I am pleased to offer this free excerpt from my award-winning book, Essays for my Father. It was first publishised in the New York Times on Sunday, September 15, 2002, under the headline, "The Un-Sopranos."
The House on Carol Street
The "fahgeddaboudits" and "howyadoons" will spew forth like staccato bursts from a tommy gun when HBO's mob hit, "The Sopranos", begins its fourth season this week. Tony Soprano and his crew have put New Jersey on the map, but in a way that perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype. There is a different kind of Italian-American family saga that needs to be told, the one I experienced growing up in New Jersey in the 1940's and '50's. It was less exciting--everybody worked, nobody got "whacked"--but more representative of nearly two million New Jersey residents who proudly proclaim their Italian ancestry.
I live in Ramsey, a few blocks from the gray stuccoed house on Carol Street where my father was raised. My grandparents had nine children. That number might have increased had my grandfather not died from a work injury in 1929, just as the Great Depression was about to unfold.
My father Mauro, the oldest son, became head of the family at sixteen. He was able to finish high school, but continued to work after school and weekends. All four boys in the family would eventually graduate from high school; girls, who had no need for higher education, went right to work after grammar school. Aunt Jean, the youngest, was the exception. She came of age when the family's fortunes were more secure and was allowed to attend Ramsey High School.
The family survived the 1930's, thanks to the indomitable spirit of my grandmother, an illiterate peasant girl from Calabria who stood barely five feet tall. I often wonder at her accomplishment. Left destitute with nine child-
ren and no husband at the beginning of the greatest economic upheaval this country has ever known, my giant of a grandmother kept her family together, reasonably well fed and clothed. Then, just as things began to look brighter, she sent three of her sons off to war.
Uncle Vince, seriously wounded by shrapnel while serving as a B-24 tail-gunner, returned with the Purple Heart and began a career with the Ramsey Post Office. Uncle Tony, who fought with Patton's Third Army from Normandy to the Rhine, was highly decorated with medals himself, including the Bronze Star for Valor. He went to work for Curtiss-Wright building aircraft engines. Uncle Nick, a Navy man, became a bartender after his discharge.
My father spent the war years on the home front organizing relief efforts and keeping watch over his mother and family, as he had done his whole life.
My parents owned the Community Lunch, a fixture on Main Street for 25 years. In the Forties, they kept it open day and night to accommodate truckers and delivery men. When both parents were working, I was dropped off at the house on Carol Street. I loved sleeping over in my father's old bedroom, barely large enough to accommodate its single bed.
I've never been able to fall asleep quickly, even as a child, and remember lying awake listening to crickets and frogs, unaware of the romantic purpose behind their nightly serenades. And, of course, the train whistles. I liked listening to the train whistles best of all.
Ramsey was a busy railroad town in those days. Hundred-car freights lumbered through regularly. During and just after the War, we'd see artillery guns and jeeps strapped to flat cars. At times, stake-sided livestock cars were part of the mix, the protests of their hapless riders barely audible over the hypnotic clackety-clack of the rails. Freight cars fueled a boy's imagination with faraway names emblazoned on their sides--names like Norfolk and Western, Rock Island Line, Union Pacific, and, my favorite, The Route of the Phoebe Snow.
On winter mornings I could hear my grandmother in the cellar shoveling coal to stoke the furnace, whose fire she had banked the night before. The heat would make a racket as it rose in metal ducts, and I'd wait until I felt it escaping the floor vent before leaving the warmth of my bed. As I washed up, I could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen below.
I ate the same breakfast Grandma raised her brood on--toasted day-old Italian bread, buttered and dunked in a coffee and milk mixture that nowadays would be called cafe latte, but which we ignorantly called half and half. As a nutritional extra, my grandmother would crack a raw egg into a cup, spoon in sugar, add a few generous dashes of red wine, and beat the concoction vigorously with a fork. The result was an eggnog like no other. I don't know what its therapeutic properties were, but I've been healthy my entire life.
I remember vendors stopping by the house on Carol Street in rickety trucks or horse-drawn wagons. Some sold fresh fish packed in ice; others sold produce. One had a knife-sharpening rig, and Grandma would periodically take her cutlery outside to have edges honed. The iceman delivered once a week, carrying in a block on his shoulder after having chiseled it to fit the ice box compartment. On hot summer days, I always got a few mouth-sized chips to cool me off.
My grandmother's kitchen was large, rectangular and usually dark. I don't think the single electric light was ever turned on in daytime--a throwback to the time when a nickel saved here and there meant the difference between having enough food and going hungry. A white porcelain table was Grandma's work station for weekly pasta-making and all other feats of culinary magic she performed in that primitive (by today's standards) kitchen. There was no cooking smell I liked better than my grandmother's meatballs frying in a large black pan on her old-fashioned stove. After the meatballs were drained, she gently dropped them into a simmering pot of tomato sauce, but not before setting aside three or four for me. She knew I liked them best right out of the frying pan.
Inspired by Grandma's cooking, I once composed a 7th grade homework paper on her kitchen table using the family's upright Remington. Assigned to write an autobiography, I cockily entitled my effort, "From Milk and Pablum to Meatballs and Spaghetti, The Life Story of Richard Muti," foreshadowing my 60-year love affair with food.
My grandmother is gone now, as is my father, Aunt Minnie, Aunt Jean and Uncle Nick. Aunt Sallie, Aunt Rosie, and Uncle Tony passed just in the last twelve months. Only Uncle Vince and Aunt Josie are left. New owners have updated the family homestead, hiding its stodgy gray stucco behind vinyl siding. The two pear trees I used to climb have been cut down, and the grapevine-covered arbor my grandfather built is gone, too. A nondescript lawn covers ground where my grandmother's garden once flourished. In late summer, it was filled with tomato plants heavy with fruit, squash, Swiss chard and beets. It was also my favorite spot for digging fishing worms, the big nightcrawler kind.
Now, as I lie awake at night a few blocks from the house on Carol Street, I no longer hear crickets or frogs outside. They seem to have disappeared, as these memories of my family will disappear when I, too, am gone. The trains, although fewer, still pass through town. When sleep is difficult, their whistles have the same lulling effect on me . . . and the power to transport an aging man, back along the route of the Phoebe Snow, to his childhood in Ramsey.
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