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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Friday excerpt from S'mothered

It was very windy and very cold, normal weather for New Jersey in early December. This was a new experience for me.I stood outside on a corner freezing,waiting for elementary school students to cross the street. My hair, straighter than any hair I have ever seen, and parted right in the middle of my head, looked better on a day like this, as it flapped in the wind. My gray mackinaw was zipped right up to my neck.

At the start of the school year last September, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, selected me to be a crossing guard on the safety patrol. Each school day at 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.,I stood on this corner wearing a white band, which stretched across my waist and chest. I was short for a ten year old and skinny, but when I carried out this prestigious duty,I felt six feet tall. The responsibility of stopping the students when they got to my corner,so they could cross the street together,puffed me up.

My cousin, Larry Villani, one year older than I, patrolled the corner across from my station. He wore no hat and his jacket was much lighter than mine was, but he looked warm as toast. I always looked up to Larry but this morning, for the first time, I felt I was his equal. I could remember very few days in my short life when I felt equal to anyone. I never resented Larry; he was more like a big brother to me than a cousin. What I did resent was what he and most other kids in Rose Point had. They had a dad who lived with them.

My sister and I weren’t sure if we had a dad at all. We heard very little about him for the first 10 years of our life. About twice a year, there was this strange man at Grandma Orlando’s house in Elizabeth, but he hardly talked to us, just asked us how we were doing in school. He looked pale and gaunt. I guessed he was my real dad because he called my Grandma, “mom,” but he could have been an uncle.

This man’s sisters, our aunts, called him Johnny and from these visits I gradually figured out why everyone in his family; uncles, aunts and cousins called me Junior. It was strange because no one else here in my neighborhood or at school,called me Junior.I grew to hate that nickname.I grew to hate so many things about my childhood and adolescence.In those rare visits at Grandma Orlando's,however,it at least confirmed to me that this mystery man was my father.

My mother never told me anything about him. Once in a while she would explode in anger, referring to him as "that bum.” Her anger discouraged me from asking about him.

My sister always told me,"Junior you think too much," and sure enough here I was, waiting for my classmates and other school kids to arrive and instead of enjoying my new status, I was thinking too much.

So I grew up knowing very little about my father. He truly was a mystery man. Where did he live, what did he do all day and why wasn’t he living with us? By now,I certainly should have known more specifics. Other kids my age would have insisted on it At least I think they would have.

I guess the reason I didn’t pester my mother about him was because of some hazy images I had of her screaming while he beat her. I was afraid of him. I figured, the less I knew, the better.

Larry lived in the apartment directly under us. He had three sisters and a brother and I spent a good amount of time at his place. His father, my Uncle Joe, was kind of weird. He always wore a blue striped suit, usually with vest and tie, even on weekends. His carefully groomed mustache spooked me a little and he wasn’t a very warm man. He used to work in the same sportswear factory as Uncle Sal, but I heard someone say he was fired for getting into too many fights.

I didn’t think about him much, just when he was home which wasn’t often. Larry said his mother, my Aunt Lucy, was always screaming at his father about his girl friend. She never referred to her as a “girl friend” though. Instead he called her something like a “Gooma.” None of it made sense to me anyhow. I had so many uncles, aunts and cousins; I would have gotten dizzy if I started comparing them, so I didn’t.

Waiting on this corner on this icy day I began to think of happier moments.Each summer I spent a month, usually July, with the Orlando family. They lived only four miles from us, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but on the bus ride to their house, it seemed more like forty miles.

Grandma Orlando had given birth in her fifties to her final child, Edward. He was one year older than I. Eddie, technically was my uncle, but because we were so close in age, we felt more like cousins or brothers. Whenever I was at Grandma Orlando’s house, we played together from morning until night.

Grandma and Grandpa Orlando seemed to me a mismatched couple. Grandpa worked evenings as a bartender and slept during the day. He would wake up about 3:00 p.m., have dinner and leave for work. I’m sure he must have smiled once or twice at some point in his life, but it certainly wasn’t when I was there to see it. I heard rumors from one of my relatives they were matched up by their parents in Italy.

