Brooklyn, Circa 1938:
A Memoir of a Happy Childhood in the Great Depression
Peggy was a beautiful girl of seventeen or so who had come over from Ireland just to take a job with our family. Red-haired, happy as a lark, she had a way of talking that charmed us all, including Dad, who soon fell into trying a bit of a brogue himself when we were all together on a Sunday morning. “Now, no Soondy marnin’ gay-it-tee oontil after we’ve all been ta Mass,” he would say in his pathetic stab at it, and Peggy would put her hand on her forehead and then pull it down to smooth all the laugh lines out of her face, and we’d imitate her and do the same to our own faces, breaking out in new laughs as we tried to smooth out the old ones.
We were three brothers, and the pattern on Sundays was for Peggy to take us to nine o’clock Mass, while Mom started preparing the Sunday dinner. This was just before the war, the Second World War, so I must have been about eight when Peggy was with us, and Junior seven. Sonny was a little more than two years older than I was, so he was maybe ten or eleven.
Peggy always had us back home from Mass in plenty of time for Mom and Dad to make the eleven o’clock high Mass, which they preferred because they loved the music. Peggy would take over in the kitchen until Mom returned; a list of Mom’s instructions pinned upside down to her apron. And that’s when the Sunday giggling would get so nearly out of control. She’d ask one of us to come over to her apron and read off her next instruction, but we’d scream out, “They’re upside down! Can’t you see? All Mom’s instructions are upside down!”
“Daft is what you are, the lot of you,” she’d scream back at us, and to prove it she’d raise up her apron by its hem and read the next item aloud, with no difficulty at all. Of course, when she dropped the apron down we’d run to it, and the list would once again be upside down, and we’d run around the kitchen with our hands to the sides of our faces, our heads spinning at the mere thought that we were supposed to read upside-down writing. She let that go on for a while, until she winked at Sonny and motioned him to stand on a chair behind her. Now when she pulled up the list to read it, it was right-side up for him, too. As soon as he had it figured out, he’d join in with her in teasing Junior and me. When Mom and Dad came home from church they joined in, and it just went on and on from there. Happy, happy Sundays. So happy that I still love Sundays, still find myself looking forward to Sunday, even though it’s been rare that I’ve had a Sunday as happy as those I grew up to.
We always had help for my mother. I like to tell people that I grew up in the Great Depression, and I did, but from that one true fact you cannot generalize about what my childhood was like. My dad had his own business and must have done well enough for us through those tough times, because for as much as I can trust my memory, we always had enough to eat and nice-enough clothes, and got most of the toys we really wanted. I certainly don’t remember my childhood as a time of deprivation.
Not that we were unaware of the suffering the Great Depression was visiting upon people who had done no wrong. There were signs of hard times all around us. I saw bread lines throughout the city, and we were taught always to drop a coin into the cup of any person standing out there with one. A lot of people refused to contribute, arguing that these beggars were taking in more money per day than a lot of people with good jobs, but the way we were taught in our house, if a person was so desperate that he’d swallow his pride and hold out a cup to strangers then it wasn’t for us to entertain idle musings over how bad off he might really be.
Other signs that we were in a depression were much closer to home, involving not strangers with tin cups but relatives with hats in hand. I remember a solemn night when my mother opened the front door, and I saw my tall, silver-haired, gray-eyed grandfather and namesake, Nonno Alfredo, standing in the doorway to his daughter’s home, literally hat in hand. I learned later that he was a gifted automotive mechanic and inventor with a terribly impractical streak. During the last few years of the Roaring Twenties he owned a garage specializing in luxury cars—Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Cadillacs, Lincolns, and an occasional Auburn Speedster, a topless sports car he’d take us for rides in.
The role of the garage was very different in those days, especially for owners of luxury cars. It was where the car was kept for safekeeping when not in use, as well as where it was regularly checked out mechanically, to keep it tuned to a perfect hum. If you wanted to take your car out for a spin, you called the garage, which had one of its apprentice mechanics drive it to you. With America’s romance with the new-fangled invention growing year by year, good mechanics were in such short supply that if you wanted my grandfather to look after your car you had to be prepared to put your name on a waiting list, and do just that — wait.
When the Depression hit, many of my grandfather’s customers found themselves no longer able to afford the cost of maintaining such cars. One of these customers came to my grandfather and managed to talk him into buying the man’s car. Depressions were a regularly recurring phase in the American business cycle, he explained to my grandfather, and once this depression was over, there would be lines of people eager to buy these beauties that had been treated with such competent and loving care. It all made such sense that my grandfather spread the word that he was interested in luxury cars whose upkeep their owners could no longer afford. He quickly had the entire family nest egg invested in cars no one would ever again want.
