As a teenager, I loved my music. I could spend hours in my room with the stereo cranked to a decibel level high enough to shatter the drinking-glass Gramps kept his teeth in—and when I say he kept his teeth in there, I mean he never took them out for any occasion, ever. This might not have been so odd if he never asked me to fetch them from the kitchen where they sat next to the toaster smiling. It grossed me out, but I fetched them, set them next to his plate where he stared at them while he ate supper. Now, as strange as that sounds it really isn’t what I wanted to talk about.
One Saturday afternoon everyone in the family went their separate ways. Mumsie and sister went shopping. My brother finally managed to make best friends with an irritant just like him, (honestly, I could have dug a hole in the back yard, dropped R & R in and paved over the spot with glee), which meant I no longer had a 10-year-old trailing around after me. Dad, on the other hand, decided to make use of the sub-compact riding tiller he borrowed to turn over the dirt in the back yard garden. The annual garden was a project I always looked on with two parts anticipation and dread. Dad’s garden was nowhere near the modest gardens kept by our neighbors. Not only did he grow rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions, kohlrabi, carrots, mint, green bean and pea trellises, he even had a row of catnip for Shadow, our elusive and (now I realize) continually high, cat.
As much as I loved the veggies, especially the kohlrabi, I absolutely hated watering that damn garden! What made the chore more labor intensive than was necessary was the fact we didn’t have a spray nozzle. According to Dad, that's what your thumb was for. So, there I was every day after school growing arthritis in my thumb. To this day the damn thing aches when it rains. At any rate, Dad cranked up the tiller and started turning the soil. The motor was quite loud and the garden large enough that I guessed Dad would be at it for a-while. With the house empty and left to my own devices, I decided I couldn’t pass up the chance to lose the stereo headphones for a change and crank up some Bruce Springsteen, since the possibility of Dad hearing the music was slim to none.
So, as I was luxuriating in the concert level volume of my favorite singer, Dad had finished the garden work earlier than anticipated. And if it hadn’t been for the three old biddies (who walked the neighborhood like it was a paying job) coming to Dad’s aid, he might have been seriously injured. As he drove the tiller down the side yard, he tipped over and managed to smack his head on the only rock within an acre of lawn. Fortunately for Dad, it happened beneath my bedroom window and he was able to call out to me for help. Unfortunately, I never heard him over the music.
But hey, don't blame me. Blame it on Bruce.
When my husband and I were engaged, I remember him saying to me that the first time he sat down to supper with the family, he thought we were all going to kill one another. He’s Irish, where supper is eaten in relative silence, or at the very least in a low-key manner. No doubt eating with a bunch of Italians felt like feeding time in the monkey exhibit.
Growing up, the family would wait for suppertime to discuss and debate topics. Nothing was off the table. Which meant while cutlery scraped against plates, and wine glasses were drained and refilled everything from current events to my brother’s constipation issues were examined in minute detail while we passed around the sausage and rigatoni.
I can still remember my dad at one end of the table and my uncle at the other having the same conversation, but with different outcomes depending on which kids they were speaking with. My sister, cousin Chrissy and I were getting life lessons on career choices from my uncle, (Chrissy’s dad). Evidently, Stripping and the Monastic life were out. In my uncle’s mind they posed the same evils. Now, listening to the convo on the other end was enlightening too. Dad was speaking with the male cousins as well as my brother. Apparently, if you lie down with dogs, you'll get up with fleas. I have to say, at the time, that little gem escaped me. However, some arguments stay with you through a lifetime, especially if they’re replayed every few months or so.
“Go upstairs and get the Heinz.”
Although the request was directed at me, dad’s attention remained riveted on his mother. Unblinking, he glared, a steely-eyed look... waiting. All eyes turned to Eva, who looked keyed up and ready to pounce.
Yup, the war was on.
“What in the hell is wrong with the catsup I already have on the table?” She challenged.
Dad sighed. We all felt it. He could have stripped paint with that sigh. Nevertheless, rising to the bait he planted a hand on the table, bent forward and enunciated to the point of being insulting and said, “No… one… likes… Hunts.”
