I was the child of Italian immigrants. When I was 11, I realized that I wanted to be an emigrant: I wanted to emigrate from my parents’ dark tenement to a place where they couldn’t reach me. For that matter, I also wanted to leave behind my older brother, an apathetic rebel.
This revelation arrived in on May 30, 1944, when I returned from school, and my mother asked me to bring a potato torte to the Rakosis, who lived two floors below us.
Why couldn’t my brother do it? Because he was playing basketball, or perhaps mooching broken cookies from Zambernadi, the baker; while I, being a girl, I had to come straight home to change my clothes. No costume change was required of boys.
Like our family, Barto and Zera Rakosi were immigrants. They came from Hungary and, while I am making no direct connection, were the ugliest people in New York. In her 50s, Zera had frizzy black hair and a bloodless face. Her teeth looked as if they’d been glazed with caramel. Her nose constantly ran, even during summer, and she wiped it with a rag that looked sodden with snot.
Barto, a decade older, delivered coal for stoves and boilers. The hard labor plus 30 years of inhaling dust forced him to retire early. He spent his days trudging from our block on East 62nd Street to a Hungarian grocerette on 81st, which carried his brand of Turkish cigarettes, called Fatima. The package featured a beautiful woman behind a white veil. At times, I wondered what she thought of Barto, whose cheeks were a mesh of scars from, he told everyone, hand-to-hand combat in World War I with Italians (whom he boasted to have killed mercilessly). My brother, Maurìzio, claimed Barto went into the coal business because by midday black dust covered his “scarecrow face.” Poor Barto; his eyes were frozen in a look of bitterness, though what could anyone expect from a man who had to pause every other block to catch his breath?
My brother was three years older than I. An especially chubby toddler, he walked like a seagull, so my father nicknamed him the Italian equivalent, Gabbiano. Too long for me to pronounce, I shortened it to Gabbo. The name stuck beyond early childhood because Gabbo continued to gambol like a seabird, was shaped like one, and was known to scavenge uneaten food off restaurant tables.
My English teacher, Mrs. Frye, said I’d one day become a famous and brave journalist like Martha Gellhorn, who reported from war zones. I hoped it was true but, at 11, I was deathly afraid of the Rakosis. They lurked in my head because I had to pass their door whenever I entered or left our building. Sometimes Zera opened her door to see who was passing. Her bony fingers — the color of cinnamon — looked as if they’d sprouted from her sycamore cane.
The Rakosis had no children, thank God, because what kid could grow up in a home where the shades were always drawn and there was no radio? Plus, they lit their apartment with candles, saying it saved on electricity. Their home felt Old World, but not the charming kind. Rather, it was the Old World of high infant mortality and suspicion of outsiders.
My parents — in particular, my mother, Cesira — were Old World, too. For example, they embarrassed me because they were not embarrassed about having a bathtub in the kitchen. I was so chagrined I didn’t like inviting friends over. Still, my parents were not as ancient as the Rakosis.
“Mama, I can’t take the torte right now,” I said. “I told Bruna and Angela I was coming right back out to play.”
“Basta senza senso,” she said. “It’ll take you four minutes to deliver this torte.” She shoved it at me.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re afraid. But in their hearts, the Rakosis are kind people.”
“Then why does Barto always brag about all the Italians he killed?”
“It was war, Francesca! In war, everyone kills! If you don’t kill your enemies, your friends kill you! Now take the torte.”
“I have too much homework.”
“Basta senza senso.”
This stupid term, which escaped her mouth several times a day, means “enough sense without sense” — in other words, “stop the nonsense.”
Growing up in a desperately poor sharecropping family, my mother was tough and impatient. Her name meant “Caesar,” and she lived up to it, lording it over neighborhood merchants with her insistence on discounts and deals. My father, Mario, who’d had a more prosperous, gentle childhood, was a sous-chef at a fancy East Side women’s club. He had a soft face and red hair, which he combed over his bald head. He never would’ve forced me to take a torte down to the Rakosis; then again, he never cooked at home. It was woman’s work.
“Please Mama …”
“Deo te maladisa!” my exasperated mother said. “I ask you to do so little. By the time I was your age, I’d worked so much I’d forgotten how to play. Now vai! If I bring it, Zera will insist I stay for coffee, and I’m too busy.”
