Scroll up or click on “home” to see Chapters 1 and 2 of my family’s history.
The history of my family continues, here, with this:
Chapter 3: Paterno Familia
My father’s family was smaller than my mother’s. Four brothers and one sister were the whole tribe and one son died during World War II. Despite their size they were no less compelling than the other side of my family but in a very different way.
My grandfather, Victoriano seems like a nice name, was a Neapolitan immigrant to this country in the early 20th century. He arrived at Ellis Island with his mother and brother. The brother was found to have smallpox. Unlike the quarantine and eventual acceptance Vito Andolini was granted in The Godfather, the US told Victoriano’s brother to go back to Italy and denied him entry into this country. V’s mother told him she had to return to Italy with her sick son and that he, Victoriano, should stay in America. He was about 17, I am told, and he entered a new country alone, never seeing his mother again.
I have no details on how he survived his younger years in America. He must have been smart and driven because by the time the 1920’s arrived he had moved out of New York City and owned textile factories in New England, had married and sired his entire family. I know what you’re thinking – maybe he was another Vito Corleone – but if you spent 5 minutes with this man you’d see that could not be so. He was the kindest, most pleasant, gentlest, saddest man I ever met when I knew him in his later years. He was drop-dead gorgeous, also. He looked like a shorter version of Marcello Mastroianni, the Italian film star.
My father didn’t respect him – said he was a weakling. I suspect there was some resentment there because Victoriano re-married after my grandmother died of an abscessed tooth. My father was 14 at the time and this hit him hard. His mother was a huge woman and the driving force in the family, by all accounts. I have an antique photo of her on my stairway and she glowers down on me everyday as I embark down the stairs. She was, according to my father, a force to be reckoned with and the glue that held the family together. He was devastated that such a substantial and vibrant person could be felled by a puny tooth. When she died her husband retreated into himself, another brother lay on the couch weeping for 2 weeks and my father, not the oldest, assumed the head of the household duties, by default, with responsibilities for all of them, including an infant sister who never knew her mother. I’m sure my father resented his father’s inability to be a strong patriarch when his wife died. Whenever my father waxed nostalgic about his childhood his fondest memories seemed to be for his mother.
As if this weren’t enough trauma for one family, my grandfather lost everything in The Crash of 1929. They had to leave their, by all accounts, lovely home in New England and migrated to Hudson County, NJ. These children were not city kids. They had grown up in civilized New England and were unprepared for the rough and tumble ways of urban New Jersey. The brothers, it was said, got beat up by the English and Irish kids on the block almost every day until they wised up and learned to fight – and fight dirty. I can empathize with any Americans who feel they are at the bottom of society’s scale by remembering how low in the barrel Italians were in the early 20th century.
My grandfather became a tailor and his children were not encouraged to excel or even continue in school. My father boasted he only had a grammar school education. By all accounts there wasn’t much parental guidance at all. Whatever leadership was needed in the family came from my father, even as a boy, according to him. The second marriage did not last and I know my father was worried his step mother was taking advantage of his father. In his later years, Victoriano was frail and in poor health and it was my father, more than any of the other siblings, who saw to his daily needs. I remember going to my grandfather’s apartment with my father. V always seemed really glad to see me and would converse with me, sitting at his kitchen table in his broken English. This was another trait my father sneered at – all these years in this country and he still couldn’t speak the language. I don’t remember the circumstances of his death. He was a nice man and I don’t believe he deserved the scorn my father felt for him.
My father always seemed to be in charge when it came to his family. His surviving brothers and kid sister were deferential to him and weren’t invited into the decision-making loop. Dad was a man of some charisma, very bright, with a very grand disposition and was the self-appointed center of attention. This trait loomed again as I began to achieve some success in later life only to discover my father had co-opted some of the spotlight for himself, even at my expense.
