grapevineAlways on Sundaygrapevine


The first thing taken care of on Sundays was Mass.

When I was in the early years of elementary school we usually attended 10:15 a.m. Mass, late enough for Dad to get some extra sleep (he was up at six on weekday mornings) and early enough that we could actually eat dinner (have lunch? on Sunday? Heaven forbid!) and then "do something" afterward, as the next Mass wasn't until 11:30.

The sticky problem was that the 10:15 service, at least in the upstairs--main--portion of the church, was High Mass. It lasted well over an hour (usually 90 minutes) and the well-dressed congregation usually sat there motionless and mute, because, although Father always actively encouraged us to sing along with the choir, they overwhelmed the voices of the congregation and only a dozen or so hardy souls cared to respond. Instead we filed down the narrow stairs to the lower church where there was an electric organ instead of the big pipe organ in the choir loft and the congregation enjoyed singing along with the organist.

Going to a Catholic church in the early 60s was a tedious chore for any active child. First, you had to dress up. No jeans, sweats, or other casual clothing allowed! As a small girl, that meant some well-meaning mother wedged you in a frilly dress with a puffed out skirt, this effect achieved by wearing a stiffly starched tulle-like petticoat underneath. The wretched thing itched as if mosquitoes were biting you, especially around the waistband, and you fidgeted throughout the service. Prerequisite also was curled hair, achieved by sleeping--if you call tossing and turning in pain during the night actually "sleeping"--on hard rubber rollers unless you were one of the chosen few with naturally curly hair (didn't we all hate Frieda in Peanuts back then?), long leotards that made you sweat in summer, and stiff, pinching black patent leather shoes.

If that wasn't confining enough, the church hadn't any air conditioning. In the sultry summer months, people crowded as close as possible to the two huge fans in each corner of the rear of the church, or at least near the open windows, and, until Father got a sound system installed, hearing anything was problematic. Worse still, among the older working class men of those days, deodorant was considered a bit effeminate. Now, imagine a 80-degree August Sunday morning in a non air-conditioned building. Thank God television commercials finally convinced most of them that it didn't emasculate you to wear some Right Guard.

And of course way back when the entire service was in Latin, which made no sense anyway. Thankfully the English-version Mass alleviated some of the tedium and gave the congregation, at last, something to do. Unfortunately it was about this time that St. Mary's inherited the world's slowest organist. I used to claim the man played everything in whole notes. He was the only musician I know who could make the folk-Mass standard "Kumbaya" sound like a funeral dirge.

By the time you arrived home, having fasted so you could receive Communion, your stomach was rumbling painfully. Had Mom had Dad stop by the bakery for Italian bread or a treat--perhaps some freshly baked lemon squares, New Yorkers, sfogliatelles, or eclairs--for later on, it was longer still, since a line formed out Solitro's door from the moment they opened on Sunday morning. But Sunday dinner was de rigeur; no matter what the temperature, Dad insisted on one hot meal a day. He'd been brought up that way and every Italian mother knew it was healthier to eat a hot meal, even if it were 90 degrees in the shade.

Luckily Mom had made "the gravy" the day before, combining her own preserved tomatoes with tomato paste and the beef, pork, and occasionally braggioles she had made on Saturday afternoon. This quickly warmed up while the macaroni cooked and Mom tossed a salad. All was forgiven once the appetizing scents of meat warmed in tomato sauce and warm spaghetti or ziti wafted through the house.

Later Saturday Mass became common. My Methodist husband still can't understand the concept.

Well, let's cut to the Catholic archdiocese. Crowds at Sunday Mass were decreasing, somewhat due to the rebelliousness of 1960s youth. But a big part was the ethnic--in our case Italian--tradition of a big Sunday dinner. Many times Papà took the children to Mass while Mama stayed home and cooked: macaroni, sausage, meatballs, perhaps even antipasto with proscuitto and "the little fishies." (Mama might get up at six a.m. and go to early Mass by herself; more likely she would weigh missing Mass with the equally horrendous sin of not making a nutritious family dinner and do the latter. She would end up confessing each one of those missed Sundays instead.) Even worse, on summer Sundays Rhode Islanders, at least, went to the beach or to the parks or to one of the amusement parks. If you didn't want to be stuck in traffic all afternoon, you darn near left for South County at daybreak and still spent an hour bumper to bumper breathing carbon monoxide (air conditioning in cars--surely you jest!) and assuring the squirming kids in the backseat that it would be "just a few more minutes." (Besides, we had to beat those upstarts from Connecticut and Massachusetts who flocked to the then free parking at Rhode Island beaches.)

