Gene Pool 1
My father is a first generation American-Italian. However in a ridiculously biased way and forgetting the America factor; he somehow thinks he is 100% Italian. But his DNA revels that he is a J clade Homo sapien; originating in Sudan or Ethiopia more than 10,000 years ago; with subsequent migrations to the Middle East, then to Crete, then to Greece and finally ending in Italy. Additionally he might be a small percent Jewish; possibly originating with Y Chromosomal Aaron, the brother of Moses. Nonetheless, far from being ”out of Africa,” as far as he is concerned, the sun only rises and sets on good old Italia.
Now at 99 years old, Salvatore was the youngest of three other siblings, Rose, Michael, and Katherine.
His father, Erberto, (Albert) booked passage to America from Italy in the early 1900’s to escape the hardship of old world poverty.
The family says that he came from the small town of Calitri, near Naples, and then settled in the New York City suburban area. As romantic as any embellished version of this odyssey sounds to my father, it is likely that Erberto simply escaped from some Italian slum, and in leaving no traces behind, nothing was ever known nor recorded of Erberto’s forbears after he left this little village. This leaves his ancestry so convoluted that the only sense to be made of it is that everyone in his home town was related to each other by consanguineous marriage.
Erberto was an enterprising man, who first made a living by pushing a hot dog wagon up and down Mamaroneck Avenue, in White Plains New York, then working as a bartender. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a diner. At least, that’s what they say. Apparently, during the hard times of the 1930’s, he was relatively well to do, owning a three-story house, and driving a fancy car. I have a photograph of him with some of his cronies, and despite the fact that to this day, my father insists that there is no Mafia; I sometimes wonder from whence derived the seminal money or the real leg-up that came in Erberto’s life. Underworld connections are probably validated by the fact that when he lost the diner, he still made out fairly well “selling cigars” at a speakeasy. He never did have that chance to fulfill his American dream because in the 1950s he died of a stroke at the age of 57.
I hardly had a chance to know him, yet vividly remember him dying naturally in bed at home, in a dignified manner with his family around him. Unfortunately, our modern society no longer condones this style of personalized death or dying, as though the corpse might somehow immediately contaminate or later perpetually haunt the household; or worse perhaps even deprive the dying person of that last desperate yet tortured shot at some medical miracle in the barbaric confines of some sterile Intensive Care Unit. Much later in life, I found his death certificate.
He apparently had atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder notorious for forming clots inside the heart, which then break off and embolize to the brain. This catastrophic complication of the arrhythmia is now preventable and only one of many medical advances, which since 1900 has prolonged the longevity of the average American male by over 30 years. On the negative side these same advances can also unnaturally prolong death, as well as sometimes contributing to extremely undignified and very expensive ones. Grandpa was lucky.
I sometimes muse about how different his life may have been and subsequently my own, had he lived long enough to fulfill his dream. For example I might now be heaving pizza dough in the family diner, sporting a crisp white chef’s tunic instead of the black rubber stethoscope I now wear for a necktie. Or better yet, might perhaps be living the high-rolling, high-risk lifestyle of some hard-nosed local Mafia Capo, which as a result might have ended in my own premature un-natural death; with a Mafia style garrote; a piano-wire necktie.
In any event, my grandmother, Grace, wore black clothes from the day of Grandpa’s death: never dating, remarrying, or even entertaining the company of another man in her house. She became overly sedentary; then very obese and eventually developed weight related Type 2 Diabetes. In essence, she had literally died on the same day that my grandfather did.
My mother used to say that after the death of a spouse, Italians either mourned forever, making sure to passive-aggressively rub it in everyone else’s nose at every opportunity, or they alternatively shed crocodile tears at the funeral with one split fingered hand splayed across their faces. The slits would be just wide enough to get a better glimpse of their next potential partner standing alone in the group of mourners.
- Peek-a-Boo, I see you. Who’s next?
My grandmother was one of the former and with the exception of her kitchen; she always had the rest of the shades pulled down in a dark pall, which gave her house an aura of perpetual funereal mourning.
When I was young, we lived downstairs from her in that same large three-story house that after Grandpa’s untimely death she owned without lien, because he had paid for it in cash. She rented the bottom floor to my father, and the third floor apartment to anyone who would take it. My father set up a dental office in the front; while we lived in the several rooms behind the clinic that housed the chair with the drill, while grandma lived in the middle level.
