A Tribute to Family Memories and Traditions

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    “The Family”

    A Tribute to Family Memories and Traditions

    Mary Santangelo / Toni B [toni_b11156@yahoo.com]

    Tradition, according to the Oxford Dictionary of current English says, it is a custom, opinion, or belief handed down to posterity; principles based on experience and practice; this process of handing down; artistic, literary etc.

    There are many “traditions” that have been handed down through generations, including cultural, religious and ancestral. We have kept the tradition of putting up the Christmas tree, coloring eggs at Easter, and in some countries still erect a “May Pole” on May Eve known as Walpurgis Day, all derived from ancient pagan rites. Catholics are anointed with ashes on their foreheads every Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Jews never mix meat with dairy. And people everywhere in the world celebrate their holidays according to their culture and family tradition.

    However, to me, the best tradition that can be handed down is one’s family culture. There has always been a warm place in my heart for this type of tradition. I was raised with it and miss it.

    I was never able to give either my parents a lasting memorial. My financial situation at the time both my parents passed didn’t enable me to give them a burial. The most decent and affordable arrangement was cremation. This of course left no gravesite to visit or a place to deposit flowers. My only memorial is on my dresser where an occasional candle is lit and the sounds of arias from opera’s are played in their honor. They will always be remembered by me and those who knew them, but what better way for them to be immortalized than to be on paper. So here is my story of “The Family”.

    I come from Italian stock born in New York City in 1948. Although very metaphysical in nature, my parents were Roman Catholics who never went to church, except once a year when they brought flowers to either the Blessed Virgin or St. Jude. This was a vow they made earlier in life and kept it till the day they died. However, although they were not that religious, it didn’t stop them from putting me in parochial school, an experience I’d rather forget.

    My parents never had a religious ceremony; a Justice of the Peace married them. I’ll always remember a priest from St. Monica’s Parrish (the Catholic school I went to), who would come around regularly trying to re-marry them in the church. I think he just enjoyed the glass of wine my Father always had waiting for him. The priest’s efforts were to no avail. My parents considered themselves happily married and that was that.

    I have some great memories being semi raised in Manhattan. Ice cream venders and trucks with carnival rides would always drive down our streets. I remember all the kids calling up to their Mothers for money. The Moms would put their heads out of the 3rd or 4th story window apartments and throw money wrapped in handkerchiefs to their kids down to the streets below. On those hot summer days, some of the kids would turn on the fire hydrants just to cool off from the bursts of water. The minute the cops turned them off and were out of sight, the kids turned them back on again. The entire block was like a family. We all knew and looked out for each other. Some memorable times were had on those streets of New York.

    Once a year my parents and I would spend a week at my Aunt’s bungalow in Long Beach and another week in Coney Island. I loved Coney Island. We stayed in a type of hotel owned by an animated, colorful woman named Mrs. Levy. Every outfit of hers was something out of a watercolor palette. I remember those wonderful walks on the boardwalk. We would always stop and have one of those long hot dogs loaded with sauerkraut and anything else you could put on it. It always amazed me that at a young age my mouth was big enough to actually take a bite out of it. Although most of it went in my mouth, the rest of it decorated the front of my clothes. Even today, I still seem to have the same problem.

    Coney Island in those days was the “in” place for fun. It catered to rides of all kinds. It was the Utopia for kids and adults alike. We always had a blast going there.

    Our trips to Long Beach were equally fun-filled. This was the family event of the year. Now that I think about it, it astonishes me how we all crammed into that one bungalow. My cousins would hit the jetties (rocks along the beach shore) and gather mussels and clams for that big Sunday dinner. No one would be able to take a bath or shower as the tub would be packed full of all these delights of the sea. The next morning everyone got up early to begin cooking. The men would open the mussels and clams and the women would begin to prepare the sauce, which would cook all day.

    The kitchen would be a symphony of baking goods and foods and the scent of spices traveled throughout the entire house. The kids would be playing outside and the sounds of Jerry Vale would be in the background spewing out Italian favorites. I remember the ghost stories our older cousins told us, only to find out later as adults that the stories were true.

    When it came time for dinner, it was like a bunch of starving orphans who hadn’t eaten in decades. When the battle zone was clear, it reminisced something out of the movie “Animal House”. Only to be cleaned up the next day by a very tired, but happy group of people.

