to the police. Her silence gained Z’u Peppe’s compliance with this new regimen.
I was unaware of all this when I was a child. To me the Caltagirones were merely a vaguely unhappy family. My mother told me these stories much later, after Margie and I had taken her in to live with us. By 5:00PM my mother would be starved for Italian conversation. Margie’s mother, her sole companion during the day, spoke only English, my mother spoke little English. My mother would be waiting for me at the door. Margie’s mother, Huna, played solitaire in her sitting room, listening for Margie’s arrival.
Pip (short for Peppina >Giuseppina >Josephine), was Aunt Jenny’s eldest child. Then came Joe who was tall like his father but with his mother’s neat, regular features. We called him Joe Cal. He was sarcastic. His favorite expression was ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was a pre-med student before the war and he applied to the Jefferson College medical school. They refused him: Pip remembered reading the letter. They told him that the Catholic student’s quota had been filled – mostly with Irish Catholics. After the war, Joe Cal got a job as a chemist at the Philadelphia Naval Yard where he remained for thirty years. He married a local girl. “An uneducated wife”, rued Aunt Jennie.
I hardly knew the Caltagirones as a child. On those rare invitations to Sunday dinner, Frank and I would sit quietly on the living room sofa, seldom taking part in the adult conversation. When alone, we’d sit at the upright piano and Frank would plink out a quavering fragment of melody.
Pip’s younger brother, Lib Cal (short for Librande) was smart – they were all smart. He was the happiest member of the family. He resembled his father physically, a Caltagirone, not a Spinelli. Lib had inherited, or perhaps he had contracted early in life, an eye disease that left him totally blind before he was fourteen years old.
By then Pip had already graduated from teacher’s college and she had begun teaching. She had had a brief, disastrous marriage to Mister D’Antonio, a junior high school teacher. Pip left her teaching job immediately to become Lib’s constant companion, sitting beside him in the classroom throughout high school, four years of college and three years of law school.
“Pip, you did all the work. Why didn’t you become a lawyer?”
“It never occurred to me. I already had a profession. I was just biding my time until I got back to teaching.“
Two or three of Lib’s law school classmates would come to the house to study with Lib. Pip would sit in, taking notes. Afterwards, sitting around the kitchen table, they’d socialize over coffee and cake. One of the law students, older than the others, asked Pip to marry him. She refused him.
“Why not, Pip. He became a successful lawyer.”
“He was a Protestant.”
I once found, among the box of family photos my mother kept to entertain us kids, one of Pip, taken when she when she was twenty years old.
“Pip, you looked like a Persian princess.” She bristled. To her, Persians were black people.
Lib’s early social life was supplied by Joe Rose, his childhood friend, who was an excellent baseball player. They had little in common except their childhood. Before he went blind, Lib would watch Joe play in the neighborhood ball games.
Lib Cal loved baseball. He had listened to the radio broadcasts since childhood. Sometimes he and Joe would go to the Phillies’s games at Shibe Park. They’d sit behind home plate, where Joe would give Lib a running account of the play. Lib thrilled to the crack of the bat, to the splat of the ball slapping into the catcher’s mitt, to the thrum of the crowd. Aunt Jenny would give Joe money for tickets, for hot dogs and sodas, and something extra for Joe.
Joe Rose had a second job, in the evenings at the neighborhood Settlement house. The Dixon Settlement House was a community center sponsored by a consortium of Protestant churches. Mr. Clemmons, a patient Protestant gentleman, was its director. Joe did a little bit of everything there: setting up chairs for meetings and classes, refereeing basketball games, maintaining order among us teenagers. He’d close up at night. Occasionally, after hours, when the building was dark, he’d show dirty movies for the older guys. For a fee. On rare occasions he’d show up with a prostitute. For a fee.
Sometimes, when the Dixon House closed early and the Phillies were at home, Joe would collect Lib for the game. But instead of going to the ball park, they’d go to the back room of the Dixon House where they’d listen to the game on the radio – with the prostitute. Afterwards, Lib would tell Pip all about the game.
Upon graduation from law school, Lib Cal won a clerkship with Judge Joseph Lord of the U.S. Federal District Court, which sits in Philadelphia. By then Lib had already met Joan Gallo. She was a downtown girl, attractive in a florid way, bursting out of her clothes. Sexy. Bossy. Smart. They married. Aunt Jenny was not pleased: – “another uneducated wife.” Joan became Lib’s eyes for reading cases, and his fingers for typing opinions. Pip didn’t like Joan either but she was happy to relinquish Lib to her care. She returned to her first love, teaching elementary school children.
