"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 30, 2018

How Uncle Harry Always Spoiled Easter Dinner–But Then Again, He Was Family

Angie Lucia – she was always called by both names, a carry over from her childhood when everyone in her family was either an Angie or a Paulie; and since she grew up in a big family – five aunts on her mother’s side and four on her father’s each with five children each – double names were the only way to tell them apart.  There was Angie Esther, a first cousin who lived in Newark, married three times, each to a man with a record, and each who had left her crying and alone on a stoop Down Neck to ‘take care of business’ but never to return.  Angie Christina lived in Philadelphia, married well – or at least well by family standards – to a mechanic who had only made it through South Jersey Tech thanks to her uncle who had helped out the mayor of Bayonne once when he had gotten into ‘a little scrape’.  Money had changed hands when it shouldn’t have, the girl had set him up, but it all blew over thanks to family. 

Angie Leona was retarded and had become a ward of Angie Christina when her own parents threatened to commit her to St. Margaret’s.  She never developed past a mental age of 10, but was a sweet girl who bagged groceries at the East Haven A&P, thanks to Angie Lucia’s insistence and old friendship with the manager.  Angie Grace was a whiz with hair and a mind for business and had opened a string of hair and nail salons up and down the Jersey shore.  Her success went to her head and she was impossible at Easter Dinner, never letting up about her new De Ville, kitchen makeover, and trips to Las Vegas.

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All the Angies were invited to Angie Lucia’s house for Easter Dinner at her West Haven home barely big enough for herself, her husband Joe, and her two children; but Joe and the kids helped to rearrange the furniture, move the birdbaths and potted plants from the porch to make more room, and direct traffic on Mullin Road which, except for one track across Harry Grillo’s lawn - to satisfy the police department – became a parking lot from 11 in the morning until well after dusk.

Every Angie brought something to eat – antipasto, lasagna, corn fritters, eggplant, ham pie, ricotta cheese cake, pistachios, amaretto, nougats, and cream soda.  Angie Lucia prepared the turkey and cooked the ham in Angie (Fatima) Grillo’s oven, and  set the table with linen, silver, and crystal.  Joe sat at the head of the table, said grace, and proposed the same toast he had given for twenty years, nodding to each Angie and her family with great generosity and charm.  All in all, Easter Sundays at Angie Lucia’s were wonderful affairs.

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Except for Uncle Harry who was not a regular but could never be refused.  He was a member of the Buffalo branch of Angie Lucia’s family and every two or three years or so he would be in Connecticut on business timed to coincide with Angie Lucia’s fabulous meal.  It was not that he was unwelcome – Angie Lucia was insistent that family was family no matter what, and although there had been some bad blood when Harry had married a second cousin and moved out of the family home in Branford to Buffalo.  The cousin had been underage, none too smart, seduced by Harry, or so the story went, and married because, surprisingly, Harry ‘did the right thing’.  None of this was any more than innuendo and family gossip, but there was always something unsavory about Uncle Harry – the pencil mustache didn’t help nor ‘that thing’, the thing that people in Buffalo knew about but no one in New Haven, said to impress.  

“I was in Bridgeport doing that thing”, he said.  “No big deal.  Everyone was happy”; but no one at Easter Dinner was happy.  An extra place had to be set, throwing off the seating arrangement, the number of knives and forks, crowding Joe catty-corner and no longer at the head of the table.  His Buffalo family was too distant to even remember – a Christmas card, birthday presents, and a bottle of upstate New York State wine at Thanksgiving, but nothing more regular or consistent.  The West Haven family stopped calling him Uncle Harry - “Is That Thing coming this year?”; or “Another bottle of wine just came from That Thing” – but he was always welcome nevertheless.

The only thing that made Uncle Harry different was his distance.  He might have been a Patrucci, but a far-off Patrucci, one whom no one knew exactly, one who was suspect only because he wasn’t from New Haven.  It was the small things.  After living so long in Buffalo he called pizza pizza and not apizza.  His wife, the second cousin, was not from Sorrento and Amalfi but from Cosenza, and because of his wife’s family and the large Calabrese community in Buffalo, Harry became more like the testa duras from the South than his own kind.  It was a matter of distance, culture, familiarity, and custom; not necessarily personality or character.  Harry was odd man out because he simply didn’t fit. 

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Had the West Haveners been willing to give up a little family clannishness and lighten up on ‘that thing’, they would have found Uncle Harry no different from any of them.  There were plenty of Angies who would have liked to move to Buffalo, Rochester, or Miami if it hadn’t been for this Italian thing of permanence.  It took the Jews only a few decades to move out of the Lower East Side, the Irish out of South Philly, the Poles out of Broad Street in New Britain, but the Italians clung to their roots in Little Italy for years. They resisted the expansion of Chinatown and the influx of Puerto Ricans till the bitter end. The West Haveners were no different.  So most of the Patruccis stayed put.

