Sweet William

sweet-william

Many Italian-American families, like mine, christened first born sons the paternal grandfather’s name. Second born sons were given the maternal grandfather’s name, and the third sons wore their father’s name. Daughters’ names similarly honored the matriarchal line. Families were littered with Vitos, Paulos, Marias, and Christinas.  It was a mystery, then, that my dad’s father, the first born son, was baptized William, an American name void of his patriarchal lineage.

This is the story of William, as told by Aunt Tosca, my grandfather’s youngest sister, with some of my propriety embellishments.

The 20th century was in its infancy when Vito Truglio served in the Italian Merchant Marines. He was the fifth or seventh son of some fifteen or eighteen children from a starving village on the Italian Mediterranean coast.  He crossed the Atlantic, several times while honing carpentry skills in his hands and lean muscle on his wiry frame.  Upon arriving in Philadelphia, his tenure on the ship arrived.  Not wanting to sign up for another term, he shook hands with his fellow crewman and assured the captain that he had people in New York City.

Vito arrived on Mott Street and found a roof and job at the Migliaccio’s store. The family had immigrated from a similar Italian village twelve years earlier.  They traveled for three weary weeks and arrived in the New World with only the clothes on their back and a cousin’s New York City address sewn into their coats. Four young children clung to their sides—the youngest was three-year-old Angelina. Years of hard work, faith, and patience eventually earned the Migliaccios a home, a business, and a future for the children.

Angelina happily attended school. Everyone called her Nellie—a  pretty American name. An American baby was born to the family. The little fellow soon became the darling with his broad smile, mischievous play, and infectious laugh.  They named him William; a strong American name for their beautiful American son. Nellie sang to her little brother, held his hand while walking to school, taught him to shoot marbles, and played rowdy games of hide-and-seek in the store. She called him Willy.

Vito proved to be a strong and worthy employee. He carried bags of coffee on his back, scrambled up wall shelves to retrieve and replace can goods, repaired doors, and roofs, and delivered groceries quickly. With Nellie and Willy in school and the other children grown and busy with their families, Vito soon became vital.

Nellie’s mama, Teresa, feared that her heart would fail before seeing her daughters married and secure. Nellie’s older sister’s marriage was arranged just before the girl’s seventeenth birthday. Soon after, Teresa’s attention targeted Nellie’s future. She noticed how nicely Nellie and Vito smiled at each other.  Vito liked how Nellie hummed while doing her arithmetic homework and balancing the store’s books.  Sometimes, he dropped his serious demeanor and joined in her songs as she swept the floors.  Nellie had whispered, more than once to her sister, as to how handsome Vito was and that she liked his blue-green eyes. He was a hard worker, and once she got her nose out of books and ledgers, she could learn to cook and be a good wife. Nellie and Vito were married in the autumn of her sixteenth year.  A baby was expected the following summer.

One warm May day, Teresa commented that Willy was late in getting home from school. Nellie guessed Willy was singing on the corner. Papa teased that he probably had to clean the blackboard again as punishment for his pranks. Vito said that most likely, Willy and his friends were playing stickball in the alley.

By late afternoon, Willy pushed through the door pale and wheezing for breath. He was swept to his bed, strip down and bathed in cool water to drive out the fever. For hours, Teresa and Angelina tended to him.  A doctor came and left with a bowed head. The strega left herbs on his chest and thick incense lingering in the small room.

Before the dawn, Vito cradled the limp body. Nellie held her brother’s hand.  Willy gasped, “Vee! Help me, Vee!” Vito could only watch as the last breath expired taking the child with it.

Teresa was despondent, Papa deflated, but Nellie was inconsolable. She sobbed into all of the linen napkins and aprons. She could not eat the sweetest pastry the neighbors left for the grieving family, nor find sleep to escape the loss.  Vito fretted for his young wife. Before Willy’s death, she moved effortlessly around tables and barrels despite the heavy belly filled with their unborn baby.  But now the weight of her grief crushed all of her grace and strength.  He feared she would collapse, and he would not be able to save her, too.

“So young,” she lamented, “My sweet Willy will only be remembered for dying so young. He will be forgotten.”

“Cara Mia,” whispered Vito, “We can name our first boy for Willy. He will play and laugh just like your Willy, only he will be our Willy.”

