grapevineDays of Dels and Lilacsgrapevine


Even the most dedicated snow lover eventually gives up on winter.

It's different when it's January, with the crisp-after Christmas snowfall, and deep into February which you expect bone-chilling cold anyway. After a while, however, it gets tiresome dodging the blast of cold air as you wrench up the storm window to air out your bedroom (de rigueur for Mom even if it's ten below) and slipping on patches of ice untreated by lazy homeowners. Too, way back in those days of "girls can't wear pants to school," wearing nylons under your kneesocks to keep warm reached its annoying point.

By March the snowfall, if any, is periodic and interrupted by unbearable days of cold wet rain. If God ever made anything more miserably depressing than a cold wet rain, it's debatable. Chilled to the bone and damp in areas uncovered by coat or boot, you want to kill the blithe person who chirps in a 35-degree downpour, "Sure glad it isn't snow!"

The first certain sign of spring came when my uncle arrived with pussy willows, probably gathered from somewhere around Dyer's Pond. He was a gardener all his life, professionally as well as personally. Later in the spring he would bring over flats of tiny marigolds, argeratums (those "fuzzy purple flowers" as we called them for years), pansies and petunias to fill the beds around the front of the house with color. For now we had the slender willow boughs lined with soft silvery-grey catkins displayed proudly on the kitchen table. They were irresistible to pet; an allergic child could almost imagine they were a real cat--or dog.

Next came the true announcement of Spring: "Ma! The tulips are coming up!" At the side of the house, points of green leaves peeked from dark earth as if wary of storms. Occasionally they were caught by a late snow and buried again. If there was enough snow they might go dormant for another year, but usually they struggled against the light coating of Old Man Winter's last gasp, reached for the sunshine, and opened perfect cups of color--red, orange, pink, white--to waiting sky and smiling faces.

The arrival of spring definitely made it easier for parents. Snow blowers and shovels were put up. It would be still some weeks before the sharpener man came around in his truck and sharpened all the blades of our push mower, not to mention all the carving knives in the kitchen. Mom could put a sweater or a jacket on, and a kerchief, rather than a coat and hat, to go outside and burn the paper. In these days of pollution control, this is a lost chore, probably for the better, but one of my fond memories of my mother is her standing outside, supervising the burning of the week's newspaper and trash paper. This was done in a can resembling a galvanized trash can, except it had forefinger-sized holes punched in its body every few inches. You put the rubbish in it, lit a match, and stood by with the hose for emergencies and a metal stick to prod the burning pile with. It was the bonfire of our youth--eerie in the dark of winter and too warm in the summer--and I watched both Mom and Dad burn out numerous cans until the paper burning ban went into effect.

As frost retreated, Italian grandparents invaded yards once again. While they loved their flowers in the front yard, backyards were not for romping children but for vegetable gardens! If I wandered to the far side of my godmother's house, I could see Zia Maria directing the plowing of her plot. Next door the Mangiarellis echoed her action. When Dad and I took our weekly ride to Papà's house on Saturday morning, he was out in the greenhouse, setting tomato seedlings. The greenhouse was no professional structure, nor built from a kit, but was instead lovingly and crockily constructed from glass squares, old moulding, wood panels, window frames and panes. Inside was crowded with tiny plants: tomatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, basil (for "the gravy"), green beans, tomatoes... Outside the air was fragrant with the scent of turned earth and horse manure, both from Papà's backyard and my aunt's house next door, and the overturned clods looked like rich chocolate.

I approached the garden warily in spring since I was afflicted with "worm nausea." Even as an adult I dodge earthworms with a queasy stomach, despite the sensible person in me knowing that they are harmless little creatures that aerate the soil. Back then I ran screaming inside at the sight of one. Papà always clucked at me and commented to my father--in Italian, of course-- that I was not really Italian: how could I not enjoy digging in the soil and appreciate the life that made it rich? (Dad usually explained, "But she's a girl, Pa. They don't like bugs.") I perplexed Papà anyway, since I didn't like red wine or pepper, two things he though prerequisite to the Italian palate.

Still, it was hard to resist the warm smell of the greenhouse, kept cozy on chill nights with an old cast-iron wood stove that fascinated me, and I loved to touch the tender leaves and tiny yellow blossoms of the minute tomato plants. Later in the season we would bring home paper bags full of rich red, juicy-fleshed tomatoes, and, until Papa passed away in 1972, used his tomatoes for preserves.

