Posts Tagged ‘Family’

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Tradition means a lot to me.  I come from a large Italian-American family and my generation of that family has always been proud to learn about and continue the holiday traditions passed on to us by our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.  We haphazardly formed a chorus of cousins and sang Christmas carols after dinner on many Thanksgiving nights.  We joyfully sat down to a meal of seven fishes every December 24th.  We played with the big spinning tops Aunt Ida placed under her Christmas tree every holiday season.  There were ancient ornaments and decorations displayed each year and then carefully passed on so they could be enjoyed and appreciated by future generations.  There were foods and desserts that simply had to grace the table, to make any special occasion complete.  We were taught, my siblings, cousins and I, to keep certain routines in our hearts, because, as we now know,  pulling them out every year inspires memories, stories we share with the new generation we have brought forth.  Tradition brings back to life the family members who have gone before us.  We honor them by remembering them, by continuing their ways, by invoking them at our celebrations and thrilling our children with tales of their exploits, their heroics, their laughter and love.

They were the Greatest Generation.  Born in the teens, 20s and 30s of the 20th century, they endured the Great Depression with dignity and faith.  They fought and won World War II with a sense of purpose and determination no subsequent generation would ever dare to claim.  They did whatever they thought they needed to do to make life better for their children and grandchildren, without complaining.  And then they encouraged us to start traditions of our own.

So we did.  We, two of us, would walk on the beach and sing California Dreaming every year on vacation in Florida.  When we were able, we’d play a wild game of charades after dinner on Christmas Eve, a tradition we will try to revive this year when some out-of-town cousins will be near to us, once more.  Three of the cousins found the seven fishes for Christmas Eve tradition a bit too daunting and changed it to a simple meal of linguine with clam sauce.  Some cousins still go every year to midnight mass.

And we invented the Christmas Bowl.  Four of us.  Crazy cousins.  We would eat our amazing Christmas dinner; antipasto, lasagne, meatballs and sausages, wine, braciole, stuffed artichokes, glazed ham and mushrooms, pies and cookies, struffoli and chestnuts, fennel.  Uncle Frankie had served as a cook in the Navy.  Aunt Ida had learned secrets from our grandma.  Their Brooklyn home was filled every Christmas with relatives, music and food and candy canes and silver lanes aglow.  We’d eat and laugh and celebrate the day and then clear the table, digest and rest.  And then my sister, two cousins and I would head outside.

The weather never mattered.  One year it was 45 degrees and foggy.  One year the temperature was a frigid 7, with a wind chill that made it feel much worse.  Some years, East 8th Street was covered in ice.  Some years, it was downright balmy.  We didn’t care.  We dressed accordingly.  And we made up the rules as we went along.  There had to be a new football every year.  The first year, it was an old tennis ball.  Another year, it was a yellow Nerf ball.  We were all on the same team, so we had no real opponent.  We pretended we were the lowliest team in the NFL at the time.  I can remember being the New Orleans Saints or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quite often.  We “played against” the winner of the previous year’s Super Bowl, which meant Pittsburgh, Oakland, Dallas, San Francisco or Washington, since this happened in the late 70s and early 80s.  We could never run with the ball, we could only pass.  We gave ourselves four downs to make it from one manhole cover to the next, a distance of about 100 feet.  If we didn’t score a touchdown, our opponent scored.  Each possession was a quarter of the game.  After two quarters, we’d march back down the street humming a John Philip Sousa tune, to mark halftime.  My cousin John was almost always the quarterback.  My sister Gloria, cousin Judy and I were the receivers.  One year the fog made it almost impossible to see the ball.  We actually “lost” that year and when we went inside, our family members, some of whom had watched, squinting, from the living room window, wondered how we could have lost when there was no opposing team.

The best game happened in the bitter cold, on a Christmas night when the nearest streetlight was out.  Our “field” was very dark.  We joked about how, if one fan in the stands stood up to cheer us on, they all had to stand up because they were all stuck together, like icicles, that’s how cold it was.  At the end of four quarters, the game was tied, 14-14.  We were using a small brown dog-toy football that year which, given the lack of light, was incredibly hard to see, so we had only managed to score two touchdowns.  We decided, despite the cold, to play overtime, since no one was satisfied with a tie as the final score.  We started at the north manhole, as usual, the one closer to Foster Avenue.  Someone caught the first pass for a gain of about 20 feet.  The next pass was dropped, either because of stiff, frozen fingers or impossible darkness.  The next pass gained us another 25 feet or so.  That left us with one more chance, one more pass to win the game.  But the end zone was at least 18 yards away, at the darkest end of the street.  John told us all to just bolt for the far manhole and turn around.  I ran the fastest, buzzed up the left side and crossed to the right once I was in what we considered to be the end zone.  I saw John launch the little brown ball.  It disappeared into the blackness for a second but I could tell it was headed my way.  I turned a pinch to my left to try to see it and suddenly, there it was, headed directly for my right ear.  I caught it, basically, with my head and then quickly covered it up with my hand so it wouldn’t bounce away.  It was the luckiest, craziest, most amazing football catch I had ever made and it saved us the embarrassment of having to tell our warm, relaxing family members that we had lost the Christmas Bowl once again.  A true Christmas miracle.  The final score was 21-14 (OT) in our favor and I don’t think a more fun football game has ever been played.

We keep threatening, the four of us, to get together some Christmas night and go back to East 8th Street in Midwood to play the Christmas Bowl one more time, even though a new family occupies that house we used to visit with such joy and anticipation.  The front door is the same, the nine living room windows are the same, the stoop is still separated into two sections.  Maybe we really will do it someday.  For now, we revel in the memories and photos and we share embellished, exaggerated tales of the glory with the newest members of the clan.