This is not an indictment of the man although, later, I realized he was not my hero. He had a hard life and it shaped him as did the times he grew up in. After surviving The Depression, he was drafted into the Army in World War II and saw 107 non-contiguous days of combat during his years of service. Anyone who has served will tell you that’s a lot. He was with Patton racing through France chasing the Germans out of town after town and he was in The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Finally, after being wounded multiple times, the Army made him a Provost Marshall, that is, the military mayor of the towns they liberated, rather than sending him back to the front lines. Dad supervised multiple French towns in that country’s wine and champagne producing districts. He enjoyed this duty, by all accounts, supervising the remaining gendarmerie, making sure the prostitutes’ identity cards were in order, discovering underground wine cellars the length of entire towns and acting as judge and jury in local disputes. Can you imagine a job more perfect for this grandiose personality?
He had some ripping combat stories and I’ll recount a couple only because of their entertainment value. Assigned to reconnaissance in the 11th Armored Division of Patton’s army, my father was the navigator and gunner in, what was then called, an armored car – half tank, half truck, 2 big guns, a machine gun and always on point. It was their job to go ahead of the main fighting force, find the enemy, radio the position and then run like hell. Their life expectancy in combat was measured in minutes. My father instructed the driver of the vehicle by stomping his foot on the man’s shoulders, left shoulder, go left, etc. The driver was all but blind in his position in the car under my father. The crew was 4 soldiers, the driver, the navigator/gunner, a second gunner and the machine gun operator. My father was crew chief, of course.
They were always way out there alone, for days, and, once time, according to my father, they were scouting on point and they heard commotion just over the crest of an oncoming hill. They parked the armored car and crawled up to the hill to peek over to the valley below. They discovered a large German encampment. They also saw a mess tent and smelled hot food – something they had not seen in days. In a fit of inspiration, they removed all insignia from their coveralls, sidled down the hill and joined the mess line, only smiling and grunting if addressed. Once they ate, and he said it was one of the better meals he had in Europe, they disappeared back up the hill, re-joined their vehicle, and called in an air strike which obliterated the German camp. It’s one of those stories that, even if made-up, is a pretty good yarn.
My father also remembered being in snow up to his hips in the Bulge, knowing the Germans were shooting at him by seeing the flicks their bullets made nearby in the snow and laying on the hood of a jeep for warmth as he was driven off the field when wounded. He was 28 when he was drafted and was called “Pops” by the other soldiers, not even in their 20’s. He remained a corporal for his entire tour of duty. His commanding officers were all younger than him and he remembers his Company Commander in the Ardennes, a 20-something captain, hysterically losing his mind in the heat of the moment. My father never admitted to any fear, regret or depression related to his war-time duty. On the contrary, he said it was the most exciting time of his life and, his words, the most fun. I take this with a grain of salt. Unlike many veterans of combat who don’t like to remember their time in uniform and won’t talk about it, my father cheerfully recounted his exploits all over Europe. He remembered taking Italian prisoners of war back to the rear and railing at them for being on the wrong side and accepting their disinterested shrugs as a typical Italian response. He made German prisoners his servants and cooks as his unit moved across France and took great pleasure in ordering them around. Then there was the time Russian soldiers encamped near him poisoned themselves with home made vodka. He would never admit to anything else which would imply weakness except, once, he said he looked through his firing scope and saw what his 50mm gun had done to a German soldier. He said it made him sick. That was the only time I saw his narcissistic bravado crack.
He married my mother after he was drafted and before he went to Europe. I suppose he wanted something to be worth staying alive for and to come home to. However, his war-time tales included detailed accounts of trysts with ladies in Europe. This never sat right with me. I didn’t want to know this in the first place, and it didn’t help my overall estimation of his character. He always praised my mother for keeping their apartment so beautifully while he was in the Army. That didn’t seem to matter to him when, in one of his stories, he had a fling with a Hungarian countess. Italians use the words goomah or goomara to describe a mistress. It’s an accepted thing in Italian Old World thinking that a married man will have a little on the side. In fact, Pasta Puttanesca gets it name from the tradition in Italy of mistresses only visiting the grocer once a week so as to not run into the wives. They had to buy items that would keep for the week and capers, olives and anchovies, the main ingredients in that dish were among those type of foods. Puttanesca is a derivative of a very rude Italian word for a part of the female anatomy. My father’s behavior in Europe was, evidently, in keeping with this Old World tradition. I never respected that tradition. I believe it cheapens everyone involved.
