by Maria Schulz
A few months back, I read an article in The New York Times that said people are more resilient and feel more connected to each other when they know their family stories, and can talk about how they weathered good times and bad times together.
It never occurred to me that some people just don’t share their stories. Sure, you don’t go up to people on the bus and say, “my grandfather came to this country with nothing but a nickel and a prayer,” because people outside of your family aren’t interested. Unless, of course, you’re Mario Puzo and you know how to take that immigrant story and turn it into The Godfather.
But how can you live, breathe, go to work, eat meals together, go to bed and do it all over again tomorrow if you DON’T share the stories that matter to you with your family?
From when I was just old enough to understand what people were saying to me, I remember hearing my mother, father, grandparents, brothers, cousins and friends telling stories that they thought were funny, sad or outrageous. I remember the smiles and the way two people who lived through the story could look at one another and sometimes, laugh so hard that they couldn’t continue.
My grandmother used to love telling us about growing up in a cold-water tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. Her father died young, and her mother had six small children to raise. She took every job she could, including one as the building’s janitor and toilet scrubber just so she could earn enough money to keep her family together.
When a social worker came to her house and told her she could help her by placing her children in foster homes, my great grandmother threw her out of the buliding.
My grandmother also talked about how little her family had, but somehow, she made it sound funny. The way she told it, it really was amusing that she and two sisters had to share a bed, and she’d wake up every day with her sister Tessie’s feet in her face. Or how she had to leave school after the 8th grade and go to work in a factory because her family needed the money (no wonder she thought we were living the high life by not having a job until we were 16).
I enjoyed the story my grandmother told about how my grandfather finally asked her out on a date, but her mother said she would need a chaperone.
“No,” my grandmother replied. “I will not have a chaperone!”
This was in 1927. My great grandmother insisted. “Oh yes you will!”
They argued back and forth until my grandmother said, “If you make me have a chaperone, I won’t go on the date, and I will live here with you forever!”
My great grandmother relented.
My grandfather and grandmother couldn’t believe their good fortune. They rode the subway to Coney Island, took photos in the photo booths, shared some cotton candy, rode the roller coaster and even held hands.
It took a while before they realized that my grandmother’s mother and oldest sister were walking/hiding about 30 feet behind them at all times.
My father must’ve gotten his storytelling genes from his mother. On days when we would walk through the streets of Bayside, my father would tell me all sorts of stories about growing up in Flushing on what was then called “The Hill,” about the girls and boys he hung around with, the guys he beat up and the ones he got beaten up by.
But by far, my favorite stories were the ones he told about his life as a young, single man-child just starting to date.
There was his first girlfriend, Faithie, who gave him his first kiss when he was about 6. Then there was the crush he longed to go out with when he was 14 and in his first year of high school. He really, really wanted to meet her on Main Street and see what might happen…but my grandmother wouldn’t let him go out after dark.
There was also the one who became his girl when he was 17. No sooner had they agreed on this arrangement than she told him that he would have to quit smoking, drinking, being a musician and playing baseball. By the end of the conversation, she was no longer his girl.
He dated a lot of girls, but none of them would get past the 3rd date. Fearing the dreaded “C” word (commitment), he would break up with them, saying that he just “loved them too much” and that they “deserved so much more.”
The girls would cry a little, give him one last kiss, and then thank him for his honesty. He would drive away feeling elated. He was free!
This method was foolproof, even for my father. That is, until he met a certain Latina girl in High School. She was a new girl in the neighborhood, having moved to the area from a rough neighborhood in the South Bronx. He used to see her every day when they waited at the bus stop for school.
Oh my, was she pretty! He thought she was out of his league, so he never approached her. Instead, he played boyfriend backup to a girl named Georgette and her on again/off again boyfriend.
A few years passed when a friend asked my Dad to meet him so he could try to get a date with a hot mama he really liked. “You can amuse her younger sister,” the friend said. “These Puerto Rican girls love to be photographed, and I’ve got this camera.”
So Dad went…and who was the younger sister he was supposed to amuse but the pretty Latina from High School.