Then he turned to me, pointed at the ceiling and whistled. “Upstairs, Heinz.”
I jumped up and took off. Even though the dining table in Gram’s apartment was a short hallway, twelve steps up the stairs and ten feet from our refrigerator, I ran like Bigfoot was after me, whipped open the fridge door, grabbed the Heinz and clutched it to my chest. I bolted back down the stairs almost tripping and landing in a broken heap. Truly, it wouldn’t have hindered me in the least. No broken ankle or sprained neck would keep me from witnessing this cage match. The pasty war was an old one and manifested every time we sat down to a pasty supper. I’m not embarrassed to say I enjoyed the argument since I’m basically blood thirsty. However, in my defense, I come by it honestly. Eva picked a fight daily and it didn’t matter who with, or why. The old gal was never happier when in the thick of an argument she started. I figured it was the old Italian lady equivalent of cardio since it seemed to get her blood pumping.
Now, for those of you clueless to this iconic, culinary delight known as Pasty (pronounced, Pass-tee) check out this link: absolutemichigan.com/michigan/real-michigan-food-the-pasty/
As I set the Heinz on the table Grams grabbed the Hunts and shoved it at Mumsie motioning her to pass it around. That bottle circled the table like we were passing off a hot potato without anyone cracking the seal. Aggravated, Grams threw her hands in the air. “Cristo, (Christ) Hunts tastes the same as Heinz!”
Tension hung over the table like a shroud.
With slow, deliberate movement dad twisted off the Heinz cap and without looking down at his plate or breaking his mother's stare, managed to douse his pasty with the perfect amount of catsup. Now, despite anticipating the same argument every time Eva trotted out the pasties, my sister loathed the confrontation and at that point tried to blend in with the wall behind her in the hopes of going unnoticed. On the other hand, my brother dug into his salad continually biting the tines of his fork, which produced an annoying clicking noise. (Honestly, how hard is it to avoid biting the silverware?) It would stop soon enough, as a blast from dad would be forthcoming for the offense.
“I cook all day and now you’re going to sit there and make my ass tired. Dio! (God) Hunts tastes the same as Heinz." By this time, she’s pointing to her temple with her gnarled forefinger rotating her wrist. I waited for the insult. It wasn’t long in coming. “You’re pazzo (crazy) you know that? Wrong in the head.”
With a scowl that could raise a welt, dad shoved the Heinz at my sister, thumped an elbow on the table, leaned forward and addressed Grams as one would a dim-witted child.
“Listen to me, Eva,” (he rarely referred to her as ma). “Heinz is thicker, tangier and sticks to the G*d d**n pasty. Now just... DROP IT.”
“Well, someone's going to eat it,” she announced moments before dousing my pasty with Hunts. I glared at my plate pissed off. I’m a ‘dunker’ not a ‘douser’. And despite loathing the acidic taste of Hunts, I ate the damn thing anyway.
To this day, I have no idea why Grams made such a stink over the brand of catsup we liked. Especially since she never ate catsup with her pasty.
Growing up in an Italian household meant I dined like a queen on varying pasta dishes, lovely Northern Italian desserts and delicacies created by Grams, the chief cook in our home.
Ok, full disclosure here. When we moved to the Nort’ side and built our house near Grams, she apparently took it as carte blanche to bring over a meal at a moment’s notice, whether or not mum had our supper on the table. This became more prevalent when the old gal moved in downstairs. And my mum, the peacekeeper, demurred to her mother-in-law’s wishes. Dio! Having been married awhile, I’m not sure I could be that diplomatic. There’s a halo awaiting Mumsie and I’m not the only family member who thinks so.
Anyway, there were many instances where Grams got a wild hair up her culo and decided she needed to try her hand at those other, American, desserts. Unfortunately for our family, she was rarely successful and for one simple reason—Grams had an inexplicable tendency of substituting ingredients that didn’t always jive with the recipe. Over time, this peculiar quirk forced our family to implement the huddle, pass it on and sniff technique. Rude, horrible, ungrateful behavior towards someone who slaved over a hot stove to bake for her family, no doubt. Still, until you’ve tasted a Boston cream cake without the cream, or the cake, refrain from judgment.
