One thing that was certain growing up with my family was constancy. There never was any confusion about which day of the week it was. Monday was chicken soup day. Monday morning, Mama would send one of us to the chicken market to buy a soup chicken. Usually Papa would go to the market. Once in a while, if I was not in school, Mama would send me for the chicken. I didn’t mind going. As a matter of fact I looked forward to it. To a ten-year-old kid living in the city a visit to the chicken market was an adventure.
The chicken market was just a few blocks away from our apartment house so it was an easy walk. Mama would give me the money and tell me exactly what to ask for. The chicken market looked like a very large garage with an extra room at the rear. The floor was covered with sawdust and the place smelled like – well, like chickens. Lined up against the walls were stacks of cages and in each cage were different kinds of chickens. Sometimes if I was lucky I would spot a chicken egg in one of the cages.
I would go up to the chicken man, who always had the same expression – bored, grouchy and a bit scary – show him my money and ask for a soup chicken. The man had a long rod with a hook at the end of it. He would reach into one of the cages with the hook and catch one of the chickens by its leg and pull it out of the cage. Somehow he grabbed the chicken by the wings and placed it on the scale to determine the precise cost. Then after I gave him his money, he would take a ticket with the same number printed twice on it. I got one half of the ticket and the other half he attached to the chicken. Then he hooked the animal on a small wheel hanging on a wire and sent it to the back-room. Naturally I followed my chicken to the back to see what was going to happen to it. I couldn’t go in the back-room, but I could see over the fence that separated the main room from the back room, everything that was going on.
The back-room man took hold of the chicken, cut its throat, and placed it in a funnel to drain the blood. Then he soaked it in warm water to soften the feathers. Next he held it on a very large drum with hundreds of pins, which as it turned pulled all the feathers off. Finally he cut open the chicken and cleaned out the insides. He then made a nice neat bundle by first wrapping the animal in clean brown paper and then placed it in a paper bag. With the hot bag in my arms, I made my way back home and delivered the chicken to Mama. Mama then proceeded to work her magic and turned that chicken into the most wonderful chicken soup that would be the family’s evening meal.
Now Monday was also laundry day for Mama. Doing the laundry was a hard day’s work, so it makes some sense that Monday would also be chicken soup day. Once all the preparation was made for the chicken soup, there was nothing else to do but let it cook. Whatever else that had to be done for the evening meal was add some pastene or ditalini to the soup, let it boil a little while and – presto – the meal was ready. Wash day was an exhausting day for Mama. When I was littlest she would wash clothes by hand. She used a wash board with a bar of soap to scrub the clothes and sheets. Everything was then rinsed and squeezed out by hand. It was a happy day in the family when finally we got a washing machine – one that scrubbed and rinsed but she still had to guide the wet wash through the ringers to squeeze it out. This machine saved Mama an awful lot of work, and she greatly appreciated this marvel of technology.
Well this machine was great for doing the wash, but she still had to dry the clothes. she would hang the wash out on the line connected from the kitchen window to a pole in the backyard. I do believe that we were the only family in town who had two lines. Hanging the wash out was fine if the weather cooperated. If it was too cold, everything would freeze. So it made no sense to hang out the wash. And you could not hang out the wash if it was raining. For these days Papa rigged up a rope in the kitchen in the shape of an X across the ceiling from corner to corner, and he would help hang the sheets, pillow cases, socks and stockings, shirts, pants, towels, handkerchiefs, underwear and whatever else. Walking into the kitchen was like walking into a sponge. So, when it was wet outside, it was just as wet inside. But rising above all this wetness, as the day went on, was the smell of that chicken soup. To this day whenever it rains I have an urge for chicken soup.
Once the clothes were dry, they had to be folded except for those items that needed to be ironed. The ironing pile was put aside for the next day. Some items were easy to fold like socks and underwear. Sheets were a bit difficult. If I was home, Mama would ask me to help fold the sheets. I was glad to help. She would hold one end by the two corners and I would hold the other end the same way. I then would walk to her. She deftly took my ends, and in so doing our fingers touched. This made me feel good. Not just because we touched, but because I felt that I was helping to ease her work.
If any ironing had to be done, Tuesday was the day. All other days seemed to be days of rest for Mama. But she could never just lay around and do nothing. Every day she had routine morning chores such as cleaning the breakfast dishes, making lunches for those who went to work, making the beds, and any number of other things that needed attention. And when these were done and there was nothing else to do, she would busy herself knitting, crocheting or mending socks. Her hands were always busy.
Since Papa worked nights as a night watchman, he would spend some time with Mama in the morning. On the way home from work he would pick up the Italian newspaper, Il Progresso. Mama never learned to read or write so Papa would read the news to her every day. It was quite a lovely scene in the kitchen watching Papa and Mama at the table. He reading and Mama listening to every word while her fingers worked on a piece of embroidery or crochet or mending a sock.
Sometimes when Papa was sleeping and Mama had some free time she would lean out the front window facing the porch and watch the world go by. The lady who lived next door to us had the exact same rooms as we had except they were like a mirror image. So when the lady next door sat by her front window the two of them were close enough to have a pleasant conversation to pass the time. The two ladies developed a front porch friendship that lasted as long as they lived. That was just about as far as Mama went from the apartment. She never went further from the front porch by herself. She was frail, timid and dependent upon her family for any excursions outside the house. Why she felt this fear of the outside world only she could explain and she never did, at least not to me. I loved my mother as my mother, but I never knew her as a person.
