The Silver Dollar



344 DeGraw St, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Boro Park, Brooklyn

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, much of my life was based on routine. Some I couldn’t avoid, some I depended on. Tuesday nights we ate veal cutlets pounded thin by my mother, then breaded, fried and served with a splash of lemon juice. Fridays we had Nona’s pizza, rolled out on the flour-covered wooden board on the kitchen table. Every Sunday morning I woke to the aroma of the pot on the gas range in the kitchen cooking the gravy that would be part of our late afternoon dinner of macaroni (it was never “pasta”) and meatballs.

Sometimes the macaroni changed, depending on what was on sale, but mostly it was spaghetti. Holidays we had lasagna or ravioli. Very special occasions, like my birthday, Nona and my mother spent all the day before mixing the batter and using the special pan to fry, one at a time, the thin crepes that would become the shells for manicotti, my particular favorite. But no matter what the gravy covered, simmering in the big pot for hours it was always the same, rich and red tomatoes spiced with garlic, oregano and sweet basil, thickened by the meatballs and sausages and the thin rolled beef braciola.

Every Sunday when I was a boy, after the dishes had been cleared and the leftovers put away, my father tensed and pulled out the gold pocketwatch from his vest. The watch had been an expensive anniversary gift from my mother years before, and he had pasted her picture inside the crystal. Looking over at me he would announce, “Time to go.”

I always resented having to leave whatever game I was playing. I never wanted to visit my grandfather, the “Old Man,” the “Chief,” as he was called.

But any appeal for a reprieve fell on deaf ears. Though my mother didn’t have a kind word for the Old Man, and found him far less than likable, she understood my father’s obligation of respect for his father and she insisted that I go too.

The bad feelings between my mother and my grandfather began before my parents were married and lasted long after. One source of conflict involved names. My grandfather pronounced the family name Sca-lee-a, three distinct syllables with the accent in the middle, the way it was said in Sicily, but my mother reduced it to two, pronouncing it Scal-ya. And then there was the tradition of naming the first grandson after the paternal grandfather. When I was born my mother stubbornly refused and instead of Ignatius, she named me Joseph, after my father. Her act of defiance drove the wedge deeper between the two of them. But that didn’t prevent the stubborn Old Man from having his way. No matter what my birth certificate said, to him I was Ignatius.

“Inyats-eed,” was his greeting for me, the Sicilian pronunciation for “Little Ignatious.”

“Come on, Joseph, get ready,” my mother always said. “You have to go.”

So together, rain or shine, my father and I walked the six long blocks. I had a tough time keeping up with him, my short legs taking twice as many steps to pace his stride. Only now do I realize that his quickness was born from an eagerness to have the visit be over with and be home again.

I can see my grandfather standing with his folded arms and jutting jaw, an imposing figure, frightening, unmovable, like the newsreel clips of Mussolini. But I was never sure if the Chief was pretending, if he really did have a sense of humor. With his thin lips pursed disapprovingly under his white brush mustache and his deep-set eyes, like black Sicilian olives, he never smiled. The only time I remember seeing happiness in his face was when he called me by his name.

My grandfather lived alone, on the ground level of the two family house that he owned, where the sour smell of homemade wine clashed with the faded ghost of olive oil and garlic that filled the hallway. It was nothing like the aromas I associated with home and security. My grandfather’s house made my throat close. Always I gulped down the relatively clean air in the vestibule before the buzzer let us in and I rushed through the long hallway behind my father, past the stairway leading to where the tenants lived. In the years that I visited my grandfather I never met or even heard the people who rented the apartment above him. I wondered how they could stand it, or even if they might be responsible for the smell.

Inside, the house was a stark and unwelcoming place, with none of the charm a woman’s touch might have added, except for the musty parlor in the front. Although he kept the room dark, on bright afternoons the sunshine, filtered by the old curtains once put up by my father’s mother and left untouched ever since, poured through the three bow windows and found its way indoors.

Grandma Rosa had died before I was four and I had no real recollection of her, other than the stories told and retold by my mother. “She was as kind as your grandfather is mean. She loved you so much she walked twenty blocks in the pouring rain to buy a bicycle for your third birthday.”

