Sunday, October 04, 2015


My grandparents had a cellar, an interesting place as any I’ve known in my life. Down in this cellar was a treasure of antiquity and mystery, history and tradition, as ever there was in any such a place. The cellar ran the length and width of the house, and it was broken into three main sections. There was the majority of the cellar, and two small separate rooms, one housing a wine press and one for canning.

It had just 2 overhead exposed light bulbs with string hanging from them to pull on and off the light. The floors, cast in cement offered no comfort or welcome, as did the surrounding atmosphere of darkness and mystery.

As you entered the cellar from the long hallway that had this almost visible portrait of a devil from the harsh paint strokes that dried on the outer door, (It was my imagination) telling you to tread cautiously and don’t wake up the demons you descended the steps and immediately things started to happen. You came to an old Victrola, with the dog looking into the sound system: “His Masters Voice.” label on the grammar phone or speaker with the big knob-like needle holder that you manually placed on a record. On the sides it had moveable slats that looked like large vents to direct the music.

As you moved past the Victrola, there was a free standing room with doors making up the walls of this room, and I wondered if my grandfather kept a monster in the room, as I gently pressed my ears against one of the doors. I would hear these noises coming out of it and would back away, my knees shaking and the urge was to run. (It was the furnace!)

There were used oxygen tanks from before the war and after, when Dad made glass novelties and other things that had an interest to me, but the thing I always went to look at was, my grandfather Joseph, fresh off the boat when the picture was taken. He is in a black pressed suit, black bow-tie, a stiff starched shirt and black shiny shoes, topped off with a boutonnière on his lapel. This picture amazed me as it had him standing in front of this grayish background from a almost Draconian set, next to a table that stood on three legs, as it was a small table. The picture must have been about 30’ x 40”, and although I was named after him, I never met him. His sharp black moustache trimmed to a pencil thickness dominated his face, and his eyes seemed to tell so many mystic stories. Here was the cradle of American life born from the “other side.”

There were two long factory tables, probably where all the glass novelties were placed and sorted before being shipped to customers. Flags, American in kind stood in one corner of the room and pictures of haunting poses of saints occupied the other walls, and as you walked the length of the cellar you could almost hear the echo of days past, each object with its own tale to tell.

Then there was Grandmas gas stove and the wonderful steaks she would make on it. She had what best can be described as an iron wired contraption with a long handle that you lifted to place a steak in, you closed the handle and placed the steak on one of the burners and there you roasted or bar-b-q the steak, leaving a mouth-watering smell that drove you crazy if you were in the least bit hungry!

The canning room had shelves lining it, with jar after jar of tomatoes, eggplant and other canned delights that once extracted from the darkness of its home and placed on the plate created all the sunlight you needed in your life.

When Grandma cooked, she reduced things down to the simplest of terms, she cut her garlic over the pan, she tossed her spices by the pinches and stirred her magic to perfection and completion, leaving the diner totally satisfied. When the canning room came alive, while processing the tomatoes in particular, there were flies everywhere, but grandpa rigged a big fan that kept them out of the room.

Oh I would give anything to once again see my grandparents, to feel the special love that came from them, in their zest for life, their kindness and generosity, their love of food and family, because it was family and love that fueled the engine they drove.

I cannot cry that I miss them, but laugh at the memories and take comfort in their lives touching mine.

So what lurked in that cellar?


Saturday, October 03, 2015



Finding interesting people in life is a great gift from the Almighty. I don’t always find them within the family but sometimes outside that realm.

There was Uncle Zio Felice, Zia Madelena, my grandmother and the list can go on. Characters each one with a loveable Italian accent when they spoke English or at least tried.

If you went into the Italian neighborhoods, you would meet them standing and sitting outside their apartment buildings, shouting greetings in both Italian and broken English, with a smile on their eyes.

There was Pop who sat on his chair in his small front yard in a sleeveless undershirt and brown slippers, watching the world go by, there was Sloppy John the vegetable stand owner who hated little kids, with me on the top of the list.

A couple lived across the street from my family on the top floor, three stories up. All day long they sat by the window in the summer, arms folded leaning on the windowsill. The kids on the block called them the ‘Lamp Shades’ because they were a pair and seemed somewhat nosey.

It was decided that we kids would play a trick on the Lampshades, and staged a fight that must have convinced the two to come down and break it up. That being the idea, once ran down to stop this bogus fight, we would all be gone by the time they hit the streets.

