“In The Good Old Summertime”
late spring of 1922. The front yards of most of the houses in our
neighborhood had come alive with flowers
of every color more
brilliant than any artist could paint. In the backyards, fig trees had
been “undressed”. Their
wrappings of old blankets and linoleum that
protected them from the frost of winter were removed. Their buds
sprouted and their branches became heavy with sweet fruit. Neighbors
joyfully shared with one another the
abundance of figs and
vegetables that they had grown.
Suddenly another season sizzled into the air – Summer. We had no air
conditioner and no refrigerator.
truck stopped in front of our house as housewives
called out of their windows to the iceman for a block of ice.
carry the ice on his back up one or two flights of stairs and place it
in the icebox. A basin under the
icebox caught the water from the
melting ice. Occasionally, the water from a forgotten basin overflowed
spilled across the kitchen floor. Giovanna always had a mop
ready. She’d laugh and say,
“Nowa we hava nicea
cleana kitchena floora.” By the time the ice man
was back in his truck counting the few dimes he had just earned,
kids on the block had managed to grab small chunks of ice from the back
of the truck and were busy sucking
the delicious pure ice water.
Another appliance that Giovanna and her
neighbors didn’t own was a washing machine. At that time it was a luxury
for the rich, later it became a convenience for the middle class and
finally a necessity for every family. The housewives
clothes by hand on a ribbed washboard, then hung them up to dry with
clothespins on a clothesline
that extended from outside their
kitchen window to a pole
set at the rear of the backyard. On clear
mornings, lines of linens, shirts, blouses, underwear,
and aprons would be waving gleefully from the clotheslines.
would pull in the dry clothes and smell the
clean sweetness of clothes dried by the sun
and the fresh
unpolluted air. I also recall Giovanna’s laugh as she
pulled in clothes from the line that had turned as stiff as
cardboard from a freezing winter’s spell.
Years later when we moved to a better neighborhood, Giovanni went to the
trouble of putting up a
clothesline for Giovanna. Almost
immediately, after she had hung up a line of clothes we received a phone
call. The lady said, “I’m one of your neighbors and I’m sorry to
inform you that in this neighborhood we do
not dry our clothes on a
clothesline.” Not only did
we own the new house, we soon owned a new washing
machine and dryer.
I don’t know what happened to my mother’s washboard. It’s probably on
display in an antique shop.
Returning to our hot sultry evenings in Brooklyn; neighbors sat on their
front stoops, making small talk and
enjoying an occasional cool
breeze. Other tenants sat on their fire escapes, sipping a cold drink,
slurping a lemon ice
or relishing a cold slice of watermelon.
Most weekend evenings the sounds of a party could be heard coming from
one of the neighbor’s back yard.
of colored lights shone on long tables set with food
and usually a cake, in celebration of a birthday, anniversary
child’s first Holy Communion. There was never a lack of local
entertainment. The men who played a guitar, a
mandolin or an accordion were very popular and were invited to play at
every party in the neighborhood. As for
singing – everybody sang –
and they couldn’t be stopped!
Even my shy young aunts, Lena and Margaret, put aside
inhibitions and sang a few songs to the delight of an appreciative
When we weren’t partying in the evenings we found ways to enjoy the long
warm summer days. Schools were
closed and Lena and Margaret were on
vacation – no homework for two whole months! Most of their free days
spent taking turns with my mother as they pushed me in my baby
carriage along Knickerbocker Avenue, the
shopping center of our
neighborhood. We never failed to stop at Padre Stefano’s produce market
to Grandpa and Uncle Pat. We’d leave the store munching on a fruit while
the two sisters teasingly asked
their brother, “Where are all your
wink and a mischievous grin Pat waved his sisters away.
continued to stroll along the avenue, stopping to window shop until we
reached our destination – Knickerbocker
Park. There my mother sat on
a bench, shaded by a tree, keeping a watchful eye while my aunts pushed
back and forth on a baby swing. At the sound of a
ting-a-ling from the ice cream van I was back on my mother’s lap.
