“We had five whole acres, a good part of which was second-growth bush, studded with blueberries, which the little Italian children who were our neighbors picked and sold back to us.” –from “Blackberry Winter”
At my most sensitive I thought Mead hinted at a kind of childhood villainy, an early demonstration of criminality.
We knew that our neighbors, the Seeleys, were friend’s of the famous anthropologist and that she sometimes visited. We could just make out the Seeley’s sunken Victorian in winter after the trees had lost their leaves.
It was a blustery cold and overcast February morning, and Mom streamed into the kitchen. “Margaret Mead is out on the paddleboat with Mrs. Seeley!” Mom tried to get me to go back outside with her and down to the lake. But it was too cold and I protested.
Mom, who had never gone to college, whose knowledge was gathered exclusively from books, nevertheless knew exactly what Margaret Mead looked like. Just as she would have recognized John Kenneth Galbraith or George Plimpton, just as she had once seen Lillian Hellman in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and had almost spoken to her. “I wanted to say how much I loved Pentimento but she was eating her lunch.”
A week later the local paper documented how Mrs. Seeley had indeed taken Margaret Mead out on her paddleboat on the Hammonton Lake.
The elder Meade compared Italians’ heights and weights and our mothers’ sewing skills to those of Americans. She’d conducted intelligence and I.Q. tests among Italian school children, and published her findings in, “The Italian on the Land: A Study in Immigration.”
We did not know this until Mom’s friend, Jeanette La Rosa Feeley, President of the Hammonton Historical Society, published “The Italian on the Land” for all to see. Thank god we were already with our feet up in our comfortable houses before we read what she had to say:
“Italians show little judgment in the feeding of children, allowing them to eat such things as green apples and cucumbers without protest.”
“Italian babies are often clothed in the old-time swaddling clothes, and are not well cared for. Babies and little children are allowed to go naked, or clad in short garments in summer, the mothers having an idea that it is less trouble not to clothe small children below the waist.”
—Emily Fogg Meade, from “The Italian on the Land”
“Now they’re biting like mad and before long they have half a bushel. As the action slows, they’re determined to fill the bushel, so they keep at the work, moving down by a few feet where they can see some crabs moving around the shallows. It’s harder here because the railing has almost collapsed, but they haul over a plank and jerry-rig a place to stand.”
–from my upcoming novel HEADFIRE
Whenever Dad felt the need to impress someone, including his three daughters, out came the story of how his father had once owned the famous Bookbinders Restaurant in Philadelphia. Each telling of the story was embellished with the names of famous ball players and the ball club owners to whom his father, Jimmy, once served dinner.
In 1946, my grandfather, Jimmy Reitano, had Bookbinder’s appraised, and he approached a man named Hyman Cycle at a time when very few people had any money. Mr. Cycle had made his fortune in mattresses, through lucrative war contracts where he provided every mattress that went on board every navy ship at Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. He liked my grandfather and backed him in the business.
Jimmy rose early to go down to the docks, where he hand picked sirloins, fillets, ribs and chops. He did all the meat buying, and he had a natural talent for spotting the right degree of marbling, the most tender cuts. In the realm of food his unerring judgment and skill attracted a first class clientele, and put Bookbinder’s, what had been a losing operation, into the black in the first year.
Jimmy’s first job had been counting ice cars arriving by rail into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. But when he became the co-owner of a famous restaurant he began driving a Peerless.
Dad would never take us to Bookbinders. There was some painful history there regarding how Jimmy “lost” the restaurant. I remember once Mother suggesting we all go. “Why not take the girls,” she said. “Nooo, Lorraine.” he shook his head, which was her signal to drop the subject.
GLAMOUR IN THE PINES
Samuel Frank built the Rivoli Theatre on Hammonton’s main street in 1927, with a façade that was designed to imitate the Ducal Palace in Venice. Named after the famous Rivoli Theater in New York on 49th and Broadway, the theatre boasted 450 seats, including 250 balcony seats.
