Growing up in America is a special blessing. But it seems to me that those who grow up in one of this country?s many immigrant communities are twice blessed, for we have at least two sources of values, support, and knowledge.
I see this in my own life. As a child, I grew up in two environments, both of which were very special to me. From age four to eight, I lived in a three-family home that was surrounded by other three-family homes in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There were dozens of other children in the neighborhood, and I was fortunate to be able to call their homes mine also. We had lunch and played at each other’s houses; our parents took turns dropping us off and picking us up from school. You never needed an invitation to come over — you just showed up. When it was raining and we weren’t in each other’s company, all we had to do was look out the window and wave to each other as the houses were no more than fifty feet apart.
We had an enclosed sun porch on the third floor of our home and I loved the fact that the tree on the sidewalk would grow so close to the window that I could touch its branches. In the spring, I would reach out and pick maple seed husks and stick them on my nose. I loved my room. My mother had put up shelves all around the walls where she stored my toys and crafts. Mom mixed up a batch of new Play-Doh for me every weekend.
There was always company at our home. Looking back I see how different childrearing and the role played by the extended family was in those days compared with today, when more mothers are working and leisure time is minimal and it is necessary to make an appointment before visiting someone. Everyday living was easier then, and I think that was one of the reasons I felt so safe.
The world I lived in would make any child happy. But as the granddaughter of immigrants, I also lived in a second world, one represented by my maternal grandparent’s fourth-floor walk-up apartment in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx in New York City. We traveled to visit my Grandmother Thoma and her husband Thanas every weekend. At night, I loved to climb out their bedroom window and onto the metal fire-escape. I was usually joined by three cousins — Stephen, Michael and Bobby Talabac — who lived two blocks away. From this steel perch we would gaze out in wonder on the city skyscape. To the left in the far distance loomed the tall, arching strings of light outlining the expanse of the George Washington bridge, which links upper Manhattan with New Jersey. Straight ahead of us the lights of people’s apartments ascended into the black night. This is such a magical memory for me.
This oblong, four-room apartment was always bustling between my Grandmother’s preparations, my Grandfather?s story-telling, and the comings and goings of my parents and me, or my three cousins and their parents. After dinner, we children would perform quickly improvised plays based loosely on a historical or literary classic, or drawn from our own very fertile imaginations. Cleopatra was my favorite because I had the big lead role, and because I got to wear make-up. Dracula was my least favorite, because I kept on dying.
On Saturday mornings my cousins and I would run downstairs and across the large lobby over to the south side of our grandparents? building and then up again to the apartment of my grandmother?s brother, Themistocles (Lale Cleu), and his wife Victoria (Teta Toya). I loved visting with them because we kids would get to drink a little coffee in our milk and talk to Tinkerbell, their parakeet. Tinkerbell really should have been called the Great Houdini, since he opened his own cage one day and took a sharp left at the bedroom window only to fly back in through the kitchen. He lived for nine years.
If we kids slept over, there was never a time when we were ordered to go to sleep. We could stay up and watch the Late, Late Show if we wanted. My great uncle would mostly be in their studio-sized bedroom, which received wonderful natural light during the day. Here, he created lifelike sculptures of animals, birds and insects as well as clay busts of the family. I loved to play my older cousin Roger?s Bobby Vee album and dance in his room.
On windy, clear Saturdays or Sundays, there was a special treat in store for us children. Lale Cleu took us to a wide, open field in Van Cortlandt Park, less than a mile away. We?d bring along his hand-built kites of unique design which were constructed of bamboo and brightly painted plastic. They had long, colorful dragon-like tails, and because of their uniqueness we would always be the center of attention. Today, my cousin claims I was the one who lost a brand new kite on its maiden voyage. It eventually lodged, out of reach, in the top branches of a tall tree. Maybe I wasn?t holding the string tight enough, or the wind was too strong for me. I don’t remember. Perhaps I was simply setting it free.
My Grandmother’s sister Constance (Teta Costa) and her husband Apostle (Papu Toli) had a two-bedroom apartment in a fifth-floor walk-up one block away on the corner of the main shopping street, and we would often run over there to visit as well. Papu Toli had one glass eye, yet he was a voracious reader. Their spacious apartment was only reached after a long, tiring climb. At one time I knew exactly how many steps there were, but I’ve forgtten that now. Some days, I thought the stairs would go on forever without ever reaching their floor, but the smell of Teta Costa’s excellent cooking wafting down the stairwell — especially if it was a pita day — was enough to coax even the most exhausted child onward and upward.
I loved their living room with its huge oriental carpet in dark blues and reds, and the paintings of her daughter, Mary, on the walls. It was a cozy room, despite its large size. To me, the dim lighting helped make it so comforting, as did the unpretentious furnishings, which have come back into style again today. I adored watching Teta Costa in the kitchen preparing meals — the light from the window falling upon her where she stood; the strap of her housedress dropping down around her arm; the easy folds of the care-worn apron she always wore. She often kneaded dough, and I would wonder what
she was thinking about. There wasn’t much talk; she would ask me if I wanted something to eat or drink, but I was usually content just to watch her. I loved her very much.
Her husband, Papu Toli, had a Victory Garden a few blocks away from their apartment building. A wood fence surrounded and protected this small hollow of land. Once we entered and latched the gate behind us, we began our descent into another world, and all of New York City disappeared. It was wonderful! The small winding path took us deeper and deeper past rows of towering sunflowers and other flora, while my cousin Bobby kept his eyes peeled for extremely large bumble bees. Down at the bottom the land flattened out, and we found ourselves by a three-sided lean-to structure somewhat like a cabin, which had grape leaves growing on it. A bench and old house chairs stood nearby, but my favorite accessory was the watering can. Teta Costa would water the rows of flowers and plants in the garden and it seemed to me as a little girl that, as she did so, she was lost in deep thought — and perhaps even a bit of sadness. But whatever she may have been feeling, I felt a tremendous love for her as she watered row after row with tenderness and care.
I’ve now lost much of this alternate world. Teta Costa died some six years ago. My Grandmother died last fall. Both had outlived their husbands by many years. Lale Cleu, who recently suffered a stroke, moved with his wife to Florida some time ago. But I feel fortunate to have been able to experience (and return) their love in my childhood. The strength of that love keeps them living in my memory.
Old World family and New World friends: All the places of my childhood were filled with love. Like so many of us, I am truly twice blessed.