Eddie Case had a secret. He loved his name. All of it. Never mind that his father and mother had named him Egidio on his baptismal certificate, from the “Italian” church, officially the Shrine Church of St Anthony of Padua. In its early years, the church was listed in the city directory simply as “The Italian Chapel.” By 1925, it would be run by the Franciscans and wouldn't even be a parish of the Albany Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in America. South of Ferry Street, Mother Church was known as the “Irish Church.” Back then, Italians weren't welcomed at other parishes, and they didn't especially want to be.
As Egidio, Eddie was, after all, the eighth child and the fourth son of Antonio and Anna Caserta. But when the Irish-American census takers came around every ten years, they didn't try to understand the broken English, and wrote down “American-sounding” names. In this instance, he was not Egidio Caserta, but Eddie Case. No sense fighting those in power – hundreds, even thousands of years in the Campania region of southern Italy had taught the peasants what was futile.
The family took its name from Caserta, a once-great city in Italy, with what might have been an imitation of French royalty's Versailles Palace and gardens, except that Caserta's royal complex was even larger than the original. Although from peasant stock, the Caserta family had improved its lot a few years after the Bourbon rule ended with the complete unification of Italy in 1871, by sending Eddie's now deceased father Antonio into service with the Carabinieri, Italy's version of military police. Since the Carabinieri were viewed by his family and neighbors as laughably incompetent, Antonio endured the ridicule, saved his money, then joined the Southern Italian exodus to America.
This day, December 12, 1920, was Eddie's 9th birthday and he was ready. Vince and Mike, two of his older brothers, often sneaked Eddie into the neighborhood theater where they would catch vaudeville acts and silent movies, and then would come home and re-stage them for their widowed mother, often trying to coax their four sisters into the act. Today, Eddie would surprise them with a recitation of a poem he had memorized in secret.
He was hoping that his nineteen-year-old brother, Joe, would show up at his party with his reclusive new wife Rose and her little sister, Modesta – now called Esther – Campobasso. The two babies of their families had met at their older siblings' wedding the previous year, and immediately began teasing each other. Eddie wanted to impress Esther. But that wasn't the only reason he would enjoy center stage today.
As the youngest of his large family, and with a mother sickly from child-bearing and a hardscrabble life, Eddie craved more attention than he could get. A handsome boy with sharp features and black, wavy hair, he loved his Americanized name because he could see it in lights – and especially on the silver screen. Eddie Case was a movie star's name, and inside he just knew that he could be as famous a child star as Jackie Coogan now, and grow up to be as swashbuckling as Douglas Fairbanks. Meanwhile, whenever he could find time alone, he would practice his recitation, complete with gestures, in front of the mirror in the little room he was forced to share with his brothers.
The poem he chose allowed him to express a wide range of emotions, from hushed tones to histrionic excitement. Here he would gesture dramatically, there he would run to the window as he declaimed excitedly.
The poem, first published almost a hundred years earlier for the first time in the Troy Sentinel, had become an annual holiday favorite throughout America. But Eddie knew he could breathe new life into it, holding the entire family spellbound, and he did.
He announced the title and author, and began with a stage whisper, “'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
And as he approached the ending, he was pleased to see that his rehearsing had paid off with the reactions he had hoped for. Each appropriate gesture had earned him laughter, cheers, oohs or aahs. Finally, imagining what Saint Nicholas must sound like, he concluded in his most robust voice, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Amid the raucous appreciation of the families, Eddie's eyes met Esther's, and that exchange began a family saga.
©2008 Frank LaPosta Visco
Next: In part three, the Montagues and Capulets live again in Troy.