Her confectionery store, now a full-fledged grocery store with booths left over from the time she had a soda fountain, was on the first floor of a solid brick building on a busy corner. Grandma Campobasso lived on the second floor, and she and her now deceased husband had rented out the third floor for extra income. Now that she was prosperous, she needed her younger daughter close by more than she needed the rent, so we were moving.
I was coming up on my tenth birthday, and, with the presumption of youth, thought I had figured out the real reason why we were moving. I had overheard a conversation, and confronted my mother with “the facts.”
“So why didn't you tell me that nobody likes Aunt Giovi,” I said in my most accusatory tone.
“What are you talking about?,” my mother said.
“I heard everybody talking the other day, and they said that nobody likes Aunt Giovi.”
(She was my father's widowed sister, who lived upstairs over us on Liberty Street with her sons and daughter Michelina.)
“Everybody loves Aunt Giovi! She's the nicest of all the Cases. Where did you get such an idea? Nobody would even think that!”
“I heard it – just before Dad went to Riposo's for pizza night.”
My mother laughed until there were tears in her eyes. When she stopped, she said, “Anchovies. Your father asked what everybody wanted on their pies, and they said, 'anything but anchovies.' Nobody in the family likes anchovies, not Aunt Giovi.”
I felt like the little fool I was, but still, I knew there was a family problem. As the red left my face, I remembered the arguments between my mother and her sister Rose, who lived next door with my father's older brother.
“Then it's something between you and Aunt Rose. Why are we moving? I don't want to go!”
I was good at tantrums back then.
“It's nothing to concern yourself with, Eddie,” she said. “Sometimes grown-ups just don't get along – even if they are related. Especially when they're related. We're moving and that's that.”
That was as much of an explantation I would get, until many years later, when I made a startling discovery about a cover-up involving the two sisters and a local midwife.
Another big change at the Case family compound: The flat we were leaving wasn't going to be empty for long. The Berlin Airlift was ending, and the family's brave little jeep driver, Coke, was coming home, but not alone. He was bringing his post-war bride, Hilda, home, and they were going to set up housekeeping in our old space.
As I look back on that year now, I can see how the next generation was becoming more American and less Italian. Before the war, and certainly during it, it would have been unthinkable for an Italian boy to marry anybody but an Italian girl. But Coke didn't wait for the family's approval – he fell in love with a buxom blonde beauty, married her and brought her home.
In high heels, Hilda was nearly half a foot taller than Coke, but neither of them seemed to mind it. In fact, they took joy in it, even matching some of the jokes that family and friends made about the towering German and the pipsqueak Italian, and their new “Axis of Love.”
We were moving out. Coke and Hilda were moving in. And still, there were more changes to come. At Thanksgiving dinner in 1949, Coke's beautiful sister Mike brought her boss from Tiny Town Togs, Siro, to meet the family. I had a crush on my cousin, even though she was 15 years older than me, and I couldn't help disliking Siro for the way he treated her. I think “fawning” was the word back then. He pulled out her chair, gave her first choice of every platter that was handed to him, and looked at her lovingly, no matter who else at the huge table he was talking to. Of course, she reciprocated, and it was obvious to everyone that these two young. dark descendants of Italian immigrants, although from different worlds, had found each other and fallen in love beyond repair.
So, it was no surprise when, after Midnight Mass at St. Anthony's that year, Siro and Mike announced their engagement and she flashed an engagement ring with a diamond so big that one of Mike's jealous co-workers called it “skate-able.” Father John Bosco Pantera would perform the wedding ceremony the following year, and he didn't seem all that thrilled about it.
After settling in on the 3rd floor at my grandmother's, I discovered that I was expected to help out around the store after school and on weekends, and although I resented the loss of some of my freedom, I learned the value of work and the rudiments of business. Of course, we still got together at Liberty Street on Sundays for the usual family dinner, but now we were more like outsiders.
More about that next time.