Don’t Tell Your Father…

My husband had a few house rules when our children were young. No piercings, (other than earrings for the girls), no tattoos and no foreign steel parked in his driveway. You bought American or nothing. Those rules were in effect until you were 18 years old and able to support yourself.

And by and large our children respected those rules. But our eldest son Guido cut it a bit close one year just three months before his 18th birthday. He and a buddy took a road trip to the Kentucky Derby which is always held the first Saturday in May. His birthday is in August.

In a moment of what I can only conclude was temporary insanity, he decided to get a tattoo. It is a beautiful three- masted schooner tattoowith a scroll beneath it that reads: Homeward Bound. Guido, a homebody never lived more than a block away from us his entire life. So it made sense that those words became his personal motto. But it was more than that. I suspect he felt a deep connection to the Simon & Garfunkel song of the same title,  Homeward Bound.”

When he returned home from the Derby, good Catholic guilt kicked in and he confessed his transgression to me and his grandmother and the siblings. So we formed a small conspiracy to protect his secret until he graduated in June and celebrated his 18th birthday in August. It also helped he was an apprentice cement finisher and had a steady income  soon meeting Jimmy’s two requirements, i.e. legal age and an income.

Unfortunately for Guido it was a very hot summer that year.. And so he was often seen around the house long sleeved flannel work shirts. He’d exit the shower with two towels, one around his waist and the other around his shoulders like a shawl. He tried to not cross paths with my husband by either working late or leaving the house early. He paid his younger siblings two dollars as look outs alerting him to the arrival or departure of his father.

Meanwhile my husband blissfully went about his day watching the comings and goings of his brood. When he wasn’t working, he spent time with the family, played catch in the driveway, read the newspaper, attended wakes, and watched TV.

After a long hot summer the big day finally arrived. We celebrated Guido’s birthday with the traditional banana nut sheet cake from Lawson’s. We used the same single red taper candle for all birthdays. We sang, Guido blew out the candle and wished to tell his father something.

He announced to his father that he had gotten tattoo for his birthday. Right on cue, his siblings feigned surprise. The little ones especially had been practicing their “surprise expression” for days. We all held our breath.

My husband nodded and finished eating his cake.

Guido was surprised. “You mean you’re not upset?”

“Initially I was upset but watching you sweat all summer trying to hide it more than made up for the deception. And you didn’t get it for your birthday. So go to confession for that lie!”

“How did you know?” Guido asked.

“Easy,” his father replied. “You broke the first rule of secret keeping.”

“And that is?”

“You tell one person, you tell the world.” And he pointed to everyone in the kitchen.

Suddenly the kitchen emptied – the children ran out like rats deserting a sinking ship (or in this case a three-masted schooner).


The Art of Shopping

The old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is true.  Just look at shopping.

It wasn’t that long ago those groceries were delivered directly to you.  Fresh milk and eggs were delivered to your door or milk chute each day.

Photo credit: IISG on / CC BY-SA

The fruit and vegetable sellers rolled their wagons down the street in the summer hawking fresh produce.  Even “junk food” like pretzels and chips were delivered in large refillable tins to your door.

And with seven children I shudder to think where would I be without diaper service.  Good old West End Diapers picked up dirty diapers and returned with bundles of clean ones wrapped in blue paper every week.

It was Amazon without the delivery charges or having to pay an extra yearly fee.  Mind you, I guess the merchants built it into the cost of the products but if you didn’t see the cost you didn’t pay it.

We also had loyalty programs.  The king of loyalty program was the S&H Green Stamp program.  These green stamps were available from various retailers and coincided with the amount of your purchase at the store.  One book was equal to three dollars.  In those days three dollars went far. And I was always happy to fill a book or receive one as a gift from one of my aunts.

Photo credit: brizzle born and bred on / CC BY-ND


I remember taking them to the store for redemption where the cashier carefully inspected each page to make sure they were completely full and no stamps were missing.  It was very exciting.

