MADA RANA

My great-grandmother, Mada Rana, 1947

The house is quiet tonight. Eerily quiet. All the lights are off and only the glow of candles shines dimly through the curtained windows, performing a ballet of shadows on the walls and ceiling. Every so often a door softly opens, barely perceptible murmurings are audible, then the door gently closes. Intermittent muted sobbing creeps up from the parlor.

I sit on my bed huddled under a blanket, a tiny flashlight flickering a pale yellow beam on my diary as I jot down my memories of the day. I must be quiet; my mother will be very upset with me if she discovers I’m still awake at this late hour.

My window is open just enough to let in some fresh air. The distinct smell of cigarette smoke wafts up into my room. I peek out to see my mother’s uncles sitting on the back steps silently smoking their unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes. Their black armbands are starkly visible against their plain starched white shirts. 

I tip-toe across the length of my bedroom, praying the old wooden floorboards beneath the well-worn rug will not creak. Ever so slowly I turn the glass doorknob; the hallway is dark. I can detect a muted light downstairs and I scurry nearer to the staircase railing for a better look. I sit there hugging my knees for a long time; there is no movement on the lower level. Just as I am about to descend the stairs, a giant amorphous outline begins approaching the parlor. The huge silhouette is frightening but only momentarily as it slowly becomes smaller and eventually reveals itself to be the profile of my mother draped from head to knees in a long lace shawl. She stands just outside the parlor for a moment fidgeting with her handkerchief, then enters the room, quietly sliding closed the heavy pocket doors.

A few hours earlier the ambience of the house was much different, still subdued but active as delivery men and acquaintances paying their respects came and went. My mother and her aunts labored in the kitchen like silent worker bees, preparing trays of food for the constant flow of visitors. My father, along with my mother’s uncles, directed the traffic of floral deliveries and positioned the many arrangements throughout the parlor. And we children sat quietly on the two enormous matching sofas along the side walls, eyes downcast, confused and uncharacteristically subdued. Occasionally we would glance toward the walnut casket resting atop a platform in the center of the room and quickly look away. Around 6:00 we were quietly whisked away into the dining room where we silently ate our evening meal, then returned to the parlor to continue our vigil.

There seemed to be a never-ending flow of people, a soft parade of mourners entering my house. Veiled women dabbed their eyes and men removed their hats, heads bowed. This stream flowed seamlessly from 2:00 in the afternoon until 9:30 that evening, many people lingering to reflect while others stayed only minutes. The priest arrived shortly after 9:30; he spoke softly in our native Sicilian dialect, offering prayers and words of consolation. When he was finished, everyone except my mother’s aunts and uncles departed. My little cousins, some no longer able to stay awake, were carried home and my sister and I were shooed off to our bedrooms upstairs.

It had been a long and sorrowful day. Mada Rana, the family matriarch, had died.

Her name was Maria Giuliano and she was my great-grandmother. We called her Mada Rana, our abbreviated version of the Italian Mamma Grande or Big Mamma. Mada Rana was a Sicilian immigrant, mother of six, grandmother of 16 (including my mother) and great-grandmother of 27. Her husband Giovanni died long ago when my mother was still a very young child and Mada Rana remained a widow for the rest of her life. 

Heavy-set and of medium height, she had the appearance of being stoic and unapproachable but her blue eyes danced whenever the children were around. Like magic, she would produce homemade cookies from her apron pockets and sneak them to us behind her back, pressing her fingers to her lips signaling us to keep her secret.

At one time or another most of the family lived in the same apartment building on 153rd Street and Third Avenue in the Melrose section of The Bronx. In time all Mada Rana’s children married and had families of their own. Mada Rana never lived by herself; her children were happy to take turns providing a home for her until she eventually moved into our house with my parents, sister and me. That was where she held court over the family meal every Sunday. Our house was large and well-appointed, filled with the noisy sounds of children laughing, women cooking and men excitedly playing cards. And there was music, always music. Mada Rana’s bedroom was on the first floor near the parlor and that’s where she died, surrounded by her loved ones.

Tonight the house is silent and the intense perfume of flowers hangs heavy in the air. As is the tradition, Mada Rana lay in repose in the center of the house; she wore a dress of deep purple to compliment the lilac velvet lining of her casket, her rosary beads secure in her hands.

Tomorrow morning we will say our last goodbyes to our beloved matriarch. Our cars will slowly follow a horse drawn carriage to St. Raymond’s Cemetery where Mada Rana will be laid to rest with her beloved Giovanni. It has been firmly explained to the children that everyone will kiss Mada Rana’s forehead as a final sign of respect; my stomach is in knots thinking about kissing a dead person. The concept is frightening and I don’t want to do it but I must.

I will forever hold dear countless memories of Mada Rana – her larger-than-life presence at the dinner table, her silver hair pulled in a bun, black stockings rolled down below her knees, the house-dresses she wore inside and the ubiquitous black mourning ensemble she wore when in public, the rapid-fire way she would roll home-made cavatelli one after the other off a small grooved paddle, her muted prayers as she devoutly recited her rosary, the way she closed her eyes and smiled when Caruso sang.