As I descended the stairs, I thought of dropping the torte, but knew it would earn me a slap across the face. There wasn’t a parent in the neighborhood that didn’t slap their children, with the exception of my father. Nevertheless, every evening before sitting down to supper, he removed his belt and looped it over his chair — which to Gabbo and me seemed as natural as tucking a napkin into a collar. He rarely used it, while my mother’s hand was like a holstered gun, and she a sheriff in the Wild West.
I knocked softly on the Rakosis’ door. Getting no answer, I laid the torte on the doormat, but not fast enough. Zera appeared, pulled me up, and yanked me inside.
“I’ve brought you a potato torte, Zera. And my mother wants me back immediately.”
“Come in, sweet Franciska,” she said, in her thick accent.
I hated when she called me by the Hungarian version of my name. When I complained to Gabbo, he said, “Of course she calls you that. The Rakosis are your godparents.”
Seven at the time, I was so petrified I could taste burning sulfur in my mouth. When I finally got the courage to ask my mother, she took me on her lap and said, “Cara, Francesca, don’t you remember? The Pasquinellis are your godparents.” While I exhaled the last of the sulfur, she added, “But, if you don’t stop arguing with me all the time, we’ll replace them with the Rakosis.” She turned her face to hide a grin. No one ever knew what her smiles signified. She was restless and pessimistic. She was never satisfied with America, unlike my father, who thought he’d immigrated to Heaven.
Zera led me to the kitchen, where a meat-and-bone-filled pot bubbled with oily broth. The air smelled of frying peppers, chest salve, and cigarette smoke. We then passed through a gloomy sitting room, cutting a path through stacks of Hungarian newspapers. Finally, we entered a bedroom, where a phonograph was playing scratchy military marches. Barto lay in bed, eyes closed and covers pulled to his waist. His hands were clasped together atop a crimson blanket.
“Zera, I have to go home right away …”
Medals were pinned to Barto’s crisp white shirt. A sword with an ornate hilt hung from a bedpost. Beside a sputtering candle on his night table was a pack of Fatimas, with several pulled out at staggered lengths.
“Franciska, Barto would be so disappointed if you don’t stay for a moment.”
Something seemed different about him: His scars were gone. I blinked my eyes: He was wearing make-up! He looked more peaceful than I’d ever seen him.
“Touch his hand,” said Zera.
I didn’t want to wake him, so I patted it gently.
From a stained apron pocket, Zera produced a small white bag and pressed it into my hand.
“Marzipan … from Barto,” she whispered. “Doesn’t he look beautiful?”
He wasn’t beautiful, but certainly looked better without his jagged scars.
But why was he asleep at 4 p.m.? And why was his face cleanly shaven, when he usually shaved on Saturday nights for Sunday mass?
Behind the bedroom shades, cars roared by on 62nd Street; it was like hearing traffic from a distant, modern city.
“Touch his hand again,” said Zera.
I did as she asked and snatched my hand back. There was something I hadn’t noticed before: The man’s skin was cold, but not like chilly hands on a winter day. Rather, it was the cold of a mailbox handle.
I studied Barto’s chest: The medals weren’t going up and down. The coal dust had won; he was dead.
My scalp tingled; my mouth dried up like water on a burning log. I’d seen dead people before at Manzotti’s Funeral Home, but the atmosphere was different. After paying respects to the deceased, visitors chatted, laughed, and smoked under baroque wall sconces. Children played tag while Mr. Manzotti bustled in with new wreaths.
But for Barto’s wake? Where were the silk pillows, prayer cards, and rosaries? He was dead in his bed and within reach of his cigarettes.
“Franciska, say a nice prayer for your uncle Barto,” whispered Zera.
I’d never called him “uncle” in my life! Though the warm torte was long gone from my hands, drops of pee trickled into my underwear. How could I think up a prayer? Was I going to have to kiss him after the amen?!
“Gabbo!” I yelled. “I’m in here! In the bedroom!”
We heard his heavy footsteps. He appeared at the foot of Barto’s bed.
“Is he dead, Zera?”