Behind my grandfather in the doorway that night stood my maternal grandmother, a haughty woman whose ancestors, she invariably wedged into every conversation with new acquaintances, included Italian landed gentry. The line I most often heard used as a shorthand description of the person she was stated that she would deny herself any purchase until she could afford the very best. Now they were at our house to tell their son-in-law that the marshal was coming the next morning to put them out on the street, and all their precious belongings with them. We were shushed off to the one bedroom the three of us shared, but we were able to hear them sitting around the dining room table speaking in Italian, in hushed tones.
My grandparent’s things were never put out on the street. The evening ended, as similar evenings with other relatives often did, with my father going to a short steel cube of a safe, about three feet by three feet by three feet, that was welded to the floor of a closet in his bedroom, and bringing out a wad of money for his visitors to use to take care of their problem.
I’m sure that Depression or not, my father took some pride in being able to hire young women to help my mom. Of all of them, he seemed to have a special liking for Peggy, because she was always so full of joy. “La ragazza senza il sorriso è come la cena senza il vino,” he used to say as he watched her having so much fun, The girl without a smile is like a dinner without wine.
Much later on, when it became the style to look at your parents’ motives more cynically, I started to wonder if hiring Irish girls as servants might not have been his way of exacting some small level of revenge, for to Italian immigrants in New York City it was the Irish, who saw themselves crowded off the low rungs on the up ladder by this new wave of immigrants, who regularly hassled the Italians.
My father worked six days a week, every day late, except Wednesday and Saturday evenings. Saturday evenings we ate early and in the kitchen, because there was usually a big dinner for the adults starting around eight-thirty, sometimes as many as twenty people squeezed in around an enormous dining room table, my father at the head of it, with Mom and Peggy serving the meal. Mom and Dad invariably kept Wednesdays free for nights out on the town together. On these nights Peggy would have to feed and bathe us and get us to sleep.
The next day, Thursday, Peggy’s one day a week off, my mother would gather the three of us around her to tell us about her night out with Dad. Sometimes we’d learn that they had gone to see friends, and Mom would tell us about the people whose homes they had been to, and about the conversation, who said something smart and who something foolish on what subject, the buildup for war in Europe or American depression politics, or on the subject of music, a very important subject in our family. Once she described how my Uncle Louie had worked my father up by pronouncing that Arturo Toscanini, the lionized musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was little more than an overpaid accompanist. Why? Because he had started out conducting opera at La Scala, the idea being that operatic conductors, unlike symphonic conductors, don’t control things but just follow the singers on stage, dragging the orchestra along with them as they did. Uncle Louie’s unspoken point was that Toscanini’s great fame in America owed more to politics, the marriage of his daughter Wanda to the great Jewish pianist Vladimir Horowitz, and Toscanini’s decision to leave Italy rather than serve the Fascist policies of Il Duce, than to any musical genius he might have.
Then Mom described for us how dad had put Uncle Louie in his place, asking him one technical question after another about pieces of music Toscanini had recently recorded. Did he prefer the way Toscanini conducted the Beethoven’s Ninth or von Karajan’s way, with its much more romantic Second Movement? Did he know that Beethoven’s original score carried extensive notations regarding just how the composer himself wanted it performed? Until Uncle Louie was forced to admit that he really didn’t know very much about music, certainly not enough to pass judgment on Toscanini as a symphonic conductor.
Maybe once a month or so my parents would go to see an opera at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Eighth Avenue, now long gone. How my mother loved to hear Ezio Pinza sing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a tenor role as written but transposed to make it accessible to Pinza’s deep baritone range. The next day, she’d sing that last death scene to us, both roles, the statue and Don Giovanni, struggling to get her voice low so as to convey the heavy drama of baritone dueling basso over the contrition that must precede forgiveness, how even after he had been given a first glimpse of the fires of hell Don Giovanni could not get himself to repent because he regretted not one of his thousand and three amorous liaisons.
