Frank Fax Facts
Volume XVI, No. 37
Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010
Thanksgiving has come and gone. It was a totally different holiday for me this year: I did not leave home, for the first time in recent memory. My niece, Patricia, and her husband, Michael Simmons, drove over from Shawnee, Oklahoma, after spending three days in New Orleans (where they have a time-share apartment).
Mike had fallen head-over-heels in love with Wintzell's Restaurant on his first visit here, and it is now an established tradition that we all have one meal there each time they visit. In this case, it was Wednesday night. We always have a ball, and this was no exception. He and I shared a dozen oysters on the half shell, and I had the fried oyster dinner (with green salad and fries, plus a tap beer). They both had a half-and-half, which allows you to choose two of your favorites, but as I was having two meals the next day, both featuring shrimp dishes, I had a full order of their fried oysters. I had long ago decided that Wintzell's has the finest oysters (especially the fried ones) I have eaten anywhere. Each time I have them anywhere else, I realize that all others pale in comparison,
I had asked my niece, when she called to tell me they were coming, if they felt they simply had to have turkey and all of the traditional side dishes that long ago lost their appeal for me (Steve Moore and I had baked so many turkeys all those years we were in the catering business in Hattiesburg, that the lovely aroma that always seeps from the ovens when roasting turkeys, had taken on an unpleasant odor to me) and she assured me they would enjoy whatever I cooked, instead of the usual poultry and dressing. I decided to make one of my, and most of my family's favorite seafood dishes: "Shrimp Jambalaya". When I created the recipe, decades ago, I called it "Shrimp Creole", but friends informed me that it was more like "Jambalaya" (remember that great old song? "Son-uva-gun, we'll have great fun on the Bayou!") Everything turned out beautifully, and they certainly seemed to enjoy my creation (see Chef's Corner for recipe). I had everything ready for Patricia to build our salads to accompany the one-dish meal, and she created a treat for the eyes as well as the tummies. I have never cared very much for pumpkin pie (read that as "liked at all") nor Sweet Potato, OR Ruhbarb pie. So, I made my "infamous" Charlotte, the Russian Harlot dessert (a variation, including the Lady Fingers of the "Charlotte Russe" recipe given to me by Robert and Betty Pope's mother eons ago). I serve it in those footed-shrimp cocktail glasses, adding to the pretty "picture" a Marischino cherry. (Again, see recipe if you want a hard-to-have-a-flop dessert).*
For our supper, which we waited a long time before eating, I had boiled shrimp with Come-back sauce. It was possibly the finest batch of this sauce (which my entire family has always eaten with gusto). Patricia (as well as all our other nieces) always expects me to cook "English Peas" with souga (which was my parents' Sicilian name for the tomato sauce that accompanies so many of our dishes). I had her favorite Lesueur brand, and that was literally all she wanted for her supper. I had also prepared curried mushrooms, which she had never eaten, but seemed to love. For dessert, I had fresh strawberries that I had sliced and sugared, which I served over French Vanilla ice cream, By the time we finished this second meal, we were all literally hurting!
And then the moment I had been dreading since their arrival; they said they had to leave for their hotel. They drove to Ellisville on Friday and spent the day and Saturday with George; then on their return to Oklahoma, they were planning to stop for a visit with Helen, who is now in Newton's health care facility.
I refuse to dwell on the sadness of the three of us who remain from the once large Imbragulio family's not being together on a major holiday. I had managed to survive Thanksgiving and Christmas while in the Army, and I have enough wonderful memories of past holidays to last me for however much more time I have on this old planet. Deo gratia!
"Those who do not like cats will not get attractive mates"
In the January 1987 issue of STARE a Family Literary Magazine that I published monthly for over 20 years, I had a story about Mama called "Photograph of a Rose". It told a short true story of a time when Mama was still a girl, and had Mumps. At this time, the disease was often life-threatening, and Mama's was a severe case. Her mother makes her get out of bed, put on her best dress and go with her to a photographer; because, as she tells her daughter, she might die and there wasn't a single picture of her!