    My bouts with bronchitis as a child forced my parents to pack up lock, stock and barrel and move to sunny South Florida in order to save my health. They ended up managing a Hotel on Miami Beach, which lasted for many years. This along with my Fathers moderate pension made for a comfortable lifestyle. We had free boarding, the refrigerator was always full of food and my Mom would always play hostess and counselor to the hotel guests. They’d build a seasonal cliental and it became more like family then strangers. We’d have monthly covered dish parties and because most of the guests were retired vaudeville singers, like my Grandparents, there would always be singing and music to go along with the food.

    Every evening the scent of my mothers cooking would permeate throughout the entire hotel (there always would be a plate of food for the single men who didn’t cook), and my fathers gardening would sprout vegetables as well as grapevines in the back yard. The owner being amazed at my father growing grapes in Florida called the local newspaper and my father ended up in the House and Garden section the following week. He was proud as a peacock!

    My time growing up at the hotel was grand. Every holiday would call for at least a 9-course dinner. My mother would be the first to rise and begin to accumulate all the necessary ingredients for the holiday meal. We always had an adequate amount of guests, so there would always be enough food for seconds. Later on when there were only the three of us to cook for, she still cooked for an army. I guess it was in her nature.

    The meal would always begin with a glass of wine. At one point, I think we ran out of things to “toast” to. There would always be a pasta dish. It was usually lasagna or manicotti along with two meat dishes, a salad and various vegetables. The final entrée would be fresh fruit and a variety of cakes my mother would prepare. That was washed down by some more wine and a cup of espresso. The meal would start anywhere from 12 noon and finish sometime in the wee hours of the night. It was intervened with jokes, music and song. Everyone went home happy and in good spirits, needless to say exhausted. I spent the majority of my life there and when the owner finally died and his wife sold the hotel, we had to leave. It was like the end of an era. My parents purchased a modest mobile home and the hustle and bustle of hotel life was a memory.

    But no story goes untold without describing the main characters, my parents.

    My Father who was around 5 ft. 8in. was a quiet and very educated man born in Naples Italy. In his younger years, he looked much like Humphrey Bogart, the actor. In later years, along with his salt and pepper hair, his face mirrored a life of experience. He had been in the Italian Navy during WWI and came to this country via Merchant Marine boat. I never knew the real story, but it seems he jumped ship and lived here illegally for a while until he was able to get his green card and begin work.

    He settled in New York City where his sister resided after she came off the boat via Ellis Island. She was 22 years old and he probably was in his 30’s. It was here in the big apple where they made their new home. He left a wife and four children in Naples, which he never forgot and always kept in contact with. I never knew that story either. I suppose he was looking for the gold paved in the streets like any other immigrant who came to America. Perhaps his wife wanted to stay in the country of her birth and raise her children there. She never did come to America. She died in Naples with her children around her.

    My half-brother (same father; different mother) and his family did eventually manage to make it to the States. It took them a total of 10 years of quotas with immigration before they actually all settled here. It was good to have an older brother to hide behind every time Mom wanted to spank me. My Brother Frankie was a hoot. He’d have that Europe style of dress and used to laugh hysterically every time he saw a cartoon, which he never understood. He always respected my Mom and would even call her Aunt Laura. After many months of tedious study and hearty moments of laughter, my mother and I finally coached him into understanding enough English to get his citizenship papers, and he finally became an American. Him and Pop opened a fruit and vegetable business, which became a comfortable income for all of us.

    My Father was a carpenter by trade. He had a colorful life, traveling Europe in his younger years and even spending 5 years in Cuba of which he never stopped talking about. I always loved to hear about Pops Cuban adventures and his admiration for big breasted, round hip women.

    Prior to my brother coming to America, my Father along with his sister’s children opened a produce business in Harlem New York. He worked nights and would usually come home exhausted. He was always a good provider, as well as a caring man. He loved his opera and would often sing along with the aria. He couldn’t sing worth a damn, but it was fun listening to him trying to reach those high notes. He was never a heavy drinker, but there was that once a year celebration that would bring out the expensive bottle of brandy and make him incapacitated the rest of the night. It was my Mothers job to drag him to bed and nurse his hangover the following day.

