Saturday, June 25, 2016

Memories - Part I

First Memories
Me, Age 2
My earliest memory is of my Great Uncle Giuseppe dying. I was about three years old... maybe a little younger, and I remember my Aunt Anne saying that Zi Peppine had died. He was my Grandfather Angelo's brother. I remember everyone being very hushed, and the crying that came from Uncle Joe's house. Many memories from this time are hazy, but I remember being treated as something special by my aunts and uncles because I was my father's first born.
 My father worked for General Motors in Tarrytown, NY at the time. He worked on the assembly line. We lived in my Grandmother's house on Everett Street at the time, and I remember waking up very early in the morning as my father showered and shaved and went about his morning business. I could smell the heady aroma of the coffee percolating in the pot downstairs, and the sound coming from the kitchen as my mother and grandmother prepared breakfast. I would sit in my grandfather's lap as the toast was buttered and the coffee poured. My father was out the door by 05:00 AM because he worked the early shift. After he left, my mother would tuck me back in the bed to finish my night's sleep.

Night Terrors
 I slept in a room with my parents in my Grandparent's house until my mother and father found an apartment of their own. Some nights, I would have a waking dream that terrorized me. I would be in my bed, and I would hear the front door slam shut, followed by loud, heavy footsteps on the stairs. Whoever it was would start whistling a tune as he climbed the stairs to the second floor. I would hear him in the hallway coming towards my room, still whistling, his footsteps getting louder and louder as he came. He had to come through my Grandparent's room to get to mine, but they were not there. They were either downstairs listening to the radio, or outside sitting on the porch, which made no sense, since whomever this was had to walk past them to get in the house. But this is a waking night terror, so it didn't have to make complete sense. I heard him walking through my grandparent's room and cross into mine, his footsteps ringing loud in my ears. I was paralyzed with fear, and I squeezed my eyes shut, trembling in terror. Then, the whistling stopped. I felt, rather than heard, him approach my bed. I could feel him standing there, staring down at me. I could hear his breathing, and I felt him bend over me. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. I tried to open my eyes, but try as I might, I could not. I had lost complete control of myself. I felt his hot breath on my cheek and smelled the garlic and mint on his breath. He reached out to touch my cheek, and I could do nothing. Finally, I could hear his footsteps retreating out of the room, to the hallway, and back down the stairs. The front door slammed shut, and finally I started to cry very loud. My mother was at my side in an instant comforting me. I would tell her about the man and she would reassure me that it was just a dream. She would stay with me until I drifted back off to sleep. This happened to me many times when we lived there. I was three years old.

Severe Anemia and Grandpa Saves the Day
 When I was having these night terrors, I also started to become very weak and listless. At times, I had trouble even holding my head up. My worried mother took me to the pediatrician. Doctor Samuels diagnosed me with severe anemia, but could not determine a cause. He prescribed something to boost my blood, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, he told my mother to mix raw egg yolks with sugar and to give that to me. I remember sitting on my Grandpa Angelo's lap and him feeding me the egg yolks. I can still remember that I really liked the taste of it. Grandpa would also have me sip some homemade red wine and eat some good Italian food while sitting in his lap. Slowly, I started to improve and was soon running around and playing again. I don't know if it was the medicine, the egg yolks, or the wine and Italian food. I like to think it was my loving grandpa that made me better. By the way, Aunt Mary gave me Grandpa's bombla, which he used to hold a glass or two of wine. 
 It was never determined what caused my anemia, or why I became so weak so quickly. I never became anemic again until I reached the ripe old age of 67. At that time, I didn't feel weak or sick; it just turned up in a routine blood test. I'm no longer anemic, so that's a plus.

First Blood
 The first time that I fell and made myself bleed, I was about three. I remember skinning my knee, and seeing the blood for the first time, I thought that it looked like strawberry jam (Hey! What did I know? I was only three!) Anyway, I was aware that it hurt a bit, but was fascinated by the blood... until I tasted it.... it didn't taste anything like strawberry jam, so I started to cry. I kept saying that I didn't want to die! My grandmother, trying to comfort me, kept saying "No worry, John, you no gonna die!" I, however, was not convinced, so I continued to cry until my mother scooped my up and took care of my hurt, the knee and feelings. My mother could always be counted on for that. 

Living In The Late 40's - Early 50s
 For the first few years of my life, as I wrote earlier, we lived in my Grandparent's house. In those days, TV was not really the center of entertainment, Radio was. My Grandparents had a huge radio, I think that it was an Emerson, a floor model that sat between the sofa and my Grandmother's chair. My Grandfather liked to sit by the window that looked out on the porch, and Everett Street, so that's where his chair was placed. When the radio was turned on, it took a few minutes for the tubes to warm up so that the radio would play. My grandparent's liked to listen to the Italian language stations, so that is what we would do in the early afternoon. Later on, we would listen to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and all the big comedians of the day. Then the radio plays would start. The Whistler, The Shadow, The Inner Sanctum, Lights Out.... just the kind of shows that a youngster like me should not listen to before going to bed. It set the tone early on for the kind of programming that I would love for my entire life.
  My mother would listen to the soaps during the day as she went about her daily chores. Young Doctor Malone, The Guiding Light, Stella Dallas... just a few of the 15 minute Soap Operas that were on at that time. They were sponsored by Rinso White and Rinso Blue, Oxydol, Geritol, and Serutan. There were others, too numerous to mention, but they were almost as entertaining as the shows themselves. In the early afternoons, we were treated to the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Little Orphan Annie, and Captain Midnight.. shows for kids. I loved them all. 
 It was a great time to be a little kid. Television was still very new and had not really caught fire yet, and therefore did not have the chance to corrupt us. Radio was entertaining, but it was much more fun to play outside with our cousins and our friends. My aunts and uncles were always around, and they always had a joke or a kind word for a toddler like me.  The world seemed filled with the warmth and love of family.