William, who became my grandfather, was born that summer, a strong and beautiful American boy with blue-green eyes. Willy loved to laugh. Playing music brought joy to all around him. His first son, my father, christened William but called Billy, always found fun. Sweet William’s name lives in his nephews, grandnephews, great-grandnephews, and now, great-great grandnephews who all have a quick laugh and passion to play. william-store

Diamond Magic

My parents recently marked their 60th anniversary. My sisters and I arranged and coordinated a Beach Week at Davis Park, Fire Island–a Destination Celebration close to home. Three houses were rented and filled to capacity with our families.  A Big Day Celebration was set on July 3rd. Nieces, nephews, cousins, and siblings joined us to honor my parents. We totaled 81 relations who traveled by roads as far as New Jersey, and onto boats and ferries since our beach is accessible only by sea.  It was a glorious beach party day complete with sunshine, gentle surf, familiar foods, lots of laughs, and cake with a homemade topper. This is the toast I wrote for them.   

 

file0471A 60-year marriage can be done. It is not that unusual. Couples can dig into their comfort routines, remain dedicated out of obligation and fear of the unknown singles’ world. 60 years can easily fly away.

A 60-year marriage is referred to as the Diamond Anniversary—the strongest rock, forged from an early time. A lifetime is packed into those  60-years. A diamond couple has lived through volumes of life lessons and stories.  They have dwelled in the same house, gotten up from the same bed each morning, and moved through their days’ obligations.

But my parents, Diana and Bill, are an unusual diamond couple. They did not just live in a house together. They built a home complete with noise, home cooked meals, engine parts residing under beds, busy days and quiet nights, flowers, and opened doors. Filling their home with family, be it by blood or by association, had always been the normal.

My parents always greeted each morning with a kiss—grateful to rise together from the same bed. Days have been filled with typical tasks. They have always worked very hard.  But they have always had each other as talisman steering through the daily routines, gathering highlights and stories. They have always cast their net to include all of us because it is always more fun to share. Diana and Bill end each night with a kiss grateful to have each other.

Living like this for 60 years sounds like a fairytale. What is the magic that brings all of us together to celebrate Diana and Bill’s diamond year?  Is it their stubborn perseverance or virtuous fortitude? Could the depth of their love fully explain the uncommon longevity? I imagine their love has exploded exponentially out of control since their wedding 60 years ago.

I believe my parents’ magic is that they are indeed best friends. Their true selves are perfectly compatible. Dad is on a constant quest looking for the next adventure and collecting everyone within his reach to come along. He looks to Mom for how to make it all happen. Mom likes order, plans, and fusses over details. She quickly figures out logistics and demands attention to reality. Despite her cursory barking, she’s on a boat, in a car and/or stirring a pot of sauce ready to make a memory. They know how to give in and give out always with love. They have always been fun. 60-years may have flown by, but the journey has been filled with infectious love and forever memories. There is still more to come. How lucky are we?

And this is why we are here today. To Diana and Bill; thank you for the life lessons and memorable fun.

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Zucchini Laments

two zucchini with water drops isolated on white

“Googootz `e solo un googootz,” lamented my Grandma regarding plain zucchini.  She was an excellent cook. She was especially skilled in preparing any vegetable into a culinary masterpiece, no matter how vile a memory the name may evoke. Grandma’s Broccoli Rabe, Swiss Chard, Artichoke, Eggplant, and the like deserved a leading title.

I agreed with Grandma that zucchini pales compared to most vegetables. It is best as a filler in soups, sauces, and scrambled eggs. Seedy with delicate dark green skin, zucchini needs to be treated as if it had a noble taste, when in fact, it takes on any flavor of its accompaniment, thereby earning second billing. No one is excited to see cooked zucchini sitting alone without the infused company of onions, tomatoes, and/or potatoes.

It is now summer and zucchini are exploding out of the garden. The large leaves and sunny flowers are pretty, but when I fill two bowls with zucchini, I am not so enamored. Not every friend or neighbor appreciates a zucchini door prize. It is too hot to stand in a kitchen stir frying or, worse yet, blanching zucchini to freeze only to be forgotten in the freezer. Grilling is a better option. Here is how I do it.

grilled-zucchini

1.     Peel the skins if you are not a fan. Cut the body in half lengthwise. If you don’t care for the seeds, especially in overgrown zucchinis, scoop out them out with a spoon. You can slice the half again for the super thick zucchinis.

2.     Sprinkle sea salt on both sides. Let the slices sweat on paper towels for at least 20 minutes.

3.     Dab the slices dry with a clean paper towel.  Brush both sides of  the slices with olive oil.  Add a little zip by stirring a few red pepper flakes into the oil and/or a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Fig infused balsamic vinegar is a TASTY option.

4.     Arrange the zucchini slices on a hot vegetable grate that sits on the grill. Brush the top sides with oil. Close the grill cover.  Do not leave it for too long since the delicate slices go from raw to burnt corpses within 5 seconds.