The upper level boarders always seemed to be itinerant societal misfits, leaving me to wonder why Grandma constantly told me to leave them alone. After all, she owned the place, while all I wanted was to see inside their apartment; something I furtively attempted to do each time she knocked on the door to collect the rent. I would try to crawl under her while she blocked my inquisitiveness with her pasta plumped body, and then kicked me with a black pointy-toed leather shoe. It might have been about personal privacy or perhaps she just didn’t want me to witness any potential fuss about the monthly rent collection. That was the first time I noticed that she always wore her nylon stockings rolled down to the ankles, a habit that seems to creep up on aging Italian women as they slowly lose their past-prime virginal shapes to an ever-expanding derriere. Paradoxically, when the stocking rolls hit the ankles; this is a secret cultural code symbolizing that the woman is “no longer available for sex.”
My father required me to regularly go upstairs for a visit with Grandma, who did nothing but sit in a kitchen that always seemed to reek of green Kale being boiled in garlic water; and although she was really an excellent cook, I truly believed that, except on holidays, this was all she ate. To a little boy, she also always smelled peculiarly odd in a musky-stale sort of way, and although she tried marginally hard enough to get by with it she never really mastered the English language. My mother said that Grandma was just too lazy to learn the language because after being in America for over forty years she was in reality a living legacy to an astoundingly apathetic lack of ambition.
My father, always pushing hard with Old World guilt trip filial obligations, forced me to visit her more than I ever really wanted to.
- Go up and see your grandmother. She’s lonely. And you’re her favorite.
- But dad. She’s fat, she’s smelly and she doesn’t talk. And when she does, I don’t understand her.
- Don’t speak about your grandmother like that. If it weren’t for her we’d be out on the street.
So after the usual insufferable twisting pinches on the cheek as she would predictably say: “Que face bella, de chi chi dinella,” with me holding my breath as long as I possibly could or always keeping a safe distance in order to avoid having to smell her, she would then reach into her smock and give me a nickel to “go buy a bicycle.” What she was trying to say was; “Here’s a nickel. Go buy a Popsicle.” Even though I explained to her that bicycles cost substantially more than five cents, and despite my beautifully angelic seductive little child’s face, I could never get the extra cash out of her.
Going out to buy the Popsicle, was the only blessed reprieve I ever had from having to sit across from her at her tiny two chaired side-table, bored to tears and trying to manufacture palaver. So as I gleefully escaped the ennui by scampering down the winding back staircase; she always bellowed her cautionary warning to slow down:
- Hey. Take it eedz, eedz, eedz. You falla down…you gonna breaka you head.
With that, I would run to the candy store, the entire time wishing that I had that speedy bicycle for the long potentially dangerous trip through neighborhood backyards or alleyways; instead of having to go on foot through the domains of the local bullies, or worse: the yards guarded by snarling unchained dogs. Sometimes my routes were therefore circuitous enough to cause great parental consternation when I did not arrive home until sundown; but which also due to my clever evasiveness ensured that I made it in one piece, always unscathed and always too late to have to go back upstairs to visit Grandma again.
But most of the time Grandma was frigidly quiet like a cold marble Greco-Roman statue, sitting alone for innumerable hours doing nothing but staring into space. It was pure torture to have to make those obligatory visits, as usually no conversation took place. How could it? She did not speak or understand the nuances of my native language and her I.Q. operated at the purely primitive level of an uneducated widowed immigrant housewife who had little or nothing left to do after her husband’s diner was sold and she lost her job in his kitchen: Cook. Eat. Pine away. Cook. Eat again. Then pine away some more; like a desiccated old Pinole nut.
Her only entertainment was to watch evening TV variety shows, only really perking up when Perry Como, Tony Bennett or “Frankie Sa-not” appeared on the tube to sing the old maudlin Italian songs. Thankfully, at least, and not like a number of the self-proclaimed Italian opera stars lurking around the neighborhood, she never tried to sing along. Once in a while, however, in a fit of rage, when she had her fill of little kids running underfoot, she would chase us out of the house with a broom screaming “ah pesce-a-stoke-a-baccala.” When hearing these dreaded words, we knew she meant business, as a rough translation would be:
- I’m going to whip your butts black and blue with a baccala.
