WHAT I REMEMBER, AND WHAT I WAS TOLD.
My mother, Maria, was the first person in the Palumbo family to get a divorce. (Others just seemed to outlive husbands!) I don’t know much about her first husband except that she always called him “The Skunk”. His
Name was Carmine Ferro. She said his family (mother) were crazy too. They lived in South Philadelphia and they mistreated her. She made a trip over to Camden and her father, Ciriaco, told her not to go back, but to stay in Camden and leave her husband. So she did.
She met my father, Kit (Winsor) Carson at a horse riding place in Blackwood where he was a riding instructor. Mom’s Beauty Shop was then in the back of Uncle Gus’s store in Blackwood. They started to date and got serious. He was getting a divorce from his first wife. Aunt Ernestine made a snide remark about my mother “having a new man already” and my mother did not talk to her for a year. They must have made up because Nick and Ernie were my godparents. I was christened at Sacred Heart in Camden.
When I was a baby, Grandmom Palumbo was worried about Uncle Eddie who was away in the war in Europe. So my mother used to get up early, dress me and drive me to Camden in the morning before she opened her beauty shop in Blackwood. I would stay with Grandmom who would be kept too busy taking care of me to worry constantly about Uncle Eddie. That is why I was so closely bonded to Grandmom. They used to have family prayer sessions to keep Uncle Eddie safe during the war. I remember when Uncle Eddie got back from the war after it was over. We were all at the Camden house waiting and he came in the front door in his uniform, carrying two enormous duffle bags of stuff. I must have been four or five years old but I never forgot.
The old Italian neighborhood in Camden was gritty looking on the street fronts, but the back yards were magical. The Italians grew fruit trees (even fig trees), grape vines, herbs, flowers and roses in the back yards. There were always plenty of greens and colorful flowers all Summer. The smells of mint, basil, etc. were always in the air. Grandpop Palumbo used to sit in a canvas chair in his backyard and smoke small thin brown cigars called stogies. Grandmom Palumbo would bring out lemonade or iced tea, pick some fresh mint to put in the drinks and we would just relax back there away from the street noise.
At night in the summer, everybody would sit out on the front steps or on wooden fruit crates from Uncle Nick’s store and watch the cars go by and talk. Then Uncle Nick would go down to the American Legion Hall on Broadway to hang out with the neighborhood men and have a few beers. Sometimes we all went down to the Legion for various socials where there would be beer, music and dancing. I learned the dirty Italian song
“Chenda Luna Medsa Mare” “Lazy Mary” there.
I spent at least half my childhood in the old Camden neighborhood. Grandmom and I used to go across the street to the Star movie house, which the locals called “The Rats” on the evenings when free dishes were given away. I had to help her cross Broadway. The movies were all in English but she seemed to understand them. She would always start her sentences in English and end them in Italian but I understood somehow. She used to talk about things that happened to her as a child, and sing old songs. She used to send me down to Zippelli’s Bar to get Grandpop to come home for dinner. The old Italian men used to pinch my cheeks “Comme Se Bella”and give me quarters. Aunt Rosie used to teach me to sing pop songs such as Chicaree Chick, and chicken opera, which was done by chicken buck buck sounds to the tunes of classic Italian opera.
If you seemed to be getting a cold or sick, the sworn remedies were a shot of whiskey, followed by orange juice, or a spoon of castor oil, followed by orange juice. To make you open your mouth they would pinch your nose shut and shove the stuff in. I learned to toss down a shot before I was seven years old. Also they would let you have wine watered way down with soda, and coffee which was mostly milk and sugar. None of the kids back in Blackwood got that stuff. I declined some of the delicacies such as snails and octopus (squid maybe?). I used to play with the snails before they bit the dust in the fry pan. Another thing I didn’t prefer was the cod fish cakes from the stinky buccala. Treats were gotten next door at Aunt Ernestine’s from the bounty of the Walt Whitman store shelves. Candy covered almonds, Italian nougats and Tasty Kakes! Ice cream treats from the freezer. At lunch time, Aunt Ernie would get off the cash register and we would go back into the kitchen and have sandwiches and cakes. Aunt Ernie always had a canary in a cage in the kitchen. She would play a record of cheery-chirpy sounding Italian Music (Chiri Chiri Bin) that would encourage the bird to sing (if it felt like it). My mom would always go all the way into Camden to shop at Nick’s Walt Whitman Store. I think because of the chance to visit before getting the groceries. Nick loved it when I would give him a fresh answer to his teasing. Once he playfully lifted his meat cleaver at Aunt Ernie and I shouted “Don’t you threaten MY aunt!” They all fell out laughing. He called me “Sacramendine” which was his own adjective for a bad woman. Aunt Ernie showed me how to make a paper fan “bird” with a string to play with the cat. Palumbo’s always seemed to have a cat.
