Saddest of Smiles

Scroll down or click on “home” to read subsequent chapters in the history of my family – the story of where I came from.

This is chapter 1.

I don’t write this as a tell-all.  I don’t intend this as an indictment.  I certainly don’t want to put another “wah-wah my family screwed me up” tale of woe out there.  My history and that of my immediate and extended family is, of course, of great importance to me and I wondered if it might be entertaining to anyone else.  It’s a long story and it’s taken me a lifetime to make sense of it and to understand its effects.  The tale needs to be presented in chapters and this post will be the first.

I’ve been told who you are depends on where you’re from and who was your family to a greater extent than we realize and the American mythology of hard work and self-made individuals is still hostage to our history.  This tale is the tapestry of what makes me me.  It’s not always a happy history.  I’ll only speak about myself as it relates to the yesteryear of my family.  I have changed the names of family members to protect their memories and to protect myself from claims of libel or slander from any of my remaining cousins. The names of my family members are meaningless to anyone outside the family, anyway.  What’s important is what those family members did and said and what it meant to me.   Everyone has their own unique family quilt which produced them.  This is mine and I hope it’s a good story.

Chapter 1: Maternal Beginnings

My parents lived what I consider a pretty hard life before I came along.  While life became more comfortable, starting with their suburban migration, I don’t think it got any easier right up till the day they died.

My mother was one of about 13 children in a fractious family.  I’ll call her Elvira which was, actually, her real name although she never used it.  She was born in 1910.  I’m not absolutely certain about the number of her siblings.  That information wasn’t forthcoming when I was a kid, as were many other topics which were taboo except in whispers and gossip.  There were passing mentions of still births and deaths, but nothing more detailed than that.  Her family migrated out of New York City, where she was born, as did legions of other Italian immigrant families, and settled in an equally urban area of Hudson County, New Jersey. Her parents were Neapolitan immigrants, as were my father’s parents, no doubt economic escapees from the old country. There was absolutely no discussion of the European or immigration history of her family which is telling in itself.  The running joke was that my mother’s Italian ancestors were thieves.  Given the behavior of their American progeny, that gene pool was showing.  My only recollection of a mention of anyone else in my grandparents’ generation was during a visit to a cemetery in Bergen County when I was an older child where, supposedly, some of them were buried.  Those phantom relatives, I was told, worked in the infant east coast motion picture business as some sort of film stock handlers.  I seem to remember talk of one of them being injured or killed in a silver nitrate fire which was common in early film stock.  Given the modest ambitions of the rest of my mother’s family, as we’ll talk about in another chapter, these film industry professionals were regarded as having an exalted place in the working history of the family.

I don’t know my maternal grandfather’s name – I never met him.  He was alive, I think, when I was young but was not a member of the family and did not live with them.  I was told he was a shoe maker with a shop in the same city where his family lived and it was rumored he lived in that shop.  I don’t know the circumstances of this estrangement, nor if his marriage to my grandmother was legally dissolved or just left to expire on its own nor if he contributed to the financial welfare of his family.  I don’t know the chronology or circumstances of his death, or anything else about him for that matter.  He was not spoken of with any affection. This kind of detail was left unspoken in my mother’s family and these kind of specifics were of no great importance to me growing up.  I never pursued this kind of information later as the circumstances of my own life became more important.  I don’t regret this lack of knowledge.  The fact that my grandfather was absent and poorly regarded is, in itself, what’s important.  In fact, what I do know about both my families was more the result of my observations and the overhearing of conversations and less about a comprehensive narrative provided by my parents.  What bits and pieces my parents did tell me, I realized later, were not anywhere near an objective truth but, rather, colored by their likes, dislikes and prejudices.

I never had the desire to research my family using tools like  The gaps in my knowledge of my family’s history are an integral part of my feelings toward my people.  The blanks, secrets, absences, feuds, gossip and lies were an essential part of the fabric of where I came from.  Learning whatever facts are available online won’t change or amplify that.  I understand that what was “common knowledge” among those people wasn’t always the truth and learning the online facts won’t make any difference.  My acceptance of my family’s half-truths shaped my younger self until I reached an age where I began to perceive glimpses of reality. Only then was I able to start to put these people and my history in perspective and to begin to understand how it affected me.  Eventually understanding that the family stories spun to me as a child were, at best, partly fabricated, gives me more insight than any bland data filling in the blanks.

My maternal grandmother, let’s call her Philomena, was an old lady by the time I came along and she died when I was 5 or 6. I’m pretty sure of that chronology because I remember going to the cemetery when she was buried and wondering why my aunts and uncles didn’t seem glad to see me that day, the way a non-logical child would wonder.  That makes me think I was younger than 7, when children become more  attuned to reality.