When Grams would present us with what appeared to be a cream pie, we knew better and tried to muster up our appreciation with halfhearted oohs and ahhs, which in turn earned us a dirty look since Grams knew we were just making her ass tired. (A favorite saying in my house growing up).
Meantime, while Grams was busy emptying out a kitchen drawer in search of a serving utensil, those of us assembled around the table would huddle up, pass around the dessert and speculate about its actual contents. “Do you think it’s really chocolate?” That question tinged with panic was thrown out there by my younger brother who, throughout his short life had been conned into eating prune pieces posing as chocolate chips, Cool Whip in lieu of real whipped cream and semi-formed, gelatinous Jell-O molds promising mini marshmallows only to deliver chunks of questionable fruit about to expire.
After having passed the plate around for inspection we’d look to Mumsie for her expert opinion as she was the best baker in the family. After a moment, she reached out to touch the suspiciously gloopy surface.
“If it’s a cream pie,” she’d inform us, “It should have a little give,” (which it didn’t) “Not suck in one’s finger like a house going down a sinkhole,” (which it did) “Unless, one substituted egg whites for egg-yolks, powdered cocoa instead of a baking bar and skim milk for whole milk.” Then she’d remove her finger, sit back and wait for dad’s sigh of disgust.
So, the day Grams decided to make peanut brittle, a favorite candy my dad enjoyed, we were dubious to say the least. As she presented her spoils, she informed dad it might not be exactly the same because she didn’t have (Any? Enough? God only knows the thought process here...) dark corn syrup and decided caramelizing brown sugar would work just as well. The result was a globular mass that spread across the 10” plate like so much congealed melted cheese. Only Grams would substitute the very thing that gave the candy its name--brittle. Despite our not-so-subtle looks of horror, she expected dad to be completely delighted and choke it down with a smile. Dad accepted the plate examined it and then took a loooong whiff just to irritate her and she left in a huff of indignation. Dad sighed, shook his head and handed off the plate instructing me to dump it in the garbage with extreme prejudice.
As I stood over the garbage can, I stared at the plate and realized the mass was starting to harden, though not enough to become brittle. And that’s when an idea came to me. I scraped the mass off the plate and shaped it into a softball sized ball. As it began to harden, I snatched up a piece of tinfoil and smoothed it around the ball over and over until perfectly round. The next day, I tossed it in my backpack and brought it to school to my first class of the day, concert band.
After the warm-up, our music teacher was called to the main building over the road, and that’s when I took the opportunity to unearth my brittle-ball. As it happened my sister, a Senior to my Sophomore, shared the class with me. After we held a brief discussion on the pros and cons of tossing the three-pound, tinfoil wrapped ball, we decided there was no harm in having a little fun. At least we’d squeeze some enjoyment from Grams’ ‘dessert.’ We went back to our respective seats and eye-balled the distance between us—it was pretty significant.
At the time, I was 2nd chair out of 16 alto-saxophones (because I was totally awesome) and my sister, who played clarinet, was way in the hell across the room at the tail end of the third row playing that one whole note every 4 beats, which meant the path that silver ball would travel was fraught with traps and pitfalls—people standing around in-between the chairs gossiping; a couple kids with gi-normous target-able heads were in the way; and a flute player I would have loved to “accidentally” bean was in the line of sight. No matter, we were determined to have our fun!
And we did, for a while, until my sister decided to catch the brittle-ball with her face. Thankfully, she didn’t break anything. However, explaining to the parents how she got that shiner is another story.
Recently, a friend and former schoolmate of mine posted our 8th grade photo on Face Book. I remember thinking how cool I thought I was back then for having such bad-ass feathered hair, super-glossed lips courtesy of Bonne Bell’s/Lip Smackers and getting ready to graduate Junior High. After a while the photo started me thinking about my years at DACS (yes, I know it’s been renamed now, but it’ll always be DACS to me) and I realized something—I’m probably going to hell.
