Italian family

Childhood Christmas still exists, if only in my dreams

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 21, 2014.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)” was a Top Ten hit for Bing Crosby after its release in the midst of World War II. Written by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, the song resonated with soldiers and their families, though Gannon reportedly once said he was thinking of anyone who is separated from loved ones at Christmas.

That was me back in 1980. I had spent the fall at school in Ireland and, thanks to my grandfather’s generosity, traveled to the continent after finishing the semester. On Christmas night, I stood in a Florence phone booth waiting for an operator to connect me to my mother’s apartment on Federal Hill.

I heard my mom’s faraway voice — “John?” — and then the hurrahs of my family and relatives. Closing my eyes, I could see the dining room and the Christmas lights and everyone gathered around the table. The mix of happiness and sadness I felt made my heart clench.

I couldn’t wait to speak to my younger brother, James. When he got on the phone — “Hey Johnny, what’s happening?” — it wasn’t the same voice I had left behind. Puberty had intervened and my little brother — born five years after I was — suddenly didn’t sound so little any more.

The last time I had seen him, in early September, he was speechless. We were standing with my mother by the railroad tracks at Union Station in downtown Providence. After two years at Brown, I was heading to the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, leaving my hometown — and family — for the first time. As the train approached, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to James. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides.

I, too, ached at the parting; James and I were tight.

When our parents had separated, my father left me a letter that said, in part, “Continue to be good to James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world and relies on you very much.” At the time, James was 3-1/2 years old. My mother, who would go back to work at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, was more succinct: “Look after your brother,” she said, staring me in the eyes.

So I did, and it seemed as if James and I were always together. We shared a bedroom; his space was mine and mine was his.

When we played basketball in the basement — shooting mini-balls at a bucket on a barstool — James was Walt Frazier to my Willis Reed. When we huddled up for football in the back yard — drawing plays in the dirt — James was Fran Tarkenton to my Ron Johnson.

And when my younger brother once asked why our father’s Saturday visits ended before our mother got home from work, I did my best to explain.

The last of 13 cousins, James always made a grand entrance at our extended family’s boisterous Christmas Eve gatherings. Amid the smoke and cocktails and holiday din, someone would yell out, “Hey, Santa’s here!” and down the stairs my brother would come, pillows bulging under his red robe, fake white beard masking his smiling face. Everyone cheered as our diminutive Santa handed out gifts — wine for the aunts, scotch for the uncles, pajamas for the girls, colored underwear for the boys.

As he grew up, James acquired a worldliness that came with being the “baby.” A cousin let him drive her car before he was a teen. And once, while visiting me at Brown, he disappeared into the night and discovered zombies at a fraternity bar.

My return from Europe confirmed what the sound of James’s voice had announced over the phone: he was taller, stronger, a boy no more. Two years later, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. I admired his guts; boot camp made my English degree seem like a trifle. On December 19, 1983, James boarded a bus for the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J.

At Christmas dinner six days later, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, held up his glass, and said, “Here’s to our youngest family member, away serving our country.”

Glasses clinked, and my mother and aunt dabbed their eyes.

The Coast Guard launched my brother on a maritime career far from the life we navigated growing up.

That “home” of our childhood, both beloved and bittersweet, still exists — but only in our dreams.

Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

 

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”

My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.

Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.

I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”

I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.

“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.

My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.

The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”

During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.

If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).

After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.

On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.

Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.

 

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