Rose Street

Excerpts from Rose Street, by Carmen Leone

Rose Street: A Family Story was presented as a Christmas gift to the many members of the Leone family in 1996.  Carmen Leone and his cousin Bob Calcagni (who wrote the Epilogue) wanted their children and grandchildren to know the story of Carmen’s immigrant parents and their heroic battle to keep the family intact through the personal struggles faced in adjusting to American life through two World Wars and a Depression.  Response to the book led to multiple reprintings as local bookstores requested copies.  A second edition was published in 1998 by Calcagni and Associates.

The book and two subsequent publications, Rose Street Revisited (2000) and Remembering Our Rose Streets (2000), are also available locally at Borders, Dorian Books, Jimmy’s Italian Food Specialties, and Barnes & Noble.  Also available are an audio CD version of Rose Street (5 CDs) and a reading of 5 stories by the author (1 CD) from Rose Street Revisited. For prices and to order from the author, contact him by e-mail.


(pp. 23-27)

In  the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, in the Abruzzi, lies a little mountain village called Barrea.  Here many years ago two brothers bid a tearful farewell to their mother and father, their brothers and sisters, and their friends and set off on a journey across the world.  Though they consoled their loved ones and themselves with visions of returning, it was likely to be their final good-bye.

The older, Danny Leone, had already been to America, had found a job, and was returning for his bride and to settle his affairs in his home town.  He was also bringing back to America with him his youngest brother, Carmen.

Short and slight for his fourteen years, and deeply tanned by the Italian sun, Carmen had no commitment to keep him in Barrea.  It was difficult for him to leave his family and this beautiful village.  But there was no work here and there were too many mouths to feed.  Danny promised that a good job was waiting for him in America.

A boy growing up in the Abruzzi as the old century gave way to the new could not have known much about the outside world.  Carmen had never even been to Rome until he was to stop there on his way to another world.

He loved the mountains.  Watching the goats, he loved to stop at the Fonte della Bella Donna up in the woods above the village and drink from its icy spring.  It was a daily baptism to him.   On his knees he bent till his face was submerged.  After he drank his fill, he sprawled on the path, arms outstretched, and let the sun dry him.  Now he could go home to his Mama and Papa, his brothers and sisters, and sit in the large kitchen to a fine meal of pasta and wine and salad and cheese and fruit.

The smells and sights of that kitchen would be with him forever:  The fresh bread–huge golden loaves–dripping butter, the steam from the pasta kettle creating rivulets of moisture on the window, the tomato sauce simmering and bubbling in the cauldron filled to the brim with chunks of chicken, and sausage sizzling in the frying pan.

They ate together at the long table.  Mama never sat for more than a minute at a time, bouncing up to replenish serving plates and present the next course, his sisters scolding her to sit and enjoy.  Carmen’s father and brothers ate like him, seriously, not too fast and with concentration, lifting their wine glasses almost in unison every several swallows.

After dinner, Carmen and the other young ones would walk down to the center of the village where his cousins and friends gathered.  They talked, they laughed.  Sometimes he brought from the house his old mandolin and strummed on it as they sang together.

Because there was no other world, there were no worries.  In the great church at the top of the village, the priest talked of Paradise.  But to Carmen, this was Paradise enough.

Carmen hadn’t noticed that there was less work to go around, and had wondered why his brother had found it necessary to seek a new life in America.  He had missed Danny.

When Danny returned for his wife Loretta, the family talked.  He could take one of his brothers back with him.  There was work in America.

The other older brothers, Dominic and Joe, had wives.  Joe, recently married, volunteered to go with his wife, but she objected.  She might be with child and could not, would not make the journey.  The very thought of it terrified her.  Carmen, barely old enough but with no commitments, was the only one who could go.  Circumstances had decided.