Along with tuition parents also had the privilege of volunteering their time in whatever capacity the school deemed necessary. My family’s particular job was setting up for mass at the Immaculate Conception Church a stone’s throw from our house. This also included dusting off pews, wrangling hymnals back into their holders and clearing up any detritus (Cheerios, action figures, gum and wrappers) left behind by people who, were unwilling and or unable to exert the minimal amount of parental authority over their hyper, under-disciplined, bestial off-spring long enough to sit still for 45 minutes. Although back then a priest had little compunction about stopping mass to ‘suggest’ a parent take their screaming toddler to the vestibule and preferably keep going until they were in the parking lot.
Ahh, the good old days.
Anyway, one of our main responsibilities involved ironing ridiculously wrinkled alter linens (no doubt the Nuns balled them up right out of the dryer) that took more time and muscle than I was willing to give. Thankfully my sister took on this tedious chore, albeit with a long-suffering expression. She did a good job of it too. At least by my standards if not by those of Sister Mary-Martyr. Besides Mary-Martyr’s lousy attitude she also brought over the communion wafer allotment, which she stored in a cupboard in the sacristy. Another of our tasks included pouring wine and water into crystal cruets then placing them on the credence table. Lucky for me, this duty was closely monitored by Father M., the parish priest at the time.
Now, when I say 'closely monitored’ it’s not that Father M. didn’t trust me to do my job, it’s that he knew Sister M-M. had given strict instructions to water-down the wine, as in a thimbleful of red to a liter of water. So, when Sister M-M. went about her other duties Father M. would materialize by my side just as I began to pour, peer at me over half-glasses until he held me in thrall (not unlike a vampire). He stared me down until I poured out five fingers of wine into the alter chalice. As far as I was concerned if the man wanted to float away on a sea of Chianti more power to him. Besides, who was I, an 12-year-old girl, to stop an adult, as well as a man of the cloth from doing anything?
Since, I hadn’t practiced my due diligence this gave rise to Father M.’s often-slurred Sunday sermons. Needless to say, Sister M-M always blamed me. Nonetheless, the old bat assigned me this task twice a month and my continued failure to stop the drunken antics of a 60-something priest, as directed by an equally old nun might have been what finally drove me to sneak into the sacristy, abscond with the communion wafers and gobble them up like I was downing a bag of Frito Lays potato chips.
All right, before any Catholics reading this post have a coronary, I’m making it clear right now, they were un-consecrated communion wafers swiped from the tabernacle’s ciborium, so let’s all calm down, shall we? If your sense of justice needs righting, Sister M-M finally caught me and dragged my ass to the vestry where Father M. was prepping for mass. She left me in his hands, and I was forced to confess my sins face to face waaay before such practice became the norm. I couldn’t lie so I spilled my guts and no, I didn’t feel better. Although, as it turned out I never received a tough penance since Father M. confessed, he ate them too.
One of the things about old friendships is shared history. No matter where you may land in life history is something you can’t change.
During the latest trip to my hometown, I drove past an old friend’s house. Despite a few cosmetic changes by current owners the two-story brick home looked much the same—especially the large front porch. Instantly, I was transported back to those warm Michigan summers of my youth when Boca II and I sat out on her pillared front porch starring into the dark sky searching for UFOs. We never did experience any close encounters—well, at least none of the extraterrestrial sort.
Ours was a neighborhood teeming with more than its share of eccentrics, a by-product of the large Italian community we lived in, and Boca II’s big ol’ front porch gave us a front row view to a lot of the quirky neighborhood goings-on. Aside from the red wagon pulled by the Pekinese Lady (so called because of her penchant for Pekinese dogs—not to mention the various wigs she wore like hats) there was also the old Italian gentleman who, when not burning anything that wasn’t nailed down had an unquenchable desire to serenade the street (as well as the campers at the lake, beach goers and the people picnicking in the lake pavilions) at all hours with his concertina. Although, it wouldn’t have been half bad if he knew more than two friggin’ songs.
