Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Circle Closes

One of the pleasures of childhood was having my family around. I lived with my parents and siblings, but I also lived  with my extended family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins...there were even Godparents and assorted close friends who, in Italian-American circles, were awarded the honorary title of aunt or uncle. In 1950 I could take a street map of the East New York section of Brooklyn, draw a circle around a two mile radius of our house, and anybody I cared about would have lived inside that circle. Families tended to band together for mutual support. We regularly ate in each other's houses, watched each other's kids, and attended each other's weddings and funerals. Holidays were always spent together...noisy affairs with lined up tables, mis-matched chairs, borrowed dishes and home made wine that the adults gave to the kids, but not before mixing with soda to avoid brain damage.

We were closest with my mother's family; my father's family were all yellers, and when they visited, I ran and hid. Down the block on Somers Street lived my Aunt Anna and Uncle Jim, with their children Frank, Cathy, Anna Marie and Pat. Not far away Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick lived on Fulton Street with their kids, Millie, Nick and Sal. Grandma and Grandpa Camardi and their son Michael lived around the corner on Hull Street. We saw a lot of each other because it was common for even the youngest kids to walk everywhere unescorted. I could be away from home all day and never miss a meal. Aunt Anna lived to feed people. You were never in her house for ten minutes without a meal being placed before you. Historical Note: In exchange for having to put up with Italian men, God gave Italian women the gift of being able to create a delicious meal, virtually out of nothing.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Nick were the family entrepreneurs and worked hard in their quest for riches. Aunt Mary was a gifted seamstress and started up a couple of clothes-making businesses; Uncle Nick was a sweet guy who took his orders from her and cheerfully carried them out. They lived in a second-floor apartment whose windows were about ten feet from the elevated train that ran on Fulton Street. When the trains passed, some furniture in the room actually moved from the vibration. Their son Nick as a boy would sit for hours and bang his head against the back of a club chair. Today they would diagnose him with some disorder like A.D.D., but in fact it was just a phase he was going through. Nick grew up to be a fine husband and father. Their family moved to Selden, Long Island in the early 1960s when there were still buffalo roaming the plains.

Grandpa Pasquale owned a hat blocking and shoe shine store on Rockaway Avenue. On my visits there he would always find some busy work for me to do as an excuse to slip me a dime. I would usually blow it on an ice cold Mission pineapple soda from the red ice chest in front of Louie's Candy Store a few doors away from Grandpa's shop. I took Grandpa's success for granted back then without thinking how hard he had worked to achieve it. He came to America in 1912 with nothing but a dream and an immigrant's work ethic. After many years of struggling, he owned not only his own business, but his and Grandma Caterina's house. As their grandson, I can state with pride that their extraordinary qualities live on in my children.

Today I'd need a 3,000 mile circle to include our family. We are scattered coast to coast and "get together" only on Facebook and e-mail. About five years ago cousin Anna Marie hosted a reunion in New Jersey to which a surprising number of family members came. We had people in their 80s and children under one. It was so good to see them all in person, but the best thing for me was watching cousins who had never met catching up and laughing together, just like we did at all those family dinners. It was as if the circle had been closed.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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