Honor Thy Father
by Andrea Della Monica
We called him Shoelace.
He had a face that was twisted in a perturbed knot. His small thin lips curved down like a backward smile.
Shoelace or Uncle Rob, as I was instructed to address him in person, lived in Staten Island, the outer borough, or as my father commented unfailingly, the “step child of New York.”
“God damm it,” my father said. The air in the forest green Plymouth Volare was getting hot. We were sitting in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway to see Shoelace. My father refused to run the air conditioning if we going under 20 miles an hour. “Strains the engine,” he said.
Shoelace started his days checking the obituaries, and then the death notices, the smaller advertisements that were part of the funeral director’s package.
He was what my father called a “professional mourner.” He was the type of guy who went to so many wakes, he could discern the quality of the casket at a glance. A nondescript man, he came alive when he inhaled the sickeningly sweet smell of ornate flower displays that choked the viewing rooms.
He attended services, out of respect of course, of those who he knew, and knew by extension; meaning if he had the slightest connection to from the neighborhood. It was unclear if he felt better because he was the giver or receiver of the respect from the fellow mourners.
In the backseat of the Plymouth, my legs peeking out from my shorts, were sticking to the vinyl upholstered seats. I felt the familiar tingle up my spine and the nerves burning at the back of my neck. The old man’s patience could evaporate quicker than the perspiration forming on the back of his neck in the hot sedan.
His emotions were my internal barometer. When he was up, so was I. More and more these days, the converse was true.
Maybe if time permitted on the return we would take another trip to the Staten Island Zoo, built in 1933 or 1936, I could never remember. It had not been updated much since. It looked tired even to my eight-year-old eyes. In addition to the usual farm animals, the zoo had a varied collection of snakes, pressing up against the confining glass habitats. They most fascinated me.
Who knew Staten Island had so many serpents?
Father Cutrone, our pastor from St. Finbar’s R.C. Church in Brooklyn would say Sundays was meant for two things: mass and macaroni. We don’t follow that ritual any more since my mother’s passing.
With no one home stirring the pasta sauce on the stove and, I had to accompany my dad on the collections he made on Sunday. These collections had nothing to do with my father’s day job as a Bus Operator in Brooklyn, nor the collections made twice (three times on holidays) in St. Finbar’s, our parish.
And just like that a new ritual was established. On Sundays the two of us would go to the forgotten island to see Uncle Rob who was not really my father’s brother or my mother’s brother. She had no brothers. I remembered this as sore point when there was a lack of sturdy pall bearers to carry her coffin. We had to use the funeral’s director’s 17-year-old nephew and a neighbor to help safely handle the casket.
That was Uncle Rob’s idea to enlist the teenager. Apparently, he had seen this done before at more than more of the funerals he attended and that were arranged by the same director. He was overly concerned about “doing right by Maria,” and had taken the lead in her arrangements.
Sometimes before we reached our destination, my father would make a call from a pay phone at the side of the road. It was a welcome relief to break the tension on days when the traffic snarls put my father on edge more than usual.
The elongated phone booths were like lucite upright coffins, I remember thinking. I definitely was fixating a little too much on death like my Uncle Rob.
“Yeah, it’s me, Lou,” my father said, cupping his hand over the phone. “Got it?” A man of few words.
We pulled up in the Staten Island marina. When he was not in his funeral best, Uncle Rob spent his Sunday afternoons in the summer sitting on a dry-docked boat.
After we parked the car, my dad approached him. He usually had the faraway look in his eyes like he was casting a line on the open seas instead of sitting in a boat propped up by cinder blocks on asphalt.
My father insisted I stay in the car. “Five minutes, Beef Stew, that’s all I’ll be.”
I fidgeted, pressing my nose up to the glass window. Eventually, I cranked the window open as much for fresh air as to eavesdrop on the conversation between my father and Uncle Rob.
I thought about what I would say in the Confessional to Father Cutrone. This was the third Sunday I had missed Mass. Maybe I would say I only missed two on purpose. But if I lied would that be venial sin or mortal one? Would an extra Act of Contrition absolve me?
“Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been three weeks since my last Confession,” I said to practicing my lines with my Holly Hobby doll in the car. Her little button eyes, thinly stitched mouth, patchwork dress and bonnet were more comforting to me, that the stern demeanor and velvety vestments awaiting me in the confessional box.
When my father approached, Uncle Rob lifted under the seat cushion and handed him an envelope. I grew accustomed to the banter and to the motions and what they meant. For example, if my father made exaggerated hand gestures he was happy with the collection. If the envelope was thinner my father’s voice would grow louder.
It was really often a quick exchange and gave us time to have an Italian ice at the Uncle Luigi’s stand.
There was always a sense of relief somehow when my hopped back into the Volare. Even to my third grade self the whole exchange did not seem right, but rather scary like the serpents that writhed in their glass enclosures at the zoo. Something was not right.
The weekends proceeded like this for the most part until the age of 11, that’s when, in Bensonhurst, parlance, Uncle Rob “bought it.”
The funeral was a big deal, bigger than most felt comfortable with in the old neighborhood. There was the big tufted book on the pedestal where mourners would write their name and address, not a single, but a double rack for Mass cards, and the flowers, oh so many. The funeral director refused to accept any more deliveries after the second viewing.
All the pre-planning that Uncle Rob did was well worth it, according to most, but not all, of the family, friends and acquaintances. What was that expression: you can’t please all the people all the time.
“Too showy,” Aunt Edna said. “A simple wood box, that’s all the good Lord would want.”
On the way home after the funeral, my dad told me we had to make a stop at Uncle Rob’s house, really a finished basement in a house off Hyland Boulevard. Instead of going inside, however, we went through the back wood shed. There among the deconstructed boat motors, and various gadgets with dials on the work bench, was an item wrapped in a towel.