The parlor had been Grandma Rosa’s favorite room. It was where she enjoyed the old player piano, and kept her music rolls lined up in the glass enclosed cabinet. For years after she was dead, whenever they visited, my sister and my cousins, my two uncles’ daughters, loved to pump the piano pedals and make the perforated rolls unfolded music. But I was too afraid of the moving keys, pressed in my imagination by my dead grandmother’s phantom fingers. When my grandfather retreated to live in the back of the house, he kept the sliding parlor doors pulled tightly closed, so it was easier for me to avoid the room altogether. Later he got rid of the player piano.

His kitchen was tiny, dark and empty, with no bubbling pot of gravy on the stove. Except for the drying bundles of oregano and basil strung along the wall, the missed bread crumbs and sugar granules on the worn brown porcelain tabletop with the hidden silverware drawer underneath, there were no indications that he ate. Judging from the clutter that covered the stained checkered cloth on the round wooden table and the piles of Il Giorno, the Italian newspaper, that lay around the room, the enclosed porch behind the kitchen was where my grandfather spent most of his days.

There gold painted plaster statues and photos of people and places I didn’t recognize adorned the walls. The mandolin with a broken string remained over the door, unmoved and untouched in the years I visited, vibrating whenever I walked under it. It was hard to imagine my grandfather playing music.

“How you feeling, Chief?” my father never failed to ask in the halting Sicilian dialect that sounded so alien. Unlike the melodious Neapolitan Italian spoken at home, the clipped Sicilian words were sharp and harsh. “You all right? You need anything, Pop? Can I do anything while I’m here?” I watched my father become a child again.

My grandfather pushed out his jaw a little further, folded his arms and straightened to his full height. “I don’t want anything,” he said with pride, or was it arrogance? The Old Man’s tone never softened when he spoke to his son. Always he sounded angry. It was difficult for me to know what my father might have said or done to make him so. “I need nothing.” He shook his head, still full with white hair.

“If you come into the shop next week I’ll give you a haircut and a shave. You look like you could use a trim,” my father offered with a sigh. The distance between the two of them never varied. Neither moved. They never kissed or hugged, and never do I remember them even touching,.

The Old Man’s black eyes glinted and his tight lips turned almost to a smile when he saw me hiding behind my father’s leg. “Inyats-eed,” he called loudly to me. My father seemed to wince whenever he heard the Old Man say the name.

“Tell that miserable old man that his name is Joseph,” my mother had told my father many times. But my father never did. Instead of correcting, he opted for silence, as he so often did in dealing with my mother.

“Come,” the Old Man ordered, extending his mottled brown hand with skin that was thin like old paper. Reluctantly I stepped forward. “I have something, Inyats-eed. You come with me.” I followed him into the bedroom and I couldn’t help being a little afraid, even though I knew what treasure he was digging from the dresser drawer. “For you, Inyats-eed.” He pressed a silver dollar into my hand. “Because you are a good boy, and because you are named after me,” he said, more for my father.

Our Sunday visits were always short. On the walk back my father seemed more relaxed and I was happy to have another silver dollar weighing down my pocket to add to my collection. Sometimes we’d go straight home. Other times he’d take me past his closed barber shop and we’d stop next door at Vinny’s Candy Store for an ice cream soda.

This was our pattern, son and father and son, for many years.

My grandfather died on New Year’s Eve 1964, alone. The upstairs tenant discovered the body the next day when he brought the rent and a bottle of wine to celebrate the holiday. With everything else going on at home – my father had been ill, out of work, and in and out of hospitals for much of the year – I can barely remember his wake or the funeral. I do remember Uncle Tommy and Uncle Frankie visiting my father’s bedside with news of the Old Man’s will. He had left what property he owned, the house, its contents, and any secret money in his dresser drawers, to the two of them. In a final gesture the Old Man had gone out of his way to leave a single silver dollar for my father.

My uncles shared the inheritance, but it could never compensate for the sadness, and six months later, surrounded by his family, my father died. The official cause of death on the certificate was the cancer he had been battling for some time, but my mother and I knew it was from a broken heart.

Today I carry his old watch with my mother’s young face smiling up at me, and I remember my father and how he was very much the good son.

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