All humans enter this world at birth and leave it at death, hopefully going on to a better place where they have plasma TVs in every room and never heard of "The View". For me life was marked by certain events and rituals, the hallmarks of growing up in an Italian-American family. These were happy times, and as I think back on them I can recall the joy that each event inspired. Most of us pass through these gateways on our march through life, but for Italian-Americans, the flavor is a little different..something like putting fennel seed in your meatballs to make them a cut above the ordinary.
I was born the first child of Frances and Anthony Pantaleno in Unity Hospital in Brooklyn, New York on July 5, 1942. My parents named me James. They didn't give me a middle name because we couldn't afford one. I can just imagine the scene on Pacific Street when they brought me home. The anisette cookies and the bottle of Fleishman's Rye would have been out as family and friends filed in to see the baby and congratulate the parents. There probably was also an old woman in black performing some Italian black-magic ritual to ensure health and wealth for the baby. The spell was half effective.
In the second grade I received my first Holy Communion. This was a big event in Catholic-Italian households, although not as big as today when spending on communion parties exceeds what I spent on my wedding. We were drilled by our teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes in preparation for the event. Then, on the big day, we marched down the aisle in that magnificent church, boys on one side, girls on the other. The host was placed on our tongues while kneeling at the altar rail (no receiving communion in the hand back then) and we marched back to our assigned pews as our proud families looked on. It was customary to capture such special events for posterity in a formal studio portrait, which is shown at left.
The next big milestone was Confirmation, which I received in the sixth grade. This is the next step in a Catholic boy's development. The event required that all boys buy a dark blue suit. My mother took me to Klein's on Union Square in Manhattan, where we bought a suit sized so big (so I wouldn't outgrow it too quickly) that I think I wore it to my first job interview. We were allowed to choose a "Confirmation Name" and I chose Philip in tribute to my good friend and next-door neighbor. My grandmother pulled me aside when we got home from church and slipped me a quarter tied up in a handkerchief. (Note the column I'm standing next to is the same as for my Communion picture. Thank you, Roma Studios.)
At age 24, I married Jasmine, the love of my life. We had dated for a while after being introduced by friends, but then separated for a few years. At the wedding of those friends, Jasmine was the maid of honor and I was the best man. I didn't let her get away a second time. I had brought girls home before, but this time my mother pulled me aside and said: "This is the one". How can a boy argue with his mother. We were wed at St. Francis Xavier church in Brooklyn followed by a rousing reception at The Pisa, on 86th Street. Pictured with us is the couple who introduced us all those years ago on a trip to Italy. I owe them a lot.
Less than ten months after the wedding, (hey, we're Italian) our daughter Laura was born. She was the most beautiful little girl I ever saw. Four years later came our son Michael, who arrived after a thrill-packed, police-escorted ride to the hospital. After another four year interval, our youngest son Matthew was born to complete our family. (We always kidded that the four years between each child was our college tuition payment plan). In time, son-in-law Malcolm, daughter-in-law Alicia, and daughter-in-law to be (this September) Tara joined the family. Our granddaughter Ava arrived in 2003, and immediately took over all family operations, and our second granddaughter, Priscilla, was born this past January. We have been blessed. As the Italians say, "Alla famiglia".
P.S. I won't be around to write about the last milestone in my life. Somebody please say something nice.
(Originally published November 14, 2009)
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