Category Archives: Transitions

Time for a New Toothbrush

There is an old Jewish tradition of leaving rocks on gravestones––I think to mark your visit. Seth and I left these two stones at the marker of my family’s plot in Westbury, New York, on Wednesday. It’s our first visit since my dad died in February, 2017. It was strange and sad at first, to sit there in the grass atop my father’s resting place. The cemetery was our first stop once we landed in New York, but then we got ourselves up, got a bite to eat at a diner where the chowder is Manhattan style (red, tomato based), and afterward we went to a garden center and picked up a small trowel and two celiosa plants blooming purple flowers and we returned to the cemetery with a project: I planted the flowers, one on the side where my dad is buried and one on the side where my grandparents are buried, and Seth began cleaning the stone. We didn’t have much with us to do that, but there was water nearby and I offered the toothbrush out of my backpack and so Seth brushed the green algae off the black granite stone, brushed the letters, brushed the carved image of St. Anthony of Padua, and it was good to have these projects. Dad, Grandma, Grandpa––they all appreciated things clean and orderly, and so I know this simple act of cleaning and planting would be appreciated, even now. Afterward, we lay there in the grass a long time, Seth and me… and then we set those stones atop the gravestone, said our goodbyes, and headed off to visit my cousin in Brooklyn (Brook-a-leen, as my Italian grandparents would have pronounced it). Our trips are usually like this: visits to family and friends, living and dead.

The day before, I was at my mom’s house, mowing the lawn. I like this task. It is a job that reminds me of Dad, for it’s something we did together often. Many times this summer while I’ve been there tackling this job, riding the mower, thinking of Dad, a big wood stork would fly down from the heavens, land by the pond near the house, and there the bird would stand or sit, at the bank of the pond, under a tree, watching me. Large wading birds are not uncommon in the swampy lands near the family homestead, but to see a wood stork is rare. This one, though, he’s been coming around since July. We have our almost weekly visit together. If I get too close, the stork takes a few big steps away. He’s a good four feet tall, and so his stride is large. But I look at him lately and I wonder where he’s come from, and why he’s chosen to hang out at our pond. I’m glad he’s there.

But that’s back home in Florida, which is not where we are now. Your Convivio Boys are on an autumnal jaunt, and if you know us, you know jaunts are not something we do often. First stop is New York, for just a few days, then onward to Maine. I’ll write when I can.

 

Monte. John Monte.

I couldn’t tell you why, but my dad had a pseudonym that he used for things like dinner reservations or those occasions when you’d get to a restaurant and have to wait for a table. “It’ll be about 20 minutes. Name please?” “Monte,” he’d say, sometimes adding on, “John Monte.” Where the name came from I have no idea, and why he needed it is anyone’s guess, too. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that “Cutrone” is sometimes not an easy name for folks to spell here in the States, so that might be the reason, or it may have had something to do with a calculated disassociation from a more infamous John Cutrone, a Mafioso in Brooklyn who met his untimely end in 1976. Whatever the reason, like an actor or sports star attempting to throw off the paparazzi so he could just have a quiet meal, it was accepted fact that when we went to a restaurant, my dad, the auto mechanic from Valley Stream, was John Monte.

I think about that sometimes when I make dinner reservations or call in to order a pizza. I half expect the name “Monte” to come out of my mouth someday, as I become more and more like my dad as the years pass. A good example: telephones. I hate calling people on the phone and I greet incoming calls with suspicion. This was my dad, too. To this day, my mom calls people up, just to chat. Dad, on the other hand, would announce whenever the phone would ring, “I’m not home.” Back then phones had no caller ID; they just rang and you picked up the receiver and said hello and if it was you who picked up the phone and if the person at the other end of the phone line asked for Mr. Cutrone or for your dad and if you caved, if you said, “Hold on a minute,” and motioned to him, Dad would glare at you and then after he got off the phone he’d give you hell. No one ever just called to chat with Dad; they called because they wanted him to help them do something, like fix a roof or move a wall. It’s no wonder he disliked the phone.

Dad worked up until he was almost 90. We worked at the same university, and sometimes I’d call his extension, usually because I needed something, and sometimes just to say hello. I’d dial 7-2295, and if he didn’t pick up in two rings, I knew he wasn’t at his desk. But when he did pick up, he’d answer with a somewhat singsongy hello, where the first syllable went up as the second syllable went lower. And then I’d say hello, and then he’d say what he always said when we were at work: “Hi guy.” He never said this at home, just at work. It’s what he said to all the guys who worked with him, and at work, I was just one of the guys. The guys who worked with him thought he was in his 60s, maybe 70s. He certainly did not look like he was 89. It was probably a decade or two that Dad would tell his fellow workers, if they asked how old he was, that he was 65. Sometimes that’s just how Dad was. He’d tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. That he was 65. That he felt fine. That his name was John Monte.

It’s our second Father’s Day without him. Days like Father’s Day are never easy when your dad is no longer here to wish a happy Father’s Day to. But we’ll gather all the same, my mom and my sister and Seth and me, and we will eat together. At the table, I will sit in Dad’s seat, because this is what I do now. I’ve done it since the day he died, and it felt odd then, and sometimes still does, but I know I am meant to sit there, and that I am meant to remind everyone that whenever we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day he’d always reply, “You mean Jack Ass Day,” and we will laugh. This year will be not as bad as the year before. Each year, some measure of sadness is replaced by a greater measure of… not sadness.

In Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on the 19th of March: St. Joseph’s Day, and there is something particularly beautiful about that, as we celebrate a saint who cared for his family, protected them, provided for them, taught his son good, practical things. It is a perfectly logical day to celebrate all fathers, those we were given and those we have chosen. It certainly was the model that my dad followed. Perhaps if we celebrated on that day, too, when we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day, he would have simply said, “Thanks.”

That’s my dad and me at the Photobooth at Nunley’s Amusement Park in Baldwin, New York, probably about 1967 or 1968.

 

Flowers & Stories

Welcome to the gentle time of year. It is Memorial Day Weekend, our unofficial start to summer. It was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1949, that my mom and dad got married––two good looking kids from Brooklyn, tying the knot in the company of their family and friends at St. Blaise Church, with a football reception afterward at the Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn: piles and piles of sandwiches, “football” referring to the idea that folks would toss the waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches across the room. “Hey,” someone would shout, “send me a capocolla!” and indeed, someone would toss a capocolla sandwich his or her way. How great is that? Sandwiches flying across the room, mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. The Roy Rogers Orchestra was playing live and certainly there were at least one or two tarantella dances. No wedding planners, no destinations, no fondant on their cake. There was a big fight between Mom and Dad the night before over mustard, but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. Now that’s a wedding.

They chose Memorial Day rather roundaboutly… and so here comes one of my family’s legendary stories. Mom and Dad were engaged in February, 1948, and Mom wanted to get married at her birthday that next October. But at some point that spring, Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone sat them down and asked them to hold off for a year. “If you do, we’ll give you a nice present,” they said. Mom and Dad gave it some thought, and said ok, they would. And so the date was set for Memorial Day Weekend, 1949. Just before the wedding––like, that morning––Grandma pulled my dad aside. “Johnny,” she said, “I only have $100 for your present.” At this point, it is helpful to understand how Italian weddings work. We don’t give toasters and towels at weddings. We give cash. At some point during the reception, the groom and the bride, holding a white satin bag, have a seat at a table. A line of guests forms from there, the guests holding envelopes––the busta. The cash. Each guest approaches, kisses the bride and groom, bestowing their congratulations on the couple and into the white satin bag, their busta. Next morning, the bride and groom will gather with the family and someone will have a pen and paper and while the happy couple open the envelopes, the person with the pen and paper records, for posterity, what each guest gave. It’s a very matter of fact process, something you might associate more with accounting departments than with newly-married lovebirds.

Now my dad, he knew already what my mom’s parents were giving for their wedding present. Grandma and Grandpa DeLuca were giving them $1,000. Not too shabby a present back then (nor now, for that matter). So there was going to be quite a disparity between the gifts of the two sets of parents. So Dad, in that thirteenth hour, pulled out his wallet, took three $100 bills out of it, and shoved them into his mother’s hands so she could add them to her busta. The next morning, Mom and Dad opened Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone’s envelope, and their gift was recorded at $400––which was also not so shabby in those days. All was well and face was saved and my dad––who also somehow paid for the wedding reception––got his own 300 bucks back. Which could be the end of the story, but it’s not.

The secret remained a secret for years and years until one of many spirited and exuberant dinner table disagreements amongst my extended family. Things became more and more heated and eventually the matter of Millie and Johnny’s wedding gift came up. It seems all of my other aunts and uncles had received $100 from my grandparents, and the $400 gift that my parents got was a sore point. The shouting built and the accusations built and finally my dad stood up and above all this cackling, yelled, “OK, enough!” I like to think he slammed his hand on the table, too, and maybe he did. He turned to his mother. “Ma, how much did you give for my wedding?” Grandma looked at him blankly and wasn’t sure exactly what to say. “Eh, $400,” she finally uttered. Dad looked at her again, raising his eyebrows. At that, she sighed and she came clean. Dad and Grandma explained to everyone at the table that day what had transpired in the hour before his wedding years before. My mother’s mouth fell. All these years, and she had no idea.

And so these are the stories we tell and the things we think about at Memorial Day. And it is another day to miss Dad more since he’s left us. Dad hits us with lots of memory days this time of year: His birthday on the 18th of May, their anniversary on the 29th… oh and then soon after comes Father’s Day, the day he called Jack Ass Day. Last year, on their first anniversary apart, Memorial Day Weekend found Mom in the hospital with shortness of breath. What they told us would be an overnight stay turned into a week or more. Cardiologists couldn’t quite figure out what was what, even after she was sent home. Finally, she went to Dr. Molly, the doctor Mom and Dad had gone to for years and years. Dr. Molly put Mom on a water pill and also observed what none of the hospital doctors seemed to care about, even though we had told them about Dad’s recent passing: “You’re heartbroken.” Perhaps that needed to be acknowledged. Mom has been in good health since.

The day is special to my family, but it is special to many. As a nation, it is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. But it is one more day where we just remember, plain and simple. Memorial Day (or some version of it) is celebrated not just here in the United States, but in other countries, as well, and usually at this particular time of year. It is a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. The day was earlier on known as Decoration Day, and the Memorial/Decoration Day traditions in this country go back to the Civil War era. The original date, May 30, was chosen for it was believed that flowers for decorating graves would be in bloom in every state of the Union on that date. It’s since been moved to the last Monday of May. This year it falls on the 28th. It is our unofficial start of summer here in the US, but a somber one if we honor the day in its proper tradition. And so we decorate, and we remember. And we tell stories. Flowers and stories for remembrance, flowers and stories beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

 

Image: Johnny & Millie. This their engagement photo, not all that long before that sit down with Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone that led to the decision to be married on Memorial Day Weekend, 1949.