My father was the only one of his family to see combat. His brother Aaron was also in the Army but died while in service of an illness. His brother Mark was in the Army, but, according to my father, guarded a coal pile for 3 years in the war. Mark was a nice man but a bit simple. He didn’t move out of Hudson County until he was mugged 3 times and then only at the insistence of his children. Later on, my father used him as an assistant in his window-trimming business and the two of them seemed like the main characters in Of Mice and Men, Mark being Lenny.
Antonio, another brother, had the same sad smile as my grandfather. He was also a very pleasant bear of a man who was always very sweet to me. He died of cancer when I was out of college. He married into a family – and I’m going to tread very carefully here – of questionable integrity. He drove a truck for them for his entire working life. His father-in-law, the family Patriarch, was said to be a very powerful man in Hudson County. One of my cousins from that family was the deputy mayor of the county’s largest city. His Honor would show up at weddings and funerals, flanked by bodyguards and hand out $10 bills to the kids saying, “This is for you. Don’t tell your mother!” Once, I showed my mother the money and she took it away from me – I should have taken his advice and not told her. That cousin disappeared one day and no-one in the family had anything to say about it. I remember the Patriarch having his hand kissed by other people at these gatherings and I vividly remember him and a circle of men surrounding my father, newly back from the war with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and numerous theatre of war ribbons. My father would be in the center of this circle, looking down at his shoes and shaking his head, no. I later found out these men wanted my dad to join the family business, he was a bit of a hero after all. After he died the Department of Defense sent me a re-issue of all his ribbons and medals in a beautiful case. It was quite a collection. My father resisted the Patriarch’s offer and it’s why he dragged my mother to the suburbs in order to get away from that environment. He later told me “If I had said yes they would have owned me for the rest of my life”. Of course, it was a smart move but I wonder if he resisted because he disapproved of them or if it was because, if he said yes, he would never be in charge again.
Finally, my Aunt Irma was everyone’s kid sister and all the brothers felt responsible for her and parented her since she never knew her mother. She always struck me, in later life, as the smartest one of the whole bunch, even if her choice of spouse was unwise. He was a drunk and smacked her around until all the brothers showed up at his door and set him straight. I remember their home in Bergen County. I visited there often, which was unusual because my mother resisted contact with my father’s family. But there I was, in my youth, on summer days playing with my 2 cousins. Their boy, Billy, was born only a few weeks before me. He died recently of cancer, only months after his mother passed. On one occasion, relatives from the New England branch of the family came to visit. My great-uncle – my grandfather’s brother – emigrated later than my grandfather and established a brood near Bean Town. 3 generations came to visit including a girl cousin about my age – we were middle schoolers at the time. This set off a weird and frantic competition between Billy and me for this girl’s approval. I don’t remember winning.
Later in my life when I was beginning my theatrical career, I was directing a musical in New Jersey and, lo and behold, Irma’s husband was the scenery builder. I had to reject his sets because he built them from construction grade materials with construction techniques and they were way too heavy and unwieldy for theatrical use. Theatre sets are built to last for a short time – these were built to last forever. The poor, drunken sod died of COPD and my aunt went on to become one of the leaders of an organization dedicated to eradicating that disease. She was a tireless, selfless advocate and a favorite among my memories.
My father’s family was not close in the usual sense. There was no regular communication. They weren’t feuding or anything like that, they just didn’t seem to have much of a connection. One day we learned that Antonio had lived in the same town as us for 20 years and we didn’t know it. My father didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about them – nothing nasty either – he just seemed neutral, sort of like how a general feels about his troops. There’s a phrase in Italian, si tira avanti, which means, roughly, when things get tough you just pull ahead. My father’s family all seemed like exhausted survivors who could only summon energy enough to keep going without the frills of family feelings.
Next time: “Damon Runyon Redux” – The Childhood Neighborhood