York College, CUNY Adult Education Outreach Program, Fall 2005 "Writing the Self" Prof. Julia Addams Dept. of English
This month's "homework": do these four writing assignments in order, allowing yourself as much time and space as you think necessary:
A) Write a brief autobiographical sketch, emphasizing how you came to be the person you are today.
B) Write a character sketch, based on an actual person.
C) Describe a scene or site; try to evoke the five senses in your description.
D) Write a brief but complete fictional short story, with a conflict\resolution and a clear narrative voice
I was born Katerina Ana Zoshchenko on March 16, 1922 in the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, on a cattle ranch twenty miles from the nearest town. My father had fled to Brazil from the Ukraine for "political reasons"; I never really found out what those were. He had been a young University student at Kiev when he had to leave; he came to Santa Catarina, not to find work or land, but for personal safety. He had cousins in Brazil and so that was where he fled. They found him work on the ranch, but he never liked life in Brazil, said it was "uncivilized," though that was where he met my mother, also Ukrainian but much longer in Brazil and more fluent in Portuguese. They had three children before me, two girls and a boy; I was the last child born in Brazil. At age four I left the ranch life forever when my father, yearning for a return to city life moved us all to Brooklyn, New York, USA. My mother lived long enough to have two more children, both boys, but she died when I was only ten, from cancer, they say, but I think as much from missing her family and life in Brazil. I know I spoke Portuguese as a little girl, and I remember my father telling me I used to love to go for walks around the ranch and to go to church on Sundays in an old buggy, but I myself cannot remember any part of the land of my birth or a word of my first native language.
I do remember Brooklyn, though. We grew up in East New York, a vibrant part of Brooklyn back then, though now it's a horrible slum. I remember being poor but always having enough to eat, and clean clothes; I remember how happy we were when we moved into a house with indoor plumbing. I remember enjoying the simple pleasures that we all enjoyed back then: a double feature at the movie house, for fifteen cents, an occasional show in Manhattan, trips to Coney Island or to Jones Beach. I remember my father, anxious to keep us aware of our heritage, driving us to the Ukrainian church in Willimantic, Connecticut to help make what seemed like tons of piroghi for the monthly fund raisers. Life was less complicated then; I mostly was a happy girl. Of course, I was very sad when my mother died, but mostly I enjoyed every part of my youth. Besides, I was out of the house by nineteen, when I married Sal Frangiapane; I've been Kitty Frangiapane ever since.
After high school I got work as a secretary at the Rheingold Brewery; my two best freinds, also secretaries (we had all gone to the same "Commercial" high school) were Italian girls, Maria Perazzo and Angie Tramontana, and since we liked to do everything together, I started going to church with them in their parish, Saint Fortunata. That's where I met Sal, twelve years older than me and already a widower with a young daughter. Sure, he was handsome, sturdy, with straight black hair and a well-groomed black mustache, but what got to me was the gentle way he handled little Teresa, his three year old. There was so much love in his eyes when he begged her not to cry during the Consecration, and gently walked her out of church when she couldn't be persuaded to quiet down. We wed less than a year after we met.
We had two children of our own, Sal Jr. and Nancy. Sal Jr. is an executive with the phone company and lives in Vermont with his wife and three children; Nancy is divorced but does well as a single parent. Nancy has two girls; the younger one, Sharon, is married two years and just made me a great grandmother last August. I see Nancy maybe once a month; she lives over in New Jersey. Sal Jr. has me over every Christmas in Vermont.
My husband is dead now almost twenty years. We had just bought a condo (when nobody knew what condos were) here in Howard Beach. The neighborhood in Brooklyn had started to go downhill, plus this place seemed like a good investment and the right size for us once the kids were out of the house. But Sal died suddenly and I had to come up with a life on my own. I'd always been active in church and done some volunteer work, but now I needed a real job. I was lucky enough to find work as a receptionist in a dentist's office only four bus stops from my home; I worked there more or less full time for seventeen years. The last several years I have spent much of my time alone, praying my good health will keep me out of a nursing home. I try to keep busy by going most days to our local Senior Center, where I go for lunch if I like what's on the menu (I'm on a low-salt diet) and to play cards. I go mostly for companionship, but I don't really feel that close to anyone I see day to day. When I stop to think about it, I spend my average day just trying to find ways to get through it: talking to acquaintances, playing cards, watching TV, reading a little, and before I know it I'm one day closer to seeing one of my children or grandchildren.