If spring was good for clothing divestiture and plants, it was difficult for the schoolchild. Both Stadium School and Hugh B. Bain Junior High were surrounded by trees, chiefly maples. Bain had open fields on either side and it was difficult to concentrate on schoolwork when outside the trees were coming alive, first pale green buds and then tiny leaves, finally large dark green leaves that swayed in the breeze to lend extra cooling to warm classrooms yet to be touched by air conditioning. Out in the fields the neighborhood dogs frolicked and the pre-K kids and their moms walked free in the spring breeze. The teachers would not let us slacken at the end of the term there were still so many things to do. The drone of their voices hypnotized us as we stole glances outside.

The maple season produced the definitive toy for a few weeks: "helicopters"! Some maple trees came with double seeds, each with a "wing" attached, but the best had a single seed and a long, woody brown "wing." We were not poor children, but we were used to simpler toys like balls and batons rather than today's fancy electronic gadgets. A good time could be had by scooping up one, two, three, more of these long-winged seeds and tossing them as high in the air as we could, to watch them spin down to be tossed again.

Out came the bikes and the roller skates. The boys ran home to grab baseball gloves and balls and bats for impromptu games in the field. Girls, in sweaters and skirts of course, walked and ignore them, although a few of the girls did play softball. Little boys dug out marbles, or their toy construction equipment and cars, which they directed on the soft ground with glee. Little girls wheeled doll carriages and strollers to take their "children" for walks. (I was not a doll worshiper and was more likely to wheel around a stuffed animal instead.) Some of the boys played in Little League, but by and large the play was spontaneous and unsupervised--well, until you did something wrong. Parents had eyes in back of their heads back then, and somehow one was always nearby to interfere in case of an accident or a quarrel, but we were largely left alone to be kids and do as we liked. A "play date" back then consisted of yelling through the screen door, "Hey, ma, Penny wants me to go over her house. Can I go?" "Can I?" "I mean may I. May I?" "Yes, but be back in time for supper."

The first spring event was Easter. It was a tossup in a kids' life whether it was a good or bad holiday. As always on Sundays in those days, it started out with a trip to church, and like any other holiday, you were required to be dressed to the proverbial nines. If there was enough money, you had a new outfit. For boys this meant a new suit, most of the time with short pants for the younger set, new shoes, a haircut. Little girls had a new dress, appropriately spring colored, perhaps pale green, yellow, pink, or powder blue. The dress came with the hated full slip, which had a starched net surface that itched when you moved. You also had new shoes, new leotards, white gloves, and maybe a new spring coat, and the obligatory spring straw hat, which was held in place by an elastic band under your chin. Some girls ignored it but I found the elastic annoying. I usually worried at it so much that it eventually broke; other girls chewed on them absently, like gum.

Once Mass ended, however, things were less formal--save that you must remain in dress clothing. If you were lucky it didn't rain (or in the case of late March Easters, snow) and you emerged from services to sunshine and birdsong. There would be a stop at the cemetery to pay your respects to a grandparent or other deceased relative with a pot of bright flowers. Then if Mom hadn't baked, you'd join the long, long line at one of the bakeries--Solitro's, Rinaldi's, Gansett, Ann's, Bob's--for some type of special dessert: maybe a raisin-and-nut clotted hermit, or a gooey New Yorker, or a sweet-but-sour lemon square, or a cream-filled pastry like a cornet or a sfogliatelle.

Mom had to be sick not to bake, though. Always, of course, there were more Italian cookies: wine biscuits, almond bars, maybe molasses cookies although these were more for Christmas. The usual Easter treat was something called a rice pie. Uncle Ben's rice was added to a sweet mixture of eggs and sugar and milk and baked in the oven, a rice custard as it were.

And of course there would be an Easter basket in bright colors, covered with colored cellophane, filled to the brim with chocolate eggs, a hollow chocolate bunny, maybe some marshmallow peeps and speckled "birds' eggs," both which I hated and I generally threw away. Mom learned to save the baskets and buy her own inserts because all I had a taste for was chocolate; it ran in the family.

Unless we were invited to Papà's house for dinner, we ate at home, rich slices of Virginia ham basted in pineapple and brown sugar, with a sweet potato for a side. Then we might "take a ride" before retiring to Papà's for dessert. As always, the aunts had spread the cellar table with food: more cookies, rice pie and other pies--perhaps, if they wanted to go through the work, wandis. These weren't a common treat: they were hard to make, hot to cook, occasionally inedible. Heaven must contain perfectly-made wandis; certainly the angels at least must have an infallible recipe.

