Friday, November 29, 2013

A Wonderful Life

I have written before about Frank Capra's movie, It's a Wonderful Life. The hero of the movie, George Bailey, just can't catch a break. George is a dreamer who longs to see the world and build grand things, but every time he thinks his dreams will come true, fate intervenes. His father dies, forcing George to postpone his college education and take over the family business; his brother Harry goes off to war leaving George stranded once again in his home town of Bedford Falls; and just as he's off to honeymoon with his new bride, there is a bank run on the Bailey Building and Loan, and George must use the honeymoon money to bail out his investors.

The final straw comes at the end of the movie on Christmas Eve when George's drunken Uncle Billy loses an envelope stuffed with cash. Uncle Billy was supposed to deposit the money in the building and loan's bank account, which is now short of funds at a time when the bank auditors are in town to check the books. George becomes so despondent over his "cursed" life that he contemplates suicide. The movie ends with George's guardian angel, Clarence, showing George how valuable his life really all his sacrifices made such a difference in the lives of others. Clarence convinces George that he's had not a cursed life, but a wonderful one, and the movie ends with all the people George helped over the years repaying his kindnesses.

There are not many people like George Bailey in the world who put themselves last so that others can get come first. My mother Frances was such a person. I don't know if she had unfulfilled dreams...if she did she certainly never shared them with me. It was not her style because telling me that having to stay at home and keep house for a husband and three children kept her from doing something she really wanted to do might hurt my feelings. Mom would never do that. I'm not saying she wouldn't administer some "wooden spoon justice" when required, but she just couldn't knowingly hurt someone's feelings, especially her kids.

Like George Bailey, I saw her so many times set aside what she wanted and defer to my father or to one of us kids. Whether it was using the hard-earned, cookie jar money she was saving for something to buy me a new baseball glove, or stretching our limited family income to cover my Dad's occasional losses at the race track (which she never once mentioned to us) Mom came last on her own list of priorities. She cooked and cleaned for the family, even my father's mother, who was not the nicest person in the world, and never complained. When my grandmother, who resented my mother despite all Mom did for her, began telling lies around the family about how Mom mistreated her, that, for her, was the equivalent of Uncle Billy losing that envelope.

Mom walked out of the house one day and nobody knew where she was. The strain must have been unbearable for her to do something like this, but there it was. The woman all of us had taken for granted and thought would always be there was gone. I was maybe 12 years old when this happened and don't remember a lot of details, all I know is we were scared. Family members made telephone calls and scoured the neighborhood, but she was nowhere to be found. She stayed away overnight, and came back the next day. She never said where she was, and picked up her life where she left off. No therapy, no retribution, she was just there for us again. Maybe Mom found her own Clarence to show her what her life had meant to all of us...I was just so glad she was back.

You might say that I'm looking back in my rose-colored rear view mirror and remembering Mom as a son wants to remember his mother rather than how she really was. I can assure you this is not the case. Anyone who knew my Mom spoke highly of her. (One reason I married my wife is that she reminded me so much of my mother.) I know she's with me today, gently nudging me back on to the right track like she did when I was a kid. It's a sad thing when we realize we never told people who mattered so much to us how we felt about them when we had the chance. Frances toiled, she sacrificed, she loved her family and did everything she could to make us happy. I know that when she met her maker, the Lord smiled at her and said: "Frances, you have led a wonderful life, welcome home my child."


Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, November 16, 2013

At the "Liberry"

I was a secret reader as a kid. Starting probably around fourth grade, I began a lifelong love of books. Histories, biographies, fiction…anything I could get my hands on helped me experience the world in my little corner of Brooklyn. I say "secret reader" because in my old neighborhood, we didn't sit around on the stoop discussing the latest books we had read. Your standing on the block was not at all improved if you were considered a "bookworm". In spite of my suspicious trips to the Saratoga Avenue branch "liberry" as we called it, I passed street muster because I was good at sports, street games, and almost never turned down a "double-dog dare".

