Excerpt from “What Fruit She Bears,” a Memoir
by Judith A. Lawrence
Prelude: We were two little English girls in a foster home in which only Italian was spoken. We soon learned to speak Italian.
Living Italian Style in South Philadelphia
Aunt Maria’s house was divided into the rooms we used, and the rooms we passed through on the way to bed at night. Those rooms were kept only for visiting guests or Holiday celebrations. We lived for most of the time in the cellar.
Our cellar was set up with an icebox, stove, tub sink, cupboard, table, chairs, throw rugs, and a toilet with a shower curtain for privacy. Toward the back of the cellar there was a lift up window with a chute which allowed the delivery of blocks of ice for the icebox and grapes to make the Dago red wine. A wooden makeshift bed covered with rag rugs was our play area, where my sister and I directed characters and scenes with cutouts, or read comic books.
Our small terrier dog, Peaches, curled up beside us for naps, or sat by Aunt Maria’s side patiently waiting for scraps to fall as she cooked.
For breakfast, we sat on the old red cracked plastic seats at the porcelain and chrome red and white table, and sipped large cups of tea with Borden’s canned milk, dunking slices of Italian bread lathered with marmalade. Throughout the day, we listened to Italian soap operas on the radio, while Aunt Maria sautéed peppers, onions, vegetables, and eggs cooked in olive oil in her large black iron pan for lunches, and later stirred the daily pot of marinara sauce and ziti, or pasta and beans for dinner. There was always the aroma of garlic permeating the large rustic living space.
Aunt Maria taught us how to make rag rugs by tearing old dresses and shirts into strips and weaving them into braids which were sewed together into circular rugs of assorted sizes. She also taught us to iron with a big black iron heated on the stove. We helped with the wash by scrubbing our underwear with a washboard in the sink tub, before Uncle Fiore bought her prized wringer washing machine. I loved tugging the clothes through the wringer. On a hot August day, coming indoors from play, I grabbed a gallon of liquid off the table thinking it was water, and slugged it down only to come up sputtering from drinking bleach. My throat burned and everything tasted acrid for hours.
On each cellar wall there were wooden shelves with rows of canned tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and gallons of our home made wine. Towards the back of the cellar next to the window stood all the equipment for crushing grapes and making the wine once a year when the grapes were just right. Enough wine was made to last a year, and my sister and I were both lifted barefoot into the deep grape barrel to crush the grapes. We grew drunk and boisterous from the heady aroma filling the cellar.
When Aunt Maria went to the store, left to our own devices, we stacked books on the kitchen chair and taking turns climbed to the top of the white porcelain cabinet trimmed in red to scoop spoonfuls of sugar from the cream colored fancy sugar bowl. Peaches waited expectant as I descended from my lofty height but turned his nose up at his spoonful of sugar. We played how many steps could we jump from the cellar steps, holding hands, each time taking it a step higher until we both crashed with skinned knees and elbows. Peaches washed the wounds with his warm tongue as we sat there crying.
We grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and spices in the small row home yard with two fig trees, one in each corner. We bought two-day-old Italian loaves of bread from the baker. Aunt Maria would run the loaves under warm water, rub them in olive oil, wrap them up in white thin cotton towels and place them in the oven. When heated the loaves were as fresh as just baked bread.
At least once a month we went by trolley to the Ninth Street Market to buy live crabs, tripe, ground pork and beef, poultry, and cheese. We would climb the trolley steps, our bags full of all kinds of pungent aromas. Once home, Aunt Maria would place a large pot on the stove and fill it with water to bring to a boil. She would reach in her basket of crabs and drop them one after another into the pot. One day, Uncle Fiore, arrived home from his bricklaying job, to find us dancing on the table shrieking in horror, while Aunt Maria was shooing a dozen escaped crabs with a broom back into her crab basket.
In keeping in tradition with the region of Italy she was from, Aunt Maria did not believe in daily baths. She believed that soaps robbed the skin of precious oils. We were bathed twice a month with Fels Naphtha soap in a big aluminum tub with cool and boiled water poured from pots heating on the big black wood burning stove. After soaking in the tub, we were wrapped in big rough towels, dressed in flannel nightgowns, our hair combed with a dash of olive oil and set in paper strip curlers tied with string. The radio played Italian opera music in the background.
After sipping a small cup of wine, we were drowsily sent to bed in the small upstairs bedroom, and tucked into a white iron posted bed. Each night, a cut off sock was slipped like a glove over my right hand and tied with twine in an effort to stop my persistent habit of sucking my two middle fingers all night. As soon as Aunt Maria left the room, I would pester my reluctant sister to untie it.
The small curtain-less window allowed the moon and stars to bathe us in soft light on cloudless nights. When it snowed, I could watch from my bed as large snowflakes crystalized onto the window pane forming a myriad of stars.