Having a radio kept grandmother’s mind on the News – although she taught herself to read and write, now someone else told stories. “This is a special report.”
(This is a section of my working novel concerning generations, from book one – 1897 – 1934, (We are now entering the year 1924, inside a home on Carrie Street, in Schenectady, New York.) Actually, it is a story being told by my Grandmother, and perhaps she told me this during the late seventies – but for the sake of today, we are with my Grandmother and I as we sit at her table in the kitchen. Note: Grandmother lived on the second floor of our two family home and I spent hours talking with her, listening to her stories about her life.
Generations – included in book one
She heard the whistle blow, five thirty in the evening, another shift ended at General Electric – “It was an odd time,” she told me, as we talked together at her kitchen table. Grandmother upstairs, as my own children referred to her, told stories of her life, and it became apparent we were a generation, by generations, so different from one another.
“This is a special report,” were words heard from her new radio.
Grandmother placed a finger to her lips; I understood – it was a moment when her house became quiet, and I waited to hear more - the year, 1924.
She told me about a rich family, they lived in what is still known as the General Electric Plot, an area of homes, manisons in her eyes, and mine, owned by the best engineers or inventors working for the G.E. and one of those families, a man, began speaking on the radio concerning his missing boy. ”My son was taken from the front yard, and the entire State of New York is involved with the search.”
Whenever Grandmother told a story – her body would move, stiffen, relax, and she would lean forward as she relived the time and place as if she were in the moment.
“John, you know, your Grandfather – he leaves to search for the missing child. But – I know how those people feel about immigrants, no one wanted us because we were different.” Her face showed her pain, she had told me stories about the fancy women who lingered around Union College, shouting names to my Grandmother and her friends as they walked their children below Van Vranken Avenue, telling her to return from where she came.
Now, Grandmother is leaning on her elbows, rubbing her chin and staring right through me, she continued, “Taken like that,” she snapped her thumb and finger. I noticed how her thumb curled backward, I always noticed everything about her over, and over again. She told why she was home while her husband was out searching for the missing child.
“Your – father, sick with measles,” she shook her head remembering the day. “In those days we didn’t have fancy medicine, for headaches we tied white cloth around our forehead. Your father, all I had to do was touch him. I ran with him in my arms to the tub, filling it with cold water and I began wringing each rag to put on his head, arms, all over his body. As soon as one would feel warm, a new one was ready. I had to keep his fever away, he was so hot,” she kept repeating. She mentioned her baby, asleep in his crib, and soon her friends would be there to help her.
“I wrapped your father in white sheets, ran down the steps to our front door – the wind blew me back against the house.” She paused for a moment, knowing she was there on her porch. “I started to scream for help, the neighbor heard, she told me she would get a doctor. Still – my friends were not here.” Anyone listening to her felt her sadness, read her eyes as she brought you back in time.
“First to come were our pisons, you know, close friends. Their names, Antonio and Maria. Antonio was a good man and Maria my close friend. It was Antonio who grabbed Frankie from my arm’s and brought him back into the bathroom where he continued what I began, water all over his body. Maria, she watched while I began wringing the water out of the cloth. Antonio started to yell, he was loud, he told him to wake up and don’t sleep. I wanted to talk too so I told Frankie how his God Father came to read a book to him but he never opened his eyes.”
Grandmother a strong woman, now powerless.
“The doctor – so far away, and who were we – no one. Too much time, we waited for help – it was Maria who opened the door and let the doctor in my home. I sat in my chair holding Frankie and rocking him. His fever came down a little with lots of water, but not for long. I was happy to see the doctor but he had no hope for immigrants, people like us. He was cold when he asked where the child was.”
“In my arms, I told him, and his body – I said, not as hot.”
I watched as Grandmother felt her own forehead – as she looked away as if the doctor were in the distance.
“Your kitchen,” asked the doctor – and Grandmother pointed toward the kitchen. I kept listening, as she told me she heard the doctor open his black bag, and returned to the parlor where she was sitting still holding onto my father.
“He, quick – so quick, like that, opened Frankie’s mouth and gave him medicine. I looked into his eyes, and wanted to know what he gave my son. He never answered me, just asked if more children were in the house – like some of those women, the way he talked to me. He did mention Frankie would be good now, but I never should have believed him – I pointed to the bedroom where the baby was sleeping.” Grandmother looked down at he own hands, folded and resting on the table.