Lena and Margaret ran to join the line of children who impatiently
waited their turn to buy an ice cream sandwich,
a Dixie Cup, a
Popsicle or an ice cream cone. My mother fed me ice cream with a little
wooden spoon. Every event
was a new adventure as I absorbed tastes, sights and sounds. I felt
the smoothness of ice cream sliding along my
tongue while I listened
to birds chirping and watched them flitting around on branches that
waved to me from the
tree tops. I looked higher and was fascinated
by the shapes of billowy puffs of clouds that moved slowly across a
backdrop of water colored blue sky.
My world was coming into focus.
days became cooler and our trips to the park became fewer. Summer faded
and turned into autumn. Leaves
rained down from the trees and made a
crunching sound under the wheels of my carriage.
Lena and Margaret
returned to school. On chilly days I was
kept indoors for fear of catching a cold that might develop into
or pneumonia. I was still a frail child, and spent most
of my time at home playing with stuffed animals and
Mamma sing as she cooked, cleaned and ironed.
She had a smooth melodious voice and I often
humming along with her as I played with my toys. Sometimes Mamma turned
the radio on to the
Italian station. I can still recall the
beautiful melodies we listened to. Her favorite music was the popular
love songs. Pappa knew the words to a few arias from
Verdi’s operas. He had learned them from the phonograph
the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, that he played over and over again on
our Victrola. No matter what
the season, those simple, carefree days
were filled with music.
try to recall events of my infancy to my toddler stage I seem to step
into a twilight mist. Bits and pieces of
faded photographs flash
before my eyes. I see myself blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.
It’s October 26,
1922 and I am one year old. I’ve been told
that on that day I took my first steps – by myself. It was an
that brought me hugs and kisses and applause to my
spite of the many “Happy Birthday” wishes I had received I did not
escape the same bouts of pneumonia,
bronchitis and fits of coughing
that I had suffered the previous winter. The Holiday Season ended and
lashed into us; again it was the time of icy finger tips and
frost bitten toes. The doctor’s visits became more
frequent. I was
given red cough medicine and doses of cod liver oil. Vicks was rubbed on
my chest and when
my parents became desperate with worry, mustard
plasters were applied that turned the pale skin on my chest to a
shade of watermelon pink that resembled and felt like a bad sunburn.
days were filled with anxiety for my parents.
Fortunately for Giovanni, he had distractions from my ill health
as he attended to his customers at the barber shop and to his
growing interest in real estate.
time spring of 1923 arrived my parents counted their blessings; I had
survived another winter. However,
Giovanni was now intent on
following the doctor’s advice, “The best remedy for your Baby Rosa’s
weak lungs is
fresh mountain air.” Pappa scanned the newspapers and
found a listing that appealed to him. It was a boarding
Corners” in the town of Cairo in the Catskill Mountains, New York. One
Sunday Pappa drove me and
Mamma to “Four Corners”. We were welcomed
by the friendly owners, Mr. and Mrs. Campisi. This trip was the
beginning of many enjoyable summers spent in the Catskill Mountains.
Mamma and I would wait eagerly for
Pappa to drive up and spend
weekends with us. It was exhilarating to be in the country surrounded by
spaces and breathing in the fresh mountain air. It
reminded my parents of sunny Sicily and brought back to them
cherished memories of their honeymoon in Taormina, the quaint little
town built on a mountainside.
contentment left an impression on their Baby Rosa. I’m grateful for
growing up with their passion for music,
their sense of peace when
they were close to the wonders of nature; stretches of green grass,
majestic mountains and
trees; each one filled with its’ own mystery.
When we walked on a country road, clippity clopped across a wooden
bridge and suddenly came in sight of gushing silvery water cascading
down from Shinglekill Falls we might as
well have been in a small
corner of heaven.
When our summer vacations ended we said
to the Campisis, to the friends we had made
and tearfully waved to the Catskill Mountains from our car
windows as we headed back home to Brooklyn.