Friday, June 24, 2011

Mrs. Vanotti -- Parts Six and Seven (The Finale)

Mrs. Vanotti would visit our house weekly; either driving by car from her house on 48th Street to our 6th Street house, and in later years—when her eyes “started to go” and driving became a chore--she took the bus. In the early fifties, especially when it became hard for her to even see the ground beneath her feet, my mother and I would drive to her house to pick her up, always finding her waiting for us patiently on the porch for us alerted by phone that we were on the way.
We never entered the house, however. We would drive her home, pick her up or deposit her at the curb, and wait until she entered the house safely before driving away.
The ritual of her visits was always the same. Mrs. Vanotti would arrive at our house in the late afternoon, with a small gift for me and Kurt. My mother would prepare some tea and cookies for her. Then, as my mother moved about the kitchen to prepare dinner, they would talk for hours, Mrs. Vanotti seated at the guest-linen covered kitchen table, sipping tea and daintily chewing cookies, while my father would chat pleasantly with her a moment, then arise from his kitchen rocking chair and go to the living-room and listen to the race results on the radio.
Occasionally he would leave the house to go back and forth across New York Avenue to another candy store half way down the block from the old Mrs. Vanotti’s candy store (which now had new owners) and visit the back room of the store, which served as the neighborhood’s informal bookie parlor. He would place his bets on the next race…and occasionally—perhaps too occasionally--collect his winnings. When he won, I was treated to an ice cream cone at the other—Mrs. Vanotti’s old—candy store.
Finally, at dinner time, at six or six-thirty, after the race results were all in, and my father having bathed and shaved for work, dinner would be served.
When Kurt was still living at home—he was nine year older than me, remember--he would return from being with outside with “the guys” and join the family for dinner. As I grew older, that was my play-outside-until-dinner ritual also. However, when young—and even when older--I would more often than not, returning from school, hastily do my homework; join Mom and Mrs. Vanotti in their conversation. I always loved talking with adults.
After dinner was served, Mom would pack up the leftovers in the icebox for snacks or maybe dinner tomorrow, and Kurt I would do the dishes, after which Kurt would either go upstairs to do his homework, or go out again with “the guys.” Dad would sit in the rocking chair in the back-window corner of the kitchen to read the afternoon paper, the Jersey City Observer, or maybe peruse the morning paper, the Hudson Dispatch (Mom’s favorite), and then we’d listen to the radio shows: “The Lone Ranger,” “Dr. Christian,” “Inner Sanctum,” or the comedy shows, “Burns and Allen,” “The Jack Benny Show” or the “The Bob Hope Show.” I would be curled up at his feet, listening word-by-word with him to the shows, and with Mrs. Vanotti and Mom sitting across the room from us, chatting at the kitchen table, each twosome in their own world.
At precisely nine-thirty, Mrs. Vanotti would say, in her beautiful, sing-song voice: “Half-past after!” This would mean it was my father’s time to go to work. He would get up from the rocking chair, put on his tie, suit coat and fedora, issue goodbyes to everyone, and start his walk to work. Mrs. Vanotti would linger with Mom and me for a few more minutes, and drive herself—or in later years, we would drive her—home.

______________PART VII
Many years later my father told me a strange tale about my mother and Mr. and Mrs. Vanotti. I attributed the tale to the anger and rage my father felt toward my mother after my mother’s and father’s years-later subsequent divorce.
He said that my mother and Mr. Vanotti had had an affair before in the late 1930s, before the purchase of our home, before his accident, at a time when my mother and father lived in the Fourth Street apartment, and when he and Mrs. Vanotti owned the candy store. That would be the time before Mrs. Vanotti loaned my mother the $100 for the down payment.
When I scoffed at his assertion, my father scoffed back. Mr. Vanotti was a passionate Italian artist, wasn’t he? Well-read and successful; whereas my mother was never satisfied at being the wife of an unschooled immigrant restaurant waiter, was she? She always want more.
He said Mrs. Vanotti knew about the brief affair, and accepted it. She was a sweet humble person, who knew her husband had only married her for her beauty and not her intellectual achievements or interests; whereas my mother on the other hand was intensely curious about all life, knowledgeable and, although unschooled, intellectually oriented. Also she was a flirt who positively fluttered around male brilliance. The affair had not lasted long. Nor had it ever interfered with the love and affection between Mrs. Vanotti and my mother.
Do I believe it?
It fits my mother’s temperament; and her extreme idolization of Frank Vanotti’s art. It fits Mrs. Vanotti’s sweetness and innocent worldliness. It fits what I have discovered about the world. But, plausibility makes for possibility; but not certainty. However, I want to believe it. In a strange way it ties Mrs. Vanotti even closer to me.
There is an ironic twist to the tale. Many years later, my father informed me that when he was still married to my mother, he had had his one marital affair, and it was Mrs. Vanotti who had serendipitously discovered it. She was walking past a neighborhood apartment door where the young woman in question lived. She saw my father and the girl kissing. Mrs. Vanotti diligently called my mother. They joined together in front of the candy store; then she and my mother walked to the apartment and confronted my father and the girl who were still talking and kissing in her apartment house vestibule.
My father swore to me that he never saw the girl again (not privately; they continued to see each other publicly. She was a waitress at the Sunshine restaurant. That’s how they had met. She would leave its employ three months later.) My father told me this story in the last years of his life. My mother never spoke to me of the affair.
Mrs. Vanotti died in the summer of 1955, when I was eighteen. I had just graduated high school and was working as a barker on the New Jersey shore, on the Boardwalk, in Seaside Heights, a beach town about 40 miles south of my home. My mother had called me in the morning to tell me that Mrs. Vanotti had died. I asked her when the funeral was. She said the next day. I told my mother I was coming home for it. She said “How? You have no car. And I can’t leave work to pick you up.”
I hitchhiked. I had never done that before in my life; nor had I ever attended a funeral. I have always hated death, even at my earliest stages. But the idea of not honoring Mrs. Vanotti was beyond debate. To dishonor her was to dishonor myself.
The hitchhiking excursion took over fifteen hours. (I was not a very experienced or smart hitchhiker.) I remember nothing specific about the people who picked me up, or of any other of the particulars of the trip, except that during one of the rides, a new, young singer, Elvis Presley was on a car radio, singing a new release: “Heartbreak Hotel.” I had never heard of him before. I became a lifelong fan.
I remember nothing as well of the funeral: where it was held or what the funeral parlor looked like. Nor do I remember how I got back to work the next day. But to this day I remember Mrs. Vanotti: her beautiful face, the cloudy shininess of her hair, the many, many evenings we spent together at our house, the gifts she always brought to me on her weekly visits, her unrelenting sweetness and kindness in coming to all my grammar and high school events, the enveloping soft-breasted loving hugs she gave me when I was hurt or wounded and lacking in confidence, and, most vividly, I remember, even now, in the late evening, when the sun is gone and darkness surrounds my adult world, the melodious chirp of her English-accented voice -- “Half past after.”


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