Food for Thought
We were going sixty, seventy and then eighty miles an hour. The 1949 Buick Special flying down the Southern State, chrome glistening, the sun peeking over the horizon. My mother’s window open, her saying to no one in particular, “I love the breeze.” Me and my brother smiling in the back. Trailed by my uncles, Charlie and Nick in their GM cars as we raced to Alley Pond park at 6 am…to beat the traffic. Man could Uncle Charlie dance. Great balance. He taught me to ride a bike when I was still struggling at age 9. I remember him doing the Charleston and the Jitterbug at football weddings, those celebrations from the ‘50s, where the men used to throw ready made sandwiches to one another. They would just yell, “Nino, a capicola sandwich please.” And, the guy would do his best Johnny Unitas, and throw a pass. Uncle Nick was a natty dresser. You could cut your fingers on the crease of his pants. He wore chambray shirts, never linen. He made these fashion statements like “linen never looks fresh.” And “no matter how much you press it, it still looks wrinkled.” He would know, he stood in a sweatshop all day and pressed garments for a living. He also liked to remind us kids that you couldn’t wear white after Labor Day. That went for shoes as well as pants. My father was also a clothes horse. He had a collection of rayon shirts the colors of ice cream. Whenever my mother suggested that he wear his brown suit, he would say “brown is for old people, like your father.” Besides, her job was not to dress him, but to iron those pastel colored shirts along with his tee shirts, handkerchiefs and boxer shorts. Underwear needed to lay flat against the body, not interfere with the pleats of his pants.
At the park, we commandeered our favorite picnic spot near the lake. Playing catch or throwing a football. Mostly though it was about eating. Bagels and cream cheese, with a meatball on the side. Together on the same paper plate. A little something to keep us going while we emptied the cars and set up camp. Our car held the pizzas and the rice balls, arancini. White rice shaped like a baseball, breaded, fried and filled with ground veal, peas and tomato. My mother’s specialty. Her claim to fame. Everyone told her, “Ro, nobody makes them like you,” and her face would light up like our new TV screen. But not until my father got home from work and turned it on. We weren’t allowed to touch it. The phone either. Those were the rules until I was twelve, when my father left us.
Should Brooklyn be attacked in our absence, we would survive. We carried trays of lasagna, and veal parmigiana. Cases of tomatoes. Large pots and black frying pans that had made the trip from the old country. Coolers filled with soda, beer and enough sausage to open a pork store, a store devoted exclusively to commerce in pig. The traditional bacon, chops and ribs of course, but also pickled feet, caul fat and pork skin. The skin, that my mother used to make braciola. The stuffed fat floating in tomato sauce, slowly releasing its cholesterol. We carried salads, olive oil and bread from Red’s bakery. Watermelons and peaches from the black man with the horse drawn wagon. These picnics were celebrations, and it was a way to show how well these families were doing. How hard they worked…how well these men cared for their families.
You could feel the happiness. My dad looking at my mom with his flirty grin. My mom returning her demure look. My aunts, joyfully setting the wooden tables. My uncles whistling, cleaning the grills to cook their sausages. Us kids running down to the lake to catch frogs. Go for a swim. The excitement, the laughter infecting the early morning air. Then I heard my father say, “of course they’re coming, Tony and Betty. They should be here soon.” And my mother, knowing how my father looked at my aunt Betty, tried to smile. Her voice, no longer bubbly, sounded like the air had been let out of a balloon. She tried to speak but couldn’t find the right words. She caught her breath, but again, no words came out. I felt the hair stand up on my arms. Don’t cry ma, please don’t cry.
Frank Gioia is a short story writer, actor and playwright. He is a second generation Italian-American whose grandparents emigrated from Sicily and Naples. Frank attended Catholic school, growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s. He has been reading his work at an open mic, In Words, Out Words, for the past five years. A staged reading of his play, 14 Holy Martyrs was performed in the Berkshires in 2016.