An Italian Childhood

February 20, 2011 at 12:25 am (Uncategorized)

A strange thing about growing up in an Italian family is that it seems almost normal when wacky things occur. Sometimes it takes the perspective of middle age to look back in disbelief and ask, “Was everybody in this family nuts?”

One of my earliest memories involves the birth of my sister Suzanne when I was just seven years old. Sue came into the world while our Mom was sitting on the toilet! Having no knowledge of such things, it just never occurred to me that this was anything other than the norm. Didn’t all families go through this? I distinctly remember everyone running in and out of the bathroom while shooing me away from the door at the same time. I’ve since learned from my cousin Natalie that her brother Billy was one of those who not only assisted with the birth, but tied off the cord. Amazing.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to abuse poor Sue with a deluge of lame jokes about her first appearance on the family stage (“No wonder you’re such a good swimmer!” and “We should have named you John!” were some of the least distasteful ones. Oh, and “When you were born you looked flushed!”) I don’t think she has forgiven me to this day. But considering what went on later in our family, Suzanne’s grand entrance was certainly an appropriate one.

My sister Denise’s arrival four years later was a bit less dramatic. I was playing next door at my friend Jody Lowens’ house when my grandmother called to tell me that I had a new sister. That didn’t particularly thrill me; I had been hoping for a brother. Unfortunately that would have to wait for another six years.

Somehow the wackiness grew exponentially as more family members got involved. Weddings were especially crazy. Have you ever heard of “football weddings”? I have no idea why Italians called them that, but they were quite unique. When two people got married, they would rent a hall and bring in barrels of wrapped sandwiches and pitchers of beer for the guests. That was the entire menu, except for the wedding cake! Everyone in the family came to the reception, including the kids. And there was always a table for the old grandmas in their black dresses. What a scene!

I remember sitting morosely during one of those weddings (I hated being dragged along by my parents). My older cousin, Gene Capozzi, was seated at an adjoining table, and appeared to be having a fine old time. For some reason, everyone called Gene “Pitzanotti”, or just plain “Notti”. Gene leaned across the table with a huge grin on his face and bellowed, “Hey Butchie!” (my childhood nickname, which I detested). “Toss me a cob-a-cole sandwich!” (Maybe the term “football wedding” came from the way sandwiches were tossed around. If that’s the case, why not “baseball wedding”? A sandwich is more like a baseball than a football. Ah, those crazy Italians!)

Anyway, I rummaged in the barrel until I found the right one and chucked it to him. Then I went back to sullenly watching a dozen kids running wild through the hall. Nobody seemed to care about that as they danced to the “Tarantella” and other Italian songs belted out by a live band. At these functions, every band always included an accordion player. The room was filled with enough foul-smelling cigar smoke to fumigate the entire building. The men usually removed their jackets and ties if they wore any, and occasionally one or two of the women took off a few things as well! That sometimes led to trouble. I don’t recall whose wedding this particular one was, but I believe it ended a bit early when the obligatory fight broke out. What fun!

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s we lived in a big three-story house on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst, NY with my grandparents. Grandpa and “Nonnie” Bevilacqua had the second floor along with my uncles Bobby and Alfred and aunt Marlene. We occupied the three bedrooms on the top floor. On the first floor were the kitchen, foyer, living room and dining room that we all shared, and which were the scene of so many of my childhood memories. I remember many a Friday evening helping Nonnie scrub the kitchen and foyer floors. Afterward, we would watch the “Friday Night Fights” on the unique television Grandpa Bevy had put together. The screen was inserted horizontally into the cabinet so that it faced the ceiling. In order to watch it, you had to look into a big mirror built into the top of the cabinet. Very unusual, but it worked. Anyway, back to the fights. Every time somebody got belted in the schnoz, Nonnie would exclaim, “OO-OO!” Come to think of it, that was her reaction whenever she got excited about anything. I’ll wager that’s something all her 17 grandchildren fondly recall about their beloved grandmother.

When I was 10 or 11, I began taking the bus two miles to Far Rockaway on Saturdays. There were two movie theaters on the main drag, the “Columbia” and the “Strand”, and another on a side street, the “Gem”, which showed mainly adult movies. We kids were never allowed to go there. But for a quarter at the other theaters you could see five cartoons, a newsreel, an adventure serial, two full-length feature films, and occasionally even an animated horserace that could earn you a prize if you held the winning horse’s ticket. And if you wanted to, you could stay and see the whole thing over again! My Dad used to give me a dollar, which paid for the bus (15 cents each way), my ticket (25 cents), a box of candy and popcorn (35 cents), and I’d come home with change! Can you imagine?

I remember going to the “Central” theater in Cedarhurst one Saturday with my cousin Natalie Oliveri to see “The Thing”, a horror film (we called them “monster movies”) about an alien being that lands near the North Pole and terrorizes a group of scientists. About a third of the way through, we got so scared that we ran out of the theater! Walking home, we whimpered to each other about how “they shouldn’t show such scary movies!” That film now seems incredibly tame compared to the movies made today. I guess we were all a bit sheltered back then.

