by Al Esposito
available on Amazon
“Nonna eggs? Come on, Mr. Freddy, what are Nonna eggs? Mr. Ercolano, what are Nonna eggs? I want to make sure you eat, but I don’t know what you’re asking for?” the attendant at the Long Island Center for Senior Care pleaded.
Mr. Ercolano, Freddy, stared straight ahead, lost in his thoughts. He hadn’t thought of Nonna eggs in over 70 years.
In 1959, in Harlem, New York, two-year-old Freddy was being scolded by his mother, Bobbie. “You’re not leaving this table unless you finish your oatmeal!”
“I want Nonna, I want Nonna, and I want Nonna eggs!” Freddy demanded.
He crossed his arms and clamped his mouth shut.
His father, Fred, navigated his way into the cramped kitchen and whispered to his son, “You know how this will end. Just eat your oatmeal so we can have peace this morning.”
Bobbie snapped at her husband, “You’re no help. He doesn’t listen.”
Freddy Boy cast his eyes down. Bobbie’s jaw clenched, and the veins in her neck bulged.
She glared at her son. “I told you,” she started, “you’re not leaving this table until you finish your oatmeal. Nonna is in bed, she is tired and sad. This is a tough day for her!”
Bobbie raised her hand, and Freddy bolted from the table and darted down the hallway of the railroad apartment. The door crashed against the wall as he burst into Nonna’s room. Nonna was in bed, eyes glazed over, staring at the ceiling. She turned toward Freddy with a weary glance and a forced smile. The room was dark with just a hint of light coming through the tattered curtain. Freddy climbed onto the bed and tucked his head under Nonna’s arm.
She pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. “Ti amo, ti amo, mi amore,” she whispered in Italian.
“Ti amo Nonna, ti amo, I love you too. Come to breakfast, Nonna, I want Nonna eggs. Come to breakfast, don’t be sad.”
Nonna pulled him close, “Sona stanca, mi amore, I’m tired.”
Freddy Boy gasped as he was yanked out of the bed by his mother.
“Mi dispiace, Mama, I’m sorry. He doesn’t listen. I told you to leave Nonna alone! Nonna doesn’t feel well, let her rest! Get out of here, go eat your breakfast before I get the spoon!” Bobbie tossed her son out of the room and turned back to Nonna. “I will bring you your eggs Mama. Now, riposo, rest.”
Bobbie pulled Freddy Boy by his pajama shirt and dragged him down the hallway. Freddy tried to pull free but her grip only tightened. Freddy’s chair almost toppled over as Bobbie shoved him down.
“I told you not to bother Nonna. Eat your oatmeal or you are going to get the spoon!”
Freddy Boy closed his teary eyes, bowed his head, and slumped into his seat, bracing for the wooden spoon.
“Basta, basta, enough!”
Freddy Boy looked up. His eyes widened and filled with light. Nonna entered the kitchen, kissed the top of his head, lifted his bowl of oatmeal, and tossed it in the sink.
Nonna was almost 4’9”, with steel grey hair, pulled back in a permanent bun. She wore ankle-length house dresses and moved with deliberate confidence. Nonna’s left arm was partially paralyzed, and she held it close to her waist. She had come to America in 1918. She had been sent by her family for an arranged marriage to Donato Capasso. Donato was a widowed Italian immigrant living in Harlem. He had two daughters with his deceased wife. After his wife’s death, he sent word to Italy for a wife and a mother for his girls. Nonna, Barbara Corbo, boarded a ship in Naples, Italy to come to America. She was a frightened 18-year-old girl who didn’t know the language or the man she would marry. Between her arrival in 1918 and 1928, she bore seven children. Nonna gave birth to six girls and one boy. Tessie, Angie, Josephine (Jeff), Millie, Susie, Anthony, and Barbara. Freddy’s mother, Barbara, though she went by Bobbie, was the youngest of seven. She saw a lot as the “baby” of the family, and it shaped her views on life.
The Capasso family lived in the Italian section of Harlem and struggled to survive. Two to three sisters slept in one bed, and the bathtub in the kitchen, covered with old plywood, doubled as the kitchen table. Donato was a laborer for Con Ed. He never learned English. He was a tough, jealous, iron-fisted patriarch. Nonna often took the brunt of his jealousy. Bobbie was a fearless protector of her mother. The stories of Bobbie protecting her mother, from her disrespectful stepsisters, were legendary. They are part of family lore.
Bobbie wanted to attend college and pursue a career as a nurse. Donato would not allow it. “Women don’t go to college,” he proclaimed in Italian.
She took a job as a bank teller and, at age 25, married Alfred (Fred) Ercolano, from the neighborhood. They were deeply in love and considered the ugly ducklings of the neighborhood. Fred suffered from very severe acne and, as was popular in the 1940s, went for sunlamp treatments. Bobbie was rail thin, and people often teased her about being all skin and bones and told her to put “rocks in her pockets” so she wouldn’t get blown away by a strong wind.
