We often spent weekends with Auntie Anne, my mother’s older sister, and Uncle Paul at their Long Island two-bedroom suburban home in North Babylon, out in Suffolk County. To get there the five of us piled into my dad’s two-tone blue 1956 Buick and drove east down the Sothern State Parkway from North Bellmore, a trip that took just under thirty minutes, except on weekday evenings. The Long Island parkways are surprisingly beautiful. The roads are surrounded by green grass and all kinds of beautiful trees, like a big-city park but without the fence.
My father, two of my uncles and a few of Uncle Paul and Auntie’s male neighbors, including loud George and quiet Ken, would settle into their living room, filled with Auntie’s classic hand-me-down furniture and lots of counterfeit paintings of cherubs and Jesus. They would all sit in front of the large black-and-white RCA Television set to watch Yankee baseball, eat soggy potato chips, red candy apples and Italian candies and eventually tell dirty stories and jokes. I was always torn between listening to the men tell their tales and hanging out with my mom and two aunts, Aunt Anne and Aunt Donny in the kitchen, where little cousin Donna and I were part-time members of the cooking crew. My brothers, Richard and Paul, cousins Dennis and Keith and Babylon neighbor-boys Jimmy and Matthew, kicked up dust in the large backyard, playing an unnamed kid’s game, while auntie’s two dogs sunned themselves on the patio.
In those days there were “men” things and “women” things to do. Cooking was a women’s thing as was the washing, dressing and feeding of children. Watching Yankee baseball and telling dirty jokes, drinking whiskey and beer and smoking non-filtered Lucky Strikes and Chesterfield cigarettes, were “man” things. I didn’t smoke or drink, didn’t really like TV or the Yankees as much as all that, and had zero understanding of adult humor. I lived in a gray area between the dads, the moms and the children, being the first-born kid.
Even at Grandma and Grandpa’s Bensonhurst house, a half-hour walk from Coney Island, where I was practically born and where my first memories come from, the women essentially lived in the kitchen, it was their kingdom. Men sat on the front porch all day in a near-circle, taking turns telling loud, indecorous jokes. “Loose-women, Black-folks, Jews, Puerto Ricans, homosexuals, midgets, Mexicans, Germans, Japs and the French” were among the many topics of their piercing witticisms. Not a single joke was suitable for the ears of a decent woman or prepubescent child. Each and every punch-line elicited an impious explosion of laughter from the encircled men, who were really not hateful people or particularly prejudicial in everyday lives. They had all kinds of friends and associates. Working class city folks just joked that way.
The menfolk in Auntie’s living room were always restless and hungry. As usual on Sundays, they wanted meat balls, sausage, pastrami, chicken cacciatore, pizza or pasta. They made their desires known with virile yells, whistles, pleas and grumbles. “Ladies please. Ladies please. Make us something good to eat, feed us, feed us. Hey, we’re starvin out here. Starvin I tell you!”
“Pit-za, pit-za, pit-za. Coming right up boys!” Auntie responded as theatrically as possible then began rummaging through her kitchen cabinets for pizza’s required ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, basil, tomato sauce, cheese, olive oil and garlic. “So what’s the rush, hey? We’ll have some pit-za today. Just give us an hour or so, please,” Auntie Anne shrieked as she moved around her kitchen, performing as cleverly as any head-chef might, grabbing all the pans and pots she could find. My mom, Aunt Donny, me and little Donna just kept out of her way.
Flour and water and other pizza components filled two very large blue and yellow mixing bowls. We positioned pots and pans of every description around the kitchen; on the kitchen table, counter top, stove top and the refrigerator. There were twenty pans and pots at least, waiting for oil and dough; pasta pots, frying pans, tiny little milk warmers, left-over-used pie and cookie tins, pots and pans of all kinds. “One needs to improvise whenever one must,” Auntie Anne said knowingly.
Auntie enlisted me for “the kneading” of the pizza dough, then later the rolling. “You’re a big boy now Dominic, almost twelve,” I was nine and never a Dominic. “Get your strong hands in there and work that dough. Push, pull, squeeze. Push, pull, squeeze. We’re gonna make some pit-za pies today. Pit-za pies, pit-za pies, pit-za pies.”
“I need-a-the dough, I really need-a-the dough,” I said in my terrible overly-Italian accent, trying for a laugh and a few bucks perhaps, which I got. “I need-a-the dough.” Then it was the pounding and rolling of that thick, white mixture on what space was left of the kitchen counters.
My mother oiled the pans while the oven was getting hot. We even used two or three cupcake pans, filling the small bottoms where the cupcakes are supposed to be, with oil and dough.
All afternoon we laughed and cooked, my aunties and mom repeating my borrowed T.V. comic phrase, “I need-a-the dough, I really need-a-the dough” with chirping laughter. They were funny women and we were happy together for a moment. The phrase, “I really need-a-the dough,” became a part of our family vernacular.
One pan after another went into, then came out of Auntie Anne’s small oven, but we got them all. There were twenty-two pizzas, all different sizes, no two alike and some unrecognizable as pizzas. My favorites were the cupcake ones; two inches across with a spot of mozzarella in the middle, surrounded by red sauce. All were thin crusted, Neapolitan style, but really they were all Auntie Anne style.
Auntie was two years older than my mom and four years older than my Uncle Frank, Aunt Donny’s husband and Auntie’s little brother. As sisters and brother they survived The Great Depression and a broken Brooklyn home. Auntie Anne nearly out-lived her philandering husband Nicholas Paul, usually just Paul. She had no children of her own but didn’t seem bitter or sad about that. It wasn’t her fault, not having any kids. Uncle Paul was the one, so I’ve been told.
Things were not always as pleasant for the family as they were on “pizza day.” I soon became a dreadful adolescent. The grown men fought over money and politics and stopped being friends. Our extended family unceremoniously split, each nuclear-unit moving in its own direction: uncles and aunts, brothers and cousins drifted further and further apart. We get together these days only at funerals and weddings, not even for Christmas or Easter celebrations.
In 1974 my Auntie died of arteriosclerosis. She was in her mid-fifties. I was twenty, anorexic, addicted and generally lost. Uncle Paul remarried in less than a year to some floozy from work. Those close to my aunt were angry as hell with him, my mother and Uncle Frank particularly, except for my younger brothers. They worshiped their uncles, especially Nicholas Paul, a former Marine, a big guy who seemed to know everything, athletic and handsome. But my brothers were young and lacked perspective.
I think about the sacrifices my Auntie made for Uncle Paul and for us. She could have had children of her own if she had left him and probably should have. It makes me sad to think of Nicolas Paul’s cheating-ways; a waitress at every soda fountain, a housewife in every bar. He never stopped womanizing even when Auntie was dying. Some say that it was his betrayal of their marriage, his cheating that killed her, yet he was well-liked and admired by a little boys and childish men.
That day, “pizza day” was the very best of all family-days in my memory. Pizza in every shape and size that you could imagine and some that you couldn’t. Suns and moons, fishes and stars, no two alike.
Donald Zagardo is a former New York City Middle School teacher and Professor of History at St. John’ University. He has a life-long passion for literature of all kinds. In the past few years he has directed his writing efforts toward short stories, mostly fictional. He is presently assembling a collection of his own work. Donald lives and writes in New York City and enjoys international travel, foreign languages and photography.