She nodded and cried into her handkerchief.
“I’ll tell Mama and Papa,” Gabbo said.
He crossed himself and led me out.
“Did Mama send you down to get me?” I whispered. I was still shaking.
“No. As I was coming in, I saw the Rakosis’ door was open. I smelled torta. I knew it was Mama’s, so I followed the smell, hoping Zera might give me a slice.”
Saved by my brother’s insatiable hunger — a fluke rescue. When I was younger, he’d been my protector, making sure I got home safely from school, or talking my mother out of her wrath.
“Gabbo, why isn’t Barto at Manzotti’s?” I asked as we mounted the narrow stairs.
“Hungarians do it in their apartments. But it’s against the law. Everyone has to use an undertaker.”
“Because they know how to drain out the person’s blood. If you don’t, the stiff can come back to life.”
“I am not lying, Francesca. Mr. Manzotti’s son, Guido, told me there are cases where the heart starts beating. If the blood hasn’t been drained, the person can wake up and find himself in a dark casket. Why do you think the Romans poked Jesus in the side? To drain him, of course. Otherwise, he could’ve come back with his angels and turned the empire to dust.”
It took years and tens and tens of such claims — which he told with such authority — until I figured out how little Gabbo really knew.
After washing our hands, I followed him into the kitchen, where my parents sat with solemn faces. Tears filled my mother’s eyes.
“So, you heard about Barto?” Gabbo asked, plopping down in a chair.
“What about him?” my father asked.
“Not only that, but he’s lying in his bedroom dead!” I added. “And he has his cigarettes.”
“Morto?! When?! I saw him a week ago!” my mother said. “Why didn’t Zera tell me?”
“She’s been pretty busy getting him gussied up. He looks better than I’ve seen him in years,” replied Gabbo, reaching for a blue bowl filled with steaming gnocchi. My father banged the side of it with a wooden spoon, and my brother reversed course.
My mother said, “Do you see, Mario, just like my grandmother used to say: ‘When bad things happen, they come in pairs.’”
“Oh, no, did someone else die?” Gabbo asked. “No one important, I hope. We went to a funeral two weeks ago.”
My mother inquired, “How do you know someone died?”
He motioned towards the Italian postage on an envelope beside her plate. “When they write from over there, it’s because they need more money or someone died.”
My mother sighed. “É morto zio Leonardo,” she said.
“Never heard of him,” Gabbo said.
“Uncle Leonardo!” she hollered, disgusted that he could never keep the names of relatives straight. “My mother’s brother!”
“Did we ever meet him?” asked Gabbo.
My mother motioned to my father to serve the gnocchi. While pouring everyone but me a glass of red wine, she replied bitterly, “How could you? He never got further than 50 miles from where he was born, poor man.”
“How did he die, Mama? Was it his heart?” I asked.
Bad hearts ran in my mother’s family.
“No, he was killed.”
“By whom? The police?” asked Gabbo, sprinkling Parmesan cheese over his gnocchi.
“Deo te maladisa!” my mother hollered. “Police? You think I’m from a family of criminals?!”
Deo te maladisa was my mother’s curse of choice and wholly her invention. No one in the neighborhood used it. Vaguely, it means “May Fate damn you to hell,” though it was hard to tell whether she meant it figuratively or literally.
Leonardo, she went on to explain, was the oldest son on a farm of seven siblings. After his father died, by rights, he now became head of the family, making decisions about planting, fertilizing, and herding. But Leonardo had never been quite right in the head. An erratic worker, he was industrious and ingenious one day, unmotivated and inebriated the next.
His younger brothers secretly approached the padrone who owned the land. They asked that he give them the annual land contract to sign, not Leonardo. He agreed; he wanted no fool tilling his soil; he took half of every family’s harvest.
Out of respect, the brothers invited Leonardo to live with them — with no power over their affairs, but with a roof over his head. Cursing them as traitors, he packed up and disappeared over the mountains.
“Papa, più gnocchi, per favore,” chirped Gabbo, holding out his bowl.
“Look at this,” my mother muttered. “In tragedy, all he can think of are gnocchi.”
“I’m growing a lot these days, Mama.”