Aunt Ernestine would take me on the Wilson Line boat trips sponsored by Sacred Heart Church. We would ride over to Philadelphia on a bus with all the kids, nuns, and chaperones and get on the Wilson Line boat to the Willow Grove Amusement Park. Aunt Ernestine would ride anything! We would be scared stiff but we rode anyway screaming the whole time. They also used to have Columbus Day street parties back then, with Italian band music, games and food. Sacred Heart would have a carnival in the church yard. I knew lots of Italian kids like Diane Santone, Rosalie Cianci, and others whose names I can’t remember. Their parents were all friends and neighbors of Nick and Ernie. They treated me much better than the kids in Blackwood, so I used to jump at the chance to go into Camden. There also was the chance of some cousins being there to play with.
We would sometimes go across the street to the Flacco’s house to see Aunt Lizzie. There I was introduced to the strange practice of putting whiskey in coffee. The adults would converse in Italian to keep us kids from knowing what they were saying. I wish they would have taught the language to us instead. Still, I could sometimes pick up the general meaning of the conversation. I think because of the gestures and facial expressions. People in the neighborhood seemed to have odd nicknames. Big Rock, Little Rock, Cheech,
Cinderella, Five Minutes, Buccala (body odor lady) behind her back. There was a constant stream of people in the street and in and out of the Grocery Store and the Shoe Repair Shop of Grandpop Palumbo.
Holiday meals in Camden were a big deal. Lots of homemade pasta, salad, bread, soup, meats, desserts and of course Fiodone. Most of us kids didn’t make it past the first two courses. Christmas Eve was chaotic too. Donnie and I used to jump off the stairs and put tinsel on the model train tracks to short them out. We got hollered at a lot. Before midnight we would all be asleep on the floor. Don’t remember how Christmas Eve ended. Many evenings before the advent of television, lots of the Palumbo clan would play cards and board games like monopoly at Grandmom’s house. To talk through the wall to Ernestine, they would hold an empty glass to the wall with an ear on the closed end. Try it, it works! First you had to bang on the wall to get the person on the other side to pick up a glass. They had telephones, but preferred to talk through the walls.
My mother used to tell me a lot of funny stuff about when she was very young. Some of it actually frightened her at the time such as when Uncle Joe got caught in a backroom brothel when a speak-easy was raided by the police and Ciriaco was so mad he chased Joe around and around the block in Camden with a butcher knife. Joe got away. All the younger kids were chasing behind screaming for Grandpop to stop.
In Italy he got really furious with someone and the guy tried to get away in a boat and Ciriaco jumped into the water with his knife held in his teeth and tried to catch the guy by swimming behind the boat. The man out-rowed Grandpop’s swimming and got away. Once Grandpop was all spruced up and dandy looking when he was a young man and he was leaning against the front of a bandstand and didn’t notice the band getting ready to play. They struck up a loud opening chord with clashing cymbals and scared the crap out of him literally and he had to go home and change clothes. He once showed me a small formal portrait picture of him as a handsome young man and looking at his wife said “ I no a stink then, huh?” I often wonder what happened to that photo.
Uncle Pat stole another kid’s bicycle when he was little because he wanted one so bad and the kid’s Mother filed charges against Uncle Pat. The judge wanted to know what he should do with Pat and Grandpop said that he was a bad boy and should be sent away to reform school. Uncle Pat was a very cute little boy and the mother was appalled at Grandpop and told him “you are a horrible man” and she felt so sorry for Pat that she dropped the charges. I suspect that Grandpop was using some smart psychology. I think people underestimated how intelligent he really was. My mother told me he was good friends with the head of the old time Mustache-Pete
Mafia head called something like “Pashalina”. I can’t find out much about him. My mother was friends with his daughter when they were young. Uncle Nick was going to be mugged for his paycheck when he was young and told the thugs that he was Pashalina’s nephew and they backed off fast.