The years Pip had spent at Temple University’s teacher’s college (Normal School) were the happiest of her life. She studied Italian just for the fun of it and she joined the University’s Circolo Italiano. She acted in the Circolo’s Italian language dramatizations. She went to the Circolo dances and she travelled to New York City with her classmates, to see Italian language movies and plays at Columbia University. A fellow member of the Circolo proposed marriage. Pip refused him.
Instead she married later Mr. D’Antonio, a junior high school teacher. Don’t ask me why. I refer to him as Mr. D’Antonio because years later, he became my home room teacher. He knew I was connected to Pip but he never let on. Their marriage had lasted only three or four months. People said he was an alcoholic. All Pip ever divulged of her marriage was that she had spent a night in jail. She felt sure, for ever after, that the other Caltagirones, the Traficantes and the Arcuri’s all called her a jailbird behind her back, and that it was an unspoken rebuke whenever they met.
After their wedding, Pip and her husband moved into his mother’s home, into his old bedroom. Her mother-in-law thought nothing of entering her only child’s bedroom without knocking. One night, after a squabble, Pip locked herself into the bathroom. Her husband broke in and Pip threw something into his face, perhaps some lye. Somebody called the police and Pip spent half the night in jail. Her parents bailed her out but not before she was booked for assault. That incident became Pip’s scarlet letter. She got an annullment – the marriage may have been unconsumated. Every trace of the marriage was gone except for the scarlet letter.
Pip and her mother visited our house at least once a week. When the doorbell rang, my father would sing out to my mother “Ecco l’indiane (Behold, the Indians)”. Often, they would come to have my mother exorcize their mal occhio. My father would retreat to another room or he’d go out for a walk. He’d return in time to have coffee in the kitchen with them. Once a week my mother went to their house, and on Friday evenings they’d go to the local movie house together. My father would play his LP phonograph records, loudly, as soon as soon as he was alone.
Margie was the ornament of our clan in their eyes: “an educated wife! An Americana!” We had them to Thanksgiving Day dinner, together with my brother Steve and his wife, Madge. The conversation was cordial, but strained: ancient, barely suppressed recriminations between Pip and Madge. Margie was incurably optimistic: “People should be able to talk things out.” But never again did she invite them to dinner with others.
Of course Pip and Jenny had a life beyond the Perrone’s, but it was limited. Joe Cal would occasionally stop in for lunch. The Navy Yard was only ten minutes away from their home. And they would dutifully visit Z’a Rosa, a Caltagirone, who was Jennie’s sister-in-law. Z’a Rosa – I called her Pari, accent on the I – short for Parina (godmother).
Z’a Rosa was difficult, her husband, Z’u Genova. was impossible. She was about five feet eight inches tall and large. He was barely five feet tall and wiry. It had been an arranged marriage. He walked around the house like a bantam rooster. He would spit contemptuously on his hardwood floors. He carried a gun.
When I was a boy, Z’a Rosa, who was childless, suggested that I come to to live with her. She said she and her husband had more money (true) than my parents, that I’d have a car and that I could go to college. She made the same proposal to my mother. She couldn’t understand that this was inconceivable. For her everything was based upon interesse, self-interest. Yet she and my mother were old friends, who worked together for years.
For diversion, Pip and Aunt Jenny would take long rides on city buses and trolley cars, to the end of the line. They’d have lunch in a restaurant near the final stop. Their favorite trip was to Media, an attractive suburban town where they’d eat at the same large, popular restaurant. They invited Margie and me to join them. The dining room hostess and the waitresses greeted them warmly, affectionately – a surprising, a touching sight. To them, Aunt Jenny and Pip were that kind old lady and her amusing daughter. Pip introduced Margie and me around. The waitresses already knew all about us.
It was sad to see Aunt Jenny grow old. She lived to be ninety-one. Her scoliosis worsened in her eighties. She and Pip had always stood and walked so erectly. I’d see them get off the trolley car at the street corner. They’d stride towards our house, their mouths going furiously, parsing recent and ancient slights, real and imagined.
