by Maria Lagalante Schulz
I am a lucky girl. I grew up with two loving, hardworking parents and six rowdy brothers. I always knew that my brothers would love me, defend me, and protect me to the death against anyone who raised a hand against me. That is, anyone outside the house. Inside the house, you had better be fast, smart, or really good at hiding, or chances were you might not get out of childhood alive.
The best part of having so many brothers was sitting across from them at the table. Each night at 5 pm, our mother served dinner, and every one of us children were expected to be there. Jude and Chris had “their” seats, but Tony, Louie, Paul, Joey and I would tear into the kitchen, desperate to fit at the cramped little table.
Since my father and mother ate when he got home from work, dinner was usually a free-for-all. Mom would put dinner in the middle of the table and we’d dig in. The older brothers would help us younger ones serve ourselves the meat, vegetables, bread and drinks.
Usually, my older brothers were very helpful. But some nights, their patience would be severely limited. One night in particular, as I lunged across the table for a biscuit, Jude plunged his fork into my hand.
“Ouch!” I yelled, as I pulled the fork out of my hand. “What did you do that for?”
“It’s time you learned some manners,” Jude said.
“That’s right, Jude,” Mom replied. “Why don’t you teach her manners right after you teach her how to survive a knife fight?”
My mother and Jude were forever locked in battle. In many ways, my mother was the Czar Nicholas to Jude’s Rasputin; revolution was always just around the corner.
Mostly, dinner was a noisy, raucous and fun time. Everyone spoke over everyone else. We laughed, we argued, we spilled drinks, dropped forks and shared jokes. On some nights, when dinner conflicted with the airing of a really great show on The 4:30 Movie, we would abandon the kitchen to eat at the dining room table, where we could swing the television around to watch it.
We chewed on lasagna and Italian bread as we watched The Great Escape and hoped that this time, oh maybe this time, the Prisoners of War would make it out at last. I secretly swooned over James Garner while Jude and Louie admired Steve McQueen’s superior motorcycle skills. I cursed Donald Pleasance for his blindness; wouldn’t James Garner have been skiing in Switzerland instead of in danger with the Nazis if it weren’t for him? Tony would yell things like “the tunnel is too short,” as if they could hear him or “why doesn’t everyone just ride a bike like James Coburn?”
My brothers and I also wolfed down burgers and fries while we watched Chicken George and his wife jump the broom in Roots. We discussed such deep philosophical ideas as: do you think Kizzie really spit in the water that Sandy Duncan drank? Did they have to kill off James in Good Times so that he could play the mature, half-footed Kunta Kinte? How many days would it take to watch this miniseries (which I thought was pronounced ‘minisery’ and not mini-series) when you could only see it in 1 ½ hour increments, and most of that time was taken up by commercials—so you were really only seeing about 40 minutes each day?
We also discussed the pointlessness of horror movies like The Blob. Really, how terrifying was a big, messy blob of goo that couldn’t run and could easily be avoided if you just walked around it? If Steve McQueen was such a great motorcycle rider, why didn’t he just pop a wheelie over it and ride away?
Yes, these were the great existential thoughts that we pondered as my mother heaped big steaming mounds of food on our plates. Dinner’s end would coincide with the end of the movie, and Tony would command us all to “clean, clean, clean!” before we could all scatter to the four corners of the universe.
As usual, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This sums up all those years that I grew up by my brothers’ sides. Seven very different personalities in one tiny house, with a father who made Joseph Stalin seem like a softie and a mother who made Santa Claus seem like he really could learn a thing or two about benevolence from her, made life interesting to say the least.
But no matter what, I always knew that my parents and brothers had their hearts in the right places, even if the facts seemed to contradict that idea.
Take, for instance, St. Patrick’s Day. My mother decided to treat us to corn beef and cabbage, with boiled potatoes and biscuits. She cooked, she slaved, and when it was all done, we held up our plates in eager anticipation. Mom served everyone and then got to me. As I held my plate out to her, she ladled the meat onto my plate—and dropped steaming hot grease onto my hand.
I screamed as the hot liquid bit into my flesh. For a moment, my mother looked around, as if one of my brothers had done something to me. But in a flash, she dropped the platter of meat and whisked me off to the bathroom.
“Hold your hand under the cold water,” she said, as my finger and hand proceeded to morph into one big, angry looking blister.
I knew that my mother didn’t do this to me on purpose. It was an accident, and nobody felt worse about it than my mother. But she was inconsolable every time she looked at my hand.
A few days later, as I sat at the table with my hand wrapped in gauze, my mother smiled at me. “I have a surprise for you!” she said.
For dessert, my mother brought out a cherry cheesecake that she had obviously slaved over for hours.
“Uggh,” Jude said. “I hate cheesecake!”
“I’d rather have brownies,” Tony said.