I remember going to her walk up apartment to visit her with my parents. It was in a large, nondescript apartment building on a busy street in an large, Husdon County town, hemmed in by other structures with an unremarkable street entrance close to the curb.  When you reached the apartment, up the stairs from the street, the top of the staircase was right in the apartment rather than in an outside hallway which strikes me as odd but I remember that distinctly.  The place always smelled of gas – natural gas – although the cooking stove was fired by wood.  It was a big, black, cast iron stove and oven with a wood burning chamber and a smooth cook-top with round metal cut-outs you could remove with a handle to expose the flame below.  The whole thing dominated the small kitchen with a huge vent pipe sunk into the wall behind it.  The kitchen was dwarfed by the huge adjacent dining room, with enormous, intricately carved dining room furniture.  The living room, in the front of the unit, overlooked the avenue which I remember being boulevard size with the hustle and bustle to match.  The apartment was of the “railroad” design with all the rooms connecting to a long, dark, common hallway that ran front to back eventually terminating in the front living room.  I remember the kitchen was in the rear of the apartment, then working forward was the dining room, then the bedrooms, then the living room.  It must have been a large apartment with many bedrooms since my many aunts and uncles lived there at one time or another.  This rental – I’m guessing they didn’t own it – was the dominant abode for family visits while my mother’s mother was alive.  We didn’t have the same connection with my father’s family, as will be explained in another chapter.

Grandma was a small, thin, quiet, unsmiling woman. She may have been sickly and I don’t remember her ever being jolly. I suppose if I had that many children and no husband to speak of I’d be dour as well.  She probably wondered if her trip across the ocean had actually bettered her life. The common American dream is of doting grandparents who spoil you rotten as a kid.  No such luck here.  I have no recollection of any interaction with her at all beyond being presented to her on these family visits.  She would sit, all but motionless, and would manage a tiny smile, more a sad smirk, and pat me on the head or something like that. I was one of a fair amount of grandchildren, given the number of her children and I don’t remember ever feeling special in her presence.

There was none of that gregarious Italian family atmosphere in that apartment.  That came later, with a twist, among my many aunts and uncles.  In that matriarchal abode there was a feeling that I, even as a small child, recall of a situation being kept going on life support with the quiet of impending bad news in the air.  The visits to her seemed more mandatory than by loving choice.  I don’t ever recall witnessing any warmth or connection between my mother and her mother.  Maybe I was too young to see it but I suspect not.  That kind of connection is obvious even to the youngest of children.  There may have been big, noisy family dinners there with lots of people gathered around that outsized dining room set but I really can’t recall any.  Again, maybe I was too young to remember or maybe there wasn’t anything like that at all.

I don’t know what became of that apartment after my grandmother died, whether it stayed in the family or not.  I’m guessing there was never any sentimental attachment to that real estate.  There was no sign of it while she was alive that I could sense. That Philomena died when I was very young is confirmed because I don’t ever remember being in her apartment when I could see the top of the dining room table.  I vividly remember ever being only eye level to the overly carved dining room table legs.

I remember the cemetery when she was buried.  It’s so huge it straddles 2 towns.  The westerly entrance to the cemetery is on the main street of a small, pleasant suburban town.  By the time you reach the eastern-most part of the park, you’re closer to the coastal, urban, seaport sprawl of northern New Jersey with cat-tails and wetlands up close and bridges, highways and New York City on the horizon. Many of my family members from both sides are buried there and my parents are in the newer mausoleum. The day of Grandma’s burial was sunny but the cemetery was muddy with construction vehicles all around.  I remember thinking we were close to the little store where we bought Italian cheesecake.  The street that housed that store was just beyond the eastern cemetery gate and other cemetery visits usually ended with a cheesecake purchase.  I never liked Italian ricotta cheesecake – despite my parents’ obvious passion for it.  Whenever we bought cheesecake we couldn’t just go to the supermarket or a local bakery – and cream cheese based cheesecake was out of the question.  No, we had to make this God-awful trek to this crummy store in the middle of nowhere.  It always seemed to take forever to get there and the store itself was a pathetic, little, cement facade specialty store – the kind Italians swear by.  It looked to me to be on the edge of civilization because the corner where it stood gave way to a swamp and the entrance to a highway.  You had to get there early in the day because, even though it was the only thing they sold, they’d run out of their precious ricotta slabs presented in a plain cardboard box and tied with red and white string.  Italians love the idea that you have to get it before it’s gone.  It smacks of authenticity and exclusivity.  As a child I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t make enough when you know lots of people wanted it – I still don’t.

But, sure enough, we bought a cheesecake after the funeral – I guess it was early enough in the day – and everyone gathered, one last time, at Grandma’s place.   Then, after that, all at once, we were no longer making the obligatory pilgrimage to the apartment and my grandmother’s chapter closed with hardly a sound.

Next time: The Sanest One – My mother’s place among the aunts and uncles and their stories.

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