As the family and friends gathered in tears for the farewell, two little girls, Carmen’s sister, Maria Grazia and his niece, Maria Concetta, both four years old, together thrust a bunch of flowers they had gathered into his hands.  As he stooped to hug the two girls, Maria Concetta pulled away and ran off into the house in tears.  Carmen left the others and went to find her, singing her out of her hiding place under the bed in the big room with the song he always sang to her:

Dace Dace

Panna e Laccia

Dace Dace

Panna e Laccia

The song brought her out from under the bed into Carmen’s arms, laughing through her tears.

“I’ll come back some day, my little Concetta.  Or maybe you will come to America one day to see me.”

But she would not be consoled.  “I’ll never see you again,” she cried.

Carmen held her to him.  She was probably right and he didn’t want to lie to her.  “Think of me when you kneel down at night to say your prayers, and sometimes I will come to you in your dreams and we can play again.  I will carry you on my shoulders up the road to the castle ledge, to see the mountains.  And since it’s a dream, we’ll fly together from one mountain top to the next, all the way to Rome.  And maybe, if your sleep is long enough, we’ll fly across the ocean and I’ll show you my home in America.”

“We can’t do that!”

Carmen made a mustache on himself with her curly, black locks.  “In dreams we can do anything,” he said.

She laughed at his silly mustache, then yanked her curl from him.  “But when I wake up, I will still be here and you will be there.”

“That’s the magic of it.  And when you’re not sleeping, all you have to do is sing our song and I’ll be here in your head.”

“Will I see you in my head?”

“If you close your eyes tight and try hard, you will see me.”

But it was time to go.

“Really,” he said, taking her by the hand and leading her to the door.  “I might come back again.  It is not impossible.”

*****

Eighty-two years later, nine years after my father’s death, I–Carmen’s youngest son, who had many times on his lap promised my father a trip back to Italy when I grew up–make the journey with my son.

These were my father’s mountains.  As we wind around and up, passing the blue lake, nearing the village, its orange tile roofs over white stucco homes looking like any of the dozen villages we had risen to and then descended from, making our way from Rome, my heart says these are different.  These were his mountains.

From the village, whichever way he turned, they were there.  They were his.  Walking up the road still higher, out of the village into the trees with his goats, he watched them.  They watched him.  They were his and he was theirs.

Before we enter the house, my nephew leads us up the road still higher, out of the village into the trees, where my father had walked.  Deep into the trees.  Stopping at the spring, the Fonte della Bella Donna that my father told me of many times, its renewing, pure, icy water, where he’d lie on all fours and drink.  Where I now drink, both to quench my thirst and to honor him, my father.

Back down to the village, the very house where he was born, where he ate and slept, where now my son and I eat and sleep, a Disney cottage, its low doorways bashing my head or making me stoop.  Eating the most delicious pizza from a village shop at the very table, I want to believe, where he sat with his family.  The tiny widow in long, black dress, now in her mid-eighties, who remembered him, her favorite cousin who went away when she was a little girl.  Maria Concetta.

My father sang to you, Maria Concetta, and you remember the song and sing it to me in your strange language, tears flowing down your creased face.

(pp.35-39)

Gesilda was too busy with her housework and her children to do much visiting, but on an occasional Sunday afternoon she walked with Jo and her boys up the street to the Leones and visited with Loretta while Jo read to the brothers.

Gesilda and Loretta became good friends, often on Sunday mornings walking together with their children across the Oak Street bridge to Mass at the brand new Italian church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  On special occasions, even the men accompanied them.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel was actually the second Italian parish to be built in Youngstown, some fifteen years after St. Anthony’s parish opened on the North Side.  But it quickly became known by the East Siders as the Italian Church.  It was not only financed, but it was built by the hands of its own parishioners, who took great pride in this beautiful monument to God and to their own skills as artisans.

Waiting for Mass to begin, Jo studied the choir of angels hovering in painted clouds on the wall behind the altar.  There were six grown-up angels on either side of the altar, where a beautiful statue of the Virgin stood just above the crucifix.  Here and there in the clouds peeked baby angels.  There were thirty angels in all.  Jo counted them every week to see if any had come or gone.