A pizzeria nearby my home employs an interesting character that comes to mind, straight off the boat. Born in Calabria, when you enter the shop, there he is behind the counter taking and giving orders of food, taking payments and lending a wonderful air of happiness to the process, arrayed in his T-shirt and white apron.  Customers stand in line and unlike the ‘Soap Nazi’ on the Jerry Seinfeld show of the 90’s: Carlo is affable and gregarious. A smile brightens his mischievous face, his voice loud and yet he is graceful in demeanor.

One day I entered after phoning in my order, which was somewhat complicated. I told him who I was and he put out about three brown paper bags. Concerned that everything was correct, I started to ask quick short questions of the order. He looked at me from behind the counter and said:

“EH! Don’ta worry, be ahappy!”

He could have given me Chinese food by mistake, and I would be happy!

And so my friends: “EH! Don’ta worry, be ahappy!”

Friday, October 02, 2015


Grandma was a remarkable woman: she had the spirit of America in all her Italian genes. She was brave, coming to America at the age of 15 without speaking English, she was enterprising, owning a restaurant, a fruit and vegetable stand and four apartments and a home on Long Island that she rented to 2 families since it was a duplex. Oh, she also had a day job in a clothing factory and at night sewed buttons of coats to make extra money.
She was the matriarch in a real sense, everyone was afraid of her! She raised my father, two aunts and another son, plus a niece who came to America as a teenager. Her first husband, my real grandfather died when the youngest child was born from Spanish Flu!
The cousin smoked, but you couldn’t tell Zia Francesca, she wouldn’t approve; WOMEN DON’T SMOKE! So the big dummies would go into the back bedroom and smoke out of sight.
Then there was the issue of interfaith marriage. You think gay marriage is an issue; my oldest cousin had the audacity to marry a Lutheran! Yes, a Lutheran!!! This sent shock waves up and down the family tree: dead aunts and uncles were climbing out of their graves, coming to America to protest the Protestant! DON’T TELL ZIA FRANCESCA!!!
Then of course there was THE Divorcé! Sin of sins, someone had a divorce, breaking the tenets of the Holy Roman Catholic Church??? No, what they imagined Zia Francesca would think.
Finally it all came out, the whole ugly business, smoking, Protestants AND divorce! They decided they couldn’t handle all this pressure, and their husbands advised them to come clean with Zia Francesca. They sat her down at the head of her kitchen table one day. In Italian they told her: “Ma, we have a few things you need to be told, we can’t hide this any more.”
From what I hear, Grandma sat there and asked a question; "is this about you “signore della sera” smoking in the back bedroom? YOU KNOW I CAN SMELL IT, BUT GO AHEAD, KILL YOURSELVES!
“Well Ma, my daughter is marrying a non-Catholic!”
“And? Times have changed, this is America and besides, Sonny is a nice boy.”
“Ma, my daughter got a divorce!” another daughter spoke up.
“Good I didn’t like that bastard anyway!”
That was Grandma, miles ahead of her children.

Monday, September 28, 2015


I wasn’t a bad kid so much as a child that trouble found. My reasoning was guided by my lack of understanding of what the line drawn meant, the teachings of my grandparents and parents so desperately tried to instill in me.

“Joseph, go to the store for me” could have been anyone giving me guidance as much as: “Don’t do that or else!” It was the Old Italian spirit of discipline; Grandma could smack you around just as well and maybe with more experience than Mom or Dad. Usually it was Grandma who ran to my aid, just as the boom was being lowered, saving me from getting it.

It was a Sunday morning, bright and sunny and I was getting dressed for church. Mom was very fiscally responsible and Dad was her resource. Not being a churchgoer, Dad was still in bed and it was time to leave for church. Being it was summer, there were no requirements that I sit with my class during mass, so Mom made sure I got there by accompanying me there.

“Joseph, go get some money from your father for the collection.”

I wake up Dad and tell him: Mommy said, give me some money for church.” (I didn’t have to say please when Mom ordered it) Slowly he opens his eyes and rolls over and grabs his pants from the side of the bed, reaches in and gives me 2 shiny nickels.

As I head toward the kitchen from the bedroom, I pass Mom’s sewing basket, and an idea hits me. For a nickel I could buy a bottle of Pepsi, and for another nickel I could buy a package of 5 or 6 small powdered donuts. I given powdered donuts, you could get me to do anything, say anything or lie about anything! Yes, powdered donuts were my addiction!