On one Wednesday evening, they were not just Mom and Dad but a party of four. At the time, Sonny was going to a twice-weekly music theory class at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and his teacher, Mr. Hoyle, imposed on an influential friend to arrange to have four tickets for a sure-to-be sold out Rachmaninoff concert set aside at the box office. When they arrived at the box office the tickets weren’t there for them, so to avoid offending the influential friend someone with the hall arranged to have four bentwood chairs set up for them just off stage, from where the party saw as well as heard the performance from a distance of less than 25 feet. In keeping with his legendary custom, Rachmaninoff had played his challenging Prelude in C# Minor as his final encore, pulling the keyboard cover down to emphasize the point, Being so close to the performance turned out to be a mixed blessing in that it allowed Sonny to observe the artist's huge hands flying across the keyboard. “Not just big hands,” he told us again and again. “HUGE hands.” It was only much later that I understood that the night caused Sonny concern about whether or not his own hands would ever be large enough to play the challenging piano pieces of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and whoever else wrote such music.
But wherever our parents went on their Wednesday nights out, it was during those Thursday sessions, when I sat listening in on my mother’s other life, that I established my own vision of what good living should be.
While I was falling in love with my mother, and fantasying about being her escort in this once-a-week life she lived apart from us, Sonny was developing a terrible crush on Peggy. He pledged me to absolute secrecy and then revealed that he was going to marry her when he grew up and go live in Ireland with her, where everything was so green and you could let your dog run loose without having to worry that he’d be run down by a truck. I couldn’t imagine such a perfect place. Only six weeks earlier, our Airedale, Signore Dog, had been struck by a bakery truck and killed, and just six months before that my friend Rocco Nanarella’s shepherd mix had met the same fate under the wheels of a coal truck.
In reality, Peggy may have been with us not much more than a year or two at the most, but at the time of the incident it seemed that she had been with us forever, a child’s way of experiencing time. With my mother already gone for her evening out with Dad, it was left to Peggy to supervise our daily ablution. We had this enormous freestanding bathtub that stood on lion’s claw feet in the middle of our enormous bathroom. One of my Dad’s buddies did a lot of renovation work in New York City and had rescued it from some railroad magnate’s nineteenth-century home on Lexington Avenue that was being demolished. My dad grabbed at the offer.
It was into this bathtub that Mom used to put the three of us for our bath every night except Wednesdays, when Peggy would do the honors. But with the romantic notions Sonny had developed about Peggy, he refused to strip down and climb naked into a bathtub to be scrubbed down by her beautifully freckled hands. After some negotiation with Peggy on the night of the incident, it was arranged that he would be allowed to give himself a bath after Junior and I had ours, and after Peggy had left the bathroom, provided only that I stayed behind to help him wash his back and in case he slipped under the water in the big tub.
So there Sonny sat on the toilet seat that night, watching Peggy scrub down Junior and me, listening to our squeals of laughter as the splashing battle soon turned into a three-sided water war.
Within a short time Peggy was soaked through her uniform, and apparently on an impulse pulled it over her head and off, complaining all the while about how we had ruined her best uniform and swearing to get us both for it. She wore nothing underneath but her panties. And then, as we leaned away from her washcloth attack, on another lark, she stripped off the panties and climbed in after us. I had a memory of having seen my mother naked, and I remembered noting that night that the black triangle I had seen on her was pastel pink on Peggy.
Sonny was mortified. Here was his future bride cavorting naked in his parents’ special bathtub with his two kid brothers.
I’ve often wondered since then why Peggy did it. Maybe it was to give Sonny an example about not being ashamed of his body. I have often wondered if she knows why she did it.
Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of Junior as he sat in the tub with the naked Peggy, and he reached across and gently touched the softness of her breast. She playfully slapped at his hand, and he didn’t repeat his adventure, but within minutes she must have seen that the arrangement was not going to work, for she climbed out of the tub, got dressed in her soaked clothes, and hurried us out of the tub, taking Junior off to bed and leaving me behind to help Sonny take his bath. Later on, the three of us in the one bedroom we shared, there wasn’t the usual bed-to-bed chattering. We all sensed the tension, but I assumed that it was one of those things kids don’t fully understand, and that life would go on for us.
It had always been drummed into us that we had to be careful never to hurt Sonny’s hands, because he was going to be a great pianist some day, and so the next morning Sonny thought he had an obligation to tell Mom that Peggy had slapped Junior’s hand. Sonny must have known that despite the fact that there was no piano virtuosity in Junior’s future, Mom would never leave it at that, that she’d ask about the circumstances of the slap, and that Sonny would end up having to tell her everything that had happened.