Saturday nights we watched Nonnie’s favorite show, Lawrence Welk and his “Champagne Music” – “An’ a-one; an’a-two…” On Sundays I enjoyed watching “Picture for a Sunday Afternoon”, frequently starring one of my boyhood heroes, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper or John Wayne. It was such a much simpler, slower-paced world in those days.

But that didn’t stop the silliness. Back then, Ronzoni pasta (we never called it that; it was always “macaroni”) had coupons on the boxes that you could clip and redeem for prizes. We kids used to help cut out those little cardboard tickets, count them into stacks of 50 and rubber band them. I think we must have sent thousands of coupons back to the Ronzoni Company, but I don’t remember ever getting a single prize in return!

When we weren’t using Ronzoni pasta, my Mom used to make her own cavatelli. She’d form the dough into long cylinders, cut it into pieces about an inch and a half long, then roll those across a macaroni strainer so that they’d come out covered with little bumps. They were so heavy we called them “bullets”! A plate of “cavadell” must have weighed about three pounds, but, WOW, was it good!

Food triggered other laughable family situations as well. One Saturday I returned from the movies to find my Uncle Jimmy Bevilacqua in the kitchen eating a calamari sandwich. I took one look at the tentacles hanging out of the bread and nearly barfed! It was more than 40 years before I could bring myself to eat fried calamari (which is quite good, by the way), but not unless the tentacles are removed. I guess I’m not a very good Italian (I also like ice in my red wine!)

On another occasion, Grandpa bought a pizza on his way home from work and laid it on the kitchen table. We opened the box to find that he had been carrying it upside down! The cheese and sauce were firmly stuck to the cardboard lid, leaving only a bare crust within the box. We all stifled our giggles, because Grandpa was definitely NOT a man you laughed at. So we dined on no pizza that night. Not our finest hour.

Even our family arguments had an amusing side. Once Mom and Nonnie had a brief spat. That in itself is hard for me to understand, since Nonnie was one of the most amiable people I ever knew. Anyway, I can’t remember what it was about, but Mom wouldn’t go down to the first floor for about a week. We didn’t have a refrigerator upstairs, so my parents hung an old bread box outside the window to keep our dairy products cold. It was the dead of winter, so this system worked pretty well – in fact, too well. But it also had its drawbacks. One morning Mom’s terrified screech brought us all running. She had opened the “ice box” and nearly fell out the window when a startled squirrel exploded from it! Thankfully Mom and Nonnie made up soon thereafter. I was getting tired of ice milk, hard-as-a-rock butter and frozen eggs.

Nonnie was the only grandmother I ever knew, since Grandma Angela passed away before I was born. But my great-grandmother, Grandma Bevilacqua, survived until I was a teenager. Grandma was the proto-typical Italian grandmother, with her hair in a bun, the full-length black dress and high-top black shoes. I didn’t see her all that often, but when I did she always gave me a big smile and said, “Hello, Jeemy!” Grandma Bevy didn’t think much of my Dad, however. I recall one time she was sitting in a chair in our living room when my father came in. Grandma rocked gently back and forth, twiddling her thumbs, and mumbled, “OO-BUM!” Hilarious.

In 1978, Nonnie became ill and was hospitalized in serious condition. When she fell into a coma, we knew the end was near and the entire family gathered at the hospital. One by one, we went into her room, knowing we were probably saying goodbye. When my turn came, I sat beside the bed and held her hand. To my surprise, Nonnie opened her eyes, peered at me in confusion momentarily, and then smiled. I returned the smile. But before I could say anything, she slipped back into unconsciousness. That was the last time I saw my grandmother alive. At three o’clock in the morning, Mom called to tell me that my beloved Nonnie, who had been like a second mother to me all my life, had passed away. Even though I was expecting it, the news was a tremendous jolt, not only to me, but to Maureen and our children as well, who all adored this wonderfully giving and selfless woman. I still feel the loss to this day.

But that was not quite the end. Several weeks later, much of the family was gathered in Nonnie’s apartment for some reason. I noticed my daughter Jackie and nephew Cliffy, who were two and four at the time, playing under the dining room table. When I asked what they were doing, they answered in unison, “We’re talking to Nonnie!” Well, I can tell you, the hair on my arms literally stood straight up. Perhaps there really is something to the myth that children can communicate with the departed. I never believed that before, but after this incident I was no longer so sure.

And that was still not quite the end. For about a month after Nonnie died, my Mom and Dad would frequently hear the toilet flush in Nonnie’s apartment downstairs. This usually occurred around 7 pm, the time when it was my grandmother’s habit to visit the bathroom after dinner. Whenever my father went down to investigate, he never found anything other than a few ripples in the toilet. Then the flushes abruptly stopped. I can only assume that Nonnie’s restless soul had finally given up the connection to her home, and my beloved grandmother had at last been admitted through the Pearly Gates where she belonged.