I will never be able to erase from my mind the overwhelming smell of flowers in the parlor during her wake, the sound of dirt and pebbles pelting her casket or the cold, waxy feel of her forehead under my quivering lips. My dreams were filled with those recollections for years and sometimes still haunt my sleep.

NAR © 2022

This recording was made in September 1920, less than a year before Caruso’s death. His health was failing and the recording equipment was, by our standards, primitive. Despite all that, the power and beauty of his voice remain unmatched.

TWO DAYS TO WAIT

She sat at her indestructible Singer factory sewing machine, hands flying like an octopus knitting a scarf.  

I peeked around the corner into her sewing room. Without lifting her head, she sensed my presence. “What is it, principessa?” she asked.

“Can we go to Post Arrow?” The little family diner with a few kiddie rides was one of my favorite places to go. We’d get pastrami sandwiches, fries and ride the bumper cars, Ferris wheel and carousel – heaven on earth for an 8-year-old kid.

Without missing a stitch, my mother replied “Cara, can’t you see how much work I have left to do? Besides, dinner is already in the oven.”

I stood on the threshold saying nothing. My mother knew I was there but kept sewing at warp speed. When she looked up, she saw my red, swollen eyes and tear-stained face. Her usual stern expression softened a bit. “If I finish my work maybe we will go on Saturday” and she returned to the task at hand.

I drew a big red circle around Saturday on my calendar. Two days to wait.

First thing on Saturday I asked my mother about going to Post Arrow. Again she said “maybe”; she had to deliver her finished projects to the shop first.

Hours went by. I kept vigil at the window until my mother returned. She looked up at me and grinning, motioned me to come down.

“Andiamo, cara! Go get your daddy. Now we have some fun!”

NAR © 2022

SOFTLY AS I LEAVE YOU

Parish, New York – a sleepy little town about 20 miles from Oswego, just about kissing Lake Ontario. The place I once called home.I was born in Parish and lived there until it became too small for me or maybe I just got too damn disillusioned.

I was the only child of Ron and Betty Cooper. Dad never said he was disappointed that I was a girl but I knew he really wanted a son. Mom named me Carly Grace. Dad never called me Carly; I was always ‘Carl’ to him. I didn’t mind too much but mom always said it was a heartless thing for him to do – a constant reminder that she couldn’t give him a son.

We lived in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere. Dad would sleep most of the day and go to work after dinner. He was a bartender at Floyd’s Place in the town of Mexico, about seven miles from Parish. College kids from Oswego would bring their dates to Floyd’s Place; it was a dive but dad did a good job keeping their tankards full all night.

I remember having to be very quiet during the day so dad could sleep. Mom kept me busy in the kitchen; she was a terrific baker and taught me how to make homemade bread.

Both my parents were heavy smokers. Even when mom was baking she’d have a Marlboro dangling from her lips. Well, mom got cancer and softly, peacefully passed away the night before I turned 13; to this day the smell of freshly baked bread reminds me of her.

It wasn’t long before dad hooked up with Paulette Garrison, a nurse who’d stop by the bar every night after her shift. Dad started staying at Paulette’s place in Mexico and by the time I was fifteen I was pretty much living on my own.

Memorial Day weekend rolled around and dad brought Paulette back to our house. I was looking forward to a cook-out and fireworks but dad and Paulette only came out of the bedroom for beer and cigarettes. That Saturday night I packed a few things in mom’s old suitcase, took her address book, whatever money I could find and softly left my home in Parish.

When I arrived at Grand Central Station, I called mom’s cousin Rita in The Bronx. She didn’t hesitate for a second, taking me into her home and caring for me like I was her own daughter. She also gave me a job in her bakery on Arthur Avenue. When Rita retired she put me in charge and I eventually became the owner.

Nine years went by when I got a call out of the blue. It was Paulette letting me know my dad had died – three weeks ago! There was certainly no love lost between us but I felt I should drive up to say farewell.

I stood at my father’s grave feeling nothing but the cold wind stinging my face. Softly I turned and left Parish behind me forever.

NAR © 2021

Written for Linda G. Hill’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday prompt. Linda has asked us to use the word “home” as a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

POOR ALTHEA’S BOY

A fictional newspaper report

Bronx, New York – Sirens tore through the silence last night as police responded to a robbery on Corsa Avenue, a quiet street of middle class two story homes. 

Police approached eye witness Jasper Gardener who gave this account: “I was out walking my dog when a guy came running down the front steps of this house. He was in such a hurry he practically knocked me down.” When police asked for a description Mr. Gardener said it happened so fast he didn’t get a good look at the guy,  just that he was wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt. 