“I can’t eat that,” Chris blurted.
Louie and Joey seconded that emotion.
Even Paul shook his head. “Cheesecake’s not really my thing.”
My mother frowned. “I didn’t really make it for you guys anyway. Here Maria, have a slice.”
I kept my hands away from the table as she served me, just in case.
Up to that point, I had never had cheesecake and I really had no great desire to have any that night. But my mother was clearly trying to do something nice for me, so I smiled and dug in.
When it was clear that no one but me was going to eat that cheesecake—my brothers had long since abandoned me at the table—I looked at Mom. She was so disappointed that no one wanted any.
“Have some more,” she said, as she placed another huge slice on my plate.
I didn’t want any more, but she looked happier when I ate it, so I smiled and had another slice.
When Dad came home later, she gave him a slice and implored me to have another. “You like it so much!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no, I really didn’t like it. The cherries tasted weird and my taste buds were more attuned to the joys of Twinkies than cheesecake. But she had worked so hard and she was clearly pleased by the fact that I was enjoying it.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, as I smiled. Just a few more bites, and I’d be done….
The next morning, I woke with a start. My father was hovering over me, staring at me like he had just spotted the bearded lady at the circus.
He whistled. “Whooooo,” he said, like an amazed owl.
“What?” I said, through lips that felt oddly misshaped. I lifted my un-burned hand to my face and touched my mouth. My lips felt about a hundred times bigger than I remembered them being; my eyes felt like tiny slits.
“Nothing,” my father said, as he walked towards his room to summon my mother. “Just don’t look in the mirror.”
With those words ringing in my ears, I shot out of bed and lunged for my mirror.
There I was, in all my misshapen glory. My head looked like someone had come into my room in the middle of the night with an air pump and blown me up bigger than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Kermit and Snoopy had nothing on me! My entire face was red and blotchy; my eyes were almost completely shut; and my lips could hardly open.
My mother came into the room and leaped back when she saw me.
“Do you think she has the German measles?” My father said.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied. “But I think we have to go see Dr. Samuels.”
Dr. Samuels was our family doctor. Mom would shepherd who ever was sick off to see him, and we’d sit in big, overstuffed red leatherette chairs and couches, watching the other patients and hoping Dr. Samuels would get to us eventually. You’d make a mental note of who was there when you arrived, and then when it was finally your turn, you’d stand up triumphantly when Dr. S. came out of that examining room door and said, “Who’s next?”
So, that day, after we lunged to our feet like the happy contestants who get told to COME ON DOWN on The Price Is Right, my mother and I followed Dr. Samuels to his examining room and I climbed up on the table.
Dr. S. looked a bit frightened when he looked closely at me. “What the heck happened to you?”
That’s what I’d like to know I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to anger my curmudgeonly, needle-owning doctor. “I woke up like this,” I said through my now huge lips.
“We thought maybe she has German measles,” my mother explained.
Dr. Samuels nodded. “What color is your mucus?”
No matter what was troubling you, Dr. Samuels would inevitably say, “What color is your mucus?”
It didn’t matter if you were there with a sprained knee, fleabites or a ruptured aorta. Apparently, the color of your mucus was the key to deciphering any and every medical mystery.
I shrugged. I hadn’t made a mental note of my mucus that day, which was a shame, since I knew it would be the first question he asked me and I liked to get the answers to things right. “Um, white? Yellow? Green?” I said, searching for the answer that he wanted.
He stuck his ice-cold stethoscope on my chest and tried to open my eyes with his pudgy fingers. “What did she eat last night? Anything new?”
My mother shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I did make her a cherry cheesecake.”
He had his “aha!” moment. “That’s it! Were they maraschino cherries?” Dr. S. asked.
“Yes,” my mother replied.
“She’s having a severe allergic reaction,” he said. He handed her a packet of Benadryl. “There’s water right here. She needs to take one of these now, before her tongue swells up and she chokes to death.”
My mother, clearly shaken, raced to give me a paper cup with water and shove that pill down my throat. Once it was down, she held up my hand and asked Dr. S. to look at it. “I was serving her corn beef and cabbage, and I ladled some grease on her hand,” my mother explained.
Dr. Samuels gave her a withering look. “What are you doing to this poor child?” he exclaimed.
My mother was on the verge of tears. “I was trying to do something nice!” she blurted.
Dr. Samuels patted her on the shoulder. “Oh well, no sense getting crazy over it.”
He looked at my hand, changed the dressing and handed my mother some ointment. “Make sure you change this dressing a few times a day and keep reapplying this ointment. She’s going to have a nasty scar. And please, no more Maraschino Cherries,” he said, as if this was something that any moron should’ve known, even before yesterday.
“Okay,” my mother sniffled. “When can she go back to school?”