Thinking about life, I sometimes wonder where all the joy of simple pleasures has gone. My arthritis, my high blood pressure, my weakening vision, these things help keep me aware that I'm not young anymore, but, I'm not crazy; I know we have to age. But I wonder, when I look at old photographs, or now when I put words on paper, if I was really awake enough to appreciate all I once had, all of my remembered life, a happy dream, so much nicer than the life I am now living. If I were to write down every fond memory, I would fill more than one book, but if I try to sketch only where I seem to be now in my life, it can all fit too easily in a few short pages.
Salvatore Giovanni Frangiapane was born and raised in Brooklyn, the fourth of nine children of immigrants from Naples. He never finished high school, but he made an excellent living in construction. When we would go for a drive somewhere Sal would point with pride to any number of buildings in New York or New Jersey that he had had a hand in building. Sometimes it seemed to the children that their daddy had raised all the buildings in Kennedy Airport singlehanded.
Sal had a wonderful sense of humor, a constant twinkle in his dark brown eyes. But he was also a religious man- an officer of the Knights of Columbus, later a lector at Sunday mass, and always a prominent part of the planning for the Feast of Saint Fortunata at our church. Sal was good at getting other people to work well together because he wasn't bossy. Whether as a foreman on a construction site or the person in charge of a Las Vegas night at Saint Fortunata's, he could joke and tease people into all doing their fair share.
He was always good to our children, only stern if he absolutely had to be. He was good with children in general. Every time he'd see one of his three godchildren he wouldn't say goodbye without giving them a dollar, which was a fortune to those boys back then. They also loved seeing him because he would tell them funny stories, laugh at their jokes that didn't make sense, or, as they got older, find out how they were doing in Boy Scouts or Little League; they couldn't help loving him.
Sal Frangiapane was a good husband. His first wife died of leukemia and left him with a beautiful daughter, Teresa. He married me, a naive girl of nineteen, and was always a gentle and sweetly considerate spouse. Unlike many of our friends, he never forgot a birthday, always took me out for our anniversary. He called me his "little Brazil nut"; he longed for retirement, so that we could spend more time together, do some traveling maybe, for the very first time in our marriage. But one day we were driving to visit one of his cousins back in Brooklyn; we were on the Belt Parkway, a busy and narrow highway near the water; he was pointing out a huge ocean liner, when he suddenly decided to pull over on the shoulder of the road. He said something was wrong. He died right there, in the car, from a coronary, before the ambulance could even get to us.
We didn't even have time to exchange an "I love you," but the last thing Sal did, realizing something was wrong and pulling over while he still had control, he did for me, to save me from harm. All these lonely years later, living here in Queens in the place that was to be for us alone, I often miss his deep-toned laugh, the sparkle of his eyes still so in love with our lives together, and, God forgive me, I sometimes wish we had gone together, wish that he hadn't had that last chance to be so considerate.
Early in September, the feast of Saint Fortunata was celebrated by the mostly Italian-American congregation of Saint Fortunata's Roman Catholic church. Virtually all the parishoners had some role to play in the ceremonies in honor of their patron saint.
At the end of the 11:30 Mass, which was filled to overflowing, the various men honored with the assignment of carrying the gigantic statue of Saint Fortunata out of church, began to assemble in front of the statue. (She was more than twice as tall as any of the men, on a marble pedestal as wide as a kitchen table, a young dark-haired virgin, dressed in blue and light grey, which many outsiders mistook for a statue of our Blessed Mother.) Fifty men in alternating shifts of ten were needed to carry the huge statue; they would hoist her onto a platform, and carry the saint above their shoulders by means of long iron rails. As the men paraded through the streets with Saint Fortunata, from Linden Boulevard to Montauk Avenue and then back towards the church by way of Liberty Avenue, all the various church-related groups would follow with their banners: the Holy Name Society, the Rosary Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic War Veterans. As the statue made its way past the people who watched from either sidewalk, some would come up to the men with paper money, which the men would take and pin to the long blue ribbons placed on the statue for that purpose.