My dad gingerly lifted it up and snuggled it under his arm pit and held my hand as we jumped back into the car.
This time I got to sit in the front seat. My dad placed the wrapped up towel in the back seat, all by itself, glancing every now and then in the rear view mirror to make sure it did not slide or fall. It seemed to me if he could, he would have secured it with a lap belt.
When he got home, he opened the back seat, and the toweled item was again tucked securely under his arm. Once inside he flipped the TV on, and motioned me for me to sit down and went straight to the closet in the master bedroom he once shared with my mother.
I tiptoed and peered through the crack of the door and saw that after much rummaging he found a shoe box and gingerly lifted the toweled mystery into it, replaced the lid and put it on the closet shelf.
I carefully retreated just in time to sit at the edge of the recliner, a perfect model of obedience, as Hogan’s Heroes’ Schultz was saying, “I see nothing, I hear nothing. I say NOTHING.”
“So what do you want for dinner,” he asked.
The contents of that shoe book, however, never escaped me for the days, weeks and even months that followed; in fact, it consumed me.
I remember one summer in particular, sitting in the bedroom, stealing glances at the closet shelf as my grandmother and Aunt Edna worked. Their hands made quick work of the knotted pasta each delicately shaped like the Pope’s hat that they were forming and placing over the white sheet draped. The bed acted as their work bench. The corn starch formed a light mist in the air. It was my job to clean up after the pasta preparation was done.
The fan whirred in the bedroom during one particularly hot July afternoon. And when dribbles of sweat threatened to drip off Aunt Edna’s head, I jumped up to fetch the mystery towel off the shelf so she could wipe her brow. Whatever was wrapped inside would surely fall out and its discovery would be an innocent pretense.
But before I even made it the closet door, Aunt Edna waved me off.
“Do you have ants in your pants?” she said, undercutting my adolescent enthusiasm.
“If you can’t take the sweat, stay out of the kitchen,” she said. “But we aren’t in the kitchen?” I protested.
My immature plan was thwarted.
As my awkward pre-teen years faded like the tangerine colored rug in my bedroom, I grew into a not so awkward teenager. Thoughts of the closet shelf became a memory.
Getting the Aqua Velvet to do its job and my big layered hair bigger was enough to consume any sophomore at Bishop Kearney H.S.
“Let me see, let me see,” squealed Roseanna in the hallway of the all-girls parochial school. By now a crowd of four and drown to six of girls gawking at the gaudy gold double name plate, Maria’s boyfriend of three months had given her.
This would be the third hysterical outburst I had witnessed this Monday morning before homeroom. The Valentine’s Day weekend obviously meant a lot of little gift boxes were exchanged.
After the oohing and ahhing was over the chains and charms were tucked demurely under the Peter Pan white uniform shirt. Quick concealment was necessary before the nuns railed against dating which was a gateway for all things sexual and therefore evil for Catholic school girls.
Winter gave way to spring and preparations for PSATs. “What’ll it be Beef Stew?” my father asked. “Are you leaving the old man and gonna become a famous writer for the television shows out in California?”
“One step at a time Daddy,” I answered. “First I have to fill out this mound of college applications.”
The two of us had become inseparable in the years since my mother had passed. Even though someone had bought me a double name plate, my heart belonged to my dad.
His impatience seemed less pronounced in recent years and his furtive collections on Sundays were infrequent. The gallon of Gallo wine underneath the table was being poured more and more often on the six other days of the week too.
As I was folding my clothes and packing before leaving for college, my father sat on the edge of my bed. There was so much I wanted to say, questions that I wanted to ask.
He handed me a shoe box. I recognized it immediately.
That box, which held so much fascination for me for so many years, was on my lap.
I opened its lid, and inside was a wedding picture. It was a black and white portrait, slightly off center in a chipped gold opal-shaped frame. My mother looked so beautiful, but the man posed by her side was not my dad.
The knot was growing large in my throat, making swallowing difficult. My ears felt tingly and my nose began to run just like when I put too much hot pepper on my pizza.
The smiling man by her side was Uncle Rob.
All I could manage to say, was “What?”
My father nodded his head and a tear dripped down his cheek pooling at his chin for a few seconds. He then rummaged inside his pocket and pulled out a wadded piece of tissue paper. At first I thought he wanted me to wipe my own eyes or blow my nose. Instead he motioned for me to open it up.
In the old tissue paper was a baby bracelet with names in barely decipherable type. My hand instinctively went to my collar bone and fingered my double name necklace. This plastic hospital band seemed so much more precious.
I read the names but the words did not seem to make sense. Baby Girl Andrea, Parents Robert Corazzo and Maria Bitettto.
My father had moved to the window, lighted a Lucy Strike. His chest heaved as he inhaled deeply.
During those Sunday collections, I sat in the airless car while the man who was my real father never paid me any attention.
I squirmed like I did so many years ago in the Plymouth, like the snakes in the zoo.
Then as my father inhaled deeply again, I exhaled and closed that damn box.
The man that I knew was Uncle Rob, respected in life for paying tribute to the dead, had a daughter who started her career writing obituaries for daily newspaper.
Eventually I was promoted to the city desk and wrote about organized crime in the old neighborhood.
And when I accepted the George Polk Award for journalistic excellence, my lips ached not because they were twisted in a knot, but because they were smiling so broadly at my dad in the audience.
Andrea Della Monica is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in various print and online publications, including xoJane, The Nerve, Crunchable, Hippocampus, and Short-story.me. Her essay was a finalist in the 2015 Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival. Her children’s book is available on Amazon. She happily cares for furry four-legged friends and spends time in the Berkshires.
Image source via Creative Commons.