Imagine taking a long thin strip of flaky pastry dough, tying it on itself so it forms a loose knot, then dropping it in boiling oil until it fries a rich golden color. Once fished out, dusted with confectioner's sugar, it becomes firm and crispy. When you bite it, the friable morsel falls apart in your mouth, sugary and rich. Warned by your mother not to eat a whole one since they were so fattening, you could still sneak the bits that had fallen off on the bottom of the platter, leisurely licking confectioners' sugar off your fingertips.

Outside the world ran riot and your allergy definitely knew it. Once May arrived Dad would start cutting the lawn in earnest. The rose bush, pruned back to nothing the previous fall, would begin to twine up the chain-link fence. In the front yard the "bridal veil bush" (we never did find out the name for these tiny white flowers that sent out flurries of petals after they faded in July, a veritable floral snowstorm) began to grow tall. The air would take on what I called the smell of vacation, warm breezes from the north and west that were as tantalizing as Sirens, beckoning you to lands beyond. It was a time of shorts and sneakers and bicycles.

I ran into a wall with bicycles. As the much-wanted only child, I wasn't spoiled as much as I was overprotected. Bicycles were a sore point: Dad figured some rotten driver was going to run me down. At fifteen, in desperation, I finally got sneaky. My doctor was always after me to lose the 10-15 pounds I'd put on after puberty attacked, so at my checkup that summer I pled my case: all my friends had bicycles and I'd have a better chance to being asked to go with them (and get exercise, of course) if I had a bicycle. Resigned at the additional onslaught from Dr. Sarni, Dad got me a "banana bike" from the Cranston police auction and I taught myself to ride by doing what everyone said didn't work: holding on. For an hour a day for a week, I started at the top of the driveway with one hand on the house, the other balancing the bicycle, pedaling down to the end of the house, letting go and wobbling to a stop, hopping off, going back to the top, starting again, until...

...on Friday, when I reached the end of the house and let go, I kept going. I yodeled, "Look at me, Ma! Can I bike down to Cindy's house?" "Can I?" "I mean may I. May I?" "Yes, but be back in time for supper." For Christmas that year I received a red Columbia bike, and like the French explorers Alistair Cooke talked about, I was "free and freewheeling" all over the neighborhood. Alas, ironically, that was my last unfettered summer; after that I had to work.

In all honesty, being bikeless during those summers wasn't as bad as it might sound. We were in walking distance of many small stores that died as the 1970s progressed, but which thrived in those endless golden springs and summers of the 1960s, and there was always something to do. On a chicken night--especially if we were having chicken cacciatore--Mom would send me down to the Gansett Bakery, past the corner candy store, Joe's Spa where the "bad boys" hung out playing pinball and smoking cigarettes, and Marcello's restaurant, for a warm, heavenly-smelling loaf of Italian bread. In the other direction was Tom's Superette--you might find anything there in an emergency, but in the summer the going trade was ice cream: Popsicles, Fudgesicles, Dreamsicles, ice cream "drumsticks," ice cream bars. There'd be a line of kids and mothers and you'd clutch your dime hoping for a Fudgesicle, but they were rare and usually you ended up with an orange or grape Popsicle and a nickel change, licking the melting sweet goodness as fast as possible, only to be scolded for leaving orange or purple stains on your shirt and having to change.

Those May nights were perfumed with the scent of lilacs which grew in profusion from Charley's untidy yard across the chain-link fence. Dad swore at the bush but I waited for its blooming, and, allergy or no allergy, buried my face in the sweet-scented flowrets every chance I got. When the blossoms got over-heavy I would cut the stems with a scissors and bring a little bit of the delight inside--or rather on the porch where they had to stay lest I remained in a somnolent allergy-pill daze throughout the short lilac season. It was always sad to see them go and I am still homesick for the scent of lilacs in the spring.

May brought yet two more holidays; the first was Mother's Day. In an age where some folks go out to eat several times a week at places like Olive Garden, O'Charleys, and the rest of the overpriced Yuppie chains, it's hard to imagine getting excited about "eating at a restaurant." It was, save for Sunday visits to Arby's or Burger Chef, still a novelty, and yet another dress-up occasion, one that happened rarely, only on Mother's and Father's Days, Thanksgiving, and maybe New Year's.