So quietly I go into Moms sewing bow where she kept her buttons and reasoned that if I took 2 shiny metal buttons, I could confuse Mom when they came to collect money, then afterward, I could celebrate with a Pepsi and donuts! I couldn’t believe my genius had taken me so far!

Our Lady of Lourdes was a beautiful church, with marble floors and columns, stain windows and a large dome that sat over the front altar. There were three additional altars with the one in the back having La Pieta inside a gated enclosure.

Being a large church, with a school, and about 5 priests, the ushers always dressed to the nines, and when collecting, had these long handles collection baskets made of what looked like wicker.

Mom and I sat, she in deep meditation and prayer, and me deep into whether or not I could scale the grotto wall behind the main altar. Suddenly I noticed the ushers with the collection baskets and reached for my first button. As the basket slid under my nose, I slipped in the first of the shiny buttons. Mom deposited her money and went back into her prayers (probably for my soul) and said nothing. Ah, I rouse was working!!! Donuts for sure!

The second collection comes, and like the first, I slip in the other shiny metal button, Mom deposits her money, and once again goes into deep pray-filled pleading for my wicked soul. Oh! The joy of deep quiet celebration, knowing there were donuts soon on the horizon, glory is to God!

Mass is over and as we walk home I start to talk to Mom, but she is not answering me. I figured her mother instincts for survival have kicked in. This goes on for a few blocks, nothing being said by Mom. We climb the two flights of steps to our third floor apartment, when I announce to Mom that I am going down stairs for a while. (Donuts on my mind)

Suddenly, I feel this grip on my shoulder and the words: “Embarrass me in church?” Whack, dragging me into the apartment. “Hoe dare you embarrass me in church of all places?” Whack, whack and whack. If nothing else at this critical moment, she was certainly hitting the target!

This went on all the rest of Sunday morning, every time she saw me, “Embarrass me in church?” Whack, and more whacks. Dad kept a low profile; he didn’t want to get in the way of her fury, no need to interrupt. That whole morning and early afternoon, I started to pray myself for preservation and rescue, hoping for company to show up immediately, if not sooner.

Relief finally arrived when Aunt Philomena and Uncle Dominick arrived, with customary cheesecake and appetite.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Both Mom and Grandma were religious fanatics. Like all Italians, to both women and some men, Saint Mary, Our Lady, or Madonna was the central figure in the religious philosophy of “Ya gotta go to church.” You prayed to the Blessed Mother, and as a child when told that, I used to think: “We talk everyday, even Dad talks to her, pray too?” Then it dawned on me there was another Blessed Mother!

Mom: “Did you do your homework?”
Me: “almost!”
Mom: “What do you mean ‘almost’? You better pray to Our Lady that you do it, or else!’ Which brings to me to a pet peeve, where did the Blessed Mother have the time to be ‘Our Lady’ of just about everything? Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Loretto and even Our Lady of the Snow! Was she the Virgin Mary too? And who was going around as Saint Mary?

Grandma had a shrine in her house; in fact I think the house was the shrine, dedicated to who else, and statues dotted her apartment and bedrooms, keeping a steady eye on me.

In one part of Grandma’s shrine was a bureau with a votive candle that was always lit, a statue of need I mention who, and a picture, it being a very dark room with no windows. Now this picture would creep me out. Yes for someone around seven, seeing this for the first time, brought some realizations alive: that we all die. The picture has a dead person, in a coffin looking up at the camera. It was taken in Italy, and was a major attraction for all young cousins to view when visiting Grandma, a kind of Disney World if you would, and when you realized what it was, you rode your shoes out of the room, sometimes running out of them to get away! The flickering votive candle constantly shifting the dark shadows, the dead guy looking at you, made for an atmosphere that sent shivers through my spine.

One particular day, my older sister and I were in Grandma’s bedroom looking for a statue of the Virgin Mary and I noticed the picture.

Me: “What’s in the picture?”
Sister: “That’s a dead person in a coffin.”
She started to say something else, but by then I was in the well-lit and happy confines of the kitchen, my nose deep in the refrigerator smelling salami and cheese.

Grandma made pilgrimages to Italy for orphan children and arranged bus rides to upstate New York to shrines. These were all pilgrimages as they say. Mom was content to stay at home: her pilgrimages were to my school, to visit one of my teachers who required her presence. Grandma could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by just conducting a tour of the house!