At first they scheduled an extra Mass at six p.m. Sunday. People did show up, but generally these services were sparsely attended. The last thing you needed after spending an afternoon broiling in the sun was to squeeze your sunburned and sand-lashed body into a shirt collar and tie or a girdle and bra. By the time you got home from the beach, all you wanted to do was collapse in a chair for a nap unless you were fifteen and possessed of teenager energy. Even the hyperactive four-year-olds were conked out, coated with sand and smeared with ice cream they had begged for from the opportunistic truck parked by the sizzling hot beach parking lot.

So, voila, Saturday Masses, one at five or five thirty p.m., one at seven or seven thirty p.m. We preferred the earlier version at our house: afterwards, we went home, ate the usual Saturday night dinner which was steak and easy to cook, and then went to Warwick Mall to "walk around."

Thus Sunday morning by the time I was in my mid-teens was a leisurely affair in which you sometimes slept until ten (unless we were going on a picnic or to Newport, or those three annoying months when I got my learner's permit and my mom insisted I learn to drive) and then were able to sit at the table in pajamas eating Sunday breakfast and reading the paper. Being a rather routine-oriented child, the latter was read in strict order. If one parent or the other snagged a part first, I felt obliged to wait to read the remainder. It never seemed the same if the sections weren't in order.

First came "the funnies." Peanuts was the perennial favorite back then; we still had Henry and Nancy and Hi and Lois and the animal strips, Garfield, Heathcliff, Marmaduke, Boner's Ark. The ever-running Mary Worth and Brenda Starr and Rex Morgan MD were also included but they were Mom's read, not mine. I occasionally read Prince Valiant because the artwork was so cool, but the Arthurian stuff left me cold.

The piece de resistance was the television section of the paper, known in our house for unknown reasons as "the preview paper." The Providence Journal originally had a nice tabloid-size TV section that not only had the week's schedules, but also radio schedules, five or six nice long articles on TV performers or series, and two columns, one by the entertainment editor, and one by the Journal's new young columnist from Ohio, Jack Major. Major was a favorite in the household, whether we agreed with his opinion or not, and in high school, when I did a television survey for a journalism class, I passed along the results to him. (Surprisingly, he devoted an entire column to it; my "15 minutes of fame.")

The Journal later went to one of those horizontally formatted, half pint schedule papers with one short article in the front and some dyspeptic canned questions and answers, with Jack Major's column the only bright spot. Sunday morning reading was never as much fun after that.

Next came the "Arts" section of the paper with its movie schedules, This Week, and the Rhode Islander. Of the three, This Week was the most interesting; like today's Parade, it was nationally distributed, but This Week was a lot more amusing and had a lot fewer ads. Their columnist was the hilarious Charlie Rice. Alas, This Week went the way of the dodo bird, Charlie Rice passed on, and we were left with the dreary (at that time) Rhode Islander, which seemed to contain the same tedious articles about politicians, city problems, and beach erosion week after week after week.

As I got older the Ann & Hope flyer got added to the collection: their brilliant yellow sale paper was hard to miss.

Once Sunday dinner was over, and this included the scrubbing of every single dish, utensil, and pot and leaving the kitchen as tidy as it could possibly get, there came what was possibly the finest part of the week. We "took a ride." This nebulous term could mean anything from visiting Diamond Hill to listen to one of the summer music concerts to driving down to Galilee to purchase fresh fish to a journey to Newport to walk on the rocks at Brenton Point, but most often it was just that: Dad got behind the wheel, Mom sitting next to him, and I was sitting behind Mom, most often with a book "for emergencies" and a favorite stuffed animal (even into my teens) and we drove: to "apple country" or up toward what is now Lincoln Mall, down to Charlestown and the Gift Barn, to Westerly or Buttonwoods, the Pier or the art show in Wickford, wherever our fancy took us.

(Poor Dad. He worked hard all week and I wonder how many times he would have preferred to lounge on the couch and watch baseball or football. But winter or summer, there was always "a ride." And in the dozens of other cars we passed and were passed by there were dozens of patient dads doing the same thing.)

