Looking Back

First day of school

In her own unobtrusive way, Mom had long been preparing me for school. In a letter my grandfather wrote her from Italy when I was four and a half, he was glad to hear I spent entire days “writing.” He was referring to my filling a sheet of paper with rows of little vertical lines in imitation of the lines my mother had made on the page. Now, a year and a half later, while she was reading her weekly letter from her father, I asked her whether it was hard to learn how to read. “No, it’s not hard, …

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Early discipline

I was a reasonably docile child who misbehaved only occasionally, though among the first things I did when I could grasp a pencil was to use it to punch holes in the faces of all the photos in our family album — one in the mouth and one in the eyes. I also acquired the habit of sticking my tongue out, and my father once love-tapped me on the lips to discourage it. After that, I still did it, but only while cupping my hand over my mouth and crouching on the far side of the washing machine from my …

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My first English teacher

My aunt Margaret had blue eyes, a blue dress and a pair of hairbrushes backed with blue velvet, all of which made sense because her birthstone was the sapphire for September. She lived with us in our Bronx apartment, but when she was in her early 20s in June 1953, she decided to revisit her native Italy. My aunt’s departure from a Hudson River pier is my earliest memory, occurring well before my third birthday. I remember my father cradling me in one arm and telling me to wave goodbye to his youngest sister. All I could see high up …

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Dreaming of America

Franco entered the barn to gather the cows and lead them out to graze.  A few chickens followed him clucking and prancing at his feet. The 14-year-old boy gave three crisp, high-pitched whistles announcing his presence to the cows, which rustled in their stalls, turning their heads toward the piercing noise. They had been milked three hours ago and knew it was time to go outside. “Good morning cows! A new day is here. More fresh grass to eat and milk to give. You have me today so be on your best behavior!” Franco unlatched them one by one from …

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One blessed moment

La Signora Vincenza Tomasello and her five daughters were busy shopping, baking and preparing their home for visitors on a very special day, a truly glorious day. The women were thrilled because it was March 19 — St. Joseph’s Day — but it was so much more than that. The year was 1946, World War II had finally ended and their men were home at last. The Tomasello women were preparing for their annual St. Joseph’s Table, and every detail had to be perfect. Three tiers tall and topped with a statue of San Giuseppe, the table would be laden …

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My mother’s stove

My parents, Cataldo and Santa DeAngelis, emigrated from the small town of Castro dei Volsci in Central Italy. My father came in 1953 with two suitcases: one carrying a few belongings and the other his prized possession, a Scandalli accordion. My mother followed in 1954 with a suitcase in one hand and my 7-year-old brother in the other. They nestled first in Detroit. Possessing little more than the dream of starting a better life in America, they made do with hand-me-down furniture and appliances — hence their Universal brand stove. This heavy-duty white porcelain beauty was the center of our …

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Our homey top floor

Imagine you just finished huffing your way up to our floor, the sixth and topmost of our South Bronx tenement, 95 steps above the torrid sidewalk of East 148 Street, late on a summer afternoon of 1958. In the first apartment on the landing, jolly old Maria Torlona the Egg Lady, whose door is open, might well try to sell you a carton of her wares — or even a case — fairly cheap. Next door to Maria and her cache of “farm-fresh” eggs is the residence of blue-haired Mrs. Pugliese and her tall feisty brunette daughter, Gloria. That young …

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Heavenly ravioli, made by Momma

I’m a little girl waking up. It’s Thanksgiving and there it is — the metallic tap, tap of my mother’s spoon against the rim of the large stainless steel pot. Della Serritella Rocco has been alone at work long before first light. Inside the pot are pork neckbones, inexpensive but delicious, together with fresh tomatoes and herbs, creating the luscious gravy — no one called it sauce back then — that would dress the divine homemade ravioli momma is about to create in her humble kitchen. This is a labor-intensive effort, reserved for holiday feasts like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. …

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And the band played on

Hear the band as they play a resounding rendition of the Italian National Anthem. Listen to the Marche Reale performed by the Piandelagotti band in the town square with vim and vigor reflecting their youthful enthusiasm. The coordinated effort offered a splendid meshing of alto and bass horns, beating drums et al. as the music resonated throughout the town’s center piazza and well beyond. The townspeople loudly applauded accompanied with shouts of bravo as the song hit its stirring ending. The town’s photographer, Signor Batti Piancentini, moved in to ready the band for a photo. He had positioned the big …

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