“If you grow much more, you’ll bring the building down,” she said.
She continued her tale: Leonardo wandered the countryside. He hired himself out for farm work. During colder months, he lived in Parma and did factory work. Occasionally, he returned home, insisting he’d been wronged. When his brothers refused to change the contract, he insulted them and left.
Leonardo met his end in January 1944. He’d wandered into a village newly liberated by Italian partisans, a pro-communist militia that fought the Fascist government. Always short of men, the leader had begun impressing teenagers into his ragtag army, and Leonardo intervened.
“Damn fools! Why drag young men into a war that is practically over?!” he asked.
“Because after we run out the Germans, we’ll run out the Catholics and capitalists!” replied the leader.
“You’ve no right to take away a man’s freedom! You’re no better than the Fascist thugs!”
The partisans locked him up.
The next day, an explosion occurred outside of town. A squad of partisans had found a cache of German weapons; in their excitement, they failed to see it was booby-trapped. Five men were killed.
In blind revenge, the partisans marched Leonardo and another man accused of aiding the Germans into the main square. They were lined up against the wall of a destroyed hospital.
While the supposed traitor pleaded on his knees for mercy, Leonardo continued to dress down the partisans and, in a final gesture of contempt, kicked over a pot of red roses, a revered communist symbol. He was shot on the spot, without the decency of a blindfold.
“Poveretto, Leonardo,” my mother lamented, smoothing wrinkles on the white linen tablecloth.
She cleared her throat and said, “Allora,” which means, “Well, then” or “Now, then.” If you’re an Italian child, you know something unpleasant is coming. She pointed to our RCA radio on a shelf above the icebox.
“That will stay off for two months, in mourning,” she stated.
“Due mesi?!” cried Gabbo. “Two months! God have mercy on us!”
“Don’t bother asking for God’s mercy. If he grants it around here, it’ll be with my permission,” she said.
“Mama, please, why should children suffer for the death of a relative miles and miles away?!” I asked.
“Finish your gnocchi, Francesca!”
“It’s absurd,” I said.
“Eat your gnocchi or soon they’ll be praying for you in Italy!”
Gabbo slumped in his chair, but he was tapping his foot, which meant he was amassing ideas. My mother dug into her cold gnocchi and rapidly chewed.
“Mama, this custom is for the old country, but not here,” he said. “Suffering is not for Americans like us.”
“Bah! A little suffering never hurt anybody,” she said.
To hear Gabbo praise America was odd. He loved it as a land of plenty, but he hardly embraced American ambition and hard work. He’d been held back once in grammar school, and, to my father’s dismay, his current grades were a disaster.
“Bevi, tutti. Drink up, everyone,” said my father, pouring more wine, which he hoped would divert the brewing storm. He even gave me a splash in my water glass.
“Have you children no respect for your uncle?” asked my mother.
“I never met him. Yet I have mountains of respect for the man,” Gabbo replied.
“Then show it.”
I asked, “How would our relatives ever know if you didn’t take away our radio programs?”
“Stop talking foolishness!”
“Are you going to write and tell them about our great sacrifice?” I mumbled, but she heard me.
“Eat! You’re as thin as a rail. The neighbors think I starve you.”
“Mama, what are you giving up for this great man?” asked my brother.
“A mother bears her cross every day,” she replied.
Gabbo sighed. “Mama, with all due respect, maybe these campagnoli don’t know what a radio is.”
Campagnoli was Italian for “yokels.”
“Do you want this?” she asked, raising her hand to strike.
My brother shook his head. He sighed and downed his wine.
“Gabbo, finish these,” said my father, pushing the remaining gnocchi towards my brother who — for first time ever — waved them away.
“Grazie, no, Papa.”
“How about some peaches I took from the club?” continued my father. “They’re the sweetest you’ve ever …”
“Papa, you’re open-minded,” Gabbo interrupted. “Please explain to Mama why this makes no sense.”
My father took a breath and exhaled through his nose. “Cesira, why follow the old customs? What good does it do?”
“When Papa’s aunt died three years ago,” I said, “he didn’t take away any radio from us …”
“She was a nun in a convent,” my mother interjected. “The nuns did more than enough suffering for her there. Besides, that was your father’s business.”
