The True Purpose of Autobiography
Vladimir Nabokov's words of wisdom from his book, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, validated my decision to continue writing about the links between events and experiences from my childhood that showed up, barely disguised, to influence me in my later years. Some of my events played hide-and-seek in my Eternal Present and insisted on a trip down memory lane to discover them in all their glory.
A year or so before my husband Gordon retired, we talked about what he could start getting involved in for pure fun, something he could continue to do in his retirement years. I had my writing, but after thirty-three years as a University of Florida professor who wrote textbooks and many articles, Gordon knew with great certainty that he didn't want to write anymore. He said the bloom had gone off that rose.
He suggested we do a survey of people over sixty-five and ask them questions about what they discovered about the topic that might be useful. It ended up being a self-published spiral-bound book, Golden Age Wisdom. We sent out questionnaires and promised a free copy to everyone who responded and that's how we decided how many books to print. This was before we had a computer so Gordon wrote the questions and I wrote the introduction, typed up the answers, and made the cover. Then we let the copy center take over to xerox and spiral-bind as many as we needed and considered it done. Fastest.book.ever!
There were many commonalities in the answers. Many people listed their church fellowship as the most important connection they had because it continued into their retirement and after the children were grown and started moving away to find their own bliss. That answer restarted our search for a spiritual home which ended up at The Seraphim Center, a totally accepting, interdenominational fellowship of people from all belief systems. It was just what we were looking for. Gordon enjoyed giving thought-provoking presentations there from time to time. I studied for the ministry under the founder, Rev. Dr. Bob Estling and became an ordained minister a year later. Six months after Gordon passed away, I knew it was time to get out of the house and live again, so I started going back to Seraphim Center and became a Board member for the next year and a half. It was a saving grace for me and I still enjoy attending.
Vladimir's words kept coming back to me about those missing events from my childhood so I decided to get some help from Google, which is like having the Library of Alexandria in your home. I started by googling "five most influential experiences in your life" to spur on my thinking mind and prime the pump, so to speak. Wow! 3,770,000 results came up in 0.65 seconds! Clearly I wasn't the only person interested in this subject. After reading thirty interesting pages of other people's experiences, I realized I was doing it again, getting off topic and distracting myself from finishing this page.
I have no doubt about the first event from my childhood that influenced my passion for writing. It was a no-brainer embedded with happy memories of a Christmas when I was ten. It's very easy to get to the roots of my passion for writing. If I had to choose, most of the time I'd choose to write instead of eat. I can stay up half the night, fully charged, when I'm in the middle of a writing project. It's my one guilty pleasure and I'm obsessive about it because it feels so good. When I am writing, I am in bliss and unaware of my surroundings. I have been meditating for over forty years, and when I am writing, it almost, but not quite, feels like meditation to me. I'm happily alone in PriscillaWorld, living in the present moment, doing what I feel I was born to do. The words sometimes write themselves, not unlike the automatic writing I do when I attempt to connect with someone who has "crossed over."
And speaking of someone who has crossed over, Gordon was the same way when he was writing. He could focus better than anyone I had ever known. I loved that about him! I could be standing behind him for minutes and he wouldn't even know I was there. I didn't want to break his concentration because I didn't want anyone to interrupt mine when I was writing either and he honored that. He liked to say we were joined at the hip, born only 20 hours apart, and our idiosyncrasies played well together.
Back to the book and a flashback to the year I was ten and still living on Conselyea Street in Brooklyn, New York. My mother confided that we had bought Grandma Normandia a big surprise for Christmas. It was an expensive set of dishes. I didn't know expensive was relative then, and now know it was a big deal for our family to spend that much money on anything frivolous, especially after the ordeal of rationing during World War II. Gram still saved everything, like string and the foil wrappings of chewing gum, just in case.
When I was a little younger, she once wanted to share a secret with me about something hiding in the attic. It turned out to be a 3-shelf bookcase completely filled with 5-pound bags of sugar. She warned me not to tell anyone or she could go to jail and I wouldn't see her for a long, long time. I was scared. I had no idea that having a lot of sugar could get you sent to jail. She showed me the outdated coupons in her World War II War Ration Book #One. The first stamps in that ration book were to be used for the purchase of sugar. When the book was issued, the registrar actually asked you how much sugar you owned on that date. If you had sugar at home you could keep it, but you had to turn in the proper number of stamps for the amount you had at home. My sainted grandmother who could do no wrong in my eyes was hoarding sugar and I knew better than to ask how she got it or why she needed so much!
Mom asked if I would pick out some pretty Christmas paper and wrap Gram's present on the floor because the sealed carton was too heavy to lift up. For the first time, I felt like one of the grownups because I was asked to help, even though I was sworn to secrecy to within an inch of my life if I told anyone what was in the box. I may have been only ten, but I knew better than to cross my mother.
