Scroll up or click on “home” to see Chapters 1,2, 3 and 4 of my family’s history
The history of my family continues, here, with:
Chapter 5: Mom and Dad
My parents were married for 47 years and it was, literally, till death did them part. They met in a simpler time, when right and wrong was clear and America faced the world with unblinking resolve.
My father was a window trimmer – a lost skill today. He decorated store windows to entice passing shoppers inside. In his day there was no Amazon.com, no Apple Store, in fact, no internet at all so “foot traffic” was key to success in retail. After a career as an usher in the Stanley Theatre on Journal Square in Jersey City – one of the last movie palaces – he worked as a tourist picture taker in Times Square, NYC, a soda jerk, busboy and then graduated into what he, grandly, described as “retail display” or “visual merchandising” in the 1940’s. Eventually he was promoted out of the kitchen to window trimmer for F. W. Woolworth’s in downtown New York City, their flagship store. For those of you who never heard of Woolworth’s or the concept of the “five and dime store”, these were emporiums where everything was for sale from comic books to clothes to birds – kind of a proto-Costco – but everything was relatively cheap and the stores were compact. We had one in the next town to ours as I was growing up. It had unfinished wooden floors and I used to read the comic books while my mother shopped. Stores like it are called “Dollar Stores” today (a sign of inflation – no more “five and dime”). Today, these kind of stores are usually stand-alone stores whereas Woolworth’s was a huge chain of stores.
My father had some imagination and an impish streak in his Woolworth’s display career. He did a window arrangement for nuts from around the world – Brazil nuts, macadamias, almonds, walnuts – and had a sign made for the layout which read “Nuts to you from Woolworth!” In the 1940’s “nuts to you” was the equivalent of the F bomb today. It got him fired, but not before he met a bookkeeper at the Woolworth home office – my mother.
My mother was smart, a high school graduate, as opposed to Dad who never graduated from anything except short pants. Her commute each day was from Hudson County, NJ to downtown New York City. She was a valued employee and some sort of department head at Woolworth’s accounting office. I will try to guess the attraction my father held for her. He was brash, confident and, probably, a bit of a charmer – I saw echoes of this in his later life. Given the chaos and intrigue of my mother’s family, my father must have seemed a breath of fresh air, what you see is what you get – a certainty in her life which was very uncertain to that point.
Before long they were married, but even before the ceremony there were hints of what was to come. My father liked to tell the story of the discord in Mom’s family regarding their wedding. According to him, he dealt with it by saying, the night before the event, that my mother was going to look strange walking down the aisle by herself unless his way prevailed – whatever that was. I came to know that attitude of “my way or the highway” throughout our lives.
As I’ve written in another chapter, they were married after Dad was drafted and before he was sent to basic training. My mother accompanied him to his training in the Mojave Desert out west. Dad did not describe himself as a hero or a patriot. He knew he’d wind up in the army – it was wartime, after all – but he waited to be drafted. He took commando training and was quite proud that he could outlast the other recruits who were 10 years younger than him. He was then shipped overseas and Mom concentrated on her work and maintaining their apartment in the Italian section of Jersey City. This rental was very grand with high ceilings, large rooms and lots of molding details. My mother took great pride in keeping the place updated and spotless when my father was in Europe.
When the war ended and Dad was returned home they took up their life again in that palatial apartment. He got a job at an electronics store and, to hear him tell it, he was the top salesman selling state of the art high fidelity equipment. The store was downtown New York City and it was bought and closed as the 1950’s approached by the developers of the World Trade Center.
With the loss of the retail job, my father decided to hark back to his display skills and become a freelance window trimmer. I make the distinction of “freelance” because a lot of products, from liquor to soap, etc. had window trimmers on staff who they sent to stores to hawk their products in the windows. Today, the only places you may see someone setting up a display are in stores like Banana Republic where a sales associate also trims the windows facing the mall. The other big difference is the store windows themselves. Back in the day, the windows were self-contained display cases, removed from the store interior. Today most window displays are, mostly, merely in the glass front of a store, designed to be a part of the interior. Today, you’ll only find professional trimmers in liquor stores. These people are employed by the liquor companies and are sent to the stores to set up window displays with product related display materials so the store owners don’t have to bother. Years ago I struck up a conversation with a trimmer I saw working as I was buying a bottle of wine. He was amazed that anyone could make a living doing that work freelance as my father had done for 35 years. Dad decorated everything from candy stores to car showrooms to trade shows. He even decorated an exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, NY. He worked into his 70’s. I would be his “assistant” on his jobs sometimes when I was a kid. The work held no particular interest for me and he was a very stern taskmaster. As a result these outings were not among my favorites. Except for one occasion in Newark. We were decorating the Igo Brothers appliance company trade show at the Military Park Hotel. I must have been about 10. I noticed the lavish buffet tables set up for the show, laden with all manner of delicious entrees and desserts. I knew I had a meat loaf sandwich waiting for me that my mother had given me before we left home that day. Dad said we could stop for lunch in a little while and he noticed I was looking sad. When asked. I replied that all those other people were eating all that great food and we would be crouched behind the displays eating what Mom had packed out of paper bags. He said nothing until it was time for lunch and he then took me to an area where he had finagled an entire mini buffet just for us from the show’s food, complete with white tablecloths and china and silver. I’ve written that this man was not my hero – but he was that day.
