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Posts Tagged ‘immigrants’

          We drove through Bedford-Stuyvesant the other day where my wife’s family lived when they first came to America from Italy, both her mother’s and her father’s. Her memories of her father’s family are vague (her grandfather drove a vegetable wagon, he made his own wine, he hunted rabbits with his son in Long Island—and made fun of his son because he was squeamish about it–he had thirteen children with his wife, a formidable woman who lived to old age, and he moved the family from Bed-Stuy to Canarsie and back to Bed-Stuy again, to Greene Avenue).

          My wife’s memories of her mother’s family are more personal and vivid. Her grandfather Alfred came to Brooklyn from Cassino around the turn of the century and worked as a shoemaker in Bed-Stuy, then an ethnic enclave. In the old studio portraits of the time he wears a gold chain in his jacket pocket (his boys wear them, too) and a mustache that had a dandy’s wings when he was young and got respectably clipped as he became a paterfamilias. Most of the surviving photos show him with the family he brought over to America around 1919: his wife Marietta, his boys Tony and Mario, his daughter Lena, and the later ones born here: Emma and Joey, but none with my mother-in-law Josephine, who was the second youngest. (There was also a rumored Michael, who died as an infant.)

          The early studio photos must have been both an occasion and an ordeal for the family: getting suited up in stiff clothes that were pressed that day and still smelled of the hot iron when you wore them, making sure you didn’t get dirty as you took the trolley or traveled on foot over streets and alleys that might still have the lingering odor of horse manure, walking into a studio where the walls were hung like a portrait gallery with all the photos of past clients, finally entering the inner sanctum to take your place in the glare of lights and before the curtain with a changing background of blue skies, or green meadows, or Greek columns in the middle of green meadows, all to give the illusion that you weren’t in Brooklyn. Then standing forever in front of the giant breadbox of a camera aimed squarely at your head and waiting for the photographer to finish burrowing under the black cloth like a priest under a shroud and finish mumbling his sacred photographic mysteries: “Stand still now…Don’t move…Hold it…Don’t smile…Say cheese!”—always “say cheese” and then the flash. And you better stand still because the session had cost Alfred months of wages in patched soles and cobbled baby booties and orthopedic shoes for footsore immigrant laborers and this family photo would take its rightful place in the “parlor” of the apartment and forever mark the family as respectable.

          Though my mother-in-law is in none of the existing studio photos of the family, she was the “Dolly” of the clan (christened when they first saw her as a baby) and there are separate studio portraits of her alone at her communion earnestly holding her bible and flowers and wearing a veil and thinly suppressed Dolly smile; and there are informal photos of her with friends and cousins in the street locking arms and peeking at the camera through her tomboy shag; and at the park with her arm thrown around Joey (nearby Tompkin’s Park?); and at the beach in a one-piece nestled between her older sisters who are wearing their maidenly one-pieces but with flashy waist sashes. There are no photos of my mother-in-law with her own mother, however, the sainted figure in her life whose memory would haunt her forever.  

          Alfred eventually opened up a shoe store on Marcy and Kosciusko that he ran for nearly fifty years with his brother-in-law, Alexander, and they also bought a house together where they lived with their families just a few blocks away on Gates Avenue. (Alexander with his own brood of six and his wife Antoinette, the equally stern matron of her stern sister, Marietta, and later also with Antoinette’s married daughter in the third apartment.) There is a photograph that shows the corner of Marcy and Kosciusko circa 1931, around the time that Alfred was cobbling shoes there with Alexander, and looking out his window he would have seen Weinreb’s Pharmacy on the corner, with its tumbledown display of goods in the window, and its candy dispenser by the door, and its banner display of various signs advertising Hydrox Ice Cream, Notary Public, SODA, and the bell symbol of a public phone. Adjoining is a store advertising simply RADIO, and another G. HYMES LOCKSMITH-ROOFER, and next it the TOMPKIN’S PARK GARAGE, featuring Socony gas, which presumably fueled the Model T-looking car or truck parked outside that certainly didn’t belong to Alfred.

