Mommy

Mommy, Laurie and me

When I was in the first grade, my mother became very ill with Rheumatic fever. This caused my sister and me to be sent to stay with our grandparents. Laurie went to live with Mama (Valentina Lugo, my mother’s mother) and me with Laura Rosa, Abuelita. The illness effects lasted almost a year and caused me to be ‘left back’ because of missing so much school. This period marked my sister and I in the same way, as each of us stayed closer to the side of the family we lived with ever after. Although each of us went to visit the aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides, the natural affinity imprinted by having lived with each side, became lifelong.

Most of my memories of this time consist of worrying about my mother and the stories of food spoken of earlier. But the subconscious ones are like a metal stamp. It was this period that always made me think of myself as being from South Brooklyn, having a close association with the Italians who still comprised most of the residents and the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood, especially Columbia Street which was the main strip. There was a more commercial thoroughfare, Smith Street, but most of the people from this area, just a few blocks over, rarely went there. The irony is that Mama’s (my mother’s mother) apartment where Laurie was staying, was actually on Smith and so, her experience was reversed.

In those days every Italian neighborhood had a street festival that was celebrated on the day dedicated to whoever the local patron saint ‘back home’ was. Henry Street had its local variation and it was the highlight of the year. For those who have been to The Feast of Saint Genaro in Little Italy, picture it before all the modern commercial ventures took over. In fact one of these feasts has a version beautifully documented in Godfather 2, which although it is timed in the early nineteen hundreds, is about what the celebration I remember was like. There were many Italian social clubs but as far as I know only one is still left and each sponsored the festival. The best part of it was that it was literally on the cross street from Abuelita’s house and that year I was allowed to go stroll it, each day, by myself or in company with the Italian boys of the block. All the local stores had booths and for whatever reason that sausage sandwich tasted a lot better when you bought it yourself...

This neighborhood was a throwback even back then. I have many memories of it that a New Yorker my age shouldn’t have, as this was one of the last enclaves to ‘modernize’. The fact that is was in an out of the way area, much of it had been cut off by The Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with no subway stops close by probably helped preserve it, at least in my time. There is a bit of irony as that Same BQE, also earlier had ripped the heart out of the neighborhood. The area along the waterfront was something most would not recognize or even remember, after most of it was torn down years later to build the huge container port. Many of the stores along Columbia Street catered to the Merchant Mariners and Longshoremen and that was especially true of the bars. Because of who my father was and the lax attitude of the times I could easily go in and out of them at will. In fact I had a great aunt who owned one, on one of those no longer existent streets, that was in a building she had bought years earlier. She lived upstairs and had a huge beautiful parrot that could curse it 20 languages. The men who frequented her joint with rough and tumble, from many countries and had either just gotten back from a cruise or were about to go on one.

The housing stock were of basically two types, apartment / tenements and single family homes, many of which were brownstones and a few carriage houses. These were mostly mixed through although most of the tenement were below the BQE and. There are ‘carriage houses’ that are now worth millions, where old men once kept carts that would go up and down the streets to collect rags, sharpen knives and sell fruit. Most of these types of vendors had disappeared in the early 1950’s but here I was in the middle 60’s taking them for granted.

Papa min

Candelario Lugo (Papa)

Because of the circumstances that separated Laurie and I, my familial connection was most cemented with my father’s side, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t know and love my maternal side. Mama (Valentina Lugo) lived above Smith Street and her children were the younger siblings on my mother. The fact is that the families were intermingled by more than just my parents’ marriage as her two older brother were ‘associates’ of my fathers for many years. Tony Lugo was always opening a restaurant, bar or after hours. As these were local hangouts, my father would often stop while on his rounds. I also went to some, at least the restaurants, with my mother.

Eddie was a bit different. As an uncle he was a great guy, fun, beautiful smile and a ladies man. But years later there were rumors of a much darker side, one that included words like ‘hit man’ and ‘enforcer’. He was rarely with my father when we made the rounds or shopping trips, but was often at the clubs and bars we wound up in.

My mother’s sisters were also ‘in the life’ at least for a while. There were rumors that they had been ‘working girls’, but by the time I got to know them, they had been married and had a set of girls each. So between four female cousins Nancy’s Lizzy & Ruby, Carmen’s Rita and Valley and my little sister, I spent a lot of time with girls in mama’s house. In fact the only male was a second cousin, Raymond.

Valentina cooking

Valentina Lugp (Mama)

Mama herself was very different from Abuelita. Where Abuelita was a white Jibaro from the mountains of Puerto Rico, Mama was a ‘negrita’ from the coast, a mixture of African and Taino roots. Papa, her husband had died while I was very young, so my memories of him consist of a tall man, who barely spoke English who worked at a commercial laundry. Mama on the other hand learned English quickly, albeit not very well and took to modern fashion and hairstyle. I assume my mother may have had a lot to do with that once she graduated high school (first in family)

With my mother finally on the mend, both Laurie and I would go home and join her to re-start a ‘normal’ life. But the patterns for both of us were set and we would each remain oriented to the side of the family we had stayed with during this period.

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Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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