I had composed this short story in response to a letter I had from my niece, Beth Jeskey, who wrote: "I have read all of my copies of STARE, even the December issue. The articles were so good they either made me laugh or almost cry with the tenderness of some of the memories. I can remember hearing bits and pieces of some of the stories, so this pulled it all together.
You asked in the Dec issue for requests. I probably have one that you haven't heard yet--because Mommee and Poppee were YOUR parents you grew up knowing them intimately, their habits and personalities & all the things that make one an individual. I, being a grandchild, missed this. Please try to tell more stories about them and to let me know them better. If it doesn't come from you, one of their children I'll never know about them. Just keep them coming. They are wonderful!
Later, George sent for a copy of the ship on which Daddy had come to America's Passenger List, and gave each of us a beautifully framed picture of this document for Christmas that year.
I felt there was a story out there, that a few people (at least) might find a little pleasure in reading. So that's how my partially fiction, but basically documentary tale was born.
In publishing the "Prelude" and Chapter One in today's Fax Facts, I hope to pique some of your interests enough to make you seek out the complete book on my Blog* and at this time I wish to dedicate the many hours of joys and tears I have endured in composing the project, to my very dear niece, Beth Jeskey. With love and gratitude.
As I approach the age at which both of my parents died, I regret more and more, the wasted opportunities I had, as a child and young adult, of conversing with them about their early years. All of those hours that I spent wishing I were somewhere else, or doing something more entertaining might have been put to so much better use finding out the true story of what they felt at my age then, or any given age at the time. What were their dreams and aspirations? How did Daddy feel when he had to leave his beloved home in Sicily, at the tender age of thirteen, to come to a strange new land? Was he frightened? Or was he thrilled to be coming to the richest and most wonderful country in the world? Did his mother cry for days to be sending him, all alone, to join her husband and began working as a man. earning money so that the rest of the family could eventually make it to America, also? If I had taken the trouble to question Daddy about these things, as well as hundreds of other questions I now have, he would have probably replied, in exasperation, "Oh, good God! I can't remember that long ago! Whadda you think I am, anyway?"
So, Daddy, I'm telling it like I think it might have happened. If I have it all wrong, then I am truly sorry. But, some parts, I know are right, because Mama told me about it when I did ask a few questions (never enough); and because George got some of the vital statistics just recently from the Internet, when he looked up data on immigrants coming into Ellis Island in the late nineteenth century. There, he found our father's name, as coming over on the ship, "The Sempione"
She tossed and turned in her lonely bed. She was truly a lonely and miserably unhappy woman. Her husband had been away for the past three years, working in America. She was still a very attractive woman: not yet forty years old. Her skin was smooth as a girl's, except for her hands. He hair was long and black as onyx. Indeed, it shone exactly like that substance. Her legs, which nobody saw except when she occasionally caught sight of them, herself, were long and shapely. Her eyes were extremely dark brown, often causing people she'd just met to exclaim that she had the blackest eyes they'd ever seen. She had a small, aquiline nose, and the corners of her mouth had almost always turned up into a mischievous grin, until Sam had left her to go to America. Now she seldom found anything to smile about. Her breasts were round as melons. She had desires and hopes still, but they were growing dimmer as each day passed. Her eldest child, Sam, born when she as only sixteen, was leaving in the morning on a ship that would take him to Naples, from whence he would sail to America two days from now. The only happiness left to her was in the form of her other three children: Sam was the eldest, then Grace and Josephine, with Phillip, the baby of the family. None of them had seen their father in three long years!
The two younger children had no remembrance of their father at all. There was not even a photograph of him! Grace could barely remember him.