In my childhood the Holy Grail of summer Sunday ride destinations was Rocky Point, talked about in hushed words (and even in Italian) when it was a surprise. It was no secret that I loved the waterfront park and adored a walk around the scruffy, littered midway and going on the rides, although my fear of most thrill rides kept me away from them, and I was riding the Kiddieland merry-go-round long after I should have graduated to the larger carousel due to my acrophobia. (I did love The Whip and, back in those days of individual attraction tickets, rode it as often as we could afford.) The train was a particular family favorite and we always indulged, but there never seemed to be enough cash for my other passion, the miniature golf course. Sometimes we had little money, but it was heaven simply walking the grounds and breathing in the delightful scent of popcorn, sugary cotton candy, and roasting peanuts. Mom and Dad would always buy an order of clam cakes, which they preferred at Rocky Point to even the infamous ones served at Aunt Carrie's.

Despite all the happy excursions, there remains one peculiar Rocky Point memory: in the late 60s, some bright carny decided to put animals (kids love animals, right?) in the Kiddieland area, and it was one late August Sunday night when we found their small menagerie in a low-fenced field in the enclosure with the junior roller coaster. While the cute little burro seemed appropriate to attract children, there was also a camel, an animal not known for its sterling disposition, on hand. The shaggy grey burro was just too tempting. When he wandered, grazing, next to the fence, I, like a half dozen other children, were there to pet him.

Was he jealous or territorial? I'll never know, but at that moment the camel ambled up out of nowhere, reached out, and grabbed my left upper arm with his strong teeth.

He never broke the skin, although I had tooth marks on my arm for years afterwards, but the pressure of his teeth did hurt, and the shock of having this big animal chomp on my flesh scared the daylights out of me. I screamed at the same time as my dad leapt forward, beating the camel with his fists to persuade it to let go. I don't remember who got it to free me, Dad or one of the attendants. Next thing I knew I was at the first aid station, then the rest of the early evening was spent in the hospital emergency room, where I was pronounced relatively unharmed except for teeth indentations and bruises. I'm not sure if we ever got any type of settlement with the Rocky Point folks--I'm certain they paid our medical bills--but I understand the camel got a rude comeuppance a few months later. They raised the fence to keep the animals away from people, but they'd forgotten to keep them away from equipment. My humped attacker apparently had his head sheared off by the junior roller coaster.

People still look at me strangely when I tell them I was once bitten by a camel...

Needless to say we didn't feel the same about Rocky Point after that, although we still drove by to get an order of clam cakes. I was ambivalent about clam cakes and preferred the delicious golden doughboys, which I munched on in silent bliss, dripping grains of sugar down my shirtfront which my mother would later embarrassedly brush off.

If we were only going out for doughboys, however, it was more likely we'd end up standing in line at one of the weatherworn, bleached wooden shacks at Oakland Beach. Nowhere else would we stand in line almost an hour to get the sugary goodies, conversing with people in line and fanning ourselves in the heat. The wait was always worth it, and if there was lemon-lime soda on hand, all the more so. I didn't like soda, but Warwick Club's lemon-lime, straight out of the cold glass bottle, was an exception.

One of the more "carefree" things we might do on a Sunday was picnic. I place "carefree" in quotes because there was nothing carefree in picnicking with traditionally brought up Italian parents. The word "picnic" to me conjures visions of sandwiches, paper napkins and plates, and easy cleanup. Not so with my parents.

The picnic tradition actually went back to when my dad's entire family would go on a Sunday picnic down at the two lots we owned at Ocean Ridge: Papà owned one and the other belonged to Dad. They planned someday to build two small beach cottages so family could spend the weekend, but in the early sixties the lot was still a weed-strewn patch with one furnishing: a big wooden table with legs and supports made of iron pipes that Papà had made. One of the uncles would bring a lawn mower and the tall, spare, sharp-edged beach grass and weeds would be mown before my mother and the aunts could move in with the food.

This wasn't "picnic food," but regular Sunday dinner fixings--roast chicken in the glass baking dish it had been cooked in, macaroni, vinegary potato salad, tossed salads, antipasto--all done up in dishes, served on dishes, with regular silverware. Paper napkins and cups were the only concession. Even the drinks were jugged in, in milk bottles and beer bottles and glass containers. Mom had woken at least by seven a.m. to cook, and she'd be working after we got home washing dishes. After the mowing the men's work was done, and we kids caromed about, playing and shrieking, but the women never did get to relax: they dished out, poured drinks, chatting all the while.