“Oh forget it!” Dr. S. exclaimed. “The swelling will subside, but those blotchy red marks may be there for awhile. I doubt they’ll let her back in until those clear up, because they’ll think she does have the German measles. I’d say she’ll be home with you for awhile.”
My mother was clearly not pleased, but I couldn’t have been happier if he’d told me I’d just won The Showcase Showdown—and it included two brand new cars, a trip to Paris and a boatload of cash!
I may have looked like The Elephant Man, but I didn’t mind. For two solid weeks, I got to sleep late, and then stand there in my pajamas while my brothers pulled on their Catholic school uniforms and got ready for school. I blew them kisses from my enormous lips and waved from the window while they scowled at me.
For days on end, those red blotches were my ticket to some serious Mommy & Me time. Since it was early spring, my Mom took me to Kissena Park and we fed the ducks almost every day. We went shopping with my grandmother on Main Street in Flushing. We cooked dinner together and Mom told me stories about her dating days and how she and my Dad met. My Mom showered me with gifts; paper dolls, craft kits, and Dawn dolls littered my dressers as Chris looked on jealously.
“I should’ve had some cheesecake!” he wailed.
At the end of the two weeks, my mother had an even bigger surprise in store for us.
“Tonight you’re going to the circus with Father O’Leary!” she said.
Father O’Leary was a priest that my parents were friends with from their prayer meeting. With a shock of white hair and an Irish brogue that was thicker than the yellow pages, the good Father seemed like a fun and playful figure in our lives, and our parents were happy to have him take us places like a devoted Uncle.
About this time, it was starting to dawn on me that Father O’Leary was more like a funny Uncle than a devoted one. I had plenty of uncles, and while most of them didn’t mind taking you here or there, to the dairy to get milk for their coffee or to the candy store for their cigarettes, none of them begged my parents to let them take us places for more than 10 minutes at a time. But not Father O’Leary. He acted as though the idea of spending countless hours with young, bickering children was the answer to his prayers.
For some reason, Father O’Leary was the only person my two dogs, Goldie and Henry, despised. He would walk through the door, and the dogs would swing into action. Every hair on Goldie’s long head would stand on edge; Henry’s normally placid demeanor would change and he’d become Cujo on a bad day. Both dogs would lunge at him and try to place themselves between him and us kids. My parents thought this was funny; I began to believe that my dogs were the only ones with brains in that house.
Recently, Father O’Leary’s jaunts with us were becoming increasingly bizarre. One Palm Sunday, he came over and asked our parents if he could take Joey, Paul, Chris and me to Coney Island to have fun at the amusement park. My parents said sure!
So, off we went to Coney Island, where everyone but us was having fun. Father O’Leary nursed a beer while his face grew darker and darker. He made us stand there and watch the other children playing games and shrieking with delight on the rides.
“Are we going on the rides?” Chris asked.
“Whaddya think, I’m made o’ money?” Father O’Leary growled.
We stood there for another hour until he threw his cup away. “I’ll be taking you home now.”
The winter before, he piled the four of us, plus four other young kids, into his Grand Le Mans sedan and took us to a rectory in Westchester. We were supposed to go sleigh riding, but once we were there, he couldn’t find any sleighs. This filled Father O’Leary with incredulity; I mean, doesn’t every rectory keep sleighs there in case he decides to bring a carload of children over for a day of sleigh riding?
The eight of us kids ran up and down the hills, throwing snow balls at each other and making snow men while Father O’Leary stood there, looking annoyed and terribly put out.
“I’m hungry,” Chris said.
“Don’t you worry,” Father O’Leary said, about 3 hours into our little odyssey. “We’ll be getting pizza in a bit!”
Hours later, as darkness filled the sky, Father O’Leary put the eight of us in his car and started driving around the neighborhood, in search of a pizzeria. We were cold, tired, and soaked.
“Do you think he’ll let us come in and eat at the pizza place?” I whispered to Chris.
“Whaddya think, I’m made o’ money?” Chris said in his best Father O’Leary voice. I stifled a laugh.
Father O’Leary did find a pizzeria, but when we got there, he left us in the car and ran inside. He emerged ten minutes later with one pizza for the 9 of us.
“Are we going to eat here?” Paul said.
“Now don’t you worry,” Father O’Leary replied. “I’ve got friends nearby.”
We drove about five more miles to a tiny house on the side of the road. As all eight of us kids stumbled from the car, we rang the bell, unsure of who we were going to meet.
“Father O’Leary?” our reluctant hostess said as she pushed the door open just a crack. Her husband and children sat at the kitchen table, eating dinner.
“Helllooooooo!” Father O’Leary yelled, as he pushed his way past the owner.
“You won’t be minding if we use your dining room table for dinner, now will ya?” Father O’Leary said, as he cleared off some of the owner’s papers and dumped us at the table.