Father Franco, a short, stubby Napoleon of a priest, ran the Italian church with an iron hand.  Jo was certain he was the meanest priest in all Christendom.  One Sunday at Mass her little brother Dominic stumbled over the Latin responses in his first and last effort as an altar boy.  In an instant Dominic saw stars and was certain he was falling straight into Hell.

But the child was not damned after all.  The stars were only the temporary result of a candlestick broken across his head by the angry priest.

The ladies in the pews gasped.

If Beatangelo had been present at the Mass, he would have marched straight up into the sanctuary and dragged his son off the altar and home.  This was a priest, so he would not have struck him, probably would not even have cursed him there at the altar.  But never again would a son of his wear a cassock and surplice and serve this particular representative of Christ on earth.

As it was, Beatangelo, hearing of the incident, cursed the priest and swore off altogether the church he seldom attended anyway.  Then he thrashed Dominic for not knowing his Latin prayers.

Gesilda, however, would not let her anger at the demon priest keep her away from worship.  She simply switched back to the Irish parish around the corner, the one they had attended before the Italian church opened, and that Jo had to pass on the way to school.  She could put up with the disdain of the Irish parishioners at Immaculate Conception more easily than the abuse of the Italian priest at Mount Carmel.

Jo at first was reluctant to leave the Italian church and go back to the Immaculate.  But church was church.  Once inside, it was the House of God, and Jo felt safe.

Still Jo missed the walks across the bridge with the Leones to the Italian church, her anger at Father Franco for striking her little brother notwithstanding.

But Jo still had the parties at the huge, red brick building across the street from the Italian church that housed the Societa del Duca degli Abruzzi–the “Duke’s,” as everyone called it.  All the families in Youngstown that had immigrated from the Abruzzi joined the Duke’s, and it became the site of wedding receptions and other festive gatherings.

The most important of these events took place at l’ultima Carnevale, the final feast before Lent began. For convenience, it was celebrated on the Saturday instead of the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year.

Everyone called it “the sausage party.”  The men of the society, most of whom stayed out of their kitchens at home, took charge of the cooking of the sausage, which they made a most serious business all day long, much as they might have mixed mortar and laid brick.

On that Saturday evening, first the children were seated downstairs and served sausage, several pieces of celery, potato chips, and a shiny apple.  Then they were given festive paper caps and whistles and ushered upstairs to the main hall to run and play unattended while the adults had their party.  The wooden floor of the hall became a race track for the children.

Jo, watching her brothers, regretted being too grown up now for this fun.  But she sat along the wall on the wooden folding chairs with her girlfriends, keeping a close eye on little Amie and calling occasionally to Dominic to behave.

Sometimes the Pascarelli Band started playing, even before the adults came back upstairs to dance.  Jo danced a polka with her friend Marie while Dominic and his buddies raced up and down the dance floor blowing their whistles and screaming.

*****

When I was a child it never occurred to me that my mother was young once.  She was thirty-three when I was born near the end of 1934.  Her hair was gray and had been since she was twenty.  It never crossed my mind that she once ran wildly up and down this main floor of the Duke’s, as I did as a child.  The wooden folding chairs lined against the walls, the stage to climb to and leap from, the whooping and hollering like wild Indians, the knee-scrapes and tears, older sisters and brothers yelling from the sidelines for us to behave or they would tell Mama, the party hats and horns and whistles, the spilled pop, sneaking up the wide stairs to peak at our fathers drinking and playing cards in the smoky bar– these were her memories too.  We were one in this, my world superimposed on hers.

*****

The other big event for the paesanos took place each summer at the Pietrabbondante picnic grounds:  The annual Abruzzese picnic.

Carmen, playing bocce or morra, sometimes shared his winnings with his little English teacher so she could buy a cup of lupini.  Jo bit off a tiny piece of the yellow skin, then squeezed till the salty bean shot into her mouth.  She savored the bitter taste that the salt tried to cover as she crunched the moist bean.