Our traditional venue was Venetian Gardens, on West Shore Road in Warwick (on the way to that most heavenly of summer places, Rocky Point Amusement Park). This was not only a restaurant, but what had been in the 1940s and 1950s a supper club and still a popular location for wedding receptions. There remained a stage where the dance bands had played and where the orchestra still performed at weddings. It was best behavior time, dresses and suits and minding your manners, eating food Mom didn't ordinarily cook like turkey and roast beef. Soft music played in the background and the waiters wore black suits and ties and decanted wines at your table and there was a hat-check girl.

Memorial Day was a shorts-and-sneakers holiday: except for the visit to the cemetery to place geraniums on everyone's grave, it was a day of family gatherings and cookouts, or a trip to the beach or a trek to Roger Williams Park for fireworks at the Temple of Music.

May blended into June. The windows were thrown wide now, shades closed against the sun. Every sound of life came through those open windows: cars swishing loudly on Gansett Avenue, followed on sultry nights by the roar of the motorcycles, kids laughing and arguing, the yelps and shouts of young neighborhood men playing baseball in the field across the street, the sound of Red Sox baseball broadcast from cars and homes (except for my heretic parents, who rooted for the Yankees).

Twilight was always a good time for a walk, the cool evening breeze tempering heat left from the day. When I was elementary school age there was a refuge down the street, far past the Gansett Bakery, in a little storefront next to the ubiquitous gas station on the corner of Park and Gansett. It was a Del's Lemonade franchise and on hot nights the line could be ten to twelve deep, little kids in sunsuits clutching the hand of a dad in shorts or mom in a housedress, waiting for ten cents--the price of a small cup--of cool refreshment. The finely-ground lemon-flavored ice slipped down smoothly, chill bliss on a warm evening. When the franchise closed, we had to wait some years before one of the Del's truck drivers realized money could be made waiting for those thirsty baseball players and their families across the street. At the jingle of that welcome bell you were off, coins clutched in your hand.

If the Del's man didn't show up, there was another treat perfect for summer evenings. Once upon a time Mom had bought me Eclipse syrup, my favorite flavor, lemon-lime, until its demise. Fortunately Zarex syrup filled the gap. Unlike Kool-Aid, neither had to be made two quarts at a time, taking up limited refrigerator space. When the heat of the night got too much to bear and cold milk or ice cream just wasn't making the grade any longer, you simply poured yourself a glass of ice water, added a tablespoon or more of lemon-lime syrup to taste, and reveled in the sweet-sour goodness.

We had one neighbor who was some type of politician, a city councilman, I believe. His home, with a big yard surrounded by tall bushes, was the site of many private parties, but once a year he gave a neighborhood bash, like the friendly barbecues that took place the Sunday of the St. Mary's feast. One night the yard was strung with Japanese lanterns, bright pinks, greens, blues and whites against the dark of the sky and the faint beams of the streetlights. It was magical, like some sort of Hollywood celebrity celebration come to rest in your own home.

But magic could be found in all sorts of places. For we kids, it was as simple as gathering at someone's house. My friend Penny lived in the big old house that sat on the triangle of land formed where Overland and Flint Avenues intersected into Fiat Avenue. The house was so situated that it had no back yard, but a big front yard that stretched right to the corner. Overland had little traffic and it was there we'd play our games of punchball and dodge ball, under the streetlights. If Mom got worried, all she had to do was cut through the gate that was always left open in the fence, cross Fiat Avenue, and come pick me up as the soft summer darkness descended. More often she'd talk to Gloria, Penny's mom, and Carrie, Penny's grandmother, as we continued to play. There was a variable crowd of us, Penny and her two sisters and later her little brother, Armand from down the street and his younger sister, Billy Campanini, Barbara Zaninni and her sister Louise, and occasionally Pauline, who Mom warned me about: she was known to be, in the words of Mom's generation, "fast"-- reportedly she both smoked and "necked"! As we grew older, it became more "hip" to sit on the concrete retaining wall and talk about television, Dark Shadows and Batman being the obsessions of the moment, fashions, and music. The moon would rise, the breeze would cool, the chatter would rise and fall.

School would soon be out; we awaited the third week of June impatiently. Before us high summer awaited: vacation weeks, Independence Day, Sundays at the beach or at Diamond Hill listening to a concert under the trees, V.J. Day. Days of more Popsicles, visits to Newport Creamery for ice cream, sundaes, and cabinets, fishing at Newport, buying crabs in Galilee, watching the latest B flick or blockbuster at the Cranston Drive-In.

I wonder if any of us realized then that there would never be summers like this again.

 

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