 Grandpa Zaffino
Theresa and Angelo Zaffino- Grandma and Grandpa
  My Grandpa was long retired by the time I came along. I remember him with his big white mustache and his twinkling eyes. He had been a carpenter for most of his life, and now he was old and had all of the health issues that come along with age. His brother, Zio Pepine, had built an ironworks business that, since his death, was now run by his sons. My grandpa was well loved by the young men and, even before Zio Pepine had died, they would come by and say "Hey Pete.. do you want to take a ride with us?" (They called him 'Pete' because of his mustache. The young men in those days called the older Italians 'Mustache Petes.') He would smile and nod his head yes. He loved to go along with them on jobs.
 Grandpa would often go to West New Rochelle, in the Italian neighborhood, to play cards and drink vino with his cronies. He liked to smoke the Dinobli cigars which really had a horrible smell, and my grandma would not allow in the house. Sometimes, he would come home late for dinner and sit at the table and say in Italian "Isn't anyone eating in this house?" My grandma would look at him sharply, and keep doing what she was doing. Then he would repeat the question. She would turn and say "If someone came home at dinner time, then someone would eat!" She would then make his plate for him. This would happen every so often, but they never were really angry with each other. There was a very deep love between the two of them that was palpable. One would never go to bed without the other. Promptly at nine PM, they would go to the kitchen and have warm milk, then climb the stairs together to bed. 
 The ice-cream man would come to our street in the summer with his bells jingling. Grandpa would be sitting on the front porch in his rocker, and I would be playing in the front landing so that he could watch me. He would look at me with that twinkle in his eye, and reach into his pocket and pull out a dime. He would take my hand and bring me to the truck to buy me an ice-cream. Sometimes, my aunts or my parents would say "Papa, no... you'll spoil him, and he will expect you to buy him ice-cream all of the time!" Grandpa would just smile that beatific smile as he watched me enjoy the treat. He was so sweet to me. I miss him to this day. I'm not a believer in an afterlife, but if there was one, I would hope that I would see this loving man again. I was only seven when he died, and that was just not enough time to have spent knowing him.
  Grandpa suffered from high blood pressure and in order to try to get his blood pressure down, the doctor told him that he had to cut down on salt. He prescribed a salt substitute, which grandpa hated and refused to use. Grandpa was not a big eater, but he enjoyed his food and it had to be properly seasoned.
 When my Aunt Anne bought a television for the house, my grandmother and grandfather loved the latest technological advance. They would watch Art Linkletter's House Party, Arthur Godfrey, and Gary Moore's show. I remember that Bing Crosby's brother, Bob, also had a show. My Grandpa's favorite show was Perry Como. He took delight in the famous crooner's songs, and when Perry would wave to the camera and say "Goodnight, everybody," grandpa would wave at the television and say "Goodnight-a, Perry Como!" My father and my aunts would say; "Papa... he can't see you!" Grandpa would reply "He sees-a me! He look-a right at-a me and say-a Goodnight!" They could not convince him that television was a one way thing.

 In 1953, Grandpa was 77 years old and in failing health. One night, he was suffering from discomfort that he thought was indigestion. He went to the bathroom to try to relieve himself. Thinking that he had been in the bathroom too long, Grandma went in to check on him and found him slumped over. She called my father and he called an ambulance, but it was too late. Angelo Zaffino, my loving grandpa, was dead at the age of 77. I heard grandma telling my father and my aunts and uncles that when she went to check on him, his fingers were turning blue. 
 In those days, the wake was three days long followed by the funeral. I remember everyone gathering at my grandparents house. We lived right next-door. I remember seeing my mother cooking in the kitchen and crying. 
 Neighborhood was in mourning. Grandpa and Grandma's house was filled with the coming and going of friends, relatives, and neighbors; the men, all dressed in dark suits and starched white shirts, wearing their best fedoras, the scent of bay rum or Old Spice left in their wake.  The women, all dressed in their finest dark dresses, wearing hats and veils, all with pained looks on their faces. They all spoke in hushed tones as they hovered around grandma. She sat in Grandpa's chair, the picture of grief, smelling salts always at the ready. 
 Children, in those long ago days, were not allowed to attend the wake or the funeral. All I knew was that my Grandpa had died, and I had an empty feeling inside of me. He had helped nurse me through a mystery illness that they all said almost killed me. He would take me in his lap and let sip wine from his glass and glory in his benevolent presence and his smiling face. No more would I be able to visit him out in the garden, in his chair by the carefully maintained fig tree and the basilica and tomato plants. No more would I see the happy twinkle in his eye when he saw me. He was my father's father, but he was that majestic, happy soul who seemed to grow bigger when I came to see him. He was a radiant should, and now he was gone.

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