Eventually Papà lost interest in having a beach cottage. Since the zoning laws and housing requirements changed, both lots had to be sold together; one alone was worthless. So Dad sold out despite not wanting to and our picnic lot was gone forever. I always wondered what happened to that old table, or who was now living on our picnic lot.

The picnics, with the three of us, did go on, and in the same tradition. In vain I protested we should pick up some sandwiches from Arby's, or make our own and buy disposable utensils. Till the last picnic, Mom still got up at seven, baked a chicken whose rich garlic-splashed scent I can still recall, made a salad, added some potatoes. We'd eat at one of the little picnic groves on Route 2, and when we got home the dishes had to be done as usual.

On our rides we visited places, like Rocky Point, that aren't around any longer. I've never been to the new South County Museum, but I certainly recall with pleasure the original South County Museum, which was in a rickety barn just off the road heading down to Wickford, down a narrow dirt lane. Nothing was in glass cases and you could just wander about at will, touching what you liked under the watchful eye of the docent. I paged through scrapbooks of stories collected from 1800s newspapers, we handled old kitchen implements and farm tools, and the docent demonstrated an Edison cylinder phonograph for us.

When I was very small we would go to both of the zoos, Roger Williams Park and Slater. My parents preferred the Park zoo, and I, like generations before me, had my photo taken astride the big bronze dog, "The Guardian." Those were the days of Alice the elephant in the elephant house, and we were all stunned when the poor, probably bored, animal "went mad" and had to be destroyed. I preferred the smaller animals anyway, the foxes and the unusual birds in the big birdhouse that is now the souvenir store.

We quit going to the Slater Zoo long before it closed. Mom and Dad were appalled at the condition of the animals in their confining wire cages and the smell emanating from them, especially as the park had once been a showplace.

Somewhere along the line (I was probably in my early teens) we eventually abandoned the long trek to the beaches as well. While I loved the seashore and Daddy loved to fish, none of us liked the crowds and their distasteful trash, and I loathed coming home coated in sand and having to scrub off. I simply liked walking along the ocean, looking at the seabirds, picking up shells, enjoying the only "air conditioning" that existed back then. In my toddler days we went to East Matunuck, but as I grew older it grew more crowded, and the jellyfish problem became intent. We tried Scarborough, but the waves were too strong and the noisy teenagers finally drove us away. Our last respite, faithful Sand Hill Cove, was finally deserted, too. We chose instead to buy fish and occasionally walk the sea wall in Galilee, and many times we'd take folding chairs and spend an hour or two on the flanks of the Coast Guard station at Point Judith. Occasionally foggy days and the bellowing lighthouse deterred us from visiting at length, but we would still make the pilgrimage.

Our new favorite haunt, especially when they bulldozed the aging, ugly abandoned buildings along Thames Street and built the Brick Walk Marketplace, became Newport. We almost always got there "the long way," via Fall River and Mom could never pass St. Anne's Church without stopping to say a prayer and have some Masses said. On Sundays the upper church would be open and we'd wander about for a half hour in the cool dimness, awed by the sun through the stained glass windows, and visiting each of the chapels in turn. It was a warm haven to the Catholic community--several statues had worn spots on their feet where generations of men and women and children had touched the saint and then said a prayer. Downstairs was the church store; my little books about the saints were from St. Anne's store.

Sometimes, however, we skipped Fall River and went directly to Newport via the Mount Hope Bridge. We'd park at the Brick Walk Marketplace or near the old train station before it was appropriated for more touristy things, walk about the little shops, have an ice cream from Newport Creamery or a sweet-sour-cold Del's Lemonade, occasionally stroll out to the wharfs to look at the sailboats and fishing vessels, then head out to Ocean Drive. Often we would stop at Fort Adams, where my dad had been stationed for a short time during World War II, although there was really nothing to see. The Fort then only opened on Army Day, back then scheduled appropriately for Father's Day, and we would go see the jeeps and helicopters and watch the soldiers rappel from moving "choppers."

At the middle of the ride, before we drove home via Bellevue Avenue and a glimpse through the walls at the glittering summer cottages of the 19th century rich, came nirvana, known on the map merely as Brenton Point. Long before the parking area was nicely graveled and fences put up and wildflowers planted, long before the ugly "Bumps" reared its concrete heads to spoil the scenery, we would park among the thorny wild roses and descend the crumbling concrete steps of the WPA-era retaining wall and walk on the layered grey-and-black rocks. Oh, how many dreams could be dreamed and fantasies could be indulged on those rocks as the cooling wind lifted your hair and blew away the summer torpor. One could be an explorer or a romance heroine windswept on the rocky shore.