One of the more entertaining aspects of Boca II’s street was the rampages of Mr. K., who lived across the street and stuck out for two reasons. He wasn’t Italian and he drove a big rig kept parked in front of his house. To our youthful delight, if not the rest of the neighborhood, he’d spend his Saturday morning getting drunked-up. In the evening he’d stumble out the front door climb up into the rig (in his tighty-whitey’s no less) and roar up and down the street. Oftentimes he’d pop up on the curb across from where we perched and we'd wait for him to roll down the window and scream obscenities. By that time, Boca II’s mom would usher us back inside the house to keep us out of the line of fire, cuz no one was calling the cops. Dear me, how lawless! Imagine, riding bikes without helmets, boating without life-preservers and tearing around in a car loaded to capacity with your friends AND no one wearing seat belts. It was the late 70’s and we were living on the edge...
Of course, having to go inside didn’t put a damper on our fun only redirected our interests. Once we were back in Boca II’s pepto-bismol pink bedroom it was time for some Barry Manilow. Yes, Manilow, and before you judge look up the man’s stats, he was a HUGE popstar at the time. After a few sing-alongs, writing fan letters and practicing our signatures as Mrs. K. Cassidy and Mrs. L. Garrett it was bedtime. The next morning, we’d awaken to the aroma of the one thing guaranteed to lure us out of our comfy beds... Pancakes. Eager to dig in, we’d plop down at the table and ooh and ahh over the super-cool bunny-shaped pancakes slathered in blueberry pie filling. To this day when I spy a can of Wilderness Blueberry Pie Filling, I’m transported back to Mrs. B’s kitchen and to a time in my life where the only thing to worry over was keeping my summer tan until school began.
I have made a few more wonderful friends since Boca II and I met at Lake Antoine—although, she will tell you her first memory of our meeting was in Kindergarten. Still, Boca II remains one of the few, who knows what it means growing up Nort’ side.
*Origins of Our Nicknames:
Kris and I don’t get to see one another much anymore, but on the rare occasions we do, the wine flows like water. And the number of glasses we drink is a direct correlation to the escalating decibel level of our conversation. Such was the case years ago on a sunny Vegas afternoon. The menfolk decided to hit the links, while us gals grabbed the wine glasses, opened a lovely Italian red each and ensconced ourselves in opposite corners of the sofa eager to catch up. As the day turned into evening, wine glasses were tossed aside and we imbibed straight from the bottle as we laughed and reminisced for hours. Unbeknownst to us, the husbands arrived home and informed us we could be heard "talking" from the driveway. This wouldn't have been a notable observation except that we were lounging at the back of the house in the family room. After that, my husband bestowed the monikers Boca I and Boca II on us and of course, it stuck. Now, if you don’t understand Italian, ‘Boca’ means mouth.
all content & images property of L.Campbell
Consideration for Others
I just cleaned in here, kill each other outside-
Mumsie's 3 N's Rule
No Booze, No Sex, No Drugs-
Don’t make me pull this car over!
Just you wait until your father gets home-
When you get to be my age, you’ll understand-
I’m going to count to three!
It’s colder than a well-digger’s ass out there!
You are just like your father!
Close the door you weren’t raised in a barn!
Inside or Out!
You better pray this thing still works!
Why? Because I said so. That’s why.
Wipe that smirk off your face, or I’ll do it for you!
Sense of Self
And just who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba?
Keep crying and I’ll find something for you to cry about.
Be quiet and answer me!
Sit there until I tell you to move-
If I told you once, I told you a thousand times-
Money doesn’t grow on trees-
Take a jacket, you’ll get cold later-
Mark my words. One day you’ll have kids that’ll behave worse than you-
content & photos property of L. Campbell
The day my sister decamped to the basement she was an annoyed 15-year-old with a Bay City Roller’s fetish. Once down there it didn’t take long before she morphed into… Other. I couldn’t pinpoint the actual moment she transformed, but I’m reasonably certain it started with her sixteenth birthday party, a set of keys and the basement door.
I recall feeling quite honored the day she summoned me into her lair to snap a few party pics. However, it didn't take long before a feeling of dread washed over me as I gripped the door knob. I didn’t bother turning on the lights, I knew there were only twelve steps between me and another world.
