I grew up just a few blocks from Little Italy, in Erie, PA in the same house my father grew up in. We lived upstairs and my grandmother lived downstairs. All my life this home was the center of our extended family—and still is, after 70 years. Every Sunday my two uncles and their families would come for Sunday dinner “downstairs Mama’s house.” My grandmother would make sauce for all 16 of us. “Sauce” is a euphemism for some kind of pasta—either raviolis, fettuccine, or cavatelli—all homemade. “Sauce” also implies all the fixings, including antipasto, meatballs, sauce pork, and wedding soup. Mama always had cookies too, usually knots, pizzelles, or fried cookies, or pies—chocolate or banana cream or apple. For that many people, Mama made her pies in cookies sheets, not pie tins. The house always smelled like oregano, anise, and garlic. One of my earliest memories was being sent outside to pick some fresh “mint” for Mama’s cooking. I had no idea what to look for, so I picked a handful of everything. Mama would select the oregano (mint) from what I gathered and use it in her sauce.
Next door lived Eddie Beck. The Becks were not Italian but they figured just as prominently in my family as my own flesh and blood. The Becks were Danish and German and their house smelled like pickles, home canned tomatoes, and mustard. Every Sunday morning after Mass I went to Eddie Beck’s house for cinnamon toast. We walked to school every day with the Becks. We played in the Becks’ yard after school every day and all summer, even though the Becks spent all summer at their cottage on the lake. The Becks’ house used to be a farm, and half the yard was sand, with an old chicken coop that we played in and called the Dollhouse. In one part of the sand they had an enormous homemade iron swing set. When I wasn’t playing there, or at the playground at the school on the corner, I was riding my bike. When I was younger I was only allowed to ride on the sidewalks around my block and the block across the street, so I would go around and around all day. It was fun to zip past the houses and smell all the different smells, especially at supper time. I was always alone so I used to sing a lot on my rides where, ironically, I felt entirely private. As I got older I rode further and further from home, where the smells were even more interesting and mysterious. Many times I rode to the beach, about 4 miles away, and I would drink in the smells and sounds of the lake, the cookouts, the sunbathers and the birds.
I was always eager for the end of summer, when the Becks had to come home for the first day of school. Eddie was the leader of the neighborhood, not because he was the biggest, or toughest, or the coolest kid but because he was the nicest. Eddie Beck pulled the whole neighborhood together, befriending everybody and making sure everyone got along. I was never chosen for any teams, and Eddie knew it, so he always chose me first.
My bedroom was on the third floor, in the attic. My room was tiny, about 5×10, barely large enough for a bed, with no standing room under the slanting attic ceiling. It had no windows, no dresser, no closet. There was room for a small cedar chest, where I did my homework and where I saved most of my belongings. As a teenager I used to sit at the window at the top of the attic stairs and watch Eddie Beck and the other neighborhood boys play basketball in the driveway down below.
One of my favorite memories: my grandparents’ visitors. After my grandfather’s stroke they came to sit with him on the front porch: old men with rolled up shirt sleeves and trousers pulled up to their chests, smelling of garlic and drinking homemade wine, speaking with him in Italian and laughing at us kids, who were always clueless. And once a month mama had card party. I always laid on the floor in our dining room and listened to the sounds coming up the floor register of her and her siblings and their spouses speaking Italian. The next day I’d go downstairs to see if there were any homemade cream puffs left over.
Another favorite memory: helping my dad work on the house. On Saturdays he’d light up a cigar and work on little building projects. I learned to love the smell of those cigars and the smell of lumber cut by a saw. I learned to wait patiently and watch him work, anticipating his next move so I could hand him the tool he needed. Watching my dad I learned to think, plan, think again, and re-plan before taking action. I learned to save everything, every screw, every nail, every bit of wire, every scrap of wood, and to organize these things carefully in case I needed them again someday. I loved to listen to him whistling or humming while he worked, an endless, formless tune that was not really a song. It seemed to serve some purpose, like fuel he was burning to keep his mind churning in the background. He seemed to be entirely at peace during these times, and I shared that peace with him.
Finally, I have to mention the birds. As I sift through memories to try and capture what my house and neighborhood were like, I suddenly realize that every memory is accompanied by the sounds of birds. In my backyard memories, birds and children both laid claim to the gigantic maple tree we climbed in Eddie Beck’s yard. Climbing that tree, or even walking on the roof of the car port, or jumping out of the hay loft into the sand, you’d be dive-bombed by sentinel robins. All in good fun, of course. In the front yard, on the north side of the house, where it was shady and quiet, and where adults outnumbered the kids any day of the week, sparrows and wrens protected their territories with songs that echoed under the porch awnings, and down between the houses. Their songs wafted through the open windows, amplified by the pavement below, morning songs stirring your heart to wake, evening songs soothing as a lullaby. At noon, in the ancient towering Lombardy poplars at the school on the corner, white throated sparrows whistled like squeaky chains on swings in the playground, while my dad passed on his walk home for lunch each day, whistling his famous, nameless tune. On Sundays, when the cousins came to visit, Uncle Tee would call us all home from all over the neighborhood, with one of his ear-piercing, heart-stopping whistles, sounding something like a cross between the territorial call of a mountain chickadee and the imperial summons of a Greek god.