I only mistily remember the old Budlong house that sat for years on that point; in walks we would trace the old paths and what remained of the garden, use the gatehouse bathrooms when they were finally opened to the public. I could rarely get anyone to walk back there with me, but when I did, I loved to explore the old stables. A devotee of Black Beauty and other equine stories, I had only to slit my eyes to see the structure whole again, imagine the glossy chestnut and bay and black carriage horses in loose boxes and stalls, the stablehands forking hay down from the loft, the head groom inspecting tack or supervising the cleaning of one of the big carriages. How sad to watch the deterioration of the years, and to finally, recently find the structure so unsafe it was finally fenced off! As Anne Shirley might say, it was a place with "scope for the imagination."

Too soon it was going on toward sunset and suppertime, which usually put an end to the Sunday ramble, and then usually it was time to eat and watch Lassie and The Wonderful World of Color. But in the summer one perfect capper was always added to the Sunday mix: the church feast. The singular is misleading, for each of the churches in turn, St. Rocco's, St. Bart's, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, etc., had their church feast one week during the summer. St. Mary's was in mid-July (one memorable Sunday in 1969 it was also the date of man's landing on the moon), and Sunday television would be forsaken to wander down to the feast grounds, amazingly always fitting in the close area at the corner of Park Avenue and Cranston Street, behind Dolan's Drugs and across the street from the old Cranston Police Station where a gazebo was eventually built.

The small plot of ground in front of the Itri Society building and the high-rise for the elderly would be crammed with food booths, balloon sellers, carnival games, drinks, and an an area where stout Italian women and older men fried batch after batch of crispy, chewy doughboys. The street was lined with Christmas lights or Japanese lanterns or any form of illumination available, and the air was heavy with the heavenly smell of deep frying, cotton candy, freshly-popped corn. You were shoulder to shoulder with fellow churchgoers, Cranston and Johnston inhabitants, visitors, and friends, trying manfully not to be separated from your party. There would be a band concert, some child would be crying over a lost balloon, over the crowd sang the Del's Lemonade truck bell.

About nine p.m, without any sort of signal except perhaps a rising murmur, the crowd would slowly proceed down Park Avenue toward Atwood Avenue and the new police station. Along this route were families who were having parties in their front or side yards. Illicit Roman candles were launched from back yards, children shrieked, adults gathered in lawn chairs around makeshift tables and barbecue grills, protected by citronella candles.

Just before the corner of Atwood and Park, we had been used to stopping at the two story house with the big, visible barbecue grill in the yard. This house had belonged for a long time to the man who owned the neighborhood market my mother shopped at, and every year he had a big barbecue and invited all his customers to come. We would have stopped there on a Saturday to enjoy burgers and hot dogs, but not on Sunday. Instead we proceeded to find a viewing spot right around the Cranston Police Station and waited in the sultry air. Around us babies cried, balloons popped, men smoked, teenagers talked in hushed whispers and laughed.

Then came the first bang. Someone would point to the faint sparking trail of the first launched skyrocket and call "There it is!" Then color would blossom overhead as the firework exploded, crimson or emerald or chrome yellow or bright blue or even a clear effervescent white, and the crowd, now melded into one, uttered "Oooooh!" Years earlier the display would have been supplanted with ground fireworks: American flags, whirling catherine wheels, other patriotic symbols, but later the show was all up above, lighting the black velvet summer sky.

How appropriate the day should end as it began, with light. Sundays were always full of light, from the sun that woke you up from a long refreshing sleep by peeping through your curtains to the evening glow of the sunset coming through the front window; even on darkest and rainiest of Sundays the day was infused with it: candles on the altar, the warm glow of the red-capped kitchen light, the blue flame of the gas that cooked your dinner, the beckoning warm windows of the Newport Creamery, the flashing of the Point Judith light.

And so it ended with light as well, from the muted glow of the parlor lamp that enfolded you as you read the last page of a story just before bedtime or watched Lassie create one more happy ending. Sunday was over--but, like the lighthouse, another sat shining and waiting, at the end of the next week.

 

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