“Mama, please. Boris Karloff — I can’t miss Boris Karloff!” said Gabbo. He threw his heavy arm around my slender shoulders and added, “And poor Francesca will miss Charlie McCarthy.”
My mother shrugged. She didn’t know Charlie McCarthy from Joe DiMaggio.
“Well, then, I guess we remain a family of cafoni,” said my brother. The degrading word means “boors” or “barbarians.”
“Basta, finito!” my father shouted. “Enough! Gabbo, Francesca — you will do as your mother asks!”
“Oh, no, Mario, too late!” cried my mother. “Use the belt!”
She whipped it off his chair and tossed it on the table in front of him. He looked at it as if it were a poisonous snake.
“Mario, did you hear what he said? He called us cafoni. Usalo! Use it!”
“Cesira, the argument is over.”
“All right, if you are afraid, I am not,” she cried, jumping up. She grabbed the belt. Gabbo ducked under the table, leaving me the target of wrath. She reared back. I closed my eyes.
“Deo te maladisa!” cried my mother, who’d swung so hard that the leather missed me and circled around to her buttocks.
My father, his face steaming red, grabbed the belt from her.
“Siediti!” he hollered. “Sit down! Everyone!”
Gabbo reared his eyes above the table, then calmly took his seat.
“It’s settled,” said my father. “This is your mother’s family. You both will do as she wishes.”
My mother finished her gnocchi and wiped her mouth, not so much for etiquette as to hide a smirk, though my brother caught it.
He tilted his chair on its back legs. “And what, Mama, did you give up as a child when someone died?” he asked. “You had no radio.”
She reached for a peach. She cut off slices and ate them off the tip of her knife.
“Delizioso, Mario,” she said.
“All right. My final offer,” Gabbo announced. “Let’s meet halfway. No radio for one month instead of two.”
She ignored him.
“All right. Two months, but baseball on Saturdays and Sundays.”
She leaned towards him and asked, “Now you want to bargain for the memory of my uncle, like he was a goat at the market?!”
My brother knew he was defeated, so he tossed a bomb.
“Mama, pregherò per i bastardi della famiglia,” he said. “I’ll even pray for the family’s bastard children.”
She lunged at him with her open palm, but he jerked his head back just in time. Screaming voices bounced off the walls.
I got up and scooted for the door. My father ordered me to come back, but his voice had no will behind it.
Down the stairs I went, past the Rakosis who, for some reason, scared me less. I shoved open the front door and stepped outside. Up and down the street people sat on their stoops, enjoying a warm breeze before returning to their airless apartments. I opened the bag Zera had given me. It contained apples, lemons, and pears made of marzipan, except they looked like the sooty samples you see displayed in candy store windows. I walked down to the pharmacy, bought a chocolate ice cream cone, and returned to my stoop.
Gabbo appeared. He sat behind me on the steps, placing his meaty hands on my shoulders. He surveyed the block: the cooks, stonemasons, charwomen, girls with dirty knees playing jacks, and Zeno, the local drunk who slept under the loading dock at Bloomingdale’s. He was sifting through a garbage can.
“The great unwashed masses,” Gabbo said. “But just think — someday you’ll live with the rich people on Sutton Place.”
“I don’t know anymore.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“I can’t explain it. I don’t want it as badly as before.”
“Well, have it your way,” said Gabbo. “Now, do you want to know what happened after you flew the coop?”
I didn’t respond.
“Mama said now it’s not two months without radio. It’s three.”
I turned around. “For me, too?”
“Alas, yes,” he said, with a self-satisfied smirk.
Two cars pulled up to the curb. People in mourning clothes climbed out. They were speaking Hungarian. My brother and I moved closer to the railing to let them pass up the steps.
“Gimme a lick of that cone, Francesca,” Gabbo said.
I shook my head.
“Dai, Piccolina. C’mon, Little Girl.”
“Here,” I said, handing him the marzipan.
He poked his nose in the bag. “Qui schifo. Disgusting!”
Still, he pulled out a stale piece and tossed it in his mouth.
“Not too bad,” he said, crunching away.
“Good,” I said. “I knew you’d eat them.
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