Pop!  A lupini bounced off her cheek.  “Stop it, Dominic,” she yelled, turning.  But she saw that her brother was not the culprit.  He had no lupini.  She looked beyond him.  It was Carmen, propped on a picnic table with a cup of lupini in his hand.  He smiled and tipped his cap.

She tried to look angry.  But he was so handsome.

(pp.95-100)

If it was at all possible for Jo to be in any degree carefree, that first year of marriage was the time.  The house at 846 Rose Street was hers.  Just across the driveway and behind them were the DeMarias. Mrs. Carney, next door, even though she was Irish, had already made friends with her at the “Immaculate” parish that Jo still preferred attending with her mother.

On the other side of the Leones lived a Jewish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Duner.

The others in the neighborhood at that time were mostly Italian–The Febos, the Palumbos, the Vagnarellis–and welcomed her with housewarming gifts and then frequent visits.

These Italian neighbors dropped in anytime, seldom bothering to knock.  No one locked doors on Rose Street.  Everyone was welcome in any house.

It had not been quite the same on Hine Street.  Jo wondered if it was her father, the respect he commanded, that made the neighbors more formal there.  Whatever it was, Jo liked this about her new neighbors.  They were like one family.

In some ways it was the physical aspect of the street itself that encouraged the sense of family.  Just one short block, Rose Street seemed fortressed on all sides by Italian and Lebanese grocery stores and by Catholic churches.  The narrow pavement brick, unlike Hine Street, bore only local traffic, and, in fact, very few of the families had cars.  The street was used almost entirely for pedestrian traffic.  The men walked down toward the streetcar stop to be taken to the mills, the women walked to their stores and shops and to church, the children up the street to school, or down to the stores, or to visit their friends.  It was too narrow to have sidewalks, so all who walked traveled the middle.

Narrow as Rose Street was, it still served as the playing field for the young ones, whose games the brick pavement somehow had to accommodate.  It was the softball field, the football field, and the basketball court for the older boys.  The younger children, boys and girls, used it and the backyards for their games of hide-and-go-seek, hopscotch, kick the can, release the den, and whatever other play their imaginations invented.

The middle half of the block on one side had no houses at all, but instead it had a wooden fence that hid from view the cemetery of St. Stephen of Hungary Parish, the church on the next street down.

The Leone and the DeMaria houses stood midway on the street, facing the back of St. Stephen’s.  Directly behind the DeMaria house a single path led to Conti’s house and grocery store on the one side and St. Francis Parish on the other.

With a neighborhood movie theatre only several blocks away and the downtown business district only several more, Rose Street was both isolated and within easy reach of everything.

*****

My memories of Rose Street are a little different from those of some of the earlier neighbors, since I didn’t arrive until half-way through the family’s stay there.  We moved from Rose when I was twelve, so I have only about ten years of memory from there to call on, and much of it has become muddled with age.  I don’t know how much of what I have stored about this street of my birth and of my roots is fact and how much is legend, which is at least truth if not fact.

Not that my Rose Street didn’t exist.  There are still many among family and old neighbors who can corroborate my account.  But from our perspective, decades later, it’s like a miracle that it ever happened, another world where we were at home and comfortable and, above all, innocent; a kind of second womb that we’ve burst from, into a darker, less friendly world.

My generation was born there, crying out our first bawls from its houses.  Our mothers and fathers had been born and most of them raised in poor Italian villages.  It was a New World for them as well as us.  We and they approached it with awe.  They approached it with a good deal of faith in Divine Providence, and that rubbed off on most of us.

Maybe that’s what made our neighborhood so special.  We were poor, but we were either unaware of it or we simply accepted it.  We had adequate, clean shelter and all the food we needed.  Much of our food was grown in small back yards under the tender care of our fathers and prepared in small kitchens, lovingly, by our mothers.