Jennie’s back became so bent at the waist that her upper body was almost parallel to the ground. Bravely, they continued to take their long bus trips. The bus drivers would help Pip pull her mother onto the bus, to sit in the broad front seat. They still went into center city to have lunch at the Strawbridge and Clothier’s department store. They preferred Strawbridge’s to the other department stores because it was Christian.
They were a benificent force in our lives for many years. In 1939, my parents bought a row house that was not far from the bakery. Pip may have been the first to spot the for sale sign. It was a cheap, fix-it-upper with seven rooms. A palace! The pre-war economy was good – my father was working as much overtime as he could get. Frank and I were still boys and Steve had been drafted into the Army. Pip and Aunt Jennie accompanied my mother to Lit Brother’s to advise and to broker, in English, the purchase of furniture, rugs, and curtains.
Pip still had twenty-five years of life ahead of her after her mother died. She was to live in the family home until she was ninety-six. Alone much of the time, she dwelled obsessively on those persons who she thought hated her. She became more crotchety, fiercer. She lashed out. But she could not have lived independently without her niece’s help.
Rita lived thirty miles away but she came faithfully to take her aunt to medical appointments and to the bank. Rita paid her bills, she took her food shopping and she found home aides to clean the house. Rita found day companions for her. Carol was the best of them, at least she lasted the longest.
Carol was about forty-five years old, well groomed, well spoken. Pip liked her – so did I. And she paid her well. Carol, in turn, drew the best out of Pip. She helped her with ordinary chores and she took her for scenic drives in the countryside and through attractive suburban towns. And she listened to Pip tirelessly. Carol lived alone in a house in New Jersey. Pip visited there and she thought the house attractive. Then, after several months, Carol suggested that Pip move in with her as a paying guest. Pip dismissed her savagely, impugning her motives. Carol tried to win her back to the old arrangement, but Pip remained adamant.
I was at Pip’s one day when the Meals-on-Wheels van arrived with her free hot lunch. Pip opened the door and the doorway was filled by a young black man, the new driver of the van:
He picked her up and carried her into the living room, while she squealed with delight:
“Gerald, put me down, put me down.”
Gerald had been her pupil in the fourth grade. When she first had begun teaching at Southwark Elementary, the neighborhood was mostly Italian. By the time she retired the neighborhood and the student body had become predominantly black. In private, when she was annoyed, she’d call them her little darkies.
Nonetheless, she was a dedicated, excellent teacher. She took them on field trips: Independence Hall was a favorite destination because they could walk there from school. I wish I could have seen them: twenty-five children walking behind her in an orderly file, perhaps strung together like mountaineers. City Hall was another popular destination. There, a city worker would give them a brief civic lesson. Then Pip would take them to the top, just below William Penn’s hat, for a birds eye view of the city. Gerald recalled those trips with pleasure.
Occasionally there’d be high comedy at Pip’s school. A neighborhood friend, Tony D, needed a job with summers off so that he could tend his growing business near the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. The school system accepted him, uncredentialed, because he was willing to work in the toughest neighborhoods. Pip’s school, his first assignment, was a lucky break.
Pip gave him a crash course on how to control the class. Towards the end of the week, she looked in on him before the close of the school day. Tony had drawn a diagram on the blackboard: it depicted heaven, purgatory and hell, three circular discs hovering one above the other. Pip walked into the room, picked up a board eraser and she cleared the blackboard. She walked out without saying a word. Later she let him have it, both barrels. Of course, those black fifth graders knew more about the Bible than Tony did. Where would he ever have seen a bible?
Pip began going to church again after her mother died. She bought a large, elaborate monstrance for the church. But before long she was at odds with the priests and the nuns, a continual sniping which the priests and nuns kindly patched up over the years. Occasionally she attended another church to show her displeasure.
She stopped going to church entirely. Instead she listened daily to a Catholic radio show which she supported generously. The radio host always found a way to mention Pip’s name on the air. As her health worsened, Rita suggested she enter a residence for the elderly, a ‘home’ as they were called, disapprovingly, in South Philly. They visited two or three “homes” even though Rita knew that Pip would never agree to enter one.
“Pip,why not?” I asked.
“Because they have brown people working there.”
That was only part of her reason. Above all, she was fiercely independent and her house was a sanctuary where she was still in charge – with Rita’s indispensable help.