“Uh, no, sure,” the lady stammered.
Chris and I giggled nervously as the children who lived there watched us eat. When the pie was done, Father O’Leary jumped up from the table and waved.
“Thanks!” he yelled, as we marched out of their living room and back into the car.
So, as thrilling as going to the circus may have been, going anywhere with Father O’Leary had the potential for disaster written all over it. It wasn’t really my parents’ fault that we kept going places with Father O’Leary; we were so young that we didn’t understand how bizarre his behavior was or that he was slightly dangerous, especially after downing a few beers. We never told our parents what was going on because I, for one, thought it was perfectly clear that Father O’Leary was insane. Even Goldie and Henry knew it!
“He never lets us get anything,” I warned my mother.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Mom replied. “I’ll give him enough money so you can get something to eat and maybe some small souvenirs. Dad has to work tonight and I can’t go. Trust me, you’ll have fun!”
I was stir crazy and sick of sitting in the house every night. The daily excursions had been great, but I was tired of not being around other people. I didn’t need much convincing to go to the circus, even if it was with Father O’Leary.
That night, as Father O’Leary drank his beers and refused to buy us one single thing, Chris, Paul and I somehow managed to enjoy the show. There were the amazing acrobats, the roaring lions, and the silly clowns who pretended to fall from the high wire. Paul would point to one ring; Chris would point to another. Meanwhile, I tried to watch all three rings, as well as Father O’Leary, from the corner of my eye. Later that night, Chris defended me as little girls pointed at me and whispered.
“Her blotches will go away, but you’ll always be ugly!” he said to one redhead.
We left Madison Square Garden and made the trek home. We just needed to make it back to Queens without any incidences for the night to be a complete success….
And that’s when Father O’Leary did the worst thing possible. He asked Paul for directions.
“How d’ya get to yer house from here?” he said.
Paul got confused since we were going east on the LIE; we usually came from the west. “You need to get off at Oceania,” Paul said.
“No, Paul,” I said, as I turned around to face him in the backseat of the car. I’d somehow gotten the dubious honor of riding shotgun. “You need to get off at Springfield Boulevard because there is no Oceania exit going east.”
“No, Maria, you’re wrong.”
“No, Paul, she’s right,” Chris chimed in.
“WHDDYA ALL JUST SHUDDUP?” Father O’Leary exploded. “Paul is the oldest, I’m sure he knows a thing or two about directions.”
I looked at Chris in the side view mirror; I could see him in the back of the car as he stuck his tongue out at me and nodded ominously. I could feel the laughter bubbling up. “Okay,” I said, as I fought off laughter.
About twenty minutes later, when Father O’Leary realized that we were now in Douglaston, and he’d shot past Bayside, he started cursing and pounding the steering wheel. Of course, this set Chris and me off on an explosive bout of laughter.
Father O’Leary responded as befitted his situation as a drunken, psychotic man of the cloth; he slammed on the brakes so hard that I banged into the dashboard.
“NOW GET OUT!” he roared at me.
I looked at him in horror. There was no way on earth I was going to step one foot out of that car door. It was 11 pm and pitch-black out there; I couldn’t walk home from Douglaston if I tried.
“No!” I yelled, as I tried to hurl myself over the bench seat and into the safety of the back seat, where my frightened brothers were watching the scene unfold.
In a blinding series of moves, Father O’Leary grabbed me by the collar, unlocked my door, hurled me out to the side of the road with a swift kick in the rear and started screaming at Paul, “now get up front and help me find the way home!”
Paul and I rushed to get back into the car—since being abandoned there was not such a ridiculous notion—and I crunched down as far as I could in the back seat beside Chris. We were shaking with laughter, and quite sure that if Father O’Leary heard us, he’d kill us while Paul gave him directions that drove him further and further away from our house.
When we got home an hour later, our mother greeted us brightly. “Did you have fun?” she said.
Chris, Paul and I burst out laughing.
“SHUDDUP!” Chris responded, in his best Father O’Leary impersonation.
Corned Beef and Cabbage (no burns required)
1 medium onion, cut into wedges
4 medium new potatoes, quartered
1 pound baby carrots
3 cups water
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 (3 pound) corned beef brisket with spice packet
1 small head cabbage, cut into wedges
Place the onion, potatoes and carrots in a 5-qt. pot. Combine water, garlic, bay leaf, pepper and contents of spice packet; pour over vegetables. Top with brisket and cabbage. Cover and cook on low for 2-3 hours or until meat and vegetables are tender. Remove bay leaf before serving. Enjoy!
And, in honor of Father O’Leary: go to http://allrecipes.com/recipe/extreme-banana-nut-bread-ebnb/detail.aspx for a fabulous Banana Nut Bread Recipe.