    He loved his pasta and Mom would create a different dish for him daily. That along with his glass of red wine made him a happy camper. He was well versed in history and astronomy and I would hear wonderful stories of Haley’s comet and Poncho Villa. He had beautiful penmanship and was a marvelous artist. His work was best done in the furniture he hand carved with picturesque scenery for my mother, which we enjoyed at our NY apartment for many years. He would always call me his little oyster and in his final days when his beautiful mind was lost to Alzheimer’s, it broke my heart. But his name lives on through my brother’s son who is also named Gennaro Santangelo.

    Laura, my mother, whose maiden name was Buro at birth was a jovial and warm-hearted woman – 4ft. 9in. in stature and very full figured. She had long dark hair in which she would braid to one side and drape it across her head like a crown. She kept this style of hair until her later years when she didn’t have the strength to comb it any longer because of arthritis and had to cut it off. Not a pleasant experience for her. She loved her long hair. Mom was also a Leo, which brought out the domineering matriarch.

    She was born in Mechanicsville NY, her parents coming to this country from Caserta Italy also via Ellis Island. She began working in the family business at 16 years old unable to finish school because of an argument between my Grandmother and one of her teachers. Grandma was so furious at the school system that she took Mom out of school all together. However, this didn’t stop Mom from reading and keeping abreast of life’s situations.

    She was kept very strict all her life being the only girl in the family. She had a wonderful voice and studied opera for a number of years. She had a German teacher who through a stroke of luck managed an appearance for her at the Metropolitan Opera – a chance of a lifetime. My Mother was thrilled, however her career was short lived when both my Grandparents forbid it. They’re reasoning being that only women of ill repute made a career on stage. Of course this didn’t apply to them, both making their living on a vaudevillian stage. I suppose because they were married, it was o.k, but because my Mother was young and single, it was a different story. The news shattered my mother and all hope was lost. She stopped with her opera lessons and considered her musical career ended. She began smoking, which roughened her voice, but made for a very sultry, sensuous singer. She could sing any Italian song and bring tears to your eyes, because she sang with all her heart and soul. Perhaps this was one of the reasons my father fell in love with her.

    When she met my father, who was 20 years her senior, she fell in love. They eloped with each other when she was 37 and still a virgin. I guess she felt she waited long enough. Five years later, I was born. My grandmother didn’t talk to her for the longest time until one day she brought me over her house and they made amends.

    My Grandparents lived in the back of a curious shop they owned in NYC. I remember trying to play sales lady as a child. Most of the merchandise she had was like something out of Tales of the Crypt – old and used. It’s no wonder she sold anything.

    My grandmother had remarried after her husband left her for another woman. Something she never forgave him for. I was too young to really know whether she and her 2nd husband were in love or she just married him because she needed help with raising her two kids. From what I gathered he was a good husband and stepfather to my Mother and her brother Dominick, whom we lovingly called Mimi, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. I vaguely remember him. But I do remember his old fashioned mustache that dawned a kind face.

    Mom was literally the home economics queen. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, and entertained. She made all her own clothes and was the talk of my home economics class one semester in Jr. High. Her clothes were impeccable and fit her full figured body appropriately, something my teacher found delightful. She talked about her in class for the next month. I was surprised at all the fuss, but Mom got a kick out of it. In those days styles for full figured women were large mu mu’s that were usually worn by the elderly. So Mom’s fashionable clothes were probably a breath of fresh air.

    I was very close to my mother and always felt that when she died a part of me would leave with her. It did. I’ll always remember that warm smile and that gift of laughter she bestowed upon me, and the look in my Fathers eyes every time he called me his little oyster.

    It was those early memories with my parents I cherished and missed the most. All families have their ups and downs. Mine was no different. But we loved each other and were always there for one another. Family tradition is a monumental legacy that should never be forgotten.

    We always want to hold on to that “keep sake” or those dishes or some other material piece left us by our ancestors. But Family and tradition has a way of imbibing lasting memories. It is these memories that will live forever and I salute them as I lovingly repeat the words said at the end of the heartwarming movie “Moonstruck”

    A La Familia! To the Family!

    All rights reserved, Mary Santangelo / Toni B [toni_b11156@yahoo.com]
    Forums at The Chalice and Serpent
    Yahoo! Group: Traditional Stregheria http://groups.yahoo.com/group/traditional_stregheria/
    Do not reproduce without written permission by the author.

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