The homeowners, Carl and Louise Swanson, apparently arrived home from work while the intruder was still inside their home. Tenant Albert Farrell resides on the first floor of the house and was home at the time. When questioned Mr. Farrell replied that he was watching television all evening and didn’t hear anything unusual. The police speculated that the rumbling noise of the Swanson’s electric garage door scared off the intruder. 

“The perpetrator obviously didn’t have much time; only the bedroom was in disarray” declared Officer Ralph Taylor. “He probably knew the Swanson’s regular work schedule and we believe he got spooked when they came home early.”

Officer Mario DeMarco had this to say: “We discovered muddy footprints in the backyard and on the fire escape leading to the second floor. The intruder must have gained access via a bedroom window.” 

When police asked the Swansons what was missing, Mrs. Swanson pointed to her suede coat on the floor. “Look at this” she told the police. “He left my expensive suede coat behind but ripped off the faux fur collar probably thinking it was real fur.” 

When asked about missing jewelry the Swansons said that other than what they were wearing everything was locked in their safe. 

This guy is an idiot and has no idea of the value of things!” exclaimed Mr. Swanson. “Our extensive collection of Lenox and Lladro figurines hasn’t been touched. And that’s not all. Even my original John Lennon cartoon drawing which I bought at auction is still hanging right there. What a jerk this guy is! I’ll bet this was all done by that no good lousy punk Chucky Brown! What a loser!”

The police were well acquainted with Charles “Chucky” Brown, a small time thief who lived in the area with his mother Althea. He’d been picked up several times for petty thefts but was always released. Police never found anything valuable on him; they couldn’t even charge him with breaking and entering.   

A crowd of people had gathered near the Swanson’s house. One man told the police “I just saw Chucky racing down Corsa Avenue. He was carrying a pillowcase and wearing a hoodie.” 

Immediately Officers Taylor and DeMarco jumped into their car and sped down Corsa Avenue when they were stopped by an accident. Getting out to investigate they discovered a bus and a truck had collided. Pinned between the two was the unfortunate Chucky Brown. His run of small time thefts had come to an end. On the ground lay a pillowcase containing a few items, including Mrs. Swanson’s faux fur collar. Charles “Chucky” Brown got pinned last night but not the way the police expected and certainly not the way they hoped. 

Alright folks. The excitement is over. Go on home now” announced Officer Taylor. “Ok, Mario, let’s call this in. And get a squad car to Chucky’s house to bring his mother down to the station. No matter what a screw up Chucky was, he was still her son. Poor woman.”  

NAR © 2020


Reposted for Fandango’s #FOWD http://fivedotoh.com/2023/01/21/fowc-with-fandango-description

SAVED BY THE BILL

“Well, hello there. I’m Archie … Archie the Armchair. And you? Ah, a pleasure to meet you, Reader. Please have a seat, get comfortable and let me tell you a little about myself. 

My family and I were purchased in 1964 by Vito and Connie Schembre for their new home in the Bronx. Connie kept a beautiful house, immaculately clean upstairs as well as downstairs. Like most Italian households, the basement was where the family really lived … fully furnished with a kitchen, dining area, bathroom and tv section. Connie had a nice sewing room where she spent many hours making costumes for school plays, clothes for her daughters and custom order dresses for a small clientele of local women. 

My parents combined to form one beautiful sofa, my big sister was a loveseat and my twin brother and I were armchairs. Together we were too much furniture for the formal living room so it was decided that I would join the other furniture downstairs in the tv section. Connie enjoyed her rocking chair while Vito preferred stretching out in the plush recliner. Seventeen year old Rosemarie loved her straw bucket chair (a hideous thing!) which meant I became thirteen  year old Nancy’s chair. She couldn’t have been happier; I was a big step up from a bunch of pillows on the floor! 

From my vantage point I could see everything that happened in the basement – Vito listening to opera, Connie frying her tantalizing meatballs every Sunday morning, the girls doing their homework at the kitchen table. I had a front row seat for every tv show the family watched. In fact, the only time Nancy didn’t sit on me with her legs curled under her was when she sat on the floor five inches from the tv to see the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show. 

Oh, the memories! I snuck a peek when Rosemarie made out with her boyfriend Billy Mack. I held back tears when Connie meticulously stitched my torn seam. And I bet I’m the only one who knows that Nancy plopped on me, relishing her Oreos and milk …ON HER WEDDING DAY … IN HER WEDDING GOWN! How I wish I had a picture of that! 

Then the day came that the Schembre’s decided to move to a smaller house upstate. They had too many items for the new place so some things had to go. It was the scariest day of my life. The thought of going to strangers … or worse … being put out for the trash was unbearable. Suddenly Nancy’s husband Bill picked me up and put me in their van. Oh joy! I was going to live at Nancy’s house! And to make the day even better I overheard Nancy and Bill saying that one of Connie’s dear friends bought the rest of my family. They were all staying together!

Now I reside in Nancy’s Beatles Room donning a new beautiful coat of blue leather. And Nancy sits on me with her legs curled under her while writing her stories. I tell you, dear Reader, things couldn’t be better in my life.

NAR © 2018