Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dad's passing stirs memories of tiny kitchens

Some early childhood memories have been popping into my head with increasing frequency. Given the current situation, I guess that's to be expected. But these memories seem to be focused on family gatherings where, despite my young age and incredible cuteness, I was not a significant participant nor even entirely welcome.

Prisco-Mangione kitchen during a meal.
The gatherings, as best I can recall, occurred fairly often within cramped kitchens of a number of Bronx apartments after family meal times. The kitchens, with roughly the same dimensions as a large shoebox, included the usual sink, stove, fridge and cabinets, along with a steam-heat pipe or radiator, and a table engulfed by skinny chairs. Despite tight quarters, there always seemed to be plenty of room around the table for my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, whoever happened to stop by. Somewhat miraculously, it seemed every adult human I knew in the world at that time could find a way to squeeze in around the kitchen table.

I did not take up a lot of space back then, not at all like now, but I was simply on the wrong side of a generational dividing line. As the first-born representative of the next wave of offspring on the Prisco-Mangione side of the family - the second on the Hunt side - I found myself an outcast. There wasn't even a "kids table" for family events yet.

Invariably, I would be stationed on some couch in a living room. There would be a black-and-white TV or a picture book or a deck of cards provided to keep me busy, while the older folks did whatever they did in the kitchen. (I can't say for sure, but I strongly suspect that some drinking was going on.) Any younger children - there were only one or two babies in this time period - would be given a nap in the bedroom or kept on a parent's lap in the kitchen. I felt that probably I had once been welcome in the kitchen, when I was very little and still something of a novelty, and then had been banished once I had grown tiresome.

I don't think I complained about the situation. Perhaps I was not ready to speak up for myself, or perhaps I was aware that, at the time, spanking was widely considered appropriate punishment for any young person who dared to question the status quo. (This actually was before young people had even thought of opposing the Vietnam War.) Those are possibilities, but I think something else came into play.

As best as I could from my living room couch Elba, I eavesdropped.

Oh, sure, when an adult came through to get to the bathroom or to check on a sleeping baby, I would quickly put my face into my book or gaze intently at the fuzzy black-and-white blobs on the TV screen or shuffle some cards. But when they were gone, I would lean as far as I could toward the kitchen and listen to what was going on.

Aunt Louise grasps a bunch of party balloons
(purely by accident, I'm sure) in an
unfortunate arrangement.
No matter how far I leaned and how intently I listened, words were tough to pick out, but there was always a great deal of laughter. When I say "laughter," I'm not referring to polite chuckling or nervous tittering; I'm referring to wall-shaking, roof-raising, knee-slapping, howling laughter. Some of the laughs and some of the voices would rise above the others, and I could tell who they belonged to. Grandpa Prisco, the family's master of ceremonies, was easiest to pick out. My dad's voice was a close second, and his deep laugh probably could be heard from blocks away. And I could hear Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Louise. Sometimes, I could hear Uncle George tell a joke or call attention to a silly magic trick or just contribute to the chorus of laughter.

I'm sure that, as I listened to all of that, I smiled out of involuntary reflex, just as I'm smiling now (admittedly through a few tears) at the recollection of it. The sounds coming from the kitchen were so full of joy that it really was a special treat to hear them even from a distance. Clearly, my elders were genuinely funny people (or the drinking was completely out of hand). And clearly they loved talking and loved laughing and loved just being with each other.

Like so many other Bronx clans, our family did not remain clustered in that borough. Over time, we spread out across much of the country. And many of us moved into much larger homes with much, much larger kitchens that, for some odd reason, seemed inadequate for those regular family gatherings. As we went off in pursuit of the American Dream, little thought apparently was given to its hidden costs. The family still assembled on special occasions, but each year fewer and fewer occasions were special enough.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that memories of those earlier get-togethers have been springing to mind lately, and I think it may relate to Dad's terrible struggles with his health, which just this past Saturday reached their inevitable conclusion. Much of our family is sure to gather at the funeral home and the church and the cemetery. It is a special occasion, though I do find it strange that death and sadness are now the primary reasons for family assemblies that used to be so much about life and joy.

Now, I will tell you frankly I don't believe there is anything at all like an afterlife. But, just between us, I sincerely hope I am wrong about that. I find myself hoping there is a heaven of sorts. These memories have convinced me that heaven should be very much like a cramped, little kitchen. And I'd like to think that on this past Saturday night, his parents, his brother, Grandpa Prisco, Uncle George, Uncle Vinnie, Aunt Louise, and our other family members who have passed away, all cheerfully welcomed Dad to his seat at the table.

The intensely rational part of me knows that it's just a lingering mental echo from long ago, but, you know, whenever I make the slightest effort to listen, I really can hear the laughter.

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