extended Italian family

Gifts From My Grandfather’s Store

vincent_pantalone

As published in the Providence Journal, December 24, 2013.

“John! Lock the door!”

I had waited 364 days to hear my grandfather say those words. He stood behind the register at Vincent’s, his children’s-wear and baby-clothes store on Federal Hill. It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve — the only day of the year when the store closed early. I dashed to the door and turned the key. The dead bolt hit the doorframe — pop! — and another exhausting selling season for our family had ended.

As a 10-year-old in 1970, I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, but not old enough to be aloof about receiving presents. I had asked for Pro Bowl Live Action Football, which I had seen advertised on TV. The ad touted the game’s “king-sized playing field” and “complete pro-type teams.” I hoped “Santa” would deliver.

As I turned away from the door, a woman swooped in from the Atwells Avenue sidewalk and pressed hard against the door’s glass — a would-be, last-minute Santa. The lock resisted. I hoped my grandfather would, too.

I recalled a story that my mother had told me many times. When she was young, my grandfather had brought her a fancy winter coat from his store. The following day, he took the coat back — a customer needed it. “Don’t worry,” he said to my mom. “I’ll get you another one.” (He did.) At Vincent’s, you always took care of the customer.

So, I wasn’t surprised on that Christmas Eve to see my grandfather unlock the door, to the woman’s great relief. Christmas Eve — at least my idea of what it should be — would have to wait.

*           *           *

Everyone who worked at Vincent’s was a relative or seemed like one. It was years before I realized that Auntie Gerry technically wasn’t my aunt, but by that point it didn’t matter. At Vincent’s, everyone was family.

My grandfather opened the store in 1927. It thrived through the Great Depression and became known statewide as the go-to place for baby clothes, christening sets, and communion suits and dresses. At the corner of Atwells Avenue and Acorn Street, Vincent’s had spectacular wraparound showcase windows — merchandising gold.

Each night, those windows presented a parade of brightly lit mannequins adorned in the latest fashions. During the day, my grandfather’s hand-painted paper signs beckoned to drivers and passersby: Layaway Plan! Winter Coat Sale! Christmas Gifts!

This was my first year of working on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I cut up boxes, picked up pins, retrieved layaways, ran out for coffee, killed time. The days were long, especially when I thought of my friends playing touch football or pick-up basketball.

Some Saturdays, Auntie Gerry would save me from my restlessness: “Let’s have Caserta’s for lunch,” she’d say, handing me a $5 bill. Twenty minutes later, I’d return with a cheese and pepperoni pizza.

I loved Auntie Gerry.

One Saturday, my grandfather gave me a welcome break from my routine. A group of guys was going to be renting the apartment upstairs for a nightly card game. My grandfather gave me two leftover gallons of paint from the store basement. Hands of poker would soon be dealt in rooms freshly coated in soft pink and baby blue.

*           *           *

For a second time, I heard the magic words: “John! Lock the door!”

This time, no last-minute Santa intervened. Outside, my grandfather set the alarm and Vincent’s was officially closed for Christmas!

At my Aunt Rita’s house that night, my mom and aunts sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes, my uncles drank scotch, my grandfather played the violin. Older cousins drank beer in the basement; my little brother and I, the youngest grandchildren, wolfed down Italian cookies in the kitchen. At times, just about everyone was talking at once: the familiar din of Christmas Eve. Then we all crammed into the living room to exchange gifts. At the end of the night, my grandfather handed white envelopes to my mom and aunts. Each of them thanked him with a kiss, and I somehow knew that the amount of cash inside was not insignificant.

On Christmas morning, Pro Bowl Live Action Football was waiting for me under the tree. But the game was not nearly as much fun as the ad had promised. It took forever to set up the teams. And then the plays were over in an instant. After trying it a few times, I never took Pro Bowl Live Action Football out of the box again.

It would be years before the memory of my disappointment about the game brought an epiphany. The best gifts from my childhood — the security provided by a grandfather’s store, the embrace of a big Italian family — didn’t come once a year. They were there every day.

 

Superstition, Triskaidekaphobia, And Halloween

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall

Very superstitious, ladders ‘bout to fall

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

Superstition” by Stevie Wonder topped the charts in the United States the week of January 27, 1973. Yes, the song’s funky groove is irresistible. But perhaps the 22-year-old pop genius had also tapped into something else: our fascination with superstitions.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Do you avoid walking under ladders? That perpetuates an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represented the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the trinity – not a good thing to do on the road to heaven.

Do you knock on wood in order to avoid jinxing yourself? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood when you say something hopeful, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Athletes are especially superstitious. Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander eats Taco Bell the night before every start. When I played basketball in high school, I always wore the same socks for games.

Superstition confounds the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because we believe saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13. The word derives from the Greek: tris (three) + kai (and) + deka (ten) + phobia (fear of). Many cultures believe the number 13 to be bad luck, with some citing Judas as the 13th apostle. As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. We didn’t make the playoffs that year. I switched to number 30 the following season. We went 19-4.

I wish George Carlin could come back to us on Halloween, superstition’s high holiday, just so I could hear him say one word: friggartriskaidekaphobia. It means fear of Friday the 13th.

On October 31, 1921, Vincent Pantalone married Antonia (Etta) Caione in Providence. I always thought it was cool that my grandparents chose Halloween for their wedding day. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

Lucky us.

With thanks to my cousin, Lorri Mainelli, for including me in her recent research into our shared family history.

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