On that New York Christmas morning in 1945, the heavy secret carton was under the tree next to the love seat where Grandma and my Dad were sitting. Gram was not a complainer, but she said that her hands hurt and she needed help opening the present. I thought that was odd because she didn't say anything about her hands hurting the night before. We had a Saturday night ritual that felt like a play with a set that included a porcelain-topped kitchen table near a wood stove where she cooked hundreds of traditional Italian meals. The script never changed. Her first line was, "Will you put my hair up in pin curls tonight and then polish my nails?"
I would respond, "Sure, what color do you want tonight, Gram?" She always chose the same bright red nail polish she saved for special occasions, like Christmas, or Sunday Mass at 5:30 in the morning at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church. She walked alone in the pitch black morning down our long street to Union Avenue, then turned right to reach the church across the street. No one had a car then, and even if we did, where would we park it? The few garages next to Rosalie Greco's house where we played stoop ball every day, rented for astronomical prices for working class families, and Mom said only people with money, like the owners of Orlando's Funeral Home, could afford them.
It never occurred to us to be fearful of walking in the dark as long as we stayed in our own neighborhood. Not only was it 95% Italian-American, but most of the immigrants came from the same small comune in Italy and were friends and neighbors there. Even now, in 2016, the population of Palma Campania is only around 15,500 so it must have been even smaller around the end of the 1800s when the largest number of Italian immigrants arrived at Ellis Island and were welcomed by our awesome gift from France, Lady Liberty.
When I tell people in Florida that I grew up in Brooklyn, some say it sounds like a dangerous place to raise a child. Maybe it is now, I really don't know, but in the 1940s it was crime-free in my neighborhood. I was over fifty when I asked my dear brother-in-law, Pete Lomuto, why I felt so safe playing outside after dark when I was little. His answer caught me off guard. Let's just say we were "protected" but no one talked about it. He said if any man or boy dared to hurt a female of any age in the six square blocks around Conselyea Street, that person would either suddenly disappear from the face of the Earth forever, or be relieved of a useful body part that guaranteed he would not hurt any female again. Ever. Yikes!
I never wanted to check that story out and have no way of knowing if it's true or not, or if it will continue to take up residence in the overflowing file of my mind labeled Family Folklore.
Grandma was a tiny Italian immigrant who arrived in the United States in the early 1890s. She left the small comune of Palma Campania, which is in the province of Napoli (Naples). Naples is the third largest municipality in Italy, after Rome and Milan, and is also the capital of the southern Italian region of Campania. Unlike Grandma Simonetti who never learned English, Gram Normandia spoke perfect English. However, even after she became a naturalized American citizen, she still preferred the familiarity of the 5:30 am Mass because it was spoken in Italian back then.
I haven't been Roman Catholic since I was twenty-eight, but sometimes I find myself singing the few words I remember from Tantum Ergo, which is part of a Medieval Latin hymn written by Saint Thomas Aquinas around 1264. It is one of the most famous chants in existence.
Gregorian Chant Lyrics - Tantum Ergo - traditional Catholic benediction hymn adoration Holy Eucharist Pange Lingua Gregorian Chant Lyrics - Tantum Ergo - traditional Catholic benediction hymn adoration Holy Eucharist Pange Lingua
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:eneremur cernui:
Gregorian Chant Lyrics - Tantum Ergo - traditional Catholic benediction hymn adoration Holy Eucharist Pange LinguaPraestet fides supplementum
Gram wanted her nails done the night before church, so she wouldn't have to worry about finding time to do them the next day. She always hurried home from church, put on her apron, and started the sauce (which my family still calls the "gravy") for the homemade lasagna. Sometimes she rolled out the dough to make ravioli from scratch. She was determined to have Sunday dinner ready to put on the table the moment her sons arrived. Their presence was not optional. It was a command performance and Gram was in charge. George (Biagio), Albert (Humberto), and Henry (Aniello) always arrived on time with wives and children in tow for their mother's big Sunday dinner, topped off with the red wine that Grandpa made in his wooden wine press that was locked in the cellar that you entered from the back yard, right under the window of my bedroom.
The smallest children, like me, were given a glass of soda with a small splash of red wine in it to give it color. As we got older, the portion of wine to soda increased in small increments. We had to be much older before we got to taste an undiluted glass of wine. My older male cousins enjoyed teasing us younger kids who were drinking our barely-pink soda out of wine glasses. They sure did enjoy flaunting their full glasses of red wine to show off their advanced age of 16 or so. It was a rite of passage in our Italian-American home. I never have liked red wine. Maybe that's why.
Meanwhile, back at the story, I felt proud Grandma asked me to help her open her Christmas present. I sat at her feet on the clean, cold linoleum and traced the big flower designs on it. Mom said she was proud that you could eat off her floors, though truthfully, I don't remember ever seeing anyone doing that, nor can I imagine why anyone would want to. I couldn't wait to see Gram's excited expression when she opened the very impressive present we got her. I assumed it was impressive based on the high security rating for secrecy, though it was sealed so I never personally saw the dishes. All eyes were on the box and you could hear a pin drop. The entire family was watching intently. I figured it was because by then we were probably all in on the big secret surprise.