          He saved all his money for the house and the kids and the store, where he spent most of his waking hours, like a miner in a cave, drenched in the smell of leather and shoe polish, and where he might look up now and then and light a cigar and spy on Weinreb’s and all who went there, and then report back to the family, who spread the news throughout the house. Or maybe Alexander might, who was more gregarious than Alfred, and less stern, and who the kids from both families might hit up for pennies for the candy machine, and who smelled of hair tonic, and cigars, and had a gold tooth that flashed when he laughed and he said was given to him in service to his country by King Victor Emmanuel III. So what’d you do? the kids would want to know. And Zio Alexander would brush the question aside imperiously, but then wink at them through the glint of his wire spectacles and put a brown finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he would say, “I was a general.” And he’d start laughing until the big vein stood out on his neck, and his neck got pink and spilled out over his starched collar, and his laugh would turn into a cough, and his cough would turn into a wheeze, and his tongue would stick out and curl over when he wheezed.

          There was Tompkin’s Park nearby for the boys to chase squirrels and girls in the summer and for the girls to pick flowers and put them in their hair, and in the winter for the boys to make ice balls to throw at the girls and the girls to make snow angels and both of them together to chase their own breath in the cold. There were trolleys to hitch a ride on, and the radio serials to listen to at night booming from somebody’s window, while the boys played stickball in the street and you heard the whack! of the ball but you couldn’t see it in the dark, and the girls would whisper in a huddle on the stoops or behind the garbage cans, and the men would sit on chairs and argue politics and war and blow smoke rings in the air, which made the sky smell like wood smoke, and the women would sit on the steps with the babies on their laps and their aprons off and dispense food, and scolding, and comfort.

          Marietta was a big woman, more imposing than her husband, with the brawny arms of a matron of the time, but with fine features, short hair fashionably combed and hair-clipped, with plucked eyebrows and eyes that had a cool aristocratic squint. My mother-in-law revered her memory and told the story of her mother brushing her hair during their daily beauty regimen together and my mother-in-law complaining that it hurt. “You have to suffer to be beautiful,” her mother told her with the stoicism of women through the ages.

          You can imagine Marietta, brought to the New World with three kids and no English, to a husband who was always at work and gruff when he was at home, to an unchanging landscape of brown tenements and rattletrap trolleys and the occasional knife sharpener or vegetable vendor singing his sad song, to the endless child births and confinements in those dark rooms that forever smelled of kids and laundry and yesterday’s food and buzzed with everybody’s business, and to a lifetime that would only be more of the same.

          Marietta died of cancer when my mother-in-law was only eight years old and there is a last sad photograph of the once-buxom woman reduced to a wasted figure with lanky hair and dark, haunted eyes. The bodies of the dead were put on view in those days in the family’s home and I can imagine my mother-in-law, with her famous smile now dampened, sitting for days in those claustrophobic rooms full of relatives and strangers parading through the family’s rooms and gossiping and eating and smiling in the midst of death, while she stared by the hour at the figure holding the rosary, and wearing her good jewels, and the wistful smile that seemed to be fading by the minute.

          There are later photos of my mother-in-law standing on Gates Avenue, well until she became a teenager. One of them shows her wearing a white dress with a flower (graduation day?) as she stands in the street both alone and with a friend wearing the same outfit. That same day and in the same dress she’s sitting on the stoop of the house and smiling her mother’s wistful smile for the camera as the black girl next door with the white bow in her hair climbs over the fence to stare at the camera, too.

          And there are later photos of my mother-in-law as a single girl having fun and flashing her famous Dolly smile on Gates Avenue and beyond as her world expanded and her life moved away from Bedford-Stuyvesant forever.

           When my wife and I drove through the area recently we tried to find the old house on Gates Avenue, but we never did (it might now be a parking garage), and Alfred’s old shoe store is long gone. Few of the old brownstones remain, too, though we did get glimpses of some, and they offer a haunting reminder of the lost world of Alfred, and Marietta, and Zio Alexander with his famous gold tooth, and of Dolly with her girlish smile and tomboy cut and eyes full of life’s promises and hurt.

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