When Grandpa was eating dinner each day before leaving for work, Eddie and I were normally outside playing. The only time I ever saw Grandpa Orlando was during Sunday dinner, but I never felt comfortable with him. Actually I was in awe of him. He seemed to me quiet, unapproachable and mysterious. I can never remember him reaching out to pat me on the head, ask me a question or show any other concern. Was it because he didn’t want his son to marry my Mom?

Nonetheless, I looked forward all year to the month of July, the time I would spend at Grandma Orlando’s. When I left my home in Rose Point, and arrived at her home, it was as if I was watching a black and white movie, and it suddenly turned to technicolor. My world was transformed from drab to dazzling.

It wasn’t the area they lived in that exhilarated me. It was Grandma Orlando.
Carmella Orlando was an incredibly loving woman, a creature from another world. To compare my grandmother with any other human would be ridiculous.

Each time I arrived at her house, she would have me stand in front of her. She would just stare at me for maybe two or three minutes, silently sighing, and then say with a beautiful smile on her face. “My, how big you got” and then after a pause, “how beautiful you are, my, how beautiful you are.” She said it with such sincerity and love in her heart. It made my skin tingle. Never in my life, before or since, have I felt such love from a human being, male or female.

Whenever I thought of her, I visualized a woman with big sparkling eyes, incredibly white teeth and a soft face. She was always wearing a spotless white apron, sitting on a very light cream-colored sofa in a bright, sun splashed living room with white carpeting. The carpeting was solid white, with no patterns, and no stains. The room always smelled of roses. In the spring and summer she always had some freshly cut, in a vase. At other times of the year she must have sprayed the room with a fragrance.

Her sparkling kitchen smelled even cleaner. Every pot, pan, cup and saucer glistened. I often sat and watched her as she hand dried and then individually polished each piece of silverware and each glass with a clean, cotton hand towel. Each evening before she went to bed, she got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen linoleum until it was spotless.

Every Saturday night during my summer stay, Grandma Orlando washed my hair. She scrubbed my head with the same gusto and love with which she scrubbed the kitchen floor. It hurt and I dreaded that part of Saturday nights. Later when I went to bed, she sat near me and we said the Lord’s Prayer together. Then she tucked me in and kissed me on the forehead.

For breakfast she made home made cereal; oatmeal, farina, cream of rice. A bowl filled with bananas, oranges and grapes was placed in the center of the table. One day she gave us freshly squeezed orange juice, the next, pineapple or apple juice.
Two or three times a week she made French toast, hot cakes or scrambled eggs with sausage or bacon. Everything was covered with melted butter and hot maple syrup. Nothing like this happened in Rose Point. I guess that’s why it seemed so special.
When July was over, and it was time for me to return to my black-and-white life in Rose Point, Grandma Orlando took me into the living room, stared at me for a few minutes the same way as when I arrived. She hugged me and cried. I left and didn’t see her again until Christmas.

Of course the other important person missing in my sister’s and my life was our Mother, Suzie Villani Chiego. She lived with her husband Hank Chiego, in Riverside, California and had lived there since I was seven. When she went away, she said she would send for my sister and me after she got settled. I guess she never got settled, because she never sent for us. Hank was a soldier on the army base where they lived.

I loved the pictures my mother sent of him in uniform. When I looked at them, I imagined being a soldier some day and driving to California to live with them. Of course, by then I’d have been too old to live with them. Even so it seemed like it would have been great.

The past three years had not been a good period of my life. I’d been sick almost constantly with colds, coughs, sore throats and painful bouts with poison oak. I was absent from school more than I was there.

One summer I stepped on a rusty nail while playing with kids in the back yard. I always had large holes in my shoes. The family was poor, the depression was still plaguing them, and the last thing they thought about was my shoes. The nail pierced the bottom of my foot. Grandma put iodine on the wound and bandaged it.

During the next few days the foot swelled up and started to throb. It hurt so much I couldn’t sleep or go to school. By the time a doctor was called a week later, the wound had become infected with tetanus. I missed ten days of school and became even more morose and withdrawn.

In November of the second year of my mother’s stay in California, one of my frequent sore throats was left untreated for weeks while a low-grade fever persisted. In and out of bed for weeks I missed a month of school. Grandma Villani didn’t believe too much in doctors and couldn’t afford them even if she did. I asked her one day, “Grandma, why don’t you like doctors?”

She stared down at me and replied dourly, “If doctors were free, I would like them, Junior.”

Therefore, she tried to nurse me back to good health with her homemade remedies from the old country.

Finally, Aunt Vera became concerned and took me to Doctor Mallas in Elizabeth, the same town where the man we thought might be our father lived, our dad, the man the Villani’s always referred to as the bum.”

The doctor found I had a bad case of a strep throat, which, left untreated for so long, had developed into rheumatic fever. He immediately put me on an antibiotic, scolded my aunt Vera and asked where my mother was.

Aunt Vera explained to him about her sister’s stay in California with her new husband. Doctor Mallas said he would send a report of this incident to the Union County Health Department and recommend someone periodically stop by the home to see if my sister and I were receiving proper care

After being put on the medicine, I made a rapid recovery and was back to school in a few days. The rheumatic fever left me with a heart murmur I read about in a health book at school. It apparently messed up one of my heart valves, but wouldn’t affect me until I was old. It would never go away.

I missed my mom. Grandma Villani never seemed to know we were alive and Aunt Vera had a new boyfriend, so she wasn’t home much. Grandma dressed all in black since grandpa died a year ago. She was always crying and grouchy. She didn’t even listen to her Italian soap opera on the radio anymore.

I will never forget the day I came home from school and heard grandpa had suffered a heart attack and died. I never really knew grandpa as he was seldom home during the day. I felt sad and scared. All my aunts and grandma were screaming, wailing, and throwing themselves on the coffin.

The wake was in the living room of the house grandpa built 20 years earlier for his large family, which still lived there

A photographer came to the house and took a picture of grandpa lying in the coffin, dressed in a suit, white shirt and black tie, his head lying back on a huge white spooky pillow. His eyes were closed and his hands clasped together with some beads tangled in them. He was pale as a ghost over most of his face and looked pretty dead but his cheeks seemed red.

I thought to myself that since he still had red cheeks, maybe he’s not really dead. I was only eight at the time. I didn’t know a darn thing about death, why people died and where they went when they did. My imagination ran wild.

I didn’t say anything to anyone. In the past, on occasions where I wasn’t sure of what really was happening I would start asking questions. Someone would either laugh at me or scold me. I learned to keep my mouth shut about a lot of things. The redness of my Grandfather’s cheeks bothered me. Why were his cheeks red?

On the night before the funeral, I couldn’t sleep thinking about him being buried and then waking up. It must have been very late because no one was awake. I sneaked in the kitchen, grabbed a half a loaf of Italian bread, shuffled as quietly as I could into the living room where he was still in the coffin, maybe dead, but maybe just sleeping.

What if he woke up in a few days, after they buried him under all that dirt? What if he was hungry? All kinds of weird thoughts raced through my mind. I knew I would never sleep again for the rest of my life thinking of that, so I tucked the bread under the linen sheet, which was all around him and ran back to bed.

They wouldn’t let any of us kids go to the cemetery where they buried him but I overheard them later say my grandmother threw herself into the grave when they lowered the coffin a little. They had to drag her off the coffin and out of the grave.

I once heard my Uncle Sal explaining why he would never get married.
Women smother men from the time they are born,” he said to Aunt Vera.
He was joking and probably said it to get her dander up, but it stuck with me. Was grandma still trying to smother grandpa even when he was being put into the grave? Maybe she thought he was still alive too? I hoped she didn’t find the bread. I never found out and was afraid to ask.

About six months later I was snooping around the house when I was sure there was no one home. I liked to rustle through the bureau drawers seeing what someone might have hidden, or just to smell the cedar. There was an old, faded brown, five-drawer chest in my grandparents’ bedroom with missing drawer pulls. It looked like it had been stored outside for a while.

In the furthest corner of the bottom drawer, under all kinds of clothing I felt a very large cardboard folder, about a foot long and a foot wide. I reached in and dragged it out, laid it on the bed and opened it. I screamed so loud I almost choked. It was the picture of my grandfather lying in the coffin! He was staring right at me and I swear his eyes were open. At that point, I was sure they had buried him alive.

I thought about all these kind of things too much for my age, but on this morning, wearing my crossing guard uniform, I felt pretty good.