According to an historic Manager’s Report (below):
Type of Patronage: Small town, farmers and mill workers. Poor class of Italians.
In answer to the question, Balcony for Colored?: The manager typed Yes.
I was very young on a beautiful spring day in 1961, when Mom and I stood next to Uncle and the three of us looked up at the façade of the old Rivoli Theatre.
“I’m buying it, Lorraine,” Uncle said.
I tugged at the soft fabric of his jacket. “What about the movie theater, Uncle Lew?”
“What about it, darling?”
“Are you going to open it again? So we can go and see movies?”
Uncle ignored me, and I knew by the firm way Mother held my hand that I wasn’t to insist.
“Watch for me around twelve-thirty, darlings,” Uncle said.
My sisters and I were in the pool, ready to wave. My arms were half out of the water as I heard the small plane droning in the distance. It made a wide loop and buzzed us twice. Uncle flew frighteningly low over the tallest pines, and I tried to pick him out behind the glass of the cockpit. But he was gone in a second, and the plane’s departure left a hole of sound I filled with energetic strokes, as I pulled through the water with greater purpose.
It was a warm night with fire flies lighting like stars, and they swirled around me, waist high, as if I were a giant. Dad came outside and asked me if I wanted to gig some frogs. I said I did, even though I didn’t know what gigging was.
Ransom’s pond was a huge oval still as glass, and there was a worn path along the waterline where a fringe of grass harbored mosquitoes. Without a word Dad handed me a contraption he called a “gig.” At the end of a broom handle was a three-pronged metal tool fastened to the end like a miniature pitchfork. He whispered that I was to hold it with both hands, like so, and demonstrated.
I stood with knees bent and both arms high on the broomstick like some warrior, the gig pointing straight down, while Dad dragged the flashlight’s beam along the pond’s white bottom.
Dad caught sight of a frog, and with a stern look directed my gaze to where the beam had frozen the poor creature. I crept forward on the balls of my feet, following him to where the frog finally settled.
“Aim,” he whispered. I crouched, took position, and pointed the gig at what I estimated to be the dead center of its back.
“Now!” he ordered.
I plunged the stick down, but in that instant time seemed to stop and my second’s hesitation was enough to allow the frog to spring away in a blur of shimmering water.
“You missed it!”
We trudged around the pond a third time, but I knew that Dad would take over and I wouldn’t get another chance. Over the next thirty minutes he got four more big ones, and we were still walking around the pond and I was feeling bad, wondering whether, had I been a boy, I would have cut out all second thoughts and plunged when he’d told me to. Plunge, gig, shoot, throw. He had tried to teach me, but I couldn’t do any of them.
But now, with the food safely in our sack, Dad didn’t seem annoyed any longer. He turned and smiled, “We’ll get a couple more and go home.”
According to him the frogs had to be skinned alive. But after watching him skin the first two, I had to go into the house. I couldn’t watch that hasty slice across the frog’s middle, then clear around its back like halving a peach, and how Dad’s strong hands with the sprouting black hairs, pulled the skin down in one great coat. The frogs twitched the whole time, until their lower halves hung denuded and gray.
“Look at that!” he exclaimed, coming into the kitchen and holding the bowl full of legs for me to see. It looked like a small pile of meat for all that effort, but Dad was excited.
He moved quickly, salting and peppering before tossing the legs into a swirling pan of butter and garlic. Minutes later we sat across from one another at the kitchen table scoffing them down.
“The biggest frogs are at Sunshine Errera’s out on the Pike,” Dad said between bites.
“Why didn’t we go there?” I asked, making conversation.
He clicked his tongue and shook his head, “God Gail, you are never satisfied.” I felt shame, as if I were being greedy, when I only meant to make conversation.
“These are good, aren’t they?” he said after a minute.
“They really are, Dad.”
He smiled, pleased.