Grandpop would make a gesture by biting his hand which in Italian means “I’ll eat your heart out!” And then he would shake his fist when he was good and mad. My mom says he used to come in from the shoe repair shop with a leather strap in his hand and let them have it. He had a finger that was missing the bone in the tip from an injury and surgery, and he was arguing with a man and stuck that finger in the man’s face and the man bit off the tip of grandpop’s finger. I do remember that he was missing a finger tip. I was a little bit afraid of him when I was a kid because he seemed so stern and gruff. But he could have a soft heart when it came to his grandchildren. He used to call me “Barbrazella” or Oggi de scrook which means something like owl eyes because I had big eyes and used to watch everything people did. My mom spanked me for something and Grandpop took me down to Klein’s and bought me an ice cream cone. That was something he did not do for his own kids who he ruled with an iron hand.
Most of his daily communication would be grunts and hand gestures that meant yes, no, whatever. Medsa Medsa for a little cream in the coffee etc. He ate very little. He preferred to smoke or nurse a coffee. Domestic life bored him I think. He could be hard to handle. Grandmom used to complain about him a lot. She really detested her mother-in-law. She thought her inlaws were consummate trouble makers. That is why she wanted to move out of Chieti. When Lizzie was a baby she used to try to rub the frown off her little baby face because she didn’t want Lizzie to look like her mother-in-law. Grandpop’s sister Aunt Sophie was Grandmom’s nemesis. She once referred to her as “Sophia, Bruta Putana, Salla Sporca.” Translates into ugly whore, dirty pig! Once Grandpop ran away from home and went to stay at his sister Sophie’s in Philadelphia and Sophie tried to get him to sign the deed of the Camden house over to her. Grandmom was furious.
My dad and a couple of the uncles went to Philadelphia to bring him back home by force. They said he kept shouting for the “Poliche Poliche” (police, police) like he was being kidnapped. He once ran away from us when we were renting Uncle Gus’s house in Wildwood. He actually managed to get on the correct bus and get off on the Black Horse Pike in Blackwood and go to Gus and Mary’s house and said we were trying to help Grandmom kill him ! We actually were depriving him of alcoholic beverages as much as possible.
The old Italian men had this “machismo” attitude and were often abusive to their wives. Alcohol often played a part in domestic problems. Wives found ways of evening the score. Aunt Ernestine once trapped Uncle Nick on the toilet with a loaded shotgun and threatened to blow him away if he ever laid a hand on her again. Panicky Uncle Nick agreed and my mom said that it was a good thing he was already sitting on the hopper!
My mother witnessed some domestic turmoil as a kid which disturbed her. My grandfather could not handle alcohol, it made him mean. This was the negative or dark side of the family life. Once he came home drunk and shaky on his feet and fell right into the family Christmas tree. He would come home and raise hell with grandmom and once yanked her down the stairs of the house by her long hair (my mom bobbed off Grandmom’s hair when she learned hairdressing!). To cap it off he used to own a saloon, but it went bust because he and all his cronies drank up the profits. I actually have a bentwood chair from that saloon that I kept from the old kitchen in Camden. It had several layers of colored paint on it that I stripped off down to the original wood. It is in my kitchen now.
Grandpop Palumbo used to own several properties that he rented out, but he lost them after the stock market crash in 1929 as he could not keep up the taxes on them.. He also had a lot of worthless stock. He showed me the printed railroad stock share coupons and papers that he saved as a souvenir. It was hard for him and most of the Italians who didn’t understand English that well. People used to take advantage of them and cheat them. Grandpop invented the first one piece shoe last which he showed at an exposition and his lawyer duped him and stole the patent for himself. My mother never forgot that the lawyer’s last name was Bennett. The older kids including my mother did not speak any English went they finally went to school. (That is why John Palumbo started the first bi-lingual elementary school program for Hispanic kids).The parents didn’t know it was the law that the kids were required to go to school and my mother was eight years old when they caught up with the Palumbos and she started school. It was very bewildering for them to be in with the little kids and not understand what was going on. But they picked up the language fast and turned out to be smart in school even though some of the teachers used to discriminate against Italians.