Whereas these days the accumulation of “points” for free merchandise has all of the excitement of internet banking. There’s no romance, no anticipation, no way to physically experience that high you get from reaching a goal.

Plus there are so many programs, you lose track of them. I have more plastic tags with bar codes on my key chain than I have keys.  Many of these are linked to credit cards and debit cards I don’t use.

It seems that cash is becoming a thing of the past. My children have been telling me about Bitcoin this new form of currency backed by – well nobody’s quite sure what is backing it up.  I personally think it’s just another form of digital dust.

Obtaining credit was also much easier when I was young.  You went to the local store and you put items on your account.  Your parents went to the store every Friday (payday) and paid off the account.  And so it went, week in and week out. And it was interest free.

Often when times were tough, the local store extended credit for an extra week.  Everyone was good for it.  That was back in the day when your reputation was priceless and paying your debts or keeping your word guaranteed that reputation.  A bad reputation was a thing to be avoided at all costs. Lately it seems to me, having seen so many of these “reality shows” that bad reputations have now become a badge of honor.

In fact, reputation is the one thing you can’t buy or acquire by points. You earn it.  And for my money, that’s the most satisfying acquisition of all.

The Gambler’s Guide to Gaming

Photo credit: Children’s Bureau Centennial on / CC BY

As children we were never quite sure what our father did. Once as a first grader at Waterson School the teacher gave us the assignment to find out what our parents did for a living. Well, I certainly knew what my mom did. Like most neighborhood parents, she made batteries as the local Union Carbide factory. My father, since he was in and out of our lives, was another story.

When I asked my mom, she simply replied. “A lieutenant.” I wasn’t sure what that was but it sounded important.

Satisfied, I returned to school the next day and told the class what my mom and dad did.

The teacher beamed, “Oh, your dad is in the army.”

I put up my hand to protest but quickly took it down because I thought it might be poor form to correct the teacher. Dad was a lieutenant but I was pretty sure he wasn’t in the army as I never saw him in uniform. But then again, that would explain his extended absences.

A few years later, when a pool table showed up in our living room, along with my father, I began to wonder. Every weekend, from seven till eleven, we were sent to my grandmother’s house. What we didn’t know was that the pool table had been converted into a craps table. And our living room a gambling den.

A few years later I learned that in addition to being a construction foreman, my father‘s true calling was as a professional gambler. One of the few pieces of advice he gave me in my youth was, “Never play with scared money.” The dice or cards always know.

As you’ve read in this blog, a bit of the gambling gene rubbed off on all my family. Carmen was an expert at Black Jack, Tony a pool shark, Jimmy handicapped us out of more tight financial spots than I care to remember. As for me, craps was always my game. I liked the odds.

There was something almost musical about it. The noise those black and white cubes made as they rolled down the table reminded me of surrealistic piano keys. My children smile when I describe it in that way. But they are avid students of the game or many games for that matter.

If you recall, the apples hadn’t fallen far from the tree, when I discovered my youngest son running a casino in our garage. I had to feign shock and dismay; I mean what would the other parents think? Of course that never stopped their Saturday afternoon games of Night Baseball with their father where pennies were won and lost – mostly lost to the “house”. In those days I was “the bank”.

And as the bank, l gave my children the following advice, “Of all strategies, knowing when to quit may be the best.” To which their father replied, “Never bet against the house.” Needless to say, all these years later no one has heeded any of it.

It’s Not What You Know…

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My kids recently explained the theory of six degrees of separation to me. Of course this concept existed in Cleveland long before they came up with a clever name for it. Cleveland is a “small town” city so chances are whether you’re an East Sider or a West Sider, there is someone that connects you.

If you grew up on the West Side and were either Irish or Italian and Catholic, chances are it’s a two degree separation. This was both a blessing and a curse according to my children growing up. Coming from such a large family and extended family, everyone knew who you were. That was enough to get you a job or a reference on a college application. On the other hand, woe betide you should you misbehave in anyway as it didn’t take long before word got back to family and friends.

