river avenue

Reflections On An 80th Birthday

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We grew up on River Avenue, with the sounds of the city all around us: the hum of traffic, the wail of sirens, dogs barking, kids yelling…

And when we did something particularly noteworthy – say, like smoking Papa’s pipe and throwing the matches behind his chair… or smashing windows with line drives and bad jump shots… or chucking acorns at oncoming traffic – we heard something else:

– Do you have rocks in your head?

– What are you, numb?

– If you ever do that again, I’ll brain you!

– If you ever do that again, I’ll break every bone in your body!

But just as often, probably more, we heard you say:

– Look after your brother.

Four words to live by. We grew up knowing that our family was our rock.

So today, we celebrate your birthday and the family you started, now three generations strong. Your fingerprints are on us all.

Happy birthday, Mom.

The Wonder Of Italian Bread

crugnale

Deb and I had known each other for two months when she asked me a serious question: “Do you really eat bread with every meal?”

The look of astonishment on my face hinted at the mix of cultures that our marriage would bring. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t you?”

Deb was raised in Canton, Connecticut, up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads. The nearest Italian bakery was forty-five minutes away.

I grew up in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Our Father at catechism, give us this day our daily bread made total sense to me.

On Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery to grab a loaf of bread. “And don’t eat it all on the way back,” she’d say. As I walked the eight blocks home with the fresh loaf tucked under my arm, Pavlov’s Theory was proven once more. Salivating, I’d tear off the end of the bread and bite into its crust.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Driving home from the Hill, I’d sometimes stop at Amore’s on Valley Street if we needed a loaf. And if I didn’t get to a bakery in time – bread sold out! – I’d head to a neighborhood market where I might find a loaf of Crugnale’s (perfect crust).

After college, I lived in a tenement near Holy Ghost Church on Federal Hill, right next door to a bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

When Deb took her first job out of college, she worked in East Hartford – in a building that was right next door to a Wonder Bread factory. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s Sunday afternoon. My gravy’s simmering on the stove, but I need macaroni. I run to Dave’s Marketplace. As I deliberate over which pasta shape to buy, my phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text from Deb: Don’t forget the bread.

Amen.

Seven Blocks Of Freedom: Walking To School

City Games, Part 2

“Do you have your lunch?”

“Yes.”

“Watch out for your brother.”

“I will.”

“Call me at work when you guys get home.”

“O.K.”

James and I say goodbye to our mother and race out the back door. In the movie of our childhood (still to be made), the bridge from Aretha Franklin’s “Think” fills the autumn air: “Freedom, freedom, freedom, FREEDOM!”

We love walking to school. No parents, no teachers – just seven authority-free city blocks between home and Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School.

Is my best friend Chris coming up the street to meet us? (Yes.) Will the sometimes-untethered German shepherd down on Moorland Avenue – we call him Killer – attack us? (Not this morning, thankfully.) Is my grandfather’s car in his driveway as we walk by? (Yes, as always.) Do we have pennies for the bubble gum machine at Haskins Pharmacy? (James does.) Will Mr. Siravo’s one-eyed dog, Charlie, successfully navigate the tricky intersection of Smith Street and River Avenue? (Yup, always does.) Will we? (Yes.)

One block from school, we stop at the playground for a game of kamikaze on the swings. We swoop and soar until we can go no higher and then tug on one chain to dive-bomb each other. Last one sitting wins.

Riiinnngg! The first bell. We run from the playground to the school yard. There’s still time for a couple of races. Down to the chain link fence and back – go!

Riiinnngg! The final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine. In the movie of our childhood (still to be made), some kids hear strains from Chopin’s “Funeral March”. For others, including me, it’s the Looney Tunes jingle: “That’s all, folks!”

When I get to Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out like a gold star on a homework sheet: Recess.

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