When Peggy came back that night from her Thursday off, Mom and Dad were waiting up for her. From our beds, we heard a lot of muffled talk, and Peggy’s crying, but we never saw her again. Within just days we were sat down and told by our mother that Peggy’s behavior involved a serious breach of propriety and could not be ignored. Despite the seriousness of the breach, Mom wanted us to know, our father had treated Peggy kindly, giving her the choice of a ticket back to Ireland or a month’s severance pay, a lot in those days, and a promise of the best reference he could write to any prospective employer, provided only that there would be no young boys in her care. She took the ticket home.
Sad as it was having Peggy torn out of lives so abruptly, this was real life, where there are no final endings but one. Soon afterward Dad hired another girl to help my mother, another happy girl, with Peggy gradually becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror through which most of us view our past. But as I learned more than a quarter century later, the incident called out for resolution.
Yes, I still wonder why Peggy did what she did. I’d love to go try to find her and ask her. If still alive, she’d be in her late eighties now, and I’d like to ask her if life has been as good to her as she had been to us. Did she marry and have her own children, and did she play the same games with them she played with us? Did she think my father had been unfair to her? I recall a period as a young man when I thought about Peggy and the incident obsessively, angry that my father, a cultured man, had banished her over such a trifle. We all like to believe that our own values come from within ourselves and are not simply a reflection of our time, but it is true that I came into maturity in a time of sexual permissiveness, when Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead started examining human sexual behavior as representing more than surrender to sin.
At some point during those decades of rebellion against parental sexual and political values we call the Sixties, I raised the Peggy incident with my father. The ensuing shouting match so quickly escalated that my mother had to force her own body between father and son to avoid having it jump even uglier.
These things go in cycles, life has taught me since then, and today bathing naked with your young charges might once again be treated as a serious offense. Serious enough, maybe, to make the evening news and have the offender’s name and address put on a list of pedophiles made available to her new neighbors every time she moved.
Yes, so much of the platform from which we experience life, says the currant wisdom, is exogenously generated. How many choices we once thought of as being informed by timeless values, we now see as having been co-opted by the shifting whims of the affinity group with which we would like to be associated? Would I ever have imagined that in the fullness of time I’d come to prefer von Karajan’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth, with its so romantic second movement, almost maudlin, over the Maestro’s ever-faithful expression of the composer’s intent?
I remember my last meeting with my dad, on his eighty-seventh birthday. There was only that one time that I recalled ever talking with him about the Peggy incident. By the time of that last meeting with him I had been long past needing to win a concession that he had been wrong about any of the many issues fathers and sons argue about. At the most recent birthday meetings, we had joked that his last remaining challenge was to live to eighty-eight, to match his mother’s longevity. Now he seemed frail physically and spent mentally, impatient about the well-meaning inquiries about his health directed at him by his children and grandchildren. “If anyone asks you how you’re feeling,” he said to me, “check to see if he’s wearing an ID with an M.D. after his name. If not, the only answer is, ‘Fine, thank you.’ Nobody’s interested in the special indignities advancing age visits upon you.”
I reminded him that he had once been more competitive about longevity.
“Past a certain age,” he said quietly.” it no longer matters.”
I was startled. “No longer matters?” I asked him.
“One day,” he said, “You look around and see that your time has died. Not just your friends, a few dropping off each year, but everything that once defined your time is gone—the dreams, the hopes and fears, the great passions of your time, all gone— leaving you a stranger in an alien land.”
He must have seen the surprise on my face, because he shifted out of this somber mode, unusual for him. “Besides,” he said, that twinkle momentarily back in his eye, “the longer I live, the smaller my funeral."
We were both seated, and without standing I reached across and gave him a filial hug. His return hug was surprisingly strong for a man his age. Our eyes locked together for a long moment. “It’s been a good ride,” he said. “Some things I’d do differently, but I expect that’s always the case with people who reach my age.”
I did not ask him if he included the Peggy incident as one of those in which he might have done otherwise.
--------------------------------------------About the Authors
Alfred G. Fortunato, the narrator of the enclosed memoir, now retired, worked as a freelance editor in book publishing for more than a quarter century. He is the co-author, with his wife, Susan Rabiner, of "Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get it Published", published by W.W. Norton & Co., New York.
E. Richard Fortunato, the “Sonny” character in the piece, and elder brother, remains active as a free-lance writer. Since retiring in 1995 he has provided pro bono service to his church and the non-profit community of Southington, CT using his professional marketing and communications skills. He and his wife, Grace, received the St. Joseph Medal of the Archdiocese of Hartford in 2011 for their 15 years of service to parish and community. It was his sharp recollection of the more-than-seventy-year-old events chronicled in this piece that made the project possible.