When Saint Fortunata finally found herself once again before the doors of her church, the time for the final ceremony was at hand. Two young boys, dressed as angels, were elevated high in the air by means of ropes and pulleys, one from each sidewalk, to a meeting point above the parishioners in the middle of the street. The two would cry out: "Silenzio! Silenzio!" When all fell silent, the two would recite a prayer, also in Italian, in honor of Saint Fortunata. After this prayer the more secular festivities could begin. A large bag, also suspended in the air, was torn open and a flock of pigeons took off still higher into the heavens. Hordes of people, all dressed in their Sunday best, let out a cheer, hugged, shook hands and went on with the feast. To one side a greased pole competition took place, with a variety of men and boys entertaining the crowd with their attempts to make it to the top of the slippery pole to capture the many salamis, pepperonis and other delicacies awaiting the winner. Street vendors sold pungent Italian sausages, both "sweet" and "hot" in bakery-fresh Italian bread; fried dough "zeppole" with confectionary sugar crisped the air with their flavor. Local restaurants, especially along Liberty Avenue, sold pasta and pastries and beverages to suit any taste.
Each year any member of the parish would consider it an important honor to play any part in the feast day. Mothers would pray that their sons might become angels for a day; today men still brag about helping to carry their saint through the streets. But these mothers and fathers cannot pass these once living traditions on to their children. There are no Italians left in the parish of Saint Fortunata; they have all since moved on to other neighborhoods, both above and below the ground. The feast no longer fills the early September air with prayers and the laughter of young and old. The chipped and faded statue of a young girl is now grown old, and sits in a church where no one really knows or honors her or even speaks her language. But Fortunata waits with a saint's patience, for luckier days, for a time when she can once again be out in the late summer air and celebrate her day in the safe and happy streets.
I am in a bed that is not my own. I see to my left another bed and in it a woman I do not recognize, pale and forgotten. I try to call to her but no words come out. I begin to get my bearings and notice a buzzer on the side of the bed. I ring it over and over and just when I am about to give up a haggard and impatient woman appears:
"What is it now Mrs. Frangiapane?" she asks without compassion.
"I'm sorry, nurse," I say, "but where am I? I don't know where I am."
"Where are you? Where are you? When are you going to give it a rest?" she demands. "You're in the Sunshine Senior Home, where you've been since your children stuck you here three years ago, that's where you are!"
I start to scream, "No, no! It can't be!" and that's when I awake, drenched with sweat, to find myself disoriented, heart beating rapidly, in my bed, at home, alone.
I've been having this dream for over three years now. During the day I assure myself I'm being silly. My children love me and I am in pretty good health for a woman over eighty. But what if something were to happen? I keep frightening myself with that thought. Children these days, even good ones like mine, can't be expected to nurse their parents full time. If I can't take care of myself, they will have no choice but to put me somewhere, and then I'll almost never see them. And then I'll wish I were dead or that I were just still dreaming.
I was born on a cattle ranch in Brazil in 1922. We moved to New York when I was four; I do not remember a word of Portuguese. Today I had the strangest dream. I was standing in the doorway of a ranch house, shouting to someone outside, in words that sounded something like this:
"Onday voshe sta? Vemprar denthrow orah."
There I was shouting words in a language I did not understand, if it even was a language, to no one I could see.
Last night I saw my husband, dead now these twenty years. I asked him if he missed me as much as I missed him, and if he were waiting for me anxiously in heaven. He told me he had come to warn me not to expect to be reunited. I was his second wife; his first had died young. In heaven they had been reunited, as was proper. If there was a place for me, it could not be with him. "What about the children we had together?" I pleaded. "What about our lives together?" I implored. He could only smile sadly; he said nothing more.
When I awakened I realized quickly that it had been a dream, but wondered well into the afternoon whether the message itself might be real.
I am sitting in my recliner at home; it's my favorite chair because I can sit down without fear of not being able to get back up. But suddenly I find myself again at the ranch. This time the words I guessed might be Portuguese come from inside, but I am now outside, a little girl again, hearing my mother call:
"Onde voce esta, Katerina?
Vem p'ra dentro, ora."
And suddenly I understand the meaning of the words:
"Where are you, Katerina? Come inside now."
Just as suddenly I understand the significance of those words, words called out to me by my mother almost eighty years ago, locked in a language suddenly re-opened to me. I understand that soon it will be time to come inside, to come back home. Her words, her waiting, comfort me so much that when I awake from the phone ringing I am not overly disturbed to discover that it is my son, making his weekly call to me (which I know now must be one of his last) to the Sunshine Senior Nursing Home, where I have lived, dreamed and awakened for the past three years.