As I took the last stair, I was met by the ominous opening riff of AC/DC’s Hells Bells. Next, peals of laughter assailed my ears as thick plumes of cigarette smoke assaulted my sinuses. Bobbing and weaving my way around the sea of salami hanging from the ceiling (Nort’ side Italians will understand the reason), I neared my sister’s room. I paused in the shadows, recollecting the look of terror on my brother’s face when he caught her smoking Marlboro’s for the first time and leafing through Glamour magazine. The little twerp had been spying on her and it was a forgone conclusion he’d get caught. Still, the threat she gave him before he scurried back upstairs, “If you tell mom, or dad what you saw (dramatic pause) … You’re f**king dead…” cemented the truth that tangling with our older sister would reap massive amounts of misery.
A few weeks later, her menacing threat did bear fruit in the form of Mumsie, who demanded to know how my six-year-old brother knew the ‘eff’ word. Obviously, our brother had the good sense to keep his trap shut. Still, I gotta say, I was a little miffed Mumsie’s first thought was bee-lining it to me first with her accusations. I should have expected it though. Such is the life of a middle child. Nevertheless, I managed to come up with a plausible explanation, (not a lie, I would never lie to my mum) cuz there was NO WAY in hell I’d rat out my sister!
Honestly, I could have, quite a few times. It’s not like I was clueless when she snuck out the basement since the door was right beneath my bedroom. Her destination was a no brainer as well. Most teens living in the twin city area could be found at our favorite hangout Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, which happened to be less than a half mile from our house on foot. What was so special about the place? Shakey’s boasted the latest arcade video games! On Friday nights teens paid a one dollar cover charge and stood shoulder to shoulder for hours just for a chance to play one of the those games.
Not that my sister would ever lower herself to stand five deep quarter in hand waiting to play Donkey Kong. The older crowd of Nort’ side teens had designated Shakey’s as the rally point where they’d discuss plans, divvy up bodies and then pile into an assortment of Muscle cars. Cigarettes lit, booze at the ready, they’d peal out in a cloud of burned rubber—no doubt for another evening of poor judgment and questionable activities.
all content & family photos property of L. Campbell
My sister is three years older, a fact I never fail to drive home when her birthday hits—like those few years matter—especially since I’m right there behind her riding that same banana peel. Growing up, we had an up and down relationship like siblings do. That’s not to say we never had fun. Between the bouts of bitch-slapping, hair-pulling, name-calling, crying and threats to, ‘tell dad’ there were many instances when we were co-conspirators in some scheme to outwit our parents—rarely worked. Little did we know it wasn’t so much their intuition, as it was memories of their own childhood schemes. Every generation tries to re-invent the wheel.
Like most siblings back then, we shared a bedroom and after a time moved past our younger days of shared nighttime secrets when our long hair was rolled in sponge curlers usually on the eve of a special occasion, or holiday. As we became teenagers the warm fuzzies of sisterly consolation was replaced by varying stages of teen angst. The year I didn’t care if I was maimed by an avalanche of dirty laundry was the same year my sister flew into a tizzy at the sight of a lone tee-shirt hanging off the bed post. When I finally appreciated the usefulness of hangars, she decided littering the floor with clothes had its merits. Although our sisterly affections could be considered crotchety at best, it wasn’t entirely acrimonious. Well, not until the day my sister tacked up a poster of the Scottish band, The Bay City Rollers.
For months the eyes of those five hobgoblins in their high-water, plaid bell-bottoms tracked my every movement around the room. Their beady eyes were the last thing I saw before I turned off the lights at night, and the first thing I saw when I woke in the morning. I tried to move the centerfold album cover (look it up people if you’re clueless) to a less prominent place—after all, her highness had relegated my poster of Bruce Springsteen to the inside of my closet door. Yet, I was expected to live with her miserable choice of manhood day in and day out. And then, one day, I decided her dictate was totally unreasonable and I refused to put up with the injustice of the situation anymore.
Had I known the consequences of my actions, I sure as hell would have done something sooner!
Determined to rid our room of The Bay City Rollers once and for all, I dug out my pink JUMBO eraser and applied it to lead singer Les McKeown’s flat, button-like eyes. And then I sat back and waited for the eruption.