The moon was a crescent shaped sliver of cheese. It cast its silvery light across the Mediterranean on that night that Rosa would never be able to forget. From her bedroom window, she could have looked out at the Sea. But she was far too distraught to care about such mundane things. The bed was too warm. That much was certain. But, it was only one of the many reasons that sleep would not come to her tonight; would not grant her the comfort of forgetfulness. So she prayed. Always, when she first got between the sheets of her bed, Rosa prayed. She had formed the habit early in life, when an older sister had taught her the prayers of the Rosary. That same sister, Anna, had gone on to become a nun, and had given Rosa her first set of rosary beads. She still was using them, some twenty-two years later.
She was conscious only dimly of the beads sliding between her work roughened fingers. Her lips moved rapidly, as she mouthed the words of the Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. She had lost count of the total number of the prayer cycles she had completed. The words came automatically, and without thought or emotion. She knew she was supposed to contemplate certain mysteries associated with the days of the week: the Joyful Mysteries for certain days, the Sorrowful Mysteries for others, and she had only a vague recollection of the other categories.
Her mind was full of heaviness and sorrow. She had to send her eldest child to a country that she had never even seen. Her husband had sent her the money to send their older son to join him in America. He was to leave in the morning.
Of course, her husband did not write her long letters, telling her how things were there, nor describing any of the wonderful things he had to be seeing there. She had to rely on what other people had told her. He could barely read or write at all. Neither of them had much education. But, at least her penmanship was neat, legible, and, she had been often told, had great artistic quality. His penmanship was so bad that even she could hardly make it out after lengthy efforts at perusal. Still, the words, "You send Sam me now." And the enclosed money order had made it very clear what his intentions were.
She had enlisted the aid of the local postmaster in procuring the ticket for the boy's passage to the United States. There had been just enough left over to buy Sam a new suit of clothes. She could not send the boy to a strange country with only the clothes he wore every day. That had left no money for the boat fare from Cefalu to Naples. She had gone to the boy's Godfather, Lorenzo Saaia, and begged him to pay the boat fare. It did not cost much at all, so the man grudgingly agreed that he would "Lend" her the money. "But," he said, emphatically, "I expect to be paid back—with interest, when Sam makes his fortune in America."
On Sunday, Father Giulianni, her priest, had announced at Mass that several members of the parish would be immigrating to America the following week. Reading from a prepared list, he named about thirty people from Cefalu and nearby towns, who would all be sailing on a ship called the Sempione. There were even two people from Palermo on the list. As soon as she heard the name of Sam's ship, Rosa gave her undivided attention to the names being read out. Giovanni Marino, who was just fourteen; the Terracina family: Antonio Giglio, age twenty nine; the Muffolettas: the husband was named Giuseppe, and his wife was named Giuseppa, and their daughter, Rosaria, age seventeen; Rosa Culotta; and the priest's voice droned on and on. A total of thirteen people from the town of Cefalu alone were leaving the country of their birth. Sam's name was read last on the list. Rosa's ears had perked up at the mention of the name Muffoletta. She had spoken a few times, after mass, on the steps of the church with this couple. She knew they had a daughter, but she had never met her. Maybe she would be able to ask them to look after Sam on the journey.
On their way outside, as soon as they had all taken communion, Rosa told her four children to wait, while she tried to see if she could have a word with Giuseppe Muffoletta. Just about this time, the family had emerged from the church. Rosaria, the daughter, recognized Rosa first, and nudged her mother as she pointed to the Imbraguglios. Her mother and father walked over with her, to shake Rosa's hand.
"Well, Mrs. Imbraguglio, I had heard that your young son was to be on the same ship with us. I am so happy we can all make the journey together." Giuseppe Muffoletta was a handsome man and his wife was still a pretty woman. But Rosa could not help noticing that she was fast losing her figure and becoming the typical overweight Italian wife. She guessed the couple to be over ten years older than she and Sam.