That was not the last family encounter with the supernatural. After Aunt Marlene Matland died, her dear friend Ann told us a story that again raised the hair on my arms. Aunt Marlene and Ann had worked together at South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, NY for many years. One day about two years after Aunt Mo passed away, Ann, who still worked at the Hospital, left the building for lunch. When she returned, a co-worker told Ann in a matter-of-fact manner that someone named Marlene had stopped by to see her while she was out. She went on to describe Aunt Mo perfectly, and concluded by saying that she asked her to say hello to Ann. Now, this co-worker was a fairly new employee. There was no possible way that she could have known Aunt Marlene or been familiar with her appearance. Poor Ann was so shaken by all this that she had to leave work and go home.

We never did come up with a logical explanation for these eerie events. I’m still not sure that I fully believe any of it. But I’m just not as certain about my beliefs as I used to be. Hey, in this wacky family I guess anything is possible.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about my brother Augie and his football career. Augie was my Mom’s “change of life” baby, born when she was almost 40 years of age. I was going into my senior year of high school at the time, and not particularly thrilled about having a new brother at my age, or at Mom’s, for that matter. To look at him as a newborn, you’d never suspect that he would become a football player. Augie weighed in at just 5 pounds 11 ounces, and had one “bug-eye” while the other was completely shut. Who’d have thought that he’d grow up to become the biggest gah-voon in the family?

Augie was just three years old when I left for the Army, so we never had much time to develop an early relationship. Later, when Maureen and I started having children, our own sons weren’t that much younger than he was, so I guess there may have been some sort of generation-gap thing going on there.

After the Army, I began mercilessly harassing my little brother. Whenever I went to the house in Cedarhurst, I’d beat up Augie and his friend Gregg Magnifico, sometimes chasing them out onto the porch roof to hide. This went on for a number of years until they both got bigger than me. Then discretion became the better part of valor, and I quit hassling them.

Anyway, my brother loved football. He played junior ball with the Inwood Buccaneers, and later graduated to the Lawrence High School team, where he was an end and linebacker. Gregg was also on that team. I called him “Thermometer” because he was so tall and skinny that when he put on his football pants, the stripe running up the leg made him look like a temperature gauge. During their senior year, Augie and Gregg played their final high school game on Thanksgiving Day with most of our family, including Nonnie, in attendance. As luck would have it, “Evil Augie” caught the winning touchdown with just moments to go!

After that, I had a grand old time putting together a scrapbook of my brother’s exploits. I took some photos, press clippings and a lot of humorous stuff I stole from “MAD” magazine and assembled it all into a pseudo-epic of Augie’s season. That scrapbook drew a lot of laughs, especially from my cousin Richie Mollo, who was the head coach of the Lawrence team. I hope Augie still has it.

The following year, 1978, we all drove up to Iona College to see Augie play his first college game for New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Naturally, my brother got hurt on the kick-off and never returned to the game. We had driven all the way to Westchester to see one play! Typical. That game took place on September 15th, the same night that Muhammad Ali defeated Leon Spinks to capture the heavyweight title for the third time. The date sticks in my mind because we listened to the fight in the car on the long, long drive home!

That wasn’t quite the end of my brother’s football career. Several years later he was playing for a semi-pro team in Brooklyn. Augie and the quarterback were the only two white guys on the squad. You can imagine the good-natured kidding that went on. Well, the team made it to the championship game, and Augie asked me to take some candid photos of the final clash. When I stopped by the house to pick up my brother and my father, Augie handed me a camera with a telephoto lens that he had borrowed. I checked it over and saw that it was on exposure number 4, which meant I had more than 30 shots remaining. I thought that would probably be more than enough.

Well, the game was a scoreless tie right down to the final minute. Like a dutiful brother, I was all over the field taking some great shots of Augie in action. There was one picture of Augie clobbering an opposing player so hard he never came back into the game. Finally, in the waning seconds, my brother’s team moved down the field and tried to kick a winning field goal. I went right out under the goalposts and took a great shot of the football passing through the uprights as the referees raised their arms to signal “Good!”

On the drive home I couldn’t help bragging about the great photos I had taken. When we got out of the car, I handed Augie the camera. He opened it up and found… no film inside! What the hell??? I had assumed when I saw the counter on exposure number 4 that there was almost a full roll of film inside. Well, you know what happens when you assume. I had made asses out of all of us, particularly me. I wonder if Augie has forgiven me yet. Somehow it seems that I’m always waiting for forgiveness for some outrageous deed from someone in this nutty family!

I may have gone a bit beyond childhood years in this narrative, so I think I’ll halt here. Lord knows there’s enough craziness in this family to continue on with “An Italian Adulthood” section. We’ll see.

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