Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Opera House

Damn. This column wasn't easy for me to write. And that's part of my problem - well, any writer's problem. It's hardest most to write what's closest to you. And what's closer to any of us than the old neighborhood and the original house we grew up in? Now imagine how hard it might be to pull the trigger on saying a final goodbye to that spot. I found myself doing just that a couple weeks ago, while I remembered bits and pieces of my youth on those familiar fields and streets and stoops.
As a kid growing up in West Islip, Long Island, I was lucky enough to have my eldest sister Rosalie and her husband Jack buy the two-story ranch that butted our backyard. The day the house became legally theirs, the chainlink fence separating our backyards was joyfully torn down by Jack and my father. And from that day forward - I'm talking 1971 - a compound was formed.
Initially, it was we who had the pool and the 18-foot fishing boat, which we docked in their backyard. But it wasn't until my father's green thumb and Sicilian know-how planted grape seeds and built a wooden arbor connecting the two properties, that the homes became one. In what seemed like overnight, a perfect umbrella of green leaves and purple grapes became the path that linked our homes. My father would cut down the grapes when they were ready and make some of the strongest red wine you've ever had. His wine sat on our dinner tables every night of the week. And, though, I was barely 15, I was expected to lift the bottle and let the wine touch my lips.
But before I was 26, both my mom and dad had passed. My sisters and I sold the house and watched the new neighbors, cut down the grape arbor and put up a new chainlink fence separating the yards. But with that closure came a new era of Jack and Rosalie putting in a pool of their own and opening up their backyard to every holiday and birthday you could think of. And let me just was here that a young Italian boy grew up within the wonder of an opera.
But nowadays, with both their sons relocating tothe West Coast and me and my family living there as well, it so happens that the house suddenly has a For Sale planted on the front lawn. It looked strange when we arrived and it looked evil when we left two weeks later. My sister isn't going to give the house away, but if the right offer comes in...she's gone. I'm ecstatic they're coming to be near all of us, but allow me to reminisce a bit, if that was in fact the last time I'll ever see the house again. It seemed like yesterday that I would watched the newlyweds dancing on the pool deck to "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." And then spending quiet moments lying on top of the redwood picnic table and searching for shooting stars.
As it turned out - in the two weeks me, my wife and children stayed there - we were there for the death of her beloved Yorkies, my nephew's relationship with his girlfriend ended, they threw a great pool party for my daughter's 5th birthday and my other sister Lorraine stood in as Godmother to my son, Rocco, at his Baptism at St. Joe's in Babylon. I take it for granted but, that's the church I was confirmed in, where me and my sisters got married and where my daughter was also baptised. eyes filled up quite a bit. When the priest said my son is now a "Christ follower," I sighed and said "Good luck with that shit, son."
On July 4th, my cousin Phil brought over a box of fireworks that we lit by the tips of our Macanudo cigars. Several nights later we watched Phil (who is 47) wrestle in an open outdoor tournament. I felt like I was in high school all over again, yelling at his opponents, cursing the refs, etc.
On another good note, the Yankees lost only one game while I was in town, Jermaine Jackson made me cry when he sang "Smile" at his drug-addicted brother's memorial and every morning I did something you cannot do in Los Angeles - I bought a bacon, egg & cheese on a roll (with crispy bacon) along with The News and The Post.
The beautiful thing is, my father's grape vine still grows between the two houses, and I promised myself to dig up a sapling and re-plant it here in L.A. But I forgot. I was too busy watching my daughter run on the same lawn I used to run, helping my son shoot at the same hoop I used to shoot at and relishing in the sounds and cacaphony of a family happy in a pool. "You want more Sangria?," "Watch my sauce for me,"..." "Make the Gipsy Kings louder!"...."I made 20 veal cutlets, you think that's enough?" We're like that.
In the end - as our airport van peeled away, and I wiped the tears from my daughter's cheeks - I just tried to take in all the sights and sounds and smells that made up a magical childhood. I'm sure I missed some. But it wouldn't have been as amazing if I were able to grab them all. Afterall, it is those
non-refundable fragments of eternity that make the storyteller come out. However hard the task.


  1. Nice trip down your memory lane, A.J. I moved out here (NYC) in 1993 and you were one of the first writers I read on a regular basis. Nice to see you doing your own thing.

  2. the same tears that stained my face as we turned the corner from anchorage drive, flow from my eyes as i read the words that remind me why i am blessed to be part of la famiglia. i love you and your poetic memories of our beautiful trip back home.

  3. As we always do when we read a novel, an article or a blog, we create a mental picture in our mind of the characters, the scene and the storyline. I for one am blessed because as I read this, I didn't have to create anything because I was lucky enough at times to witness what was written. We were always in awe of your family bond. I did not shed a tear as I read this, instead I found the the corners of my lips turning up because this is not fictional. The memories, the love, the bond~that is what you will take with you, the shell where it all happened may be gone one day but the memories created will last through eternity. Thank you AJ for once again letting us enjoy your gift of writing~we missed that part of you. Welcome back!

  4. Very well-written AJ. You should so a short story compilation with pieces like this. It'd be a winner!
    -Ed Attanasio

  5. Nice to see I hit a nerve with some of you. O inly wish I knew who some of you "anonymous" folks are. Sorry if it ran a bit long: I coulda about those days till the tips of my fingers bled. xo to all of you. You're getting me back in the game.

  6. It was heartwarming to hear about the great family memories you had and thanks for sharing them with us. Comming just over the other side the other side of the Robert Moses causeway I too have only the fondest memories of my family and West Islip. It was definitely a special, magical, wonderful place and the experiences we gained through living there will live in our hearts forever. It truly made us better, happier people. Thanks for that man.

  7. great piece...very poignant...I will always remember the frozen drinks in the summer and super bowl boxes in the winter...and always lots of laughter...great memories stay with us should do something similar next time you walk down spring street...

  8. Keep it up AJ...Try not to let too many days pass before your next posting. You still have it only you have more important stuff to say!

  9. Hey Aj, I love how real this is. I was on the Island that same weekend, having very similar experiences...bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches in the morning and large chocolate cones with chocolate sprinkles in the afternoon. However, it was a trip to Davis Park that reminded me of what, at the time, seemed liked endless boating weekends on the bay. And like your grapevine, I wish I could've taken home a piece of the life I knew. While these experiences evoke a sense of loss and sadness, they also serve to remind us of how lucky we were to have experienced them.
    I love that you're writing again. Keep it up!
    Much Love,

  10. La Famiglia,
    Our home is quiet again. How I long for the laughter and noise around my dining room table.
    when we sit outside by the pool all we hear is
    triton's waterfall.I imagine Roxy on the steps of the pool. I want to see Rocco grow up I want my family over on Sunday for Pasta and Sangria. I miss watching my sons. It hurts to sell this home, but it hurts more to be apart. Love Rosalie