Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Coffee and Cake

The days when nearly all our relatives lived within walking distance are long gone. Growing up in Brooklyn, virtually three generations of our family lived in a one mile circle around the intersection of Rockaway Avenue and Fulton Street. The only ones who did not were my father's brother Joe and his family (View Buddy and May) and the family members still living in Grassano in southern Italy, with whom, sadly, we maintained no contact. My son and I are trying to track down long lost relatives on Facebook, but it's a tenuous process at best. The Italian branch goes by the name of "Pantaleo" as it appeared on their immigration records. Somehow in passing through Ellis Island, the name got changed to "Pantaleno" which is how we are known today. When I tracked down those immigration records, it was a shock to say the least to find out that indeed we have been living under a different name than our ancestors.

That one-mile circle in Brooklyn was pretty much our world. We saw our extended family frequently at holidays, birthday parties, weddings, christenings and funerals. We thought nothing of living in close proximity to each other; that's how everybody in the neighborhood lived. In between events we just dropped over for coffee and cake, a dying custom by the way now that everybody shudders at the mere mention of cake. We played outside with our cousins, literally growing up together. Clothes and toys were passed around until they wore out. If anybody was going through a tough patch, the family was there for support. People looked out for each other, and not just family members. The "mothers' miracle network" knew pretty much everything, and if you did something wrong, the news reached your Mom even before you got home.

And then all that began to change as Brooklyn changed. We were used to having people in the neighborhood who looked like us...white. As Blacks and Hispanics moved in, whites panicked and fled to the suburbs. My Aunt Mary moved to Selden, Long Island, a wilderness in the late fifties. My Aunt Anna moved to the edges of Brooklyn bordering Queens. Even my parents moved to Ozone Park, but not before our home in Brooklyn had lost nearly all its value. My Dad had maybe the worst instincts for real estate decisions ever; his motto might as well have been: "Buy High, Sell Low." The conveniences we were so used to having, like stores, schools, churches and great public transportation within walking distance were gone. Funny, I recently heard through a mutual acquaintance from a Trappist Monk named Father Augustine who was born on the same block as me, but is now stationed in Tennessee. He says one of the things he misses most is good Italian bread, apparently unknown in Tennessee.

Through the 1960s, our family continued to spread out, moving to far-flung places like Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, and New Jersey. We had a fairly large contingent in Long Island. Things were just not the same. We saw each other pretty much only at weddings and wakes. Cousins and their children grew up without ever seeing much of their extended family. We had a family reunion a few years back and it was a wonderful sight to see first and second cousins getting to know each other as if they were strangers, which in essence they were. I know things can never be the same for them, but I remember how it was for me growing up in Brooklyn surrounded by family, and I can't help being a little sad for my children and grandchildren that they will never know that feeling.

I had a Facebook contact recently from the daughter of one of my cousins who lives way out in Riverhead at the eastern tip of Long Island. Her Dad died tragically when she was still a baby, and her Mom and siblings all live out of state. She is very interested in stories and pictures from those long ago Brooklyn days, and I am happy to try to fill in any blanks I can. We'll be getting together for lunch to catch up, and happy as I will be to see her, I can't believe that she is now a grown woman, and we have had so little contact for so many years. I know, we have telephones and e-mail, and we can always jump on a plane to visit family once in a while, but its just not the same as regular sit-downs for coffee and cake at the kitchen table.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

It's funny you mention "coffee and cake", that was just spinning through my mind, when I was talking to my older sister recently! That was a wonderful memory, and unfortunately that is only a memory now

Jim Pantaleno said...

How the hell did they eat all that cake and stay as slim as they were?

The Whiner said...

I think it was because they walked everywhere! They shopped everyday for fresh food and walked to all the markets. I know I was a lot slimmer when I lived in San Fran and didn't own a car, and I walked everywhere I needed to go. Of course, I was also a lot younger...

And I think there is something about enjoying your food and not worrying about every calorie. They didn't have excess; just what they needed, but they enjoyed it!