Between the four-letter words, threats on my life and (gasp) beloved Springsteen poster, my sister decided she couldn’t live with me one more second and dismantled her side of the room post-haste! Uncertain where she planned to set up her new digs, I trailed behind as she dragged her belongings downstairs to the cold, creepy unfinished basement. With the determination of an otter cracking open a clam, she assembled her possessions in the shadow of aluminum shelves overflowing with ice-skates, snow-mobile boots, fishing gear, cross-country skis, holiday paraphernalia and toys. When she finished the scene was eerily illuminated by one lone light bulb swinging overhead. Her new accommodations had all the coziness of a Black Ops interrogation facility, but without the charm. Despite the dismal atmosphere, she was totally happy.
When Mum arrived home later in the day, she cajoled, pleaded, and then threatened my sister with bodily harm, as well as dire consequences of ill health. All to no avail—my sister remained unmoved. Apparently, she preferred the possibility of catching pneumonia to sharing a toasty, carpeted, well insulated bedroom with me.
Eventually, Dad took pity on my sister and built a bedroom for her. And that's where the transformation took place. Sequestered in her lair, she could smoke cigarettes, crank records and scheme with impunity.
Did I mention it was also a walk out basement?
Stay tuned for Part 2—The Transformation
all content & images property of L. Campbell
As well, a few enterprising souls dabbled in the fine art of winemaking. At least they thought they had it down to an art form. Having sampled such offerings, I could’ve downed a jar of vinegar and it would have proven a more delightful experience. I concluded homemade vino was an acquired taste, and by that I mean either your taste buds were corroded or, you were my brother.
It wasn’t my responsibility to pack brother’s school lunch, yet one day it fell to me when Mumsie was running late for our carpool—otherwise known as parent-sanctioned persecution. To say I absolutely despised the two ghouls we rode to school with is a friggin’ understatement. One might expect they grew up to be decent men. If not, one hopes life pulverized them into a greasy paste.
But I digress…
Fixing my brother’s lunch, I slapped together a peanut butter, jelly sandwich tossed in a rubbery carrot or two and whatever cookies were lying around chucking it all into his lunchbox. Dropping the butter knife into the sink I looked over at the drying rack and discovered his thermos. D*mn it! I’d forgotten to pack his apple juice--the magic elixir that kept my brother’s bowels in good working order. Now really in a rush, I ripped open the refrigerator door snatched the juice dumped it into the thermos screwed on the lid and jammed it into his lunch box. If twelve ounces of apple juice couldn’t keep him regular then it only proved my theory he was a mutant.
Once mum abandoned us at the school’s curbside, I headed for my first class of the day, Algebra—and not a subject I excelled in. Personally, I’d rather have stuck a fork in my neck than to solve the equation for X. Kill me now. Still, by the time I went to lunch my day had gone nominally better than brother, who had fallen asleep somewhere between science and math class. When the teacher couldn’t rouse him, she called in the school-nurse to assess the situation. Fortunately for him, he wasn’t sick. Unfortunately for the nurse, once she unstuck his head from the desktop, she was almost knocked out by the fumes wafting on his breath. Brother was totally bombed.
Eventually, someone phoned Mumsie and the wrath of WCSS descended upon the school like a hammer strike on an anvil. Furious, she demanded to know who in the hell fed her FAVORITE child alcohol!
Quite right, excellent question! Off with their heads!
Once brother awoke from his boozy lunch, he handed over his thermos and the blame landed squarely on me. Wasn’t my best day for sure. However, in my defense the apple cider, water and homemade wine were all clumped together in old Paul Mason glass carafes. To the untrained eye the apple wine and apple cider looked similar and very easy to mistake especially when in a hurry.
Later, at home and once my hearing returned after sitting through the parental-unit's tag-team, screech-fest vocalized at a decibel level still hovering over Lake Antoine, I skulked off to find my brother. There, in his room, I found him draped across the bed boneless, a tad green and looking like something the cat horked up. Curious, I asked him when he first realized he was drinking the homemade vino.
“Oh, right away,” was his answer. I then asked why he continued to drink that God awful swill and he said, “Cuz it was good.”
all content & images property of L. Campbell
*My taste for alcohol had been established fairly early thanks to my grandmother. Grams, was the very definition of a woman before her time—and not only for her relaxed attitude towards booze and teens.
