Thursday, October 30, 2008

Buddy and May

The only sibling of my father's that I knew was his older brother Joe. I think he had another brother James who died very young, and for whom I believe I was named. There was also a sister who married and had at least 7 children (the Caruso branch of the family) but sadly, also died before I knew her. Uncle Joe was two years older than Dad. They came to America as young boys, aged 2 and 7, with their father, Innocenzo, sailing on the ship San Giorgio out of Naples, Italy on October 13, 1912. I learned this from Ellis Island immigration records, which are fantastic. To my surprise, the family name on the ship's manifest is spelled "Pantaleo", not "Pantaleno" as we spell it today. Somewhere in processing through immigration, we picked up an 'N' at the end of our name. My uncle Joe later legally changed his name to "Pantala", for what reason I cannot fathom. I could see if he was trying for something less Italian-sounding to better blend in, since Italians were not exactly welcomed with open arms in America. But all he accomplished was saving a syllable, that's about it.

Fast forward...Uncle Joe marries a German girl named May, and they have two wonderful children, my cousins Joey and his younger sister Joan. Uncle Joe drove a truck delivering coal for a company called Burns Brothers. Our house was on his route, and I remember him climbing down from the truck, positioning a coal chute into our basement coal bin, and then off-loading the coal down the chute. It was a fascinating process to watch, and I envied Uncle Joe his job. Little did I know what hard, dirty work it really was.

Uncle Joe and Aunt May came to our house a lot for Sunday dinner. Uncle Joe worked hard all week, and on the weekends, he tended to drink hard. My father was also known to tip back a few, and I recall them sitting at the kitchen table drinking shots of Fleishmann's (a cheap rye whiskey that could remove paint) and beer chasers. Uncle Joe always had a raw egg in his beer; that was probably his breakfast. Now my father was a happy drunk, and when he'd had a few too many, the worst thing he did was tell the same jokes over and over. They say alcohol just magnifies your normal personality. Unfortunately, Uncle Joe was not the most jovial guy when sober; too many drinks usually intensified his grumpiness and made him combative.

His chief antagonist was Aunt May. May had red hair, smoked constantly, and could be very funny, almost like a blowzy Lucille Ball. I liked her a lot, but she drank too, and when "over served", her tendency was to became abusive. Aunt May's main target was Uncle Joe. You got the feeling that their life was one continuous fight, interrupted by periods of sobriety during which they tolerated one another, but the battle was always just simmering beneath a thin veneer of civility, waiting for the next highball to ignite it. May would sneeringly attack Joe (who she called Buddy for some reason) with slurred jabs like: "Fa chrisakes Buddy, you don' know what the hell you're talkin' about", or "All you eyetalians are so full of s**t." He would muster up the same disgusted face every time and hit her with his unflinching retort: "Shut up May." Their fights never got really ugly; they almost seemed choreographed with each knowing the rules and the boundaries.

Uncle Joe took me fishing every once in a while down to Broad Channel in the Rockaways. We would rent a rowboat, and go out with our tackle and a couple of crab nets. He taught me to fish, and on these trips, seemed like a much different man than the bickering, henpecked husband I saw on Sundays. He asked me about school, talked a little sports, and I think enjoyed himself as much as I did. Once I caught an eel, and not knowing if we should take it home to cook, I asked Uncle Joe what we should do with it. He promptly took it off the hook, threw it still alive into a bushel of crabs we had caught, and then laughed like hell. That Uncle Joe, you didn't see his sense of humor often, but when you did....funny.

May and Joe's children were among my favorite cousins. Joey married a sweetheart named Rosalie, who was 1940s movie-star good looking. She was also one of the nicest people I knew, who always had time to talk to me like a grown-up, and never failed to make me feel special. Joey's sister Joan was a few years older than me, with killer good looks. She was the most popular girl around, and I had a mad crush on her. My first bike was a hand-me-down from Joan, and despite having to suffer the humiliation of riding a girl's bike, I was happy to have it. My father, in his suit, tie and snappy fedora, taught me to ride by running along side as I pedaled in the park. There were no training wheels back then, and you learned by falling. Scraped knees sharply reduced the learning curve for acquiring this skill.

The battling Pantalas were a unique family and a big part of my life growing up. Except for Rosalie, they are all gone now.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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