Tomorrow: The Sermon of the Buttons. (You’ll find it in the newest version of the New Testament, someday to be published)

Saturday, September 26, 2015


The newly arrived Italian-American Luigi was about to apply for his citizenship at the court. He fretted about his answering questions from the judge, since the man knew such little English. The moment arrived and in walked the distinguished jurist, white hair and moustache, and long black flowing robe. Nervously Luigi stepped forward to the bench and looked up to the judge and said: Hyur honor, I’m a no speaker English very good. Ima read and I know hall a da answers you aska me, who’sa the first presidente, a how manya states a dere hiza and Hi canna recite the pledgea of alligeance, but I no getter the citizenshipa because I no speak well de English.

The judge was taken aback by the man’s plea, and sternly pointed down at Luigi, Old Glory behind him and says: “Solonga I’ma da Judgea, you gonna becoma Hew Hess Citizena!”

At the turn of the century, Italian-Americans were very conscious of the prejudice displayed against them. They lived in tenements overcrowded with people, clustered in enclaves with other Italian-Americans. That factor alone must have had a major impact on their survival as a whole. The prejudice began at the top, the White House and the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.

Coming to America, they expected the streets to be paved with gold. Instead they found nothing but hard work, and their response: they rolled up their sleeves, and all that gold? They took on jobs as sanitation workers and swept all that gold!

My grandmother Mary, a single mom with three young girls, every morning put on the radio back in the 1920’s and the first thing to play was the Star Spangled Banner, and all her children stood up around the kitchen table, with their hands over their hearts!

Grandpa Joe came here to America at the turn of the last century stowed away on a ship, where he avoided political persecution in Italy and customs in this country and then somehow joined the army to fight in the ‘Great War’, where when he came home, he caught Spanish Flu and was hospitalized. Anxious to see his son and daughter, he jumped out of a hospital window and into a large snow bank, in his hospital gown. A few days later he died at home with his wife, and children at his side from Pneumonia. Between the ship and the army, he helped grandma establish a fruit and vegetable stand in Brooklyn.

Grandma loved America, she worked hard and organized flights to Italy and bus trips to upstate religious shrines, where she took the profits and gave the money to build an orphanage in her hometown after WWII. They named it after her but she did the money raising, after hearing stories about the many orphans that populated Italy from the constant bombardments and battles fought there. Many a sponsorship was she behind of people coming to this country from Italy.

Grandma’s older brother Felix or ‘Uncle Zio Felice” had 19 children as I wrote a while back, and one of them laid down his life for our country, or his country at Anzio Beach. Investment was heavy in this country.

What I would give to see and speak to all those relatives from the past one more time. To hear all the stories they could tell about coming to America and what it meant to them, but I did get a lot of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


"It is always possible to be grateful for what is received rather than resentful over what is withhold. One or the other becomes a way of life."
- Elisabeth Elliot. 

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950’s, life could be hard if you let it. We were a poor family; we didn’t have much since Dad didn’t make much, about what everybody else made in the neighborhood.

But Mom did an amazing job of using Dad’s earning frugally, and with the best of intentions, to feed us, cloth us and made us as happy as could be. Like most Italian-American families of that era, we didn’t know we were poor, we knew we were happy, but not poor. Mom and Dad had carried over the thriftiness of the Great Depression and so we made do. Mom could sew, cook and clean the house herself, polish old shoes everyday and made sure we were clean. We were extremely rich in the joy of our families, the simple dishes that were prepared for a conversation around the kitchen table. The rule was NOT ‘try to be home in time for supper’, no it was BE HOME IN TIME FOR SUPPER. If we weren’t, we didn’t eat. If we didn’t like what we were getting for dinner, we ate it anyway because there was nothing else allowed. Mom cooked, so you better be prepared to eat it or nothing. Good rules.

Mother and wooden spoon owner
We hardly bought new shoes, taking them instead to an Italian shoemaker to fix the old to look like new. Our clothes were not threadbare but well mended. Mom like all Italian-American moms where we live, was home for their children after school.

Mom was a great cook, but would on occasion cook something I didn’t like, like pig’s feet and knuckles, or stew and beans and macaroni (pasta fagiola: something I would die for today, and make my own, or even pay a hefty price for in a restaurant).

I remember when in college, coming home after school or after working as a designer in the city, the winter night cold, but a warm glow calling me to Mom’s kitchen, my dinner gently warming in her magical oven, the smell saying: “Joseph, I’m glad you’re home.”

Tomorrow: WHAT DID WE EAT?