Rosa, took the proffered hand, and gave the man one of her rare smiles. He couldn't help noticing again how lovely she was, and how dazzling white her teeth were. "Yes," Rosa said in reply, "I was hoping I'd get a chance to speak with you. I want to wish you and your family the very best of luck in America. And I especially wanted to ask if you could possibly-- sort of look out for my boy on the trip."
He turned to his wife, and smiling, answered, "We had already discussed this. We said we'd have to take care of your son, and make sure he reaches his father after we land in New York."
Rosa had been almost overwhelmed at the man's generosity and kindness. After all, she hardly knew them. "Thank you, and God bless you all." She grabbed the wife's hands and pressed them, then she leaned forward and kissed pretty little Rosario on the cheek. "And you," she said, "are just about the prettiest little thing I've ever seen."
Rosaria blushed prettily. Her parents beamed. "It's just too bad you're not younger. Otherwise, I'd have Sam courting you on the voyage."
And they all laughed. But Rosa knew, somehow, that the next time she saw her son, he would have a wife and children of his own.
So, it was on this that Rosa's mind was busy, and not her prayers. Her lips continued to form the words, endlessly, however.
When she completed the Rosary (actually, it was the fourteenth she had said during the long night), she kissed the crucifix at the end of the beads, and laid them carefully on her nightstand. She rose wearily from the bed, with its sagging cotton mattress. Taking the lamp from the stand, she fumbled around for a match with which to light it. The orange colored light dimly illuminated the big, dark room, with its wooden furniture. She pulled the dress she had worn the day before over her head, and smoothed down her braided hair with her hands.
She walked from her third floor bedroom, down the stairs to the ground floor. The animals blinked their eyes as the light woke them from their slumbers. Rosa walked over to the hens' nest, and found a still warm brown egg. She took a needle from the hem of her petticoat and pricked the small end of the egg. Turning it up, she drank hungrily from the shell.
"Ah," she sighed. It had tasted good. If only everything in life could be available at so little cost or effort.
She walked over to the shelf and took down her pail, and then nudged the goat to move over a little and allow her to pull up her milking stool.
"I gotta take a little of your milk," she said to the Nanny, stroking her silky hair.
The tiny anmial stood patiently as Rosa kneaded her teats, drawing forth every available drop of milk for her family's breakfast. Long years of practice had given her the ability to coax the last drop of nourishment from this faithful little goat. Rosa called her "Bella", affectionately. She often laughed and said she considered Bella another of her children.
Her thoughts were all over the place as she milked. First and foremost, they were with Sam, and his imminent departure; she would have all of the gardening to do now, with him gone. Then, her thoughts turned to the husband who had been away for so long. She had become almost completely self-sufficient. She had to. The little money orders he sent from time to time were a mere pittance. She could barely make ends meet. And that was almost totally without meat to eat. If Sam had not possessed such uncanny ability to grow things from the soil, they would have gone hungry many times. But, he always grew the biggest, most wonderful tasting tomatoes. And his onions were as sweet as apples! Yes, he definitely had the gift. Or, as some would say, he possessed a green thumb.
When she had finished with her milking, she gave the hen and the goat something to eat, and walked back up the stairs to her kitchen.
It was still very warm weather, and she did not like building a fire in the stove. But she felt she owed it to Sam to cook him a hot meal since it would be the last one he would have at home.
She lifted the black iron circle from the stovetop, and taking her kindling, placed it, with some old papers, in the stove. She struck a match and watched as the paper caught fire, then spread to set the splinters ablaze.
She planned to make some fresh, hot biscuits, which they would eat with some soft, sharp goat's cheese. This was Sam's favorite breakfast.
In the room he shared with his younger brother, Phillip, Sam had also experienced difficulty sleeping all night long. He had never spent a night away from home. Not in all of his twelve years and eight months. He had never spent a single day away from Cefalu. Now, today, he was to travel to Naples, from which huge city he would board a boat for America.
