W R I T T E N · W OR K

P R O S E

RECOLLECTIONS

(Early Influences on a Child's Life)

by Robert Ranieri, 2014

 

 

 

          Enter the iron door on through the dark hall to the dimly lit room. A sickening smell from hospital trays with doctor's instruments submerged in sanitizing liquid. With the subsequent wrapping with damp plaster gauze, a broken forearm was now enclosed
         Secure comfort within my father's arms as he carries me back out into the snowy street and back home. His round brim hat and silk scarf frames his squared face and gentle eyes.
         "There's a blackbird there" as he turns me to see a wounded blackbird hobbling next to the brick wall, to go behind the little iron grate by the small cellar window. The bird could no longer fly.
         Summer would come again, and we would be seeking the cool shade of our front porch, under the large roll down green awning. We could sit on the wicker settee to linger away carefree hours, framed by the concrete steps and the painted wood balustrade. All these row houses were the same. A cozy place, 2124 Woodstock Street, that seemed wide and long in those days. Big sycamore trees lined both sides, and their leaves seemed big as fans.
         Older boys might spread rumors of an attack by "Polacks," but never more than talk. These streets were mostly Irish and Italian of immigrant parents. Next door Mrs. Yelmy, was a lovely Irish woman that my parents made sure we always addressed as "missus."  She had beautiful auburn hair. My father insisted that we answered him with "sir."  Later, this old world formality would be dropped, though he offered a mild complaint.
         Our little street felt enclosed by crossing streets at each end, with no need to venture beyond. There we felt secure with the dry dust and patterned shadows of the sycamores. Rain with a soft tattoo on our awning, would bring a rapid temperature change and soon washed the dust into rivulets to course along the gutters. There were no cars around here then, though we might hear a distant truck. Arrival and slow passage of a huckster's horse and wagon, and his calling "fresh Jersey tomatoes, freestone peaches," his horse starting, stepping, stopped when housewives descended their front steps to buy their bag of groceries. More rarely, a tinker's tinsmith wares directed our attention by the rattle and bump of pots and pans of shiny copper, swaying from his canvas-covered, wood-framed rig.  A call of "eeho" and a grabbing of wooden spoke wheels, would allow a pause for the ladies' inspection. The wagoneer also had a hand brake, causing more thudding of striking pots.
         I was too small for a two wheeler bike so my eldest brother Roy rode me astride just behind the handle bars, and older brother Walter rode his on our longer travels.
         On one approach of autumn as daylight faded, we noticed an orange glow along houses at street's end.  When rounding the corner, a children's bonfire was being poked with sticks, to tumble potatoes in or out from the bright coals.  The taste of these freely shared baked potatoes and tree bark like darkened skins, lingers to this day as a child's raptured reverie.  Knowing urgent hunger several times as an adult, it remains as a kind of prayer of thanks.
         Older kids played "half ball."  An old rubber ball would be cut in half and pitched to a kid with a bat made from a broom handle. Without running bases, the one able to hit the half ball farthest wood win. We were so young. A kind of mascot for the older boys, and one to be teased, received an affectionate name, Tupy Shnazole.  Did his older brother have a big nose?
         My parents' adherence to an old world stricter code of behavior was maintained despite some local patterns of rowdy behavior.  We were all held in check.  Loud talking and wild gestures did not occur at home.  My mother became rather restless in ageing, but was assuaged when an agreement was reached to buy a house at the Jersey shore.  She spent most of her time there, where my father would eventually retire.
         We heard popular songs on the radio, and my older sister Jeannette, brother Walter and I, too, would often sing around the house.  During junior high school, WWII started, and at first Roy, then Walter entered the service. Roy graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in absentia and was never the same afterward.  Walter got a college degree after the war.
         Long before this time we had moved from south Philly to north Philly. It was a corner house, and therefore contained two stores at ground level. One my father rented out as a beauty parlor.
         My father was a ladies custom tailor and furrier, and these words were painted in elegant script on his plate glass window.  He confessed at least once, that he arrived in this country age sixteen with a master's skill.  He was successful, with a discerning clientele.  Even so, I could picture him still, in our old house, working under a dangling light bulb, while my sister and I slept nearby on a pull-out double mattress, this when he still was working at a tailor shop on old Walnut Street in Philly.
         My father did a fair amount of reading.  He loved Shakespeare and much classic Italian literature for sure.  He had me recite Dante's lines from the Divine Comedy, that were addressed to Beatrice:

gioisci o giovane nella tua adolescenza,
e rendi giocondo il tuo cuore
nei giorni della tua vita.

be joyful o youth within your adolescence
and let your heart be happy
in the days of your life.

And my father's quote from another famous proto-renaissance poet, Petrach:

la voce di Laura, è come un ruscello
che cade fra i piccoli sassi.

the voice of Laura, is like a fine stream
that falls among little pebbles
(It feels a little like The Sound of Music)

         My father met my mother in the U.S., through a so-so tailor who was my mother's brother, Zio Frank, who would usually visit with us on Sunday afternoon for dinner and conversation.  He never married, and was essentially devoted to scholarship.  Discussed besides Shakespeare and Italian poets, were classical Roman poets, Ovid, Horace, and Vergil. Modern Italian poetry was mingled with opera and classical music. Though possessing both perfect English and perfect Italian, they always spoke in English.
         With scant knowledge of Italian, I learned a lot more from a two year stay in Rome, though my usage has begun to fade.  It had been useful when I did some singing and had joined various singing groups after first residing in NYC.  Vocal flexibility was gained by studying principal roles in Mozart operas, including the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.  Mozart was very generous to the bass-baritone voice, and since I have a bass voice I was able to enjoy many of those roles.  Joining coral groups that performed in concert halls was an added bonus.  Though written for a higher vocal range, I was able to handle a couple of Shubert's songs from his song cycles.  The German lyrics were manageable.
         One of my remaining experiences as a child from that Philly neighborhood took place on that same street.  I was playing alone on the sidewalk, and heard approaching with a slow step and singing aloud, a tall and elderly African-American man.  He had gray hair and beard, and wore clean faded blue overalls.  He moved as though part of a reverie, carried by a deep bass voice and his resonant singing as heard by the neighborhood. Occasionally a housewife would descend her front steps and give him some money.  In memory, he moves further along down the street, but his song remains forever in the foreground, a deep stirring of spiritual faith. "The Old Rugged Cross."

           One of my remaining experiences as a child from that Philly neighborhood took place on that same street. I was playing alone on the sidewalk, and heard approaching with a slow step and singing, a tall elderly African American man. He had gray hair and beard, and wore clean faded blue overalls. He moved as though part of a reverie, carried by a deep bass voice and his resonant singing as heard by the neighborhood. Occasionally a housewife would descend her front steps and give him some money. In memory, he moves further along down the street, but his song remains forever in the foreground, a deep stirring of spiritual faith. "The Old Rugged Cross."               

 


 

 

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