Fred was a strong, silent, hard worker with old-world manners. Bobbie was tough with an infectious laugh but a scary strong will and legendary temper. Bobbie and Fred married and started a family late in life, for their generation. Bobbie had two miscarriages before she gave birth to her eldest, Diana, in June 1955. Two years later, in April of 1957, Alfred Jr. came along, better known as Freddy or Freddy Boy.
The instant Freddy was placed in Nonna’s arms, she pulled him close. Her body heaved and she wept tears of joy.
Nonna kissed him and whispered in Italian, “I love you, I love you.”
The family noticed a hint of life and joy return to her eyes. She had many other grandchildren over the past 15 years, but this seemed different, and no one could explain it. Baby Freddy seemed to bring life to her. Nonna had been in a deep, dark depression since that horrific day, September 18, 1942.
September 18, 1942, everyone was gathered to celebrate Bobbie’s 18th birthday. The Capasso apartment was jam-packed with family. The noise was deafening and sounded like 10 different arguments were going on at once. Everyone was talking over everyone else, in a New York slang mixed with Neapolitan dialect Italian and boisterous laughter. Clouds of cigarette smoke filled the air. It was hot for a fall day and all the windows were open. The smell of Italian food was intoxicating. Children were playing on every inch of floor space. Folding chairs were crammed in every corner. It didn’t matter how tight it was—this was a celebration.
Nonna and her daughters were on top of each other, elbow to elbow, in the kitchen.
Her daughters pleaded with her to sit down, “Siediti, Mama, siediti.”
They knew this was pointless, but it was part of the ritual. Commanding the apartment was Donato Capasso. He sat at the head of the makeshift table, sipping red wine and reaching down to pick up and hug any grandchild who scooted by. He was powerful-looking with pure white hair, deep olive skin, and thick, muscular hands, worn by years of hard labor. He had a deep, raspy voice and spoke almost no English.
He pounded his open hand on the table, causing glasses to jump, dishes to rattle, and the apartment to fall silent.
In Italian, he proclaimed, “Quiet before we eat, Barbara will read the letter!”
His face softened and he looked over at Bobbie and patted his lap, “Siediti. Sit, Barbara, read.”
Bobbie hopped over to her Papa with her eyes gleaming and a smile that engulfed her face. She sat down on his lap. They squeezed each other tight and kissed each cheek.
The quiet in the room was broken by a collective “Awe!”
Donato shot the room a steely glance.
“Shhh, shhh,” everyone whispered.
Bobbie pulled a perfectly folded letter out of her apron and unfolded it with care. The letter had arrived in the mail that morning. It was dated three months earlier and was from her beloved brother, Anthony, Tony. Tony was three years older than Bobbie and they were like two peas in a pod. He was the only son of Donato and Barbara Capasso. Tony was in Italy in the Army. WWII was winding down, but the family hadn’t heard from him in over three months.
Bobbie began to read.
I am very happy to know that you’ve reached your eighteenth birthday, in beauty and health. No brother in this world is luckier than I, to have such a sister to love, cherish, and want. This rainy morning, I’m hoping I can deliver this note of sincerity to my dear sister, and with God’s help, I’ll be saying “Happy Birthday” to you.
A brother like me, who has such great love for his sister, can go on and on with words of kindness and love, but my true feelings remain inside. Words can never be written to explain true love.
I remember the only person whom I looked forward to seeing during my times away from the family was you, Bobbie. The many times my life was endangered, I prayed to be able to see my kid sister once more. These are my exact feelings I had in combat, and they remain with me still. I’ll always hold you in my heart. Nothing or no one can put a scratch on my love for you. Please, Honey, be certain to reach your nineteenth birthday, as well as the others. The many other birthdays of yours to come will surely be great ones. Most likely, we’ll spend them together.
Your adoring brother,
Bobbie choked back tears as she finished the letter. Tears streamed down Donato’s face and he pulled her close. Nonna was silently crying as she leaned in and kissed Bobbie on the head. The women were using their aprons to wipe tears from their eyes. The men tried not to let anyone see their eyes also fill with tears. Even the children were moved by the letter and overcome by the emotion of the moment.
“Mangia, Mangia, eat, eat” someone yelled, and just like that, noise and laughter once again filled the apartment.
As everyone filled their plates, there was a knock at the door.
“I’ll get it, Papa!” Angie, Nonna’s second daughter, yelled over the noise.
Angie opened the door and dropped to the floor and let out a blood-curdling scream. “NO! NO! Papa! Papa! NO!”
Every head in the apartment snapped toward the door. Nonna dropped to the floor, screaming, sobbing, and shaking, without a sound coming out of her mouth. Bobbie screamed but quickly grabbed her mother and began to sob as Nonna disappeared in her arms. Donato banged his head on the table, wailing. The men rushed to grab their wives and children. Standing at the door was Father Dominic, from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Harlem, alongside a Casualty Notification Officer in his dress uniform.
This day would permanently alter the course of the Capasso family.
coming of age
feel good fiction