We all lived on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, 93 MacDougal to be exact. Across the street was a little grocery store. It was run by my Uncle Frank LoGusto. My memories of him go back to when I was three years old. I remember his character and his quirks. He was my great uncle, my father’s uncle, to be exact. Yet it was clear to all the family he was mine. Despite the fact that I had an older brother and sister, Uncle Frank had chosen me. Totally mutual. I was strongly bonded to him and he was always my advocate.
Uncle Frank was a crusty old man who smelled of cigarettes. He smoked filterless Camels and the stench was all over him. He wore a grayed white shirt and tie, and a dark gray button-down wool sweater which was probably never washed. It was scratchy, but nowhere near as scratchy as his face which always sported some serious whiskers, even though he shaved every day. He had a leather strap on which he would sharpen his straightedge, mix his shaving soap and water in a little cup with his shaving brush. Whipping it first into a thick lather, he would spread the white lather all over his beard. He’d shave a stroke or two and then rinse the blade in the kitchen sink, looking into a small mirror that had been perched on a shelf. I would watch this daily ritual, and despite his fastidiousness, when he picked me up minutes later, his face was still scratchier than sandpaper. He was an elderly man with a stale odor of old man and cigarettes and despite his scratchy sweater and beard, I loved him. I knew I was not only safe in his company as he attended to the care of this 3-year-old. I also knew that all I had to do was ask and he would bend over backwards to fulfill my requests.
MacDougal Street was and still is a short street. If you walked north, you arrive at Washington Square Park, just a block away. This is where my brother, my sister and I played when we weren’t playing directly in front of the store. If you walked halfway up the block, you arrive at Frank & Tony’s, a small candy store that sold newspapers, magazines, and of course, a wonderful collection of chocolate bars and other yummies that would entice any child. One day, my parents’ friend Murray, a very skinny, funny and loving man whose visits delighted us children, took me up the block to Frank & Tony’s. He asked me what I wanted and I picked out Jujubes. I liked other candy better, but Jujubes would last a very long time and since it was so rare for us to have treats like this, I wanted the candy that would last the longest. “What else?” he asked. I thought of Greg and picked out some chocolate. “What else?” he asked again, and I picked out a candy I knew Dorie liked. He asked again and again, and once I knew that I and each of my siblings, had two sweet items each, I told him it was enough. “Really?” he asked several times. “Really. Nothing else?” I answered until he believed me. I didn’t want to be greedy.
One day, I had a craving for some candy and asked my Uncle Frank to buy me some. He handed me a dime and I set off the half a block to Frank & Tony’s. Just as I arrived, mouth watering, and as I lifted my foot onto the step leading to the door of the candy store, a hand grabbed me. It was my mother’s. She took the dime from me and gave it back to my uncle, scolding him that it was too close to dinner and he shouldn’t spoil me like that. My plans were sabotaged.
We attended Our Lady of Pompei Catholic Church on Carmine Street and Sixth Avenue (now called the Avenue of the Americas). Our family was well-known there, and my Dad was part of the Fathers’ Club. It was a very active Italian Catholic community and each year they performed a play on their stage. The stage was a full one, equipped with the appropriate theatrical curtain. The room was filled with folding chairs and my entire family including Uncle Frank attended. Someone sang a song called “Shoeshine Boy.” I was completely enthralled. I did not know such a thing as theater existed. I was elated, transported out of the moment into this perfect and colorful scenario enchanting my ears and my eyes. As the musical ended I was catapulted back to the present moment seemingly with a bump. My world was profoundly altered. What was this? Something miraculous! Generally, I was a shy little girl who literally hid behind my mother’s skirts, but today, I was compelled. I had to step onto that stage. Was it real there? Was there another world up there I never knew existed? How could I enter that magic? Ask Uncle Frank. Of course, I could always depend upon Uncle Frank. He and I marched toward the stage. Just as we reached the stage right steps, I felt this hand. Of course, it was my mother’s. She never knew how deeply crushed I was that she dashed my intentions and deferred this dream. But I still remember it all these years later. Evidence enough, I think.
Uncle Frank was in his late 70s and needed cataract surgery. He had surgery on only one eye. His right eye was patched and all in all, his vision was not good. I volunteered at the age of 3 to lead my Uncle Frank safely across MacDougal Street, watching for cars. I was proud to take care of him. He had always taken care of me.
One evening, my father’s sister and her family came to our apartment. My Uncle Frank was in his dark and dusty bedroom packing a suitcase. He told me he had to go with his niece, my Aunt Phyllis. Disbelief shook my world. I cried and promised him that I would never forget him and that I would come see him as soon as I grew up. He placed his rosary beads in my hand….he had had those rosary beads since he was a young boy in Sicily. I knew he was as sad as I was and I knew, even as a 3-1/2 year old, that this should not happen. Decisions had been made by grown-ups, but not by him and not by me. I went back into the kitchen where the adults were gathered and I cried and demanded they not take him. Then I demanded to go with him. My Aunt Phyllis leaned over me and in the kind of syrupy sweet voice that people often use to talk to young children, she said, “you don’t want to go and leave your Mommy and Daddy, do you?” But I did. I declared that I did over and over, but no one would listen. Uncle Frank needed me. I was his eyes. I was his heart. But who would listen to the wisdom of a 3-1/2 year old? I just had to grow up. Then I could do the right thing. I promised I would come see him when I grew up, not understanding that I would be visiting his grave.
This was the first time that I had experienced something going truly wrong in life. Of course there were times when I had fallen; I had cried; I had cried unfair when Greg and Dorie didn’t include me in some game or other claiming I was too young to play. But I had never known powerlessness like this. Reality was broken and I could do nothing about it.
A Handful of Raisins in an Otherwise Empty Room
A Journey from Tragedy to Joy
Hardcover ISBN : 9781956019889
Paperback ISBN : 9781956019896
Ebook ISBN : 9781956019898
Copyright © 2021 by Michèle Misino de Luca
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