He had no illusions of his having a good time on the journey, nor after he arrived, for that matter. His mother had made that very plain. He was going to join his father, who had left Sicily three years earlier, and now worked as a brick mason in Syracuse, New York. To young Sam, this had always caused confusion. Syracuse, he well knew, was a big city on the same island on which he now lived. How could his father have landed in another city with the same name, hundreds of miles away? He was glad his future home had such a familiar name, however. The biggest city in Sicily was named Syracuse, also. Indeed, the place where he was going had taken its name from its Sicilian counterpart. His mother told him that was because there were so many Sicilians already living there. That gave him hope that he would be able to converse with many people, and not just his father.
Sam, too, was to become a brick mason. The young lad was well acquainted with labor. Ever since his father had left home, Sam had to do all of the manual labor. There was the garden behind their home. He was good with growing things. Both of his parents had remarked on this ability early in his life. He loved tilling the rich soil, planting the seeds or small plants his mother grudgingly bought. They were woefully poor, but not poorer than most of the people in Cefalu. Many of their friends, neighbors and kin-folks had already migrated to America. They never referred to it as the United States. Whenever anyone in Cefalu spoke of the U.S.A., it was simply called "America".
He got out of bed, now, and pulled on his trousers and shirt and walked down to the kitchen. He could hear his mother shuffling about already, even though it was still dark. He walked in and simply stood there, observing his mother in her preparations for breakfast: his last meal at home.
Although he had not made a sound, she felt his presence. She looked up hurriedly: yes, there he was. His beautiful head of jet-black hair was tousled and a lock of it fell over his eye. He looked as if he had not slept at all.
"You didn't need to get up this early," she said. "Boat don't leave until ten."
"I couldn't sleep." He said it simply, without whining or complaining. He was a brave little boy. She recognized this fact, and was thankful for it. She would certainly miss him. He had been all the real help she had since her husband had gone to America. But, she was glad that she did not have to send Phillip. Her baby was her very heart. But she knew, deep down in her own heart, that sooner or later she was going to have to give up each one of their four children as they were sent for, to join their father. But, would he ever send for her? Probably not. Theirs had been the usual arranged marriage, and one of convenience only.
He looked up hopefully. Yes, there it was: Sempione! It wasn't just another ship. This was the ship that would carry him to America. America: that great, big, wonderful country that everybody in Sicily wanted to live in: "The Home of the Free". There, he would join his father in the city of Syracuse, New York. He had never been as far away as the Sicilian Syracuse, however. It might just as well have been thousands of miles from Cefalu; or on the moon, for that matter, because none of his family had ever been there. Money was as scarce as hen's teeth, and for his mother to afford for him to travel to Naples had been a great sacrifice.
His heart ached anew for his beloved Cefalu: Beautiful, quiet and peaceful Cefalu, with its sparkling blue bay, stark white houses of stone, and magnificent old Mount Gibilmano, rising majestically in the background. Already, he felt a lump forming in his throat at the thought that he might never see this town again.
But he wouldn't dwell on this. It made him too sad. He tried to envision the wonders of the land he was about to become a part of. He had never been a reader, and there were no television sets to bring him program on foreign lands. Nor had he yet seen one of the moving pictures that were just beginning to make a name for themselves: mainly in America. It seemed that every single new invention came from that fabulous land. Small wonder his father had wanted to go there to make his fortune.
Well, so far, the fortune had eluded the elder Sam Imbraguglio, and a few dollars a month was all he had managed to send his family back in Cefalu. And now, Sam was about to join him. He would have to learn the art of bricklaying, so that he, too, could earn money to send back to his mother. Like her, he figured it was only a matter of time before he and his father would be sending for the others to join them: one by one.
Secretly, Rosa wondered if she would ever be sent for.
*Due to the length of the issue, the recipes for JAMBALAYA, "Come Back" Sauce AND Charlotte, the Russian Harlot dessert will be given in a special Chef's Corner next week.