5.     Turn the slices over. Reapply the oil. Close the grill cover. DO NOT walk away!

Grilled zucchini slices are fabulous as a side for your favorite grilled meats, poultry and fish and terrific cold on salads. I have also rolled them making a wonderful pop-in-your- mouth appetizer. The slices keep well in the refrigerator locked in a resealable bag or container. While it is generally true that “googootz `e solo un googootz”, grilled googootz can stand alone.

A Boat Story

This story was first published in http://www.storiesserved.com on July 22, 2016

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There were always boats in my life. Dad always had a floatable hull sitting atop concrete blocks on the lawn.  He spent countless hours sanding peeling paint and varnishing brightwork. There were always a seized manifold or coughing carburetors dissected on a table.  He reveled in taking apart engines and rebuilding them with whatever was around. For years an engine slept under my parents’ bed with the promise parts would be salvaged.   Dad could make anything work.  If it didn’t work with conventional parts, there were always bobby pins, rubber bands, spit and glue that could hold whatever need to be held together long enough to get us home. Dad was the original MacGyver.

In the early years, my parents packed their 5 kids along with aunts, uncles, and cousins into a twenty-eight foot wooden cabin cruiser and motored out of a canal into the Great South Bay for a beach day, crabbing expedition or fishing within the Fire Island inlet.  Most often, the engine hatch was lifted to replace this, cool down that, tighten something else.  We usually got to our destination and always arrived home safe. My mother did not like the uncertainty and made sure Dad heard her. However, she learned to operate the boat while Dad adjusted cables or spit gasoline into gasping carburetors.  We sang songs to quell any doubts.  Once or twice we sang 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to completion before getting underway. This was my normal of boat ownership.

One summer day, while Dad and uncles spent the day at work, their wives and children were left to fend off the oppressive heat. It was breathlessly hot. Sweat and  grime stuck to every pore. No relief could be found under the shade of trees. It was too hot to jump through sprinklers.  Mom and Aunt Marsha were pregnant—there were always a few women pregnant in my young memory. They held wet towels on their heads and let small children spill temped wading pool water over their legs.

It was decided to take the boat out and let us kids swim in the eel grass shallows. The boat, named Cho-Go, behave well the day before. There was no reason to believe it would not do the same on this day. There were 8 children under the age of 5—2 were not yet walking. Grandma packed bologna and salami sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, ripe peaches, and a thermos of lemonade. She waved goodbye as Mom pulled the boat from the dock. The bay was cooler and lay flat in the gentle breeze. The swimming spot was just 10 minutes from the canal. Mom increased speed.

Us kids filed into the cabin to the front bunk, taking turns poking our heads out of the hatch. When the dads were in charge, we were allowed to sit on the outside bow of the boat with one leg through the hatch while racing full-speed.  That was normal safety protocol. We were expected to sit still. If there were any shenanigans, someone was blamed and banned to the cabin for the remainder of the ride. This, in turn, invited relentless feet tickling and leg pulling that only instigated additional banishment.  Rarely was there one child that behave well enough to stay on top for the whole ride. But when the moms skippered, us kids were automatically sent to the cabin.

Just as Mom started to slow down, there was a was a thump. The boat lurched, spilling gangly legs and arms onto the front bunk.  Mom turned the wheel this way and that—no response. She shifted into reverse. Stuck. Mom turned off the engine and directed Aunt Kay to quickly set the anchor.

“I’ll check the prop and rudder,” announced Mom.  Even though she was 8 months pregnant, she was the better swimmer than my other aunts.

All of us watched as my round mother lowered herself into the bay from the ladder.  Aunt Kay handed her a face mask.  Aunt Marcia opened a box of Oreo cookies. Under Mom swam, furiously kicking her buoyant self beneath the back of the boat. Props, shafts, and rudders had been damaged before by running into shallow water.  Most times a pull here and push there could fix the problem well enough to get home. Mom was an astute MacGyver apprentice.

Mom popped her head up. “The rudder is gone! It fell off!”

” Will we sink?” asked Aunt Kay.  Aunt Marcia gave each kid a cookie while holding one in her mouth.

“No, the shaft is connected.” Mom knew a lot about boats.

” Diana, did you look in the front of the boat? Maybe Billy put it there,” ask Aunt Marsha though the Oreo cookie.

Mom realized that despite all of her confidence and skill, she was alone with 8 small children and pregnant women on a boat without a rudder.

” Children, it’s a lovely day on the bay,” announced Aunt Marsha, “Let’s sing!”