The older girls had to drop out of school and go to work in cigar factories during the great depression. My mother hated working in the cigar factory. She decided to learn hair dressing and apprenticed in a beauty shop in Camden owned by a very kind Jewish woman who taught her everything and used to tell her to say she was Jewish to get good tips from the Jewish women who patronized the shop. My mom never forgot that lady and always had Jewish friends in the community.
Even Grandmom worked sewing in a factory. She used to tell me how the owner liked her and used to save piecework for her to do. She taught my mom how to be an expert seamstress. My mom could make her own patterns by looking at a style and copying it. She made dresses for herself and her sisters. Her secret desire was to have been a fashion designer. Grandpop Palumbo had a cousin who had a house of fashion in Rome, according to my mom (who was that person?). She always wished she could have completed school and gone on to study fashion design. She was always very inventive with clothes, hats and hairdos.
They couldn’t afford much during the depression. They used to dip bread in coffee for breakfast and pack minimal lunches for school or work and they used to walk long distances to save car fare. Somehow Grandmom Palumbo managed to stretch out the dinners and feed everybody. She was a very strong person and put up with a lot. She bore and raised 12 children, (lost 2 babies stillbirths who she mourned all her life). She was a diabetic for most of her life and had to have daily insulin shots. My mom and her sisters all learned how to give shots by practicing on grapefruits and they taught Grandmom how to give herself her shots. I can still see her going into the refrigerator for the insulin bottle and giving herself a shot on her thigh or upper arm. When her vision became bad she had to depend on her daughters to give the shots. I suspect Aunt Ernestine might have inherited that job, but I am not sure. She had a stubborn streak of independence that must have made it hard for her to have to rely on others. She only complained to Grandpop Palumbo, and boy did she complain! His ears used to take a beating. Whatever he did when he was young, he paid for it when he was old.
Grandmom could cuss like a trooper. In Italian of course. She had her own opinions and didn’t mince words. When she was annoyed with Uncle Nick she called him a “cafone” a farmer. Flacco was “umbriago” which is a drunk or wino. I learned such phrases as “ah fan ghoul” up your arse, “ah fregginah” the f--- word. Other phrases were milder “Ah Fanapoli” go to Naples (hell). I learned how to clap a hand to my forehead and say “Maddonna Mia”. “Quanda Mus” for anybody making a big stink or show over something. She never spent a day in school in her life, but she could not be fooled. She knew money and how to get a bargain. She used to take the girls to South Street in Philadelphia to buy cloth to sew with and she haggled with the Jewish shopkeepers to get a better price. She called it “ Jewing them down”. They must have been in awe of this tiny angelic looking woman who would not budge an inch. I used to watch her when we went shopping. She used to turn something over and over, pinch, prod etc. No way was she was going to buy a defective product. Once when we were in a department store her panties slipped off down around her ankles. She just serenely stepped out of them and picked them up and put them in her purse. Natural grace. She had a nice singing voice. She used to sing old Italian songs like Lamore La Contana with lots of oya lee’s and oya la’s. If you didn’t dress or sit right she let you know. Seta buon (Sit nice).
She loved babies. I am so glad she got to hold my son when he was a baby before she died. She got a big laugh out of when I was changing his diaper and he urinated right on my chest. We used to sneak him in the window of her room when she was in the nursing home in Stratford. My mom would go in and I would take him around the outside of the building and pop him in through the window. She loved to hold him. For such a tiny woman she had given birth to some big babies. They say Uncle John (Silvio) weighed twelve to thirteen pounds when he was born. The older kids had to help take care of the younger ones and learned how to bath and change and feed. My mother remembers scrubbing a whole row of little brothers in the tub at once. She remembered the old wives’ remedies and we used one on Rob when he had a fever as a baby. You cut up raw onions and put them in socks and put them on the feet of the baby so that they touch the soles of the feet. The onions cook and draw the fever heat out of the rest of the body. It worked! I understand that some herbalists wrap herbs in gauze on the bottom of the feet to draw out impurities in the body and charge plenty for it. I know that all of us were held by her and bounced on her knees to the tune of A Ching A Ching a Ching.
Silly Family Folklore.