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There’s a history of heart disease in my genes.  On my mother’s side specifically.  My mom was one of ten children in a lively, Brooklyn-based, Italian-American family.  The food was always delicious.  The conversations were always loud.  The gatherings were always special.  Mom lost her mother, a sister and a brother to heart attacks.  And she also lost a nephew the same way.  Joey.  He was way too young to suddenly drop dead on a trip with his parents to the town near Naples where our grandmother was born.  He could not wait to take them there.  As a travel agent he had taken many trips but his workaholic parents had never been much of anywhere, other than yearly Caribbean cruises on their favorite ship, the Oceanic.  How sad it was, almost 30 years ago, during their first and long-anticipated trip to Italy, to have lost their only child.  Joey was the oldest grandchild of the 20 my grandparents had.  He lived to be 41.

As the oldest cousin, he, I suppose, considered himself our ringleader, responsible for our safety and good times when we all got together for holiday meals.  My grandparent’s house was large and creaky, a 3-level, detached frame house on the corner of Ocean Parkway and Parkville Avenue.  728 Ocean Parkway, to be exact.  It was torn down years ago to make room for condos.  There were two kitchens; one in the finished basement and one on the main floor.  When the grown ups were in the basement, we’d go upstairs.  If they were gathered in the living room, we’d head to the basement.  The lower kitchen had a Formica and stainless table with a diner-like bench seat that went 3/4 of the way around.  We’d get in on one end and bounce on our butts all the way around to the other end, get up and out and slide back in to do it all over again.   When I walk into an Italian grocery that smells like that kitchen I want to buy everything in sight.

When we were upstairs, we played in the living room.  Joey had invented a club for us, cousins only, which he called the Bock-A-Boodle Club.  The only requirement, other than being an actual cousin, was to do whatever Joseph said to do.  When he said spin in a circle, we all tossed our heads back and spun in a circle, like tops on a rampage.  When he said to change direction, we all stopped and went the other way.  Finally, he would tell us to drop to the floor and the room would keep spinning around us.  It made us all giddy.  If any of us tried to do this today, it would make every single one of us sick.

Sometimes he would turn off all the lights and tell us scary stories.  The ones that got to us the most were about the fictional Mrs. Cummings.  She was old and her fingers were gnarled like the roots of ancient trees.  She wore all black and drove up to the houses of misbehaving children in a shiny black sedan.  Where she took bad kids we preferred not to be told.  All we younger cousins knew for sure was that if Joey uttered the much-feared line, “Mrs. Cummings is coming,” it was time to sit up straight, be silent and await further instructions.

Quite often, the further instructions would indicate that it was time for my favorite activity, a game I have long thought of in my mind as Piano Jumping.  My grandparents had a baby grand in their living room.  In front of it was the sleek, dark piano bench.  Next to it was the mushy old sofa.  The game was to hop up onto the bench, step from there onto the closed lid of the baby grand and from there jump recklessly down to the soft cushions of the very old couch.  Our actions, much like the seat-pouncing game we played at the downstairs kitchen table, took us all in giant letter “C” formations, from piano bench to piano to couch.  Over and over and over we did this, with Joseph at the open end of the “C” to help us down and back up as we circled.  We got away with this activity for only so long.  Eventually, the stomping we did down onto the floor would become too much for the adults in the basement and my grandmother would amble upstairs to yell at us in her Neapolitan dialect, her false teeth clattering in her mouth.  The ’58ers, my cousins Tom and Philip and I, would never get in trouble because we were all small enough to fit under an end table together and would hide as soon as we heard her on the stairs.  Hiding from her in this way and visiting her at her florist shop, creating the arrangements on a rough wooden table in the back room and then turning to stir soup or gravy at the stove she had at the store are the only memories I have of my amazing grandmother.

We all knew Joey was gay.  Still, he remained in the closet his entire life.  As we got older he would tell us about girls he was “dating.”  He would show up at graduation parties with his boyfriend Al in tow and introduce him as a friend.  I guess, as maturing members of the Bock-A-Boodle Club we still felt a loyalty to our leader and never outed him or told him to just come out already because it would be fine with us.  A bunch of us were gay, too.  And we were a close family.  He may have encountered disdain or disapproval from a few at first but ultimately, no one in the family would have stopped loving him.  When Al died, also of a massive heart attack at the age of 41, I called Joey to tell him how sorry I was and how much I knew Al meant to him.  It was code, still, for “I’m so sorry your lover is gone.  I’m here if you need me.”  Joseph started to cry on the other end of the line.  He thanked me profusely and kept telling me how much it meant to him that I understood.  I was a baby dyke at the time, deep in my own depths of denial, but what I knew for sure about Joey, Joey probably also knew about me.  I officially came out to my family a year after Joey was gone.  I wish I had had the courage and strength to do it while he was still alive.  We could have been gay together!  And I think that would have made him more comfortable with himself.  My theory is that the stress of being in the closet for so long, feeling the responsibility as the oldest cousin to be what his parents and aunts and uncles and cousins would consider a perfect example of Italian-American masculinity and his constant need to make up stories about himself all contributed to his early demise.  I have been “out” for 30 years and I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to try to live a closeted life.  I miss my cousin Joey so much.  He’d be in his early 70s now.  He’d still live in Brooklyn.  He’d be out.  He’d love my girls to the moon and back and maybe he’d even admit them as members of the Bock-A-Boodle Club.

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