She looked at me, “You know, the house wasn’t big, two bedrooms, we couldn’t live up on the hill, we weren’t wanted there.”
“What do you mean, by the women?” I asked.
She said signs were posted on polls along Van Vranken Avenue, and they read, “N0 Italian’s, Pollock’s or Black’s were permitted to live or rent above Van Vranken Avenue – too close to Union College and the G.E. Plot, “big homes where people like Edison lived, you know, I told you that,” she would remind me but I would listen to her tell a story as long as she wanted too share.
“So tell me,” I leaned closer to her, what did the doctor do when you told him about the baby?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted to let her tell her life to someone with open ear; living in the same house until college, we knew each other, and with every story I would learn a little more, I knew one day I would tell the world how immigrants were treated, I knew I heard about a family, and it was my own.
When I asked her about the baby I knew she saw the scene clearly; she wiped her face with her flowered apron – I noticed her swollen legs.
“These legs were never like this, look at them.”
Maybe she didn’t want to talk about the baby, was she ignoring my question.
“Grandmother, I remember the sound of the radiator beneath those windows,” I was trying to change the topic.
“I never thought anything bad when I pointed to the babies room, not until I looked at my pison, Maria. I handed her Frankie and ran after the doctor, but I was too late. I yelled no, no don’t, don’t use the same spoon.” She continued to tell me she pulled the doctor away, but he gave my sleeping baby she said to me, medicine.
She told me her friend entered the bedroom with Frankie to see what was happening, why all the yelling. Antonio was out on the front porch, he too came up the stairs and entered the bedroom.
“I cried, I knew he did something bad – he gave my baby medicine with the same spoon. He said not one word, he packed his black bag and handed me the remaining medicine, with instructions on how long between each spoon. I kept telling him he used the same spoon, he never looked at me, he left the house.”
Grandmother’s head lowered, she covered her eyes, whispering not the same spoon, and blamed herself for not making it to the bedroom. “I told him no, I was screaming – not the same spoon – not the same spoon.” Grandmother lifted her head and stared at me, then looked at her swollen legs.
I felt so sorry for her, she was sharp, remembered everything. I had to ask her why he rushed into the bedroom, giving medicine to a sleeping child, and not ask for a clean spoon – I understood when she said they were lucky to get a doctor to respond to a call, since they were not American. “But my babies, they are American, they are from America,” she told me.
“Doctor’s pay no attention to Sicilians, we were bad people, all of us – Americans thought we all were Costra Nostra, you know, Mafia. What’s this Mafia, it was America who made up the name, it was Costra Nostra but not all people were like that – we were a good family, your Grandfather worked hard, still no one trusted you if you were Sicilian. But look, everything we brought here, it was God’s plan to have artists, masons, cooks, do their best in America and spread the good things we learned over seas, here.” She stood, rubbed her hands on her apron, “you know, we never thought this country would take so long to take us in, as American.”
“Did you stay with Frankie after the doctor left?”
The room was quiet she told me, “I leaned over, kissed Salvatore – knew he felt right, no fever, so I returned to my chair and held your father. When he opened his eyes in my arms, I started crying, tears, I was happy – he was awake.” She clapped her hands as if everything would turn out right.
“Nunsie, Nunsie,” John, (Giovanni) my Grandmother’s name, climbed the staircase, entered the parlor and without knowing what happened in his own home asked why the front door was unlocked. Grandmother told the story, and John changedf his clothes, washerd, then returned to hold Frankie, as he rocked him to sleep. He never shared a cup of wine with his pisons, barely spoke to them, but he did tell everyone about the missing boy.
John told Nunzie, “I should have stayed here instead of running around looking for a stranger; my boy is sick.” He told her about the treatment immigrants received who lined the street where the family lived. ”The father blamed the immigrants, especially the crooks, Sicilians, and kept yelling at us to get lost, go back to Sicily.” He glanced up at Nunzie, “what hurt – when he told us we will pay for stealing his little boy.”
Grandmother told me he was never so upset with those people.
“If your Grandfather wanted to talk, I was there to listen to him, he was a good man, a family man – he loved his children and talked to all the children in the neighborhood besides, he never cared where they lived.”
Frankie fell sound asleep in my Grandfather’s arms; he put him to bed. She checked the baby, felt him fine, and she leaned over to kiss both boys goodnight; they shared the same room.