My father didn’t exactly retire, he just stopped working when my mother died. You don’t retire from a career as an independent contractor. There’s no ceremony, no gold watch, no severance pay, no pension. It just ends.
Dad’s change in career in the early 50’s coincided with the pressure he was getting from his own family which I’ve written about in another chapter. He had to get away from Hudson County and the inevitable street existence it held and moved me and my mother, kicking and screaming, to the suburbs.
I don’t think my mother ever forgave my father for taking her out of her family’s comfort zone. As I’ve said before, she felt isolated and friendless away from Hudson County. When she had a miscarriage soon after the move she had something else to blame my father for and that began to fester into the resentment that fueled the war that was to follow between them.
I’m not blaming my mother. exclusively, for the tension that existed in our family throughout my childhood. Dad was not a partner, he was the commanding general – as he had always been in his family. He did not react with sympathy or compassion to my mother’s distress, her isolation, her dismay at the loss of the child. Dad had no capacity for empathy. His life was too hardscrabble for those niceties. You got through it – that’s all you could hope for in his estimation. That attitude may get you through a tough life but it’s not going to help your marriage. His favorite saying was “Even when things are going well you’ll wake up with a pimple on your ass.” A depressing paradigm which I have rejected.
My mother was, also, a relentless needler – no shrinking violet when it came to her husband. Baiting him was her passive/aggressive way of attacking her husband. She would provoke him until he would blow. As a child I could see the signs of the impending explosion and I could perceive the timeline of the provocation as it developed into out-and-out battle. I can trace many anxieties I have felt in adulthood to the dread I felt when these two people stepped into the ring. These were not isolated incidents but, rather, their ongoing, day-to-day relationship. When the dust cleared after one of their bouts my mother would retreat to the living room sofa, sometimes sobbing and babbling. Sadly, that is my most vivid recollection of their relationship. I cannot recall any display of affection between them.
They weren’t monsters. They didn’t physically abuse me – just each other. They provided me with all the necessities of life: food, shelter, education. I never felt deprived in those areas. My mother, for example, made me lunch, which I ate at home, every grammar-school day. My father could be very funny and was generous with me about money. He didn’t exhibit any signs of PTSD from his Army career. On the contrary, I think the war was a blessing for him. He knew where his next meal was coming from and exactly what he had to do. He was thousands of miles from his family for whom he had no great regard and didn’t have to be the “daddy” and the solver of all problems for them. Alone, across an ocean from family duties he had the opportunity to indulge all his instincts, including some of his baser ones. In the Army he also had the opportunity to be the big cheese from time to time, as he had been with his family, but without all the responsibility and all the back-talk. In France his word was law when he was the military mayor of Rambouillet and Eparney. He told me the story of his first encounter with the gendarmes of those towns. He would tell them how things were going to happen from then on under his watch and, one day, a French officer asked, “but Monsieur, what if we disagree with you?” My father’s response was, “Then I will shoot you.” Back home, he did have a temper which I learned to respect and not arouse. My mother provoked it. The sense of doom their struggles impressed on me was the major failure of their parenthood. They didn’t do it to me on purpose. I was simply there, terrified, caught in the crossfire. They had no capacity to see beyond their medieval upbringings and understand the damage they were doing to all of us.
In the midst of this simmering struggle we lived a pretty typical suburban life. Church, social events, Boy Scouts, Little League, Knights of Columbus, Columbian Squires (junior Knights of Columbus) – I was the Chief Squire for the State of New Jersey! I was very religious and a commentator in the Catholic Mass and active in church activities. My parents were also very observant. Somewhere around high school – and don’t forget I was enrolled in a Catholic high school where we went to mass every day – I lost the fervor for organized religion. Mom and Dad dropped out as well which showed me they were just going through the motions for my sake. Their local social life was more my father’s doing and my mother relied more and more on her family for company.