Well, it was a big secret all right, and the secret was that there was no set of dishes in the box. Instead, the box I so carefully wrapped in Santa Claus paper held a typewriter, a manual Underwood typewriter with a note in the roller that said it was for ME. Holy cow, I couldn't believe it!!
It was the best present I ever got, because I dreamed of owning a typewriter some day while my ten-year-old girlfriends from P.S. 132 were still dreaming about unwrapping the latest doll-of-the-year, which that year was a fashion doll as opposed to a baby doll. We were growing up in our own way. I had told my Dad that I had written a poem about trees and he asked me to read it to him. I added that if only I had a real typewriter, I could send my latest poem to a magazine and maybe they would publish it. It was 1945, way before electric typewriters existed, at least at my house.
I needed help getting that coveted typewriter out of the carton because it was so heavy. My big brother Buddy helped. Then I looked down at the keys and look around the room to see if anyone else noticed there were no letters or numbers on the keys. They were all covered with adhesive tape! I asked how I was supposed to know which letters were under the tape. Then Buddy, who was 19 at the time and determined that I learn to type properly, handed me a perfectly scaled drawing of the typewriter keys. He had made it for me out of a manila folder so it would stand up on its side when opened. If I kept it next to the typewriter I would know where the keys were and eventually wouldn't need the picture anymore. It even showed which fingers had to go on each key.
And that's how I learned to type at ten. I was told that you could protect your original writing from theft by putting it in a sealed envelope and sending it to yourself, but it was important not to open it when it came back to you in the mail. The date next to the three-cent stamp on the envelope showed the date it was mailed and that would be as good as a real copyright, or so I believed, because, after all, the person who told me was a high school freshman. I quickly learned how to use carbon paper and made two identical copies of my letter and poem about trees. I sent the copy to me and the original to a publisher who advertised in the back of my Mary Marvel comic book. Wanted: New Writers. Shazam! I was breathlessly on my way to becoming a published writer, or so I thought.
You probably suspect by now that it's unavoidable and sooner or later I will have to include my 10-year-old inner child's all-important first poem that she hoped would catapult her into a future writing career.
No matter how old a tree may be
It still gives shade to you and me
Its leafy branches in the sun
Give their shade to everyone
I could sit for hours and hours
Admiring a tree's lovely flowers
For that is a gift given to me
The Gift of Beauty in a tree
Your house may stand where a tree once stood
Your house may even be made of wood
When you look at your house and examine each plank
God is the one whom you should thank
It was God who made the little seed grow
And God who protected it from the snow
And it's God to thank that the tree's seed was laid
And it's God to thank that your house was made
The poem was rejected gently, but it didn't matter. From that day on, I considered myself a Writer with a capital W because I had a letter from a publisher to prove it, even if it was a rejection letter. I never stopped writing after that, though I slowed down during the years when my four children were babies and limited myself to writing poetry when they were all asleep.
I will always credit my darling Dad for buying me that used, ten-dollar Underwood typewriter that fed my early love of writing. He was my first hero, the first person in my life who loved me unconditionally, and it showed. Maybe it was because I was the baby of the family, an unplanned ecstatic surprise for Dad since it had been nine years since my brother was born. He knew I would be the last child he would have because Mom was not that excited about the good news and the idea of starting all over again raising a baby at her age was not what she expected. She was thirty-three when I was born and, in my family, that was considered embarrassingly old to be getting pregnant. It ranked higher than married women who didn't cut their hair short after the wedding. I'm not sure why that was taboo either. Maybe a married woman was not supposed to call attention to herself. Now, thankfully, women don't put restrictions like that on themselves. When I was in elementary school, I always had the oldest parents in my class. Why the teachers always wanted to know how old our parents were I never did understand.
I want to end this page with a tribute to my Dad. He never raised his voice to me like my friends' fathers did, nor did he ever have a self-improvement plan for me. He made me feel like I was perfect in every way and could be anything I wanted to be. He was the only one who could help me with my algebra and Latin homework and always listened to me so patiently as he smoked his White Owl cigars. I'm pretty sure he must have made a mental note of what I wanted or thought I needed and had a knack for finding it for me at just the perfect time. Until I met Gordon, I didn't think anyone would ever love me unconditionally like that again, but I was wrong. Once Gordon and I got to know each other better and trust each other enough to open our hearts, we surrendered to unconditional love. It's funny how that works. Thanks, Dad, for letting me know what that feels like so I could recognize it when it came around again.
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Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful
Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so good
No one could be so gentle and so lovable
Oh, my pa-pa, he always understood
Gone are the days when he could take me on his knee
And with a smile he'd change my tears to laughter
Oh, my pa-pa, so funny, so adorable
Always the clown, so funny in his way
Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful
Deep in my heart I miss him so today