The old adage, it’s not what you know but who you know that counts, is true in so many ways. And of course, it’s not limited to Cleveland. I recall the story of a friend from Youngstown who went shopping for a pinball machine for his kids. Having tried out a few machines he finally decided on the perfect model. He looked at the price tag and asked the salesman if that was his best price. The salesman looked him up and down and asked, “Who do you know?”

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

candles 5234167513_e44c605784_zPhoto by Lori L. Stalteri on / CC BY

I’d like to think that this time of year many children will go to sleep with “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads” just like in the traditional Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

However, experience tells me that children will be restless in slumber dreaming about a long list of expensive and exotic toys that will push their parents over the brink into a dark landscape of anxiety and debt. It’s not a judgement by any means. It’s just an observation on how times have changed. These days it’s all about how money and material things have replaced the spirit of the season. Now where have you heard that before?

When our kids were young, my husband Jimmy always read the Night Before Christmas poem on Christmas Eve hyping up the anticipation of the Christmas Day chaos that was to come. Of course Jimmy added his own special twist to the Christmas poem shaping it to meet our situation at the time.

In those days Christmas was somewhat of a “lean” holiday for our kids which included new pajamas and one “big” present. Sometimes it wasn’t the exact toy or musical instrument on their list but a close substitute which didn’t cost as much. Between me, Jimmy, and my mom we always managed to put something under the tree.

In an effort to make our children feel better about our situation at the time, Jimmy told our kids that Mr. Moore didn’t have any money to buy his children presents. And so Mr. Moore wrote this beautiful poem for them. I’m quite sure that Professor Moore’s children had plenty of Christmas presents – but that was beside the point. Jimmy never let details get in the way of a good story.

Jimmy’s version of how the poem came to be actually made them feel worse. Our kids, a sensitive lot by nature and nurture, shed big silent tears for those poor children that didn’t have presents for Christmas. It prompted them to propose that perhaps they would be better off giving their presents away. It was what sociologists sometimes refer to as the “law of unintended consequences.”

Jimmy convinced them that giving up their presents was a temporary solution to a bigger problem. And that Christmas was not a one day affair but that goodness and kindness should be an every day gift we give to others.

Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas was the gift of empathy.

Over the years as our situation improved and our children got older. Jimmy no longer read the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Instead he shared his own childhood Christmas memories. There was no Christmas tree and no Christmas presents only a candelabrum of three electric candles in the front window. But as one of six children, they always knew they had each other. More tears ensued as my children began to question why we celebrated such a sad season. It made Lent look positively festive by comparison.

Jimmy’s gift to our children was the importance of being together.

There’s a line in the song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that sums it up beautifully, “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.” And we’ve been lucky that fate and faith have been very good to us.

Of course there were some years we laughed so hard we cried. Like the year Jimmy and his brother Frank bought a 1970s red convertible with a white ragtop at a police auction. They parked it in the driveway late once Christmas Eve as a gift for our eldest daughter. I’m not sure what they paid for it, but I think I could guess.

Come Christmas morning when she woke up and saw a red convertible parked in the driveway, she ran out in her slippers and her robe clutching a set of car keys oblivious to the cold and snow. She slid into the driver’s seat and hugged the steering wheel. A car for Christmas just like in the movies!

She turned the key in the ignition and the car didn’t start. She tried again, and she was met by silence. We all watched from the dining room window. She tried again and again. And after about 15 minutes and freezing from the cold, she gave up and came into the house.

I expected her to be angry or disappointed. Her siblings scattered to the four corners of the house because as a redhead her temper often got the best of her.

Instead she danced around the dining room table and hugged her father. The fact that the car wouldn’t start was a minor inconvenience for the moment, as she wouldn’t turn 16 for another three months.

In the meantime, she couldn’t wait to go to school and tell her friends what she received for Christmas. The fact that it didn’t start was a minor detail. And like her father, she never let the details get in the way of a good story.

Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas: It’s not the gift that matters; it’s the thought that counts.

The Best Christmas Present

This is us

Tony, Me and Carmen

In Charles Dickens’s story, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Past, Present and Yet To Come. Lately I’ve been visited by the ghost of Christmas’s Past. Not every Christmas was all merry and bright. Looking back, some of those Christmas’s are tinged with a bit of sadness – but I am no less thankful for them.

I recall this one particular Christmas when I was about seven years old. My mom, who was basically a single (but married) mother, raised us as best she could. My dad, who was in and out of our lives on an erratic basis, decided to make an appearance that particular Christmas Eve.

Carmen, Tony and I were in the kitchen when he sneaked up to the house and tapped on the window. He had a large giftwrapped box in his hands.

At this age, we were not quite sure how we felt about him. Tony and I opted for leaving him outside in the cold. Carmen, always the most sensitive of the three of us, and the oldest and the biggest wanted to let him in. And because we loved Carmen, we gave in. Tony and I always gave in.

Dad didn’t need to bring a present. His presence always meant more to us. But there it was a beautifully wrapped box that begged to be open. We tore at the wrapping paper and it revealed a Lionel Train Set. The boys were ecstatic, I was less so.

Tony, always sensitive to my moods, took a step back from the box and asked our dad, “Where’s Louisa’s present?”

To which he replied, “I didn’t bring her one.”

And so Tony took a step back, and told him. “In that case I don’t want your present.”

Carmen put the lid back on the box and handed back to him.

Each brother grabbed one of my hands and led me out of the kitchen into the front room to play checkers.

It was at that moment I realized that sometimes the best Christmas present is the one you don’t get.

O Holy Night

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My husband, Jimmy, always liked to brag about the fact that he was an altar boy. He particularly liked to tease his brothers, Frank and John. He’d say, “He was all saint, while they we’re sinners.” However, anyone who ever knew Jimmy, knew that the angelic smile, curly hair and blue eyes were the perfect cover for the little devil that he was.

Of course only God knew for sure just how naughty he was because he had a habit of going to confession at St. Patricks’ on Bridge Avenue, to a deaf priest. And Jimmy always got the standard three Hail Mary’s for his penance. “No harm, no foul,” he would say, meaning that the small transgression wasn’t worth punishment if no actual harm transpired.

So helping himself to the occasional slice cherry pie as it cooled on the back porch of Bily’s Bakery wasn’t as bad as eating the whole pie. Many years later, my three sons would adopt the same sort of reasoning.

When the altar boy grew up, he would attend the 8:30 a.m. Mass at our Our Lady of Mount Carmel – the “fast mass” as it was known. Father skipped the homily, sped through the Liturgy, and with no music; you were out the door in 25 minutes.

A quick exit was all well and good, but I knew Jimmy missed the music. You see, he was, also a choir boy and had a beautiful voice. At least that’s what he told his children and grandchildren. And when he wasn’t singing silly songs, he actually did have a nice voice. He would even serenade me on occasion when we first started dating.

Jimmy’s voice was so good, that once when he was in grade school, the organist asked him to sing O Holy Night as a solo. He was by turns excited, embarrassed and scared stiff. What would neighborhood boys say when he got up to sing, or worse, his brothers? He backed out at the very last minute. That was a decision he regretted his whole life. But he learned a valuable lesson.

Every Christmas season when that song came on the radio, or he’d hear it in church, he’d become wistful and wishful. What if… How many times have we all said that? It was valuable lesson and one he passed on to his children. Every Christmas it was his gift to his children as he reminded them that it’s the things that you don’t do that you end up regretting.

So whenever my sons and occasionally my girls broke curfew and had an O(MG) holy night of their own, they always would remind their dad it was the things you didn’t do that you would regret.

The apples hadn’t fallen far from the proverbial (Christmas) tree.