Born in 1915, Grams excelled in all sports especially softball, basketball, cross country skiing and in her later years was a terror on the links. She owned and operated Eva’s Beauty Salon for over 60 years and introduced Merle Norman beauty products to our area. In her 80’s she took an interest in art and became an award-wining portraiture artist of Native American peoples. Needless to say, the woman was unique, a force to be reckoned with, and about as maternal as the Tin Man.
As she grew older, she was unable to keep up her house (she lived right next door—yep, you read that right). My Dad, ever the good son made the tough decision to relinquish his basement workshop, otherwise known as the "WHY THE F**K DID I EVER GET MARRIED AND HAVE KIDS?!" scream space, instead of shipping off the grand dame to assisted living.
So, Grams sold her house, pocketed the cash and generously allowed Dad to foot the bill for renovations to his man-cave; furnishing her with a rent-free, all utilities included, fully equipped apartment with a private entrance. Never the traditionalist, Grams insisted on keeping Dad’s built-in wet bar as the focal point of her living room. And like any well-stocked tavern the shelves over-flowed with enough hooch to float a blue whale.
Not one for dispensing kisses and band aids (honestly, you had a better chance of squeezing maternal warmth from a block of ice) her brand of comfort held an edge. She was more apt to tell you to grow up, quit with the tears or, rub some dirt on it you'll be fine.
However, when I reached my teens, Grams decided I was old enough to benefit from her personal philosophy. According to her (and no doubt her entire Greatest Generation) there could never be anything bad enough in life, two fingers of booze couldn't solve.
~General malaise? Corbys, hands down.
~Head cold? Sambuca with a flaming coffee bean was your fixer.
~Females troubles? Jägermeister numbed your womanly parts into next week.
~Sinus congestion? Flu? Toothache? Whisky, Whisky, Whisky.
~Family brawl? Hartley’s Brandy before and after.
~Need some Zen time? Italian Red.
Thanks to Grams, I had tasted everything from homemade wine to top shelf liquor. I’ve little doubt this is the reason swigging a bottle of Boones Farm in the bushes with friends and any raccoons happening by didn't appeal to me. And truly, it just wasn’t worth having our names run to ground by the mother collective who somehow, were able to track our movements long before GPS and cell phones came to fruition.
Inevitably, my misdeeds would reach Mumsie and in turn activate the launch sequence on Worst-Case-Scenario-Suzie's catastrophe lecture. I would then be regaled with one horrendous event after another ready to befall me, if I so much as ingested a capful of Listerine. Honestly, I’d rather have been beaten with a bag of oranges than sit through that ear assault. I had to laugh though. Mum continually worried her girls ran the backroads with friends boozing it up, when below stairs, her mother-in-law was teaching my sister and I the finer points of drinking.
Now, with all the hard stuff readily accessible one might conclude I would be a raging drunk by the time I'd turned twenty. Not so, as the granddaughter and daughter of tavern owners the veil of mystique surrounding alcohol had never existed. How could it, when all I need do was skip downstairs and belly up to Grams' bar whenever the mood struck.
In the years since, I often wondered if it was her intention to demystify drinking one measured shot at a time. But then I decided she wasn't quite that insightful. Eventually, I reached the logical conclusion that my early introduction to wine and liquor was typical of Italian life growing up Nort’ side.
The picture of Grams top left, was taken at my sister’s graduation party. All the old great aunts—Grams sisters, were upstairs in her kitchen baking the traditional Italian delicacies like fried ribbon cookies known as, Farfellette, Biscotti (twice baked cookies) and the thin, crisp waffle cookie, Pizzelle. My grandmother and great aunts were known far and wide as the best traditional Italian cooks—those grand old ladies never left the kitchen that day (no doubt there were cocktails keeping them fueled) while Grams awaited the onslaught of party-goers that day.
*all content & images property of L. Campbell
Until I made friends beyond my Italian neighborhood, I had no idea Crème de Cocoa liqueur wasn’t actually a topping for ice cream—Gnocchi never made it on the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner—or that the end of a loaf of bread is only known as the 'Culo' in an Italian household. Intrigued? Then kick back with a glass of vino and take a glimpse into my life growing up Nort’ side.