I guess I should tell something about the rest of the family before I go any further with my story. Let’s start with Papa. Talk about constancy. Why, that was Papa’s middle name. It seemed to me that he was always working. He was a farmer, a carpenter, a soldier, an ice man, a construction worker, a longshoreman, a night watchman. He was steady like a rock. He always managed to make money for the family – but never quite enough. We were close to poor, but never felt poor. But this story is not about Papa. We’ll talk about him another time. For now, it is enough to say that Papa was a very nice man – kind, gentle and caring to his children.
There were four brothers and four sisters in my family. Twenty years separated the oldest from the youngest and I was the youngest. Mama liked to tell a story about me. She thought she was gaining weight and didn’t understand why. So one time when the doctor came to the house to tend to someone in the family who was not feeling well, she asked him if he could explain why she was gaining so much weight. A quick examination revealed that she was pregnant. Well she was very upset to be pregnant one more time and she cried her disappointment. Thank goodness she didn’t do anything drastic. In time I came along, for better or worse, and I am thankful to both Mama and Papa for giving me my chance to walk this earth for a little while.
What I remember most about my family was dinnertime. Dinners were happy occasions. Mama’s meals were always excellent. Papa made his own wine and everyone would have a glass or at least a sip with the meal. I try to shake my memory as far back as I can and I cannot remember ever not having my little share of wine. One of my chores was to go down to the cellar where Papa had the wine stored in a great wooden barrel and very carefully place the bottle under the tap, turn the tap and fill the bottle for the evening meal. Papa was very pleased with me and thanked me for doing a good job. One time I dropped the full bottle on the concrete floor of the cellar. There was nothing else for me to do but go upstairs and tell Papa about the accident. He did not scold me. He quietly and without any fuss at all gave me another bottle and sent me back down to fill it. No words were exchanged, but without explanation I understood him and loved him the more.
Mama always had the evening meal ready on time. If I was out playing, she would whistle for me. I could never understand her whistle. When I was close by her and she whistled, I could hardly hear her. But if I was a half block away she came through loud and clear. Naturally, I immediately stopped doing whatever I was doing and came right home. One by one my brothers and sisters came home from work and only when everyone was present did we all sit down at the table and Mama would serve the meal.
We ate in the kitchen. Papa sat at the head of the table and would be served first. The oldest son always sat at the opposite end from Papa. Mama always sat next to Papa. The rest of us were scattered about the table. Though not assigned a place we all managed to sit in the same place each night. While we ate there was small talk – light conversation, stories, something funny that happened during the day. If there was anything serious to be discussed, it had to wait till the end of the meal. Mealtime was the only time of the day that we were all together, and my impression was and still is one of warmth and contentment.
Mama’s work was done for the day. After the meal everyone had a chore. One washed the dishes and pots and pans. Another dried and put everything away. Another swept the floor. Another took the garbage down to the garbage cans. Another filled the kerosene for the stoves. And so on without complaint each shared in the clean up work. Then it was rest time. We would listen to the radio, work on a hobby, do homework, sew a dress. Papa would go on the front porch and smoke his pipe. If the weather was nice we would take a walk or visit with a friend or just hang out on the front stoop.
Then it was time for bed to rest up for another day.
And so it went day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, measured by the evening meal around the kitchen table. Chicken soup on Monday. Spaghetti and tomato sauce on Tuesday. Some kind of pasta and beans or peas or cauliflower or brocolli or whatever on Wednesday, Macaroni and tomato sauce on Thursday again. Friday was fish with maybe some lentils on the side. Saturday was lambchop or pork chop. Sunday, ah Sunday was the best. The main meal was at noon. Mama was up early, off to church for the early mass. Then to the kitchen for more magic. Sunday there was meat in the tomato sauce – meatballs or beef pork and veal chunks, or bracciole. Sometime Mama would make her own macaroni for the Sunday meal, called orecchiette (little ears). Watching her make these little ears was truly like watching the magician’s baton. How she would roll the dough, then cut and with her thumb shape the ears, all in one fluid motion. It was worth being alive just for the Sunday meal and the family around the kitchen table. It is like living all over again when I remember these days.
Although the weekly menu stayed pretty much the same, nothing else did. First one sister got married, then another and another. The two oldest brothers were drafted into the army during the Second World War. Then when they came home, they too married. The family was shrinking and growing at the same time with in-laws and grandchildren. As for me, I now had a bed of my own, and when my third brother joined the army I had a room of my own which became a permanent room after he got married. The only ones left were my one sister and me. And after all these years I now sat opposite Papa at the table.
After graduating from high school I got a job with a small printing company and enjoyed my work. I turned in most of my salary and fell into the role of caretaker for Mama and Papa. Papa had a job as night watchman and if the weather was nasty I would drive him to work so he would not have to take the bus. Then on Sundays I would take both Mama and Papa to visit relatives or visit shrines and chapels that they were interested in. Sometimes I felt like a chauffeur. But I didn’t mind. I felt content with my life. I liked my job. I loved my family. I had my friends. I had my church. And I still had my brothers and sisters and plenty of nephews and nieces coming along one after another. I knew I was going nowhere but there was nowhere I wanted to go. I was satisfied with my chicken soup every Monday.
Michael J. Cariello is 91 years old, the youngest of the Cariello brothers and sisters, children of immigrants Pasquale and Serafina. Drafted during the Korean War and sent to Germany as part of the occupation army. Took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college. Became a public school teacher and taught seventh grade History and English for thirty years. Now lives in Vermont. Has put together the story of his Mother and Father from Italy to America.