I did not even know until I was a grown man that a baccala was a hard, dried, brine-cured codfish, which is reconstituted in water, then cooked in many Italian households on Christmas Eve. I thank God to this day that we must have been reformed Italians and were never subjected to that particular culinary calamity; the problem with baccala being that no matter how you make it or what you make it with, it still tastes like a hard, dried, brine-cured, reconstituted thousand year old fish. Baccala then must be the Italian version of Jewish Gefelta, and I can only assume that the excited hysteria surrounding atavistically reverts to cave man days, when our Neanderthal ancestors put aside the everyday nuts and berries then brought out the dried Dinosaur Spam for the national holiday.
Whatever the case, my Italian Grandmother never smelled as bad as my “cousin” Skippy’s Grandmother, “Gommie,” another old widower who required obligatory guilt trip visits from the grandchildren, and who also sat alone for uncountable hours in a shade drawn darkened living room. I hated when we had to pile in the car to go all the way to Torrington, Connecticut to see her, as nothing ever transpired during the visits and only wasting a young boy’s chance to get into some kind of trouble with his friends on an otherwise beautiful Saturday off from school. But the worst part of the ordeal was the fact of her getting prepped by dousing herself with her favorite perfume.
To this day, I do not understand why old ladies simply do not comprehend the fact that perfume as it exists in the bottle at Bloomingdale’s, does not at all smell the same when they apply it to themselves. After application, a sudden drastically obscene chemical reaction occurs between the petroleum-based perfume and the over-septuagenarian post-menopausal skin resulting in a phenomenon that defies scientific explanation. If another person then touches her or breathes near these women, this toxic mixture is immediately absorbed through the skin, which then causes the deadly combination to dissolve into and to poison the unintended victim’s bloodstream. Usually after making its rounds through the circulatory system, it finally gets exhaled through the lungs were it then sticks to the victim’s lips for hours or even for days. Deodorant I can understand, but the general feminine concept of perfuming is one that will always elude me. Or even more elusively why the noxious nature of the habit of using it seems to increase linearly in both the frequency and the amount applied as the woman gets older but at the same time becomes progressively less sexually appealing.
When I personally performed cardiac echo studies on older women, I was often choked or gagged by the worst chemical scents imaginable; the great paradox being that these women thought they had to get “gussied up” because they were going to see the doctor. The scents would stick to me for days like a thin film of aromatic crazy glue. It was even the case that as a result of this, I would purposefully schedule some of these women at the end of the day to prevent the entire office environment from being gassed up in the morning…followed by a slow radioactive-like scent decay curve that lasted for the remainder of the day.
These exuding aromatics were also difficult to easily explain away when later meeting a girlfriend or when married, having to face my dour faced immediately suspicious and irrationally jealous finger-rapping first wife, as she then launches into her interrogation about the possibility of furtive sexual liaisons.
- Honey. I can explain it. On my last case I had to use an echo probe on an old lady who overdosed on her perfume.
- Oh really. So just how old? And exactly where were you probing her and what else were you probing her with beside that silly little machine of yours?
- 85 years: On the chest wall under the left breast: With an RN chaperone.
- Oh, so you probably fucked that little nurse whore too, right?
I am convinced that these chronic proximate chemical exposures are responsible for many women’s seemingly sudden onset of adult asthma or the premature deaths of some of their husbands; and have always thought there should a perfume specifically designed for post-menopausal septuagenarian women named:
A requirement for its use would be that it could only be a water based semi-placebo, or if not, that it could only be sold if there was definitive proof of the woman having no living relatives. Revlon would make a fortune. On the opposite side, Old Spice could probably make a fortune as well if it could discover the molecule in the sweat of paranoid schizophrenic men that seems to make women magnetically flock to them. As far as I can tell this scientific study would be the only justifiable reason to continue keeping Charlie Manson alive.
However more to the immediate point, the most tragic thing about my Italian Grandmother, was the fact that she never received flowers or perfume from anyone at all until the day she died, at which time her hearse was filled to the brim with bouquets; an ironic twist that finally made her smell like a fresh breath of Spring.
It has always been a mysterious curiosity to me that most people, men and women alike, get the bulk of their flower bouquets all at once, heaped one on top of the other like a small floral mountain, but only after they are dead.
Grandma and Grandpa DeCarlo
And you can, send me dead flowers in the morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave
(Dead Flowers: The Rolling Stones)