I was having one of those days (or was it a week, or a month, or a year).
Then, I got an email from my 81-year-old great-aunt.
It was a few simple lines about her upcoming birthday and how, every year at this time, she thinks about her twin sister who died four years ago this November. Her brother, Michael, was my grandfather who has been gone for eleven years. She never married. She has no children. She lives alone not too far from here in Albertson...
She is a reserved woman, my aunt.
Like the best of fine wines, she has grown more complex and layered over the years, and like someone enjoying those wines, slowly, over time, I've gotten the pleasure of revealing her in tiny, savored sips.
The email had an attachment.
I opened it.
This is what it said:
I think of my mother and my father a lot these days as I approach my birth date.
Turn the clock back to1931, three years into the Great Depression which turned our country into great despair and panic. Walk back in time with me to the big red brick house on 69th street in Brooklyn- to the young tree-lined, clean, and car-free streets.
My father Luigi was 38 years old and Maria Lapinta my mother was 33 when my twin Vita, and I were born at 8 and 8:30 am respectively on the 21st day of October. During those days of limited pre-natal care, the arrival of twins was unexpected – so you can imagine what went thru my parents mind when, after I was delivered, Dr. Catalano indicated that there was “another one on the way.”
My brother Michael was 7 years old and brother Leonard was only three during the days before our birth I envision my mother lumbering around the house with the swollen belly of pregnancy, taking care of household chores and cleaning, cooking and feeding the family of four as a very traditional and dutiful Sicilian mother. And I also think about my father carrying on the burdens of traditional Sicilian fathers with serious concerns of his ability to support a growing family in the midst of the great economic hardships of the day. The Depression had a great impact on the building industry, and my father must have been kept awake many nights thinking of his next pay check; if there was going to be one; about how he was to going to pay the mortgage, have enough money to “put food on the table”, and avoid disgrace by being forced to go on “public assistance” as welfare was called those days..
Mike had already witnessed the long full term pregnancy and birth of a sibling; but what must little Lenny have been experiencing those days amidst the excitement, anxiety, preparation, and the hushed words about conception and pregnancy and finally the miracle of birth right here in his home before his very eyes.
As a young boy, Mike as fun-loving, curious, happy-go-lucky, adventurous, physically and mechanically gifted, always with that ubiquitous LaPinta smile on his face.
He had experienced much in his seven early years, born in another section of Brooklyn, moving to Bensonhurst, sadly experiencing the sudden and untimely death of his three year old brother Luigi, and now anticipating the birth of another sibling.
He witnessed, and was no doubt affected by the anguish, the heart-break, the sadness, the grief in his home upon Luigi’s passing caused by the 1928 outbreak of diphtheria in New York- a death which occurred simultaneously with his brother Leonard’s birth, thus dampening the usual excitement and happiness of a new and healthy new-born.
Luigi III was the first born-, arriving nine months after Mom and Dad’s marriage –How happy and proud they were with this beautiful and healthy boy. Early photos show him with soulful blue eyes, curly blond hair- always with beaming parents hovering over him. Mom frequently spoke to Vita and I about “Luigiuzzo” , what a beautiful child he was, that he had a great voice, and that the two of them often sang children’s songs in Italian many times.
How did Mike deal with the death of his childhood playmate and the addition of not one but three more siblings in his most formative years?
And how did Lenny experience the impending arrival of a “baby”- what was that all about. He was only three, yet he knew and saw only too well (and too much) the tears, the cries of anguish and grief, the especially the guilt expressed by both his parents because they chose to have him delivered in a hospital and not at home as was the custom of the day in our culture. My mother always said he was nursed on the bitter waters of tears and not the sweetness of milk.
After this experience under no circumstances were Vita and I to be born anywhere else but in the safe environs of home. Pre-natal care was minimal- certainly no trimester visits and no sonograms to determine multiple births, health, and gender. From the little information that was shared with us about our birth, I can only assume that mom’s pregnancy was normal- except that no one knew that twins were “in the oven” as they used to say.
And so on that day in October, on a clean wooden kitchen table covered with the finest linens, at home, surrounded by anxious parents, siblings hidden away with relatives, Vita and I came into the world, into a home filled with love nourished by the codes of family duty and responsibility and embraced by tons of aunts and uncles and cousins.
My mother was a strong person in many ways. She kept a firm grip on the household and knew how to stretch a penny many ways out of necessity. Our clothes were hand-sewn and from a yard of material she could identically outfit us very well. I marvel at how beautiful she was all through her years– slim, erect, and well-dressed. Dad was an honorable man, living up to his duties as best he could as a providing and caring father – playful with his two daughters– strict and short-tempered with his boys, but always a very proud and loving father..
Yes, I think about them a lot these days.
My great-aunt is not a writer, but a retired New Hyde Park gym teacher--an outstanding athlete inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame; she still officiates many Manhasset and Port Washington games--yet I did not do a thing to edit or clean-up her work, and look at how beautifully it reads. People never cease to surprise you, even at eighty-one years of age...
These days, I will think these days of mine are not so tough.
These days I will walk in the shoes of those who came before me, with strength and grace and a fire in my heart that burns for the joys and sorrows of the past, the trials of the present, and the great hope that is the future.
These days I will hug my kids, and keep on...