They struck up a conversation and discovered that they had a lot in common. She was easy to talk to and found his jokes funny. He really liked her, so he finally screwed up the courage to ask her out. And this is where one of the first of many miracles came along in Lou’s life: she said yes.
They went to the Riviera, a swanky restaurant on the harbor in Port Washington. They ate, danced, and laughed. At the end of the night, she even gave him a kiss. The two of them had such a good time that they agreed to go out to a supper club for some live singing and dancing on their next date. Again, they had a wonderful time and a few stolen kisses.
Instead of enjoying his profoundly good luck, he began to get cold feet. My father decided he had to break it off with the Latina after the 3rd date, before things got too serious. He wanted to be a musician! A baseball player! A free agent! Anything other than a married man with lord knows how many children. Blech…children.
So, at the end of their third date, he decided to let her down easy.
“I have to break up with you.” He said.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I just love you too much, and you deserve so much more.”
The Latina burst out laughing. “Okay,” she said.
My father was used to getting some tears thrown in with some begging, but instead, the Latina just kept on laughing.
As she opened the door to get out of the car, my father yelled after her: “I won’t be calling you again.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Okay. See ya.”
My father had gotten what he wanted. He was free! He didn’t have to fight with her or talk her into the break up. There was no messy sobbing or consolation necessary.
But wait a minute…he didn’t have to talk her into it. And why did she keep laughing?
Suddenly, my father began to rethink his strategy. In the weeks following the break up, he started to call her repeatedly, for one silly reason or another. One time, he told her that he had broken both of his legs and was in two casts up to his hips.
“I really need help,” my father said.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she replied. “I’m busy.”
Finally, he just asked her out again, but all she said was, “I can’t. I have to wash my hair.”
I remember interrupting my father at this point in the story to say how mad I was at him. “That wasn’t nice,” I said, referring to his discarding girls after 3 dates by saying “he loved them too much to continue” just so he could get off the hook. Would someone do that to me some day?
But I also felt kind of sorry for him in the part of the story where the Latina girl laughed and said, “See ya,” without even looking back.
Would she ever go out with him again?
Would it all work out?
Why did she have to wash her hair so often?
“Let me finish,” my father said.
So I let him finish.
After several more unsuccessful tries, my father finally lured the Latina back out with the promise of tickets to a Broadway show that she was dying to see. They talked, and laughed, and went out a lot more times. He asked her to be his girl; she said yes. She did not make him give up smoking, drinking, music or softball, so he had no reason to break it off.
On a blisteringly hot summer day in July of ’57, the Italian boy from The Hill married the Latina girl from the South Bronx at the Riviera on the harbor in Port Washington.
That Latina girl was my mother.
Fast-forward: I am at my brother’s house in his backyard where we are gathered to celebrate our parents’ 45th wedding anniversary.
I have a perfect view of my parents as they walk in together. My father is walking slowly, clutching my mother’s arm. For a boy who didn’t want to be tied down, he is holding onto her for dear life. She is unsteady and drags her feet; I can tell by the worried look on her face that she doesn’t know where she is. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s syndrome make walking a challenge.
“Happy Anniversary!” we say, as my mother snaps into lucidity for a moment and smiles as my father kisses her.
In that instant, I see my parents, as they are: two people whose story meant a lot to me, and who were weathering some pretty rough storms.
The years dropped away, and I caught a glimpse of them as they were way back then: the sweet Italian boy with the good heart and the pretty, feisty Latina who loved to laugh.
As another year passes and what should have been their anniversary slips by, I think about them and smile. Their stories tell me that it wasn’t always easy, but it was always worth it.
I’m really glad that things worked out for them.
So…what do you get when you mix a crazy Italian boy with a spicy Puerto Rican girl? Seven kids, 2 dogs, 5 cats, 1 rat, 3 hamsters, a Mynah bird, a boatload of relatives, no money, and lots of laughs.
Here’s a dish that reminded me of my family because it mixes the spiciness of Paella with traditionally Italian ingredients.
Here’s a dish for you hardliner Paella traditionalists:
So, Hungry Lifers: what’s your favorite family story? Which story did your mother, father, sister, brother, best friend, grandparent or relative share with you that still makes you smile? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks.