Category Archives: Birthdays & Anniversaries

Memorial Day Weekend, 1949

Memorial Day has always come prepackaged with bonus material for my family, for 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, the Italian neighborhood church, with a football reception afterward at Livingston Manor 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 (and maybe being intercepted), mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. There was beer and soda and Grandpa’s homemade anisette. “We didn’t want a fancy reception,” Mom said, “but we wanted good music.” And so the Roy Rogers Orchestra played all evening and people danced and danced and certainly at least one or two of those dances were traditional Italian tarantella dances, and they played the Grand March, too, as everyone got up off their seats and marched around the hall. Mom and Dad’s wedding song was an old tango called Jealousy. I asked if they learned to dance the tango before the wedding; they did not. They just heard the song in a movie, and despite the name, knew it was theirs. There was a big fight between them the night before the wedding––it was something about mustard––but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. No wedding planners, no destinations, not even a cake; just mountains of waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches and homemade cream puffs and Italian cookies. Now that’s a wedding.

This year their anniversary fell on Saturday, the day Seth and I often head over to help out with chores. And though my dad is gone these four years now, still, when my phone conversation on Friday with my mom and my sister turned to What should we eat tomorrow? a decision came quickly: Let’s have sandwiches, and let’s have Italian cookies, and my sister said, “I’ll make the cream puffs.” It was a just right day. My nephew and his family happened to drop in just as we were finishing our sandwiches. We put two big pots of espresso on. We laughed, Mom told stories about the wedding, we listened to the Harry James version of their song, Jealousy, and we pictured Mom and Dad dancing to the song at the Livingston Manor while imagining Morticia and Gomez Addams dancing to it, as well, Morticia clutching a red rose in her teeth, because it starts with that tango sound before moving into fox trot territory. We had such a nice time. And when I kissed Mom goodnight and gave her a hug, she said, “Thank you for my anniversary party.” 72 years ago and still these things warm our hearts.

Memorial 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, all who have come and gone. 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 here in the States was known earlier on 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 31st, the very last day of the month. 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. And for some of us, we eat sandwiches and cream puffs. Flowers and stories and all these things for remembrance, beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

Image: Johnny & Millie. It’s their engagement photograph, 1948… a year before their Memorial Day Weekend wedding.



Pocketful o’ Chores

It’s my dad’s birthday on Tuesday; our fourth one without him being here. It seems like an incredibly long time and it seems like it’s not been long at all, which, I’ve come to realize, is the way we come to experience grieving. Or certainly the way I have. Dad is still very much a part of my life and (again, I’ve come to realize) I don’t think that will change, either. I talk to him, especially while I’m at the family homestead, mowing the lawn. I say goodnight to his photo each night as I shut the lights, but I say goodnight to all the people in the photos, and each night I feel the same hint of surprise that he is not in my daily life quite the same way as he was before. It’s all very strange and all very reassuring, too, and if it sounds a bit muddled, well, welcome to my world. It seems to work for me.

If you are a loyal Convivio Book of Days reader, I worry sometimes that you must get tired of hearing me ramble on about my father and all those who have come and gone before me. But I know in my core that this line of people I come from and this Book of Days are of the same fabric. They are part of my round of the year and part of my spiraling thread of time and so the things all those people taught me––even ancestors I never knew––those things are all part of this book. It’s a collaboration, co-authored by you and me and all my family, no matter where they are or when they walked this old earth.

So let’s get back to the lawn. First of all, let me state that I am not a fan of the concept. I think lawns are a waste of time and resources and I have to agree a bit with those who say that suburban America has been brainwashed into the green lawn concept. And when I hear, as I did this past weekend, about communities that don’t even allow homeowners to plant fruits or vegetables––on their own land!––I know the lawn thing has gone too far. Allow me to say exactly what you’re thinking: Rules like that are just plain stupid. If you are on a neighborhood board making such rules, it’s clear we will not get along.

Seth and I, we have more sense than to have a lawn at our house. Instead, we live on a plot of land that more closely resembles a dense forest. There are fruit trees and there’s a vegetable garden (fallow right now, but still), and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but we think it’s just right.

But when I think of my dad, even though he was an auto mechanic by trade (a “Doctor of Motors,” he’d say), Dad has a broom in hand, sweeping up after mowing the lawn. The lawn is green and lush, like a carpet, as Mom says. We Cutrones are not a traveling people, by and large, and so Dad’s pride was his home. He polished the stainless steel gutters, he kept everything running, and mostly, Dad loved his lawn. At the family homestead, we’d work on it together most Saturdays. Dad mowed on his tractor while I did the rest. Back then, I did it because I felt obligated to help. I’d peel my eyes open on a Saturday morning, waking to the sound of Dad riding the mower tractor outside my bedroom window after a Friday night of dancing to the Smiths and New Order at Respectable Street Cafe, and I’d drag myself out there, roll up my sleeves, and get to work. My favorite times were summer days, when we’d finish just before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in: Dad and I would take shelter in the open garage and watch the wind and the rain and delight in the rain cooled air.

But these four years now the lawn is my job. It has come to be my Dad Time. I watch the skies and the trees and the pond for wood storks and other tall wading birds. Sometimes I sing songs to myself. Mostly I am lost in my thoughts, thoughts that I share with my father as I go about the work that needs doing, the work we’d do together.

Recently, Dad’s old tractor, which, for a long time now, required a growing list of preliminary tasks before it would start properly, finally gave up the ghost. It felt a bit clunky that last time as I rode it and mowed. All was fine in the front yard, but the back yard? Not so much. At one point, I looked behind me and gasped: I was creating deep gouges in the lawn, but it was too late; I was halfway to the finish line, so I kept on mowing. When I was done, the lawn looked more like a field freshly plowed for planting with row after row of furrows. I looked at the undercarriage of the mower and realized the blade assembly had rusted through and one side had given way so that the mower was cutting at an angle of about 45 degrees. My sister came out, gave me a look, and said exactly what I was thinking: “Oh, Dad would not be happy.” She put an awful lot of emphasis on the word not.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling badly and paralyzed by indecision over what to do: fix the tractor? It seemed beyond repair. Buy a new one? That’s a lot of money. Buy an electric tractor? More my speed, but that’s even more money. Finally, I took a leap of faith and bought an electric push mower, a Ryobi that’s powered by rechargeable batteries. It’s a lot of walking, but it turned out to be, I think, one of my better decisions in life. I can mow that lawn using two fully charged batteries. I get exercise and lawn day now counts as a work-out day. It’s quiet. It reminds me a bit of Dad’s old Sunbeam mower, the push mower he used when we lived in New York. And you know what? I think Dad would approve. The lawn looks better than ever, and in spite of how I feel about lawns in suburbia in general, I want that lawn looking verdant and rich. Like a carpet.

Images: “No one ever got bored with a pocketful of chores.” I never heard Dad complain of boredom, and I don’t remember what that particular phenomenon feels like, either. Top: Dad with his broom, sweeping up after a fresh cut with his Sunbeam push mower, Valley Stream, New York, circa 1972. Bottom: Me with what my sister Marietta calls “Johnny’s new toy.” It’s the electric battery powered Ryobi push mower at the family homestead. If you need a new mower yourself, I highly recommend it. Dad’s birthday is on Tuesday and I know exactly what I’ll be doing: I’m mowing the lawn, and maybe singing him a song or two.



Cutrone Auto Service Co.

My cousin Al came to visit us this past weekend. He’s been here from New York for a few weeks and he wanted some time to pass between his travels and his visit with Mom, just for the sake of caution, but Saturday he came to the house and the five us had a good meal and shared a lot of laughs and stories, too. Essentially, it’s the thing my family loves best, and especially Mom, and it’s probably what Mom misses most these days: just sitting down at a big table groaning heavy with food and eating and laughing. Card tables with people far apart from each other is just not my mom’s style, but we do what we have to do to stay safe. Dinner with Al was wonderful all the same.

Al’s father and my father were brothers, and when Dad was looking to open an auto repair shop in Brooklyn, he asked my Uncle Al to be his partner. And so they were, for thirty years, from 1948 when they opened the shop until the day they closed it, in 1978. Al is a little older than I am, so while I spent my early summers at the beach, Al got to go in to work with his dad to earn some money. Neither Al nor I took after our dads––our combined mechanical knowledge doesn’t extend much past how a screwdriver works. But Al, at least, got to spend time at the shop, and he got to see the Cutrone Brothers doing what they did, and I envy that.

My dad was not the most patient of teachers, but I think Dad got a bit of a kick out of the things I put him through. I can remember he and I setting up my Aurora HO Thunderjet 500 slot car track on the billiard table in the basement when I was a kid. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. We worked and worked on it (well, Dad did, while I fiddled around), and when it was time to try it out, Dad told me to “give him some juice.” I went to the kitchen and poured him a glass of orange juice. That event pretty much set the stage for my mechanical abilities for the rest of our years together.

It seems my cousin Al did not fare much better; nonetheless they took him in to the shop each summer when he was a teenager, and it was pretty wonderful Saturday night to hear Al’s stories about working with the guys, including the Cutrone Brothers’ methods for tire disposal (let’s just say it was another time) and how they ended up with so much ice cream one summer that Aunt Marie felt the need to buy a new deepfreeze.

The stories were good, and the company was good. And while I did not wake up this morning planning to write about this, something about the stories reminded me about the picture in the photo album of Dad and Uncle Al in front of their shop and this is how it is to be a writer. One thing leads to another and memories start kicking around in my head, and one thing I will always remember about Al is that four years ago, in early February, Al visited my dad in his hospital room after his stroke. Dad was so animated when Al was there. It seemed like the best night he’d had in a while. A few days later, Dad was gone. It surprised all of us. And still at night before bed I turn out the lights and I say goodnight to photographs of the ones I love and very often I have to remind myself that Dad is not here, not in the same way. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s good I usually feel like he is.

I remember pretty much everything about the way the 8th of February played out four years ago, from the time I left work early because I felt I needed to get to the hospital to check on Dad, to my journey, right after I arrived, walking behind his bed as he was rolled down to ICU, to the long wait while I was not allowed in, and all of the other things that led to the way things turned out in the overnight hours that followed. It is, perhaps, the day of the year I dislike most. We all have these days when we are reminded of what we would rather forget. But they, too, are part of the round of the year, and we have no choice but to take them as they come. It has been a tough time for so many, this year and last. If you’re having a rough go of it right now, I can tell you that I get it, and I can tell you that you are walking in good company. We’re all there with you. And while, when it comes to loss, things never get easier, they do change. You will always miss the ones no longer physically with you, but the way you miss them will change. Every now and then, though, a jolt will come. Expect this. It’s part of the path, and there is no right way to deal with it. You carry on. You get through.

Today, chatting with Mom, I learned some new things about the garage. Before it was Cutrone Auto Service Co., it had been a millinery, and Phyllis Caputo, the woman who set up the blind date that was my mom and dad’s first meeting, worked there making hats. Next door to the millinery, back then, was an Italian merchant who made all kinds of pasta. Records show that earlier on, the shop was another garage: the photo below is from 1915.

I look at the picture of Hawthorne Garage, and I know that at some point, in 1947 or so, Dad and Uncle Al saw that same empty garage that’s in the 1915 picture and thought, Yeah, this place has some potential. And then I look at the picture of Cutrone Auto Service Co., circa 1948. Dad and Uncle Al are smiling, their trousers are mucky… they are two men happy in their work. That shop looks like a great old building. Seth and I drive by old garages these days on Dixie Highway and sometimes we think, Now THAT would be a great place to set up a Convivio Bookworks shop. I didn’t get much mechanical knowledge from Dad, but I did get that ability to dream. And some pretty great stories, too. And even more of them now that Cousin Al has come to visit and reminisce with us.

Love to you all.