All of the mothers and fathers, the Italian immigrants, are gone now.  Some of their children, those of my generation, are also gone.  Among those still living I occasionally see someone, usually at a wake, or perhaps in a grocery store.  We stop and talk.  The conversation generally winds its way to the topic of Rose Street.  I see a certain sparkle in their eyes and I’m sure they see it in mine.  Our thoughts are on a Paradise Lost.  It’s not despair over the loss that most comes across to me.  Rather it’s a kind of thankfulness that we at least had something special for a while, a chance in this life to get a taste of what’s in store for us in the next.

From Rose we could walk wherever we wanted to go.  Sometimes, though, the things I remember came to us.  It was an age and ours was a neighborhood for street vendors and traveling salesmen and hucksters:  There was the rags man, an old ragged man himself, with a strange, dirty, black felt hat, who came around with his horse and wagon calling out, “Rags!  Bones!  Iron!”  What he did with this trash that he paid us pennies for I could never figure out.

There was the jolly, mustached popcorn man, who came around on foot wheeling his bright, flaming machine, sending the heavenly aroma of hot buttered popcorn and roasted peanuts over the neighborhood.  As I recall him, he came at night, in the dark, the glow from his fire lighting up his happy face.

A face I often confuse with this popcorn man’s in my early memory is that of the organ grinder.  This jolly, brightly dressed man traveled through the neighborhoods with his monkey, which was attired, in my memory, like the Philip Morris bellhop.  While the old man ground out his melodies, the monkey danced and passed his hat for our coins of appreciation.

Speaking of grinders, there was the man we called the scissors grinder, who traveled the streets, also on foot, wheeling his cart and grindstone to sharpen knives and scissors.

And there was the vendor of shaved ice, who could transform the simple block of ice into a sweet, cool refreshment that we ate and drank at the same time.

Speaking of ice, a neighborhood favorite was Louie the Iceman–Louis Vigliotti.  He came daily from his ice house in his truck, moving slowly along the street, singing out in his deep voice, “Ice-a frisca, ice-a frisca.”  He was a huge, strong man, and he picked up great blocks of ice with his tongs and shouldered them to the Rose Street ice-boxes.  We had cards with numbers representing the amount of ice we needed that day.  We placed them on the doorknob for Louie to see.

There was also the coal man.  We all used coal furnaces for heating in those days.  The truck backed up to the coal cellar “window” and the coal rolled down the chute in a cloud of heavy black dust.

Others did frequent business in our neighborhood.  The insurance man, Mr. Pape, came around at regular intervals to collect life insurance premiums.  A man  from the Sweetheart Soap Company brought cases of laundry and bar soap.  Our most regular “suit and tie” visitor was a gentleman named Tony, who came daily to pick up the lottery slips.  Although the “bug,” as we called it, was illegal in those days, almost every household on Rose Street invested pennies and nickels and dimes and sometimes even quarters and half-dollars.  One of my sister Dolores’s jobs every weekday evening was to write out Pop’s numbers in his “bug book” for the next day’s pick-up.

Back then I was too young to recognize all the darker things that were surely going on in the world, even in this small world of Rose Street.  Now I am too old to remember them.  Either perspective is satisfying.

(pp.179-186)

Life did go on, significantly altered, for most people.  While Rudy Vallee’s “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” ushered in the decade, it wasn’t long before “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” became the more appropriate anthem.  Within six months four million Americans were out of work.  By the end of the following year, close to fourteen million were unemployed, almost half of the country’s work force.  Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs saw their pay drop, often by half.  For most it began with a cut in the hourly wage, then in the work hours, then in the jobs themselves.  Mental anguish for some led to suicide.  For the average person, the results were hunger, worry, and humiliation.

Victims sought distractions.  Comic strips about family life, like “Blondie,” became popular.  And people flocked to the movies more than ever before.  Chaplin, still resisting the talkies, gave the world City Lights.  Frankenstein, Dracula, and King Kong terrified audiences, and Shirley Temple became America’s sweetheart.