There was constant jockeying for respect on the block. Older kids were moving on to high school and new kids were moving into the neighborhood. The pecking order was fluid, and you had to keep proving yourself to stay on top. The yardsticks for success were unique, for example, smoking and fluent cursing rated high on the list of "qualities to be admired". Luckily for me drugs were not yet in play, and underage drinking was just becoming popular. My first encounter with booze nearly killed me. My father had put some shellac in an old Fleishman's whiskey bottle. I took a swig one day to see what all the fuss was about. After confessing to my mother what I had done, all I remember is her shoving slices of white bread down my throat with one hand as she beat me with the other.
Anyhow, back to the "liberry". The interior was dark and dusty, and the place smelled of books, a wonderful smell by the way. It was filled with tables where kids could read or do homework. It was also a place where old folks could come in from the cold and warm up for a bit. The walls were covered with card catalog files where the titles, authors and shelf locations were methodically listed, thanks to the wonder of the Dewey Decimal System. When you borrowed a book, the librarian rubber-stamped the due date for its return on a card in the back of the book. Every kid my age knew where all the forbidden books were like "Peyton Place" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" ; if you held them in your hand, they practically fell open to the well-thumbed pages with the "hot" parts!

In the fifties, librarians were a strict lot. They were expert "shushers" and tolerated little guff from kids. This was way back when children still had some respect for authority figures, so we actually obeyed them! They could also be helpful and even solicitous when they found a little barbarian among us who shared their love of books. The lady shown in the 1960 photo at left is Eleanor T. Smith, a real librarian in the Brooklyn system; she looks like all librarians did then. Our librarian at the Saratoga branch would set aside books she thought you would like, and slip them to you rather than put them back into general circulation. Thanks to that kind lady, I got to read some good books I probably would not have picked myself. Yes it's true, I was a twelve-year old library gigolo.
Things have changed since I was a kid. Although "bookworms" are still not high up on the kiddy pecking order, they are better tolerated and less likely to be beat up. Reading materials are more available than they used to be, what with books being electronically down loadable from the library, books on audio CDs, and more branch libraries in existence than ever before. Ironically, computers have also created the greatest competition to reading as a pastime, with the rise of the hated video games to which kids are so addicted. Parents listen up, don't deprive your children of the gift of reading. Switch off the damn X-box and give them some reading time; they will thank you for it down the road.


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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Growing Up Italian

I have been posting on a number of Italian-American pages on Facebook such as Proud to Be Italian-American and You Know You're Italian American When. These are fun sites because many of the people share my memories of childhood growing up in an Italian-American household. The people who post there come from all over the world, not just the United States. They are very friendly and supportive; it's like having 10,000 cousins. The age range of the posters surprises me, they are not all old timers, but many young people who seem to want to read about how their grandparents grew up. One young lady said she was waging a personal struggle in her family to keep the old Italian-American holiday traditions alive, but she was fighting an uphill battle.

I feel for that young girl because she only wants for her kids the wonderful memories of growing up Italian-American that she treasures. I wish her luck, but I fear time is slowly erasing the things I hold dear from my childhood. There are a number of reasons for this. First, families are not located in one big neighborhood the way they used to be. This close physical proximity made these gatherings much easier than today when families are more scattered. We took turns hosting holiday gatherings at different houses, and everybody came because they could practically walk. The tables and chairs were mismatched, and so was the dinnerware. Some of us used old jelly jars for glasses; the good china, silverware and stemware were "for company". There was, however, no shortage of laughter. 

Another reason for some of these traditions dying out is that they are a lot of work. Young people grow up so differently, and even with all the labor saving machines and gadgets in the kitchen our mothers never had, they don't want to spend their holiday time shopping, cooking and cleaning. They have learned to enjoy these holidays so much because mom and grandma always did the work. They may not enjoy making seven fish dinners on Christmas Eve, or homemade pasta, lasagna, Easter pies, cookies and all the traditional dishes we love so much. I can't say I blame them...if it was up to Italian men to carry on the tradition, we might be in trouble. It has also become expensive, which you know if you've made pignoli cookies lately. 

The thing that surprised me most is the number of shared experiences people on these sites post about. It seems that whether you grew up in New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, California, even Italy and Australia, the memories are the same. They remember the food, the family gatherings, the neighborhoods, the crazy relatives, the struggles and especially the love. I feel so privileged to have grown up the way I did, surrounded by family and neighbors who cared about one another and who, without hesitation or fuss, were there to help in any way they could. We wanted our kids to have a better time of it than we did, but to also appreciate the value that Italian-Americans cherish

And so, as long as we're able, our generation will keep doing the shopping, cooking and cleaning, not just for our own pleasure, but so maybe our kids might be inspired one day to pick up the baton and keep these traditions alive for their families.  


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