The house, which had always been spotless, began to look shabby. The local cleaning ladies and the artisans who had fixed things, were no longer willing to come. The strangers she hired cheated her. The wallpaper was yellowed, and the furniture and the carpets were faded, the curtains were lank. The hand rail on the front steps wobbled loosely in its bearings. Not that she noticed or cared. She and Rita had another row.
Pip called me. I took her to the savings and loan bank where, upon entering, she hooked her elbow into mine and marched me to the manager, then to the tellers – this is my cousin, Charles Perrone. She gave me her pension checks to deposit.
“Take out five hundred for yourself.”
“No, Pip,” You don’t know what lies ahead. You may need it for medical bills.”
This was a scenario we acted out every time I took her to the bank.. She had plenty of money, deployed in three or four savings and loan banks – the FDIC insured only a hundred thousand dollars in any one account. She insisted I take some money for Fernanda and Stephen. I took it. Then we’d go to the supermarket.
“This is my cousin, Charles Perrone.”
It was easy to shop for Pip, her diet was so monotonous. I filled the little cart with a month’s worth of Cappellini spaghetti, many cans of Hunt’s salt-free tomato sauce, cans of unsalted peas, tuna fish, two dozen eggs, butter, canned sliced peaches and pears and a pound of sliced American cheese. Two loaves of packaged, sliced “American’” bread – her father must have turned over in his grave. While we waited in the checkout line, she introduced me to the customer ahead of us and also to the one behind, and then again to the cashier. It was the same routine when I’d take her doctors.
In those days visits to the doctors in South Philadelphia were seldom by appointment. It was first come, first serve. We’d enter the office to confront a ring of eight or ten people waitng to see the doctor.
“This is my cousin Charles Perrone.”
Then she began calling me at home for thirty or forty minutes at a time. She called almost every night: endless rumination, tirades against people long dead. Sometimes I’d pass the phone to Margie. Margie began to refuse the phone. She resented the intrusions and she saw the toll Pip was taking on me. The next time I saw Pip, I told her how Margie felt. I should not have hidden behind Margie. Pip was mortified. If Margie was objecting, Pip knew that she herself must be in the wrong. She apologized and said that she wouldn’t be needing me any longer.
I’d call her every two or three weeks. but Pip kept the conversations brief. I went to see her, stopping first at the store to buy her some pudding. She looked awful, like something out of Grimms’ Fairly Tales: the Wicked Witch, Clumps of hair were gone; she was almost as bald as Aunt Jennie had been at the end. She had lost more teeth, perhaps from malnutrition. She weighed ninety pounds. Her diet never varied: breakfast was a slice of buttered toast dipped into her cup of tea; at lunch she’d have a sandwich with two slices of American cheese – sometimes she’d have an egg and a small cup of applesauce.
Dinner was always a small plate of Cappellini pasta with tomato sauce. She overcooked the pasta, she overcooked everything to accommodate the few teeth left in her mouth. She’d eat a small can of peas and a soft, blackened banana. Her back was bent over, almost as bad as her mother.
She’d go up and down the stairs on her hands and knees, facing backwards. Once downstairs, she lurched from chair to chair, reverting to hands and knees when the reaches between the chairs were too great. She wore the same tattered night gown all the time. Rita continued her efforts to get her into a nursing home, but Pip rejected every place they visited, even Saint Joseph’s Catholic Nursing Home which had a very good reputation.
She rejected them for the same reason: too many brown people working there, but the real reason was that she wanted to die in her own home, the home she had known for more than fifty years, the home where her mother had endured, almost to the end. I became reluctant to phone, afraid that she’d fall trying to reach the phone. Margie suggested I visit her.
I let myself in – I still had the key. The first floor was silent and vacant. I heard her voice as I quietly climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor. I stopped midway and listened, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I heard a soft clicking noise.
The top of the stairs ended opposite the doorway of her bedroom, a small, dark cubicle. She had never considered moving into the bigger guest room that had two windows, or into the large master bedroom which was frozen in time, exactly as her mother had left it twenty-five years earlier. I stood by the door and listened:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, Hail Mary, full of grace…”
I looked into the room. She was lying in her narrow bed with her knees drawn up to her chest. She was tiny. The clicking sound came from her Rosary beads. I backed down the stairs and left the house. I called Rita. She told me that Pip had agreed to enter Saint Joseph’s Nursing Home. She died there some months later.