 

A Fig Tree Grows in a Yard

fig-tree

Great Grandma arrived on an early autumn Sunday.   She traveled from Brooklyn in the backseat of Uncle Tony’s black Buick sedan.  Despite her 87 years, she swung the back door open and pulled herself out just as the car came to a full stop.  Barely five feet tall, the powerful matriarch stood buttoned in a black wool coat from neck to ankles. Her grey-green kerchief framed a narrow face that was smooth from a lifetime of reacting rather than worrying.

My sisters, brother and I rushed out the front door.  Great Grandma grabbed and shook each of us by the gangly shoulders to confirm our sturdiness.  Her deep set eyes were at my 11-year-old eye level. After a shake and toothless kiss on a cheek, she cackled her approval in Sicilian and patted our curly heads with her bony hand.

Being the oldest of the five (or the slowest), she grabbed my hand, tucked my arm to her side, and towed me to the backyard.  She headed for the sad fig tree she had planted with my mother the previous spring.

“Ora, Cara!  Ora!” she ordered to my mother.   My sisters and brother scattered, abandoning me to the upcoming reprimands.  My mother obediently caught up.

Great Grandma pulled me along ranting into the sea wind about the sun’s direction, the soil…I wasn’t sure.  I understood very little Sicilian.  But I could tell she was not happy.  She held little love for ornamental bushes or the palate of perennial color my mother coaxed into syncopated blooms.

Great Grandma gasped at the sight of the small fig tree. It had barely grown during the summer.  Only wide fingered leaves adorned its thin trunk. She pulled me to her face (reminding me of the nuns from Wednesday night catechism who needed only to stare at their publicly schooled students into genuflection).  She continued her rant while directing her free hand to the barren fig tree. Her pitch increased with each punctuated gesture.

My mother explained, in English, that the winds from the bay battled the frail tree.  It sprayed a salty mist and battered the delicate limbs.  The little tree struggled just to keep its leaves green.   Great Grandma nodded as she stroked a leaf and bent down digging her fingers into the soil. She understood English perfectly; she simply refused to speak it.

Finally, she freed me to slap the dirt from her hands.  I rubbed my numb fingers while I followed my mother and Great Grandma through the vegetable garden.  Great Grandma cackled and nodded approvingly over the late ripening tomatoes and eggplant. She smelled leaves, pinched stems, and readjusted a few stakes before leaving the garden sucking on a swiss chard leaf.

Finally, indoors, Great Grandma removed her kerchief revealing the severely pulled white-grey bun on the top of her head.  Great Grandma pulled a napkin from her coat pocket and ordered us children to her side.  Inside the napkin was one fig; a plump tear drop fig with long golden and black velvet stripes.  She picked it early that morning from her favored fig tree that grew in her crowed Brooklyn plot of earth.  Great Grandma pointed and chattered breathlessly.  All my mother could say was “I know… yes…ok…OK!”

Great Grandma sighed in exhaustion.  She held the fig to our noses.  Each of us gave an obedient sniff with a solemn nod. Even my little brother knew the communion routine and did not touch it.  She sliced into the fig’s skin revealing a crowd of immature flower buds trapped in the deep purple meat. She cut five slices and passed the purple wafer to each of us.  My mother took my brother’s slice after he nibbled and quickly wiped it from his tongue (at the time he was sustaining his five-year-old body on Wonder bread and Oreo cookies).

But the fig ….oh so sweet!  A light crunch of the flower buds burst concentrated sugar from the skin, and the smooth gel that spread onto the palate lingered as it was sucked down.  This was better than any Fig Newton cookie. My mother nodded, “Ok, we’ll move the fig tree.”

Over the years, my mother had half-hearted success growing a productive fig tree. Leaves always abound, but plump figs were rare.   She blamed the salty air, the relentless wind, and frigid winters. In her last bid of rebellion from her past, she eventually abandoned the fig trees.  Instead, she learned to work with the elements and mastered beautifully coordinated gardens that trimmed the yard and brought incredible color to her seaside home.

Some 40 plus years after that memorable fig visit, I find myself in a newly built home with a vast yard to tend.  Always in search of approval, even from the ghosts of my past, I planted a fig tree in the sunniest corner of my virgin yard.  It stands with a fresh layer of compost surrounding its roots, coaxing life to renew. The thin limbs already sport leaf buds and fig goblets.

As I slap the soil from my gloved hands, I remember my numb fingers and the fig Great Grandma brought in a napkin that autumn day.  Perhaps she will smile down and find my skills and plot of earth worthy to allow the gems to grow plump and sweet.

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