Grandmother's Friends

2003 by Edward A. Iannuccilli


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, visiting friends was routine and expected. Many friends and relatives visited my grandparents, Domenica and Vincenzo, who lived on the floor below ours, and my memories of some of the visitors are vivid.
Among the characters were grandfather's cousin, Phlomena, and her husband, Francesco ("Fullomane" and "Frangeesk" to us). Philomena was a large and buxom lady who was a weekly midday visitor for years. Serious and melancholy, she was always clothed in bleak and tied her hair in a neat bun in the back of her head. An ornamental needle pierced the bun. Philomena had three or four curly strands of facial hair that protruded from a little mole on a chin that was a low peak of her round, plump face. She arrived to chat every Monday while she helped grandmother wash the clothes. They cried as they discussed the many problems of those difficult early years in America. "Fullomane's" marital issues surfaced most frequently. After the wash and weep, the two women sat down to eat, and Philomena's other attribute showed well. Her bosom was so large that it seemed to explode mountainously from her chest, so much so that she was able to place a napkin on the natural table, and never lose a morsel of food.
Amusingly, although they did not seem as close as married couples might be, "Frangeesk" and "Fullomane" came to Grandma's house on numerous Saturday evenings to sing and dance. "Frangeesk" played the accordion as "Fullomane" and others danced the Tarantella
The Tarantella, which originated in southern Italy, although presumed to be a flirtatious couple's dance, was also once thought a cure for insanity by chasing out demons supposedly induced by the bite of the tarantula. Was "Fullomane" being flirtatious, or was she truing to rid herself of the insanity induced by the bite of "Frangeesk?" The latter seemed a more reasonable explanation. 
Although I loved the smell of wine made from grandfather's wine press in the cellar and the bottles at holidays and special occasions, I could not stand the vile, recycled wine smell that surrounded "Frangeesk." He wore a wrinkled dark blue, pinstriped, three-piece suit and high black wrinkled boots laced to the top. His cold beady eyes in the center of a wrinkled face complemented the cackling, demonic laugh and sawed off pointed yellow teeth. His dialect was garbled. He so frightened me that I made every effort to avoid him. Most of the time I was successful until one afternoon when he appealed to my curiosity.
He delighter in doing strange things. He walked from his home on Federal Hill through the sandbanks on his way to our house for an unannounced visit. His walk probably started with a trip to his wine cellar followed by a stop at the local bar. When he arrived, his amusement began. He asked me to come closer. Eight-year-olds, although cautious and curious, obeyed the elders. Grandma and "Fullomane" were close by so what damage could this old man do? As I approached, he opened the jacket of his three-piece suit, revealing his buttoned vest. In the right side vest pocket, he carried a watch and a pearl handled knife attached to a chain, which was attached to a vest button. "Frangeesk" was holding a sparrow in his hand. He summoned me with a curl of his crooked finger. As I cautiously moved closer, he let the bird go. I jumped back, startled, not realizing that the bird's foot was tied to a string tied to another button on "Frangeesk's" vest. The bird flew straight up only to hit the end of the tethered string and snap back abruptly as "Frangeesk" cackled with laughter, spewing more of that wine smell about me and the rest of the kitchen. I can only remember my grandmother and "Fullomane" smiling reservedly, but not with approval. I re-learned the lesson. Avoid "Frankeesk."
Francassa, another frequent visitor, was a sad, lonely, widower; sad perhaps because of loneliness and the burden he brought to the house, his retarded daughter. Francassa bore the burden of raising his only child, alone. He spoke in a low monotonous tone. He wept. He loved Espresso. Francassa's nameless daughter, old when I first saw her, demonstrated a host of odd facial gestures and noises. She fascinated me so that I could not take my eyes off her unless the adults caught me. Then I would quickly and sheepishly turn away. Her cackles, grunts, facial contortions and slow, steady rocking were bewildering.
Then came the little comfortably married twosome, Gesumia and "Cumbare" Mike. For years, I thought their names were "Jeezumi" and "Goombamike." They were quiet, gentle people not at all given to the passion and volatility of "Fullomane" and Frangeesk," nor the melancholy of Francassa. I remember their prolonged, muffled, secret, close conversations with my grandparents. They were tiny people, my size at the time, but became smaller as I grew older. "Jeezumi" wore housedresses, usually black and with black shoes. Sometimes her stockings were wrinkled in a spiral. "Goombamike" wore suspenders and black wrinkled boots like "Frangeesk" and my grandfather. All the old Italian men wore those shoes. The shoes, faces and the clothes of Italian men had the same texture. (Was everyone and everything wrinkled?)
"Frangeesk, " "Fullomane," "Francassa," the unnamed child, "Gesumia," "Goombamike." The doors and the hearts of the three-decker inhabitants were always open to these friends. It was an extraordinary time when people visited frequently and spoke to each other, sharing trouble and joy. The family was extended, not only because there were few other distractions, but also because they needed the comfort and understanding of friends in a strange new land.
I was fortunate to have observed these visitors as they contributed to an education that made sense of sharing, understanding and belonging so genuine.

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