“What exactly is ‘that thing’ in Buffalo?”, asked Angie Christina’s husband finally, late one Easter Sunday afternoon. 

“It’s just a thing”, said Harry. “You know, a thing to take care of.”

“Yes, but what kind of thing”, insisted Angie Christina’s husband.

“Just a thing”, said Harry. “No big deal”.

Angie Christina’s husband wouldn’t let up.   He was sick and tired of Harry, Buffalo, and ‘that thing’, and with all due respect to Angie Lucia, he wanted Uncle Harry disinvited, sent on his way back to Buffalo and never to return.

No one, however, came to Angie Christina’s husband’s defense.   Everyone had ‘that thing’, their own thing, whispered about, suggested, and rumored; and Uncle Harry was the perfect foil, the magnetic pole which drew attention to him and away from them.  Before Harry started coming, the Angies had started in on each other.  Innuendos were outed; the conventions of family omertà forgotten.  No code of silence out of respect.  With a little Lambrusco all tongues were loosened, and no matter how much Angie Lucia tried to keep things civil, by the time the chestnuts were served, the silverware was scattered, wine spilled, and the ricotta pie was on the floor.   Or course Petey Cucci was a bugger, Jimmy Cianci an embezzler, Farneta Pozzi a whore, and Lucca Palumbo a cheat. 

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The Hetheringtons, who also lived in New Haven, were a fifth generation American family descended from both Thomas Hooker of Connecticut and the Carters of Virginia.  Their pedigree was impeccable, and they were inscribed as Daughters of the American Revolution and descendants of the First Families of Virginia. They, unlike the newcomer Patruccis, not only had cousins but distant cousins in England and Scotland, ancestors who had fought the Spanish armada under Elizabeth I, had been knighted, invited to court, and rewarded for their role in colonizing the New World. 

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The Hetheringtons had branches of the family in Chicago, Dubuque, Reno, and New Orleans – most if not all had done justice to the family heritage, and since Independence had been land developers, entrepreneurs, industrialists, jurists, and governors.  Theirs was a storied history, one told in textbooks as well as around Christmas dinner; for Louisa Hetherington, like Angie Lucia, felt a responsibility to bring all members of the family together once a year. 

The Hetherington home, a large colonial house on Hillhouse Avenue that had been in the family for generations, was the perfect venue.  The dinner was elaborately simple – soup, fish, roast, and pie – but the accouterments stylish and traditional.  Silver that had been in the family for generations, Victorian china, Townsend tables and chairs, Kashmiri carpets from the Raj, and belts, buckles, and swords from British ancestors stationed in Lucknow.

There was no question of civility – decorum and propriety was as much a part of the family as place, station, and authority – and no Christmas dinner was interrupted by any Uncle Harry.  The Hetherington clan, although widely dispersed, was held together by heritage, noblesse oblige, and distinction.  They all shared their adventures, exploits, and accomplishments without jealousy, suspicion, or challenge.

At the same time both the Patruccis and the Hetheringtons had one thing in common.  No one was really interested either in ‘that thing’ or Percy’s investments in Singapore bonds.  The Patrucci gatherings were pleasant enough – at least during Uncle Harry’s periodic arrivals – and the Hetherington dinners were accomplished and graceful; but each family member went home empty.  Nothing really happened, no engagements made, no new partnerships concluded, the occasional fishing trip planned but forgotten, few essential insights gained.  What was the point? Extended families had lost their economic and social importance long ago.  One relied less and less on family support and more on individual enterprise, securities, and private investments. It was no surprise that many of the Hetheringtons wished they were in Gstaad skiing or in St. Bart’s over Christmas, but kept going anyway.  Family gatherings had become an institution, of value in and of itself.

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Perhaps this is only true on the margins – the very wealthy and privileged like the Hetheringtons for whom ‘family’ had nothing to do with intimacy and all about legacy; or the Patruccis for whom family had been the be-all and end-all of survival in Italy and America but whose cultural stubbornness insisted on family integrity long past its usefulness – but not true for the middle, those families who simply enjoy each other’s company; for whom there is no point to gathering except to gather. 

This eclectic family focus is gaining momentum.  More and more large families regret or resent their distance; and feel something good and beneficial about the intimacy and spontaneity that can only come from cousins, aunts, and uncles.  Especially in rapidly fragmenting societies, family is the only place of reasonable trust, an anchor no matter how loosely held.

The best families, however, are the Patruccis.  There is more drama, more melodrama, and more raw humanity than any other.  They are like O’Neill’s Mannon family or Albee’s George and Martha, or the Lears, Macbeths, and  Cawdors.  Families for Albee – who hated them – were the crucible of maturity; and after Easter dinner at Angie Lucia’s – a dinner without Uncle Harry – everyone felt relieved and spent.  Something actually did happen, and it was worth the effort.

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