In 1931, at last, Capone landed in prison.  The following year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President and promised a “New Deal.”  Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic solo, and that same year the world followed in horror the events of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

In 1933 Chicago opened its World’s Fair, and Prohibition finally was repealed.  Fiorello LaGuardia was elected mayor of New York City.  Over in Germany, Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor and the first Concentration Camps appeared.

The Warner brothers–Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack, who had lived on Elm Street on Youngstown’s North Side in the early years of the century, erected a hometown monument to their Hollywood success:  The city’s most luxurious structure, The Warner Theater, opened on Federal Street in 1931.  Its lush carpeting, furnishings and art work belied the misery customers faced in the outside, the real world.  Poor, hungry folks settled into dark, soft seats and traveled to strange, opulent worlds where only beautiful people lived, people who always solved their considerable problems in approximately ninety minutes.

Meanwhile, the jobless and homeless occupied “Hoover City” near the city dump, picking through the garbage for nourishment.

Youngstown set up soup kitchens.  Women, with their kids hanging on, brought containers that workers filled with soup, usually vegetable soup.  Each family got a loaf of stale bread.

The blight of the Depression, of course, hit Rose Street hard.  Most of the street’s breadwinners worked in the steel mills.  Work hours were cut way back, and most lost their jobs altogether.

Lay-offs extended beyond the steel mills.  Without unions, seniority was no factor. Beatangelo lost his job with the streetcar company, which was by now deep in the process of converting to motor busses.  Carmen and Danny, although they joined the company after Beatangelo, were able to keep working, because they were on the much needed maintenance crew.

Carmen, who had no driver’s license, said yes, he knew how to drive a truck.  He then went home and found a friend to teach him that very evening.  The next day he was assigned to drive one of the company’s dump trucks, with Danny and their fellow worker, August Ross, making up the maintenance crew.  Although there were fewer work hours and the pay wasn’t high, it was a job.

Carmen, in fact, was one of the few on the block who worked through the Depression.  The streetcars and later the new busses always needed servicing, and in the winter Carmen was on call twenty-four hours each day to salt the roads when it snowed.

Because of this, the company paid the Leones’ phone bill, which meant that his family had one of the few phones on Rose Street that wasn’t disconnected during the Depression.  The neighbors were in and out frequently, “borrowing” the phone.

Some of the neighbors needed more than a phone.  Jo dropped extras into her grocery bag and scrounged up old shoes and coats to pass on to someone on the block that needed help.  This had to be done discreetly.  They were proud people.  Jo managed an excuse each time she showed up with a sack of flour or a bag of eggs.  The most common one was “someone” gave it to her and she already had what she needed.

Sometimes she intentionally dropped an extra pound of spaghetti into the kettle, then sent one of the kids up or down the street with the explanation that these were leftovers and they wouldn’t keep because there was no more ice in the icebox.

If a neighbor child had no shoes and Jo had an extra couple of dollars, the one of her kids that wore the same size–or at least close–mysteriously grew out of a pair and needed new ones.  The used pair went to the neighbor.

Sometimes, lying in bed at night after prayers, Jo confronted her demons about such charity.

“You don’t have much for yourselves,” they argued.  “You take away from the comfort of your own family.”

But her angel stepped in, strangely resembling the mystery lady who had dropped in for dinner on Hine Street long ago.  “What is your own family?” she asked.  “Your husband and your own children?  It doesn’t end there.  Your father and your brothers and sisters?  Is that where you  draw the line?”

Now even though the church in those days discouraged the reading of Scripture by the laity, lest they misinterpret and fall into sin, Jo clung fast to certain passages delivered from the pulpit when the priest interrupted his Latin to read from the huge lectionary and to speak to his flock in the American language that most of them understood.  Jesus’ words, so familiar to Jo, came from the angel’s lips:  “Whatsoever you do to these, the