My mother did become active in the PTA of my grammar school which was around the corner from our house. She was always involved in my early school career, unlike my father, who I can never remember ever asking me about school. In kindergarten she was called in to talk to my teachers who were disturbed that I fancied black construction paper exclusively. In second grade my old crow of a teacher, Mrs.Caro, took a dislike to me and I remember my mother meeting with her to try to smooth things out. These were not the days of enlightened early childhood education. My grammar school was like a dungeon, dark and cavernous and not at all child friendly. I remember all of my teachers in that school from kindergarten to 8th grade. Their attitudes toward the students ranged from bare tolerance to overt dislike and I certainly felt the brunt of these feelings . Only my 6th grade teacher – Miss Renahan – was different, a harbinger of what is now the modern early childhood professional. She was accessible, friendly, imaginative and fun. She’s the one who took us to Stokes Forest for a week. We would gather at her apartment for musical jam sessions. She organized and rehearsed us in a play “The Loco Burrito” which we performed on the high school stage. That was like making it to Broadway for us. I remember being so excited after our one and only performance that all I could say was “How about that!” The other teachers hated her. They were entrenched in their strict Depression Era “children should be seen and not heard”, attitudes and she must have been very scary for them.
I was proud of Mom who was the PTA secretary. The significant thing about that, looking back, was it was her own effort – it had nothing to do with and was not dependent on my father. However, like most of my mother’s forays into the world, it didn’t last. She went to a PTA convention in Atlantic City and turned her ankle on the boardwalk and had to come home early. That was the end of her school career.
At one point she decided to get a job. The move to the suburbs had ended her career at Woolworth’s – another motive for resentment against my father – and being home all day must have only heightened her feelings of isolation. She applied for and got an accounting job in a suburban office. This also didn’t last long. She was convinced the other employees disliked her and it became impossible for her to stay.
As you may have guessed by now, my mother was clinically depressed. My most vivid memory of her is sleeping on the living room couch during the day – a classic symptom. She was also convinced people were against her. There was also a chain smoking habit. The floor near her kitchen chair was pocked with cigarette burn marks. She was, in spite of it all, a good cook. Nothing fancy but good, solid food. Meal preparation, however, eventually morphed into a competition between her and my Dad who fancied himself a gourmet. They turned out, not meals, but feasts. They competed for stove and oven space in the same meal and turned out so much food the table groaned under its weight. These were delicious events but for all the wrong reasons which is typical of their expectations and support for me. I went to a Catholic high school because they thought I was smart enough to get in (they were right – I was in the 97th percentile of my entrance exam) and excel. They wanted that for me because the local public high school was a joke. I went to college because it was a given – they expected it of me. Their ambitions for me were correct and supportive and helped me immeasurably in the long run. My high school teachers, Christian Brothers, had doctorates and masters degrees and my college career set me on a road to my future success. My parents thought I could do all this because I was their son – especially my father. Not because I was special or brilliant or, even, an individual. Their ambitions for me were right for all the wrong reasons. My being the first in our family to go to college was more about their prestige than about my ability and potential.
I don’t look back on this with anger or remorse. Whatever their motives, they saved me by insisting I go to that Catholic high school. It was a place of wondrous learning and intellect and a fantastic, fertile field for a young mind. I firmly believe that any higher intelligence and ambition I may possess was begun and nurtured at that school.
Even so, my relation to that school was not without its bumps and bruises. The Brothers were very strict and believed, wholeheartedly, in corporeal punishment. I’ll tell one story since it was at the culmination of my high school career: At the end of my senior year I grew a beard. They were quite fashionable in a rebellious way back then as the Hippie movement blossomed. I was called into the Assistant Principal’s office (he was in charge of “security”). “Mr. Stefanile, you can’t graduate with that beard. Shave it off.” I don’t know how, but I summoned the gumption to say, “Brother, are you saying that even though I’m 3rd in my class you’re going to deny me graduation over this?” (I really was 3rd in the class out of close to 100 graduating seniors), to which he replied, “Shave it off. Now get out!” With that I beat a hasty retreat from his office. A couple of days went by and the more I thought about it the more I didn’t want to shave that beard. The Assistant Principal gave me the evil eye if he saw me in the hallway and, once, said, “No shave, no diploma.” Now I was getting mad and more determined than ever to hang on to my fabulous fuzz. I related this tale to my father one night, including the threat of not graduating. He comforted me by saying, “Don’t be a f*#%ing idiot, shave it off.” His parenting skills were blunt at best. I was more resolute than ever, after that, to retain my brave bristles. Finally, soon after, I was called in to the office again. “Are you determined to keep that beard?” asked the Assistant Principal. “I really don’t see the problem with it,” I managed. “In that case, you can graduate but you can’t carry the school flag in the procession if you don’t shave,” he said. The top 3 students led the graduation procession and carried the school, state flag and the stars and stripes. “I can live with that, Brother,” I replied, to which he said “Get out!” and I left the office, victorious.
When in college, I had less contact with my parents. I was, by then, branching out into the arts. I was an actor and a pretty good one at that. I suspected my father was baffled at the profession because he didn’t try to “coach” me as he had insisted on doing during my high school competitive public speaking career. That didn’t stop him, however, from grabbing a bit of the limelight for himself. He would come to every performance of every play I was in and hold court in the auditorium during intermissions and after the show. He would show up at my rehearsals, especially when I started directing, and would develop his own group of admirers from the ensemble. This was a pattern throughout my life. He was the Scoutmaster, the Little League coach and on and on. You may think it was great of him to be so involved in my life. Sure, it was, but his support was motivated by a need for attention for himself more than a desire to be helping me. He was the self-proclaimed greatest scoutmaster and first base coach. It was always, first and foremost, about him as he set about co-opting some of the attention. I didn’t mind sharing the spotlight. That does not negate the fact that he was wrong to try to piggyback on my success. My successes were validating him, not me.
Growing up I remember my father always worked and always made a good living. Like I’ve said before, I wanted for nothing when it came to the necessities. When he built that room on the back of the house that I described in another chapter, he designed part of it to be his office and installed a second phone there. My mother ridiculed him mercilessly for his presumed hubris at the addition of that telephone. He asked her, since she was home all day, to answer the business phone and take messages. She complied when she felt like it and, then, not so professionally. Reading her incoherent messages upon his return and his customers’ complaints about the person answering his business phone were further sources of friction between them. Another was Dad’s habit of buying multiple used cars at a time, one, presumably, for my mother who never drove it. These purchases were more grist for her mocking mill. He taught me to drive and how to curse at the other drivers and I started driving on my own, with no license or permit, at age 13. I would usually inherit the car my mother rejected (another way of rejecting him as well) which was great for me but, again, for all the wrong reasons.
Later in life Dad learned how to make the same money and work a little less. This didn’t mean he was hanging around the house. What attraction did that hold? If he had a free afternoon, he’d spend it wining and dining his customers or just hanging out at his favorite restaurant. Sometimes, when I was in college, he’d call me from that place if I was home and I’d swing by and join him for lunch and some drinks. He would stay out as long as he could, I believe, to minimize his time with my mother. He’d roll in around dinner time. She’d have made a meal but he had already eaten out and that would hatch another battle. Sometimes I’d see him sit at the dinner table and eat when I knew he was full already just to get her off his back.
Why these people stayed together may seem a mystery but consider the time and the attitudes toward divorce among old-time Italians – it didn’t happen. Even if a man had a mistress he would never leave his wife for the other woman. I think my mother felt her options were very limited without my father, as unpleasant as the marriage may have been. Where would she go? Back to the bosom of her family? That held no attraction and she was far too depressed to make it on her own. My father wouldn’t think of divorce because it would signal a failure on his part – and it would have been the only one in his family. My mother threatened to leave any number of times and my father’s response was always “Go ahead – see how far you get without me.” I think it was only posturing on my mother’s part but it terrified me. At one point, I think my mother actually visited an attorney but nothing came of it. My father told me the attorney had told her she had no cause to seek a divorce – his version of events, no doubt. In those days there were no “no-fault” divorces. You had to have grounds for the separation.
In any event, the rage cooled with age, toward the end of their half century together, into just a tolerating disregard for each other. They still functioned as a couple but my mother had her ways – like making my father wait in the car for hours when he took her shopping for what was to be just a “quick in and out” or greeting my father’s return from work with stony silence or some crack about what bar he’d rolled in from. My father maintained an uncaring attitude toward these gibes and daggers. He wasn’t, he said, going to let this get him down and prevent him from having his fun. This was his way of striking back. My mother wasn’t important enough to him to get upset about. Their 47 years together culminated in this non-relationship.
As my own, independent life developed I paid less attention to their feud and spent less and less time in that house – a trick I learned from my father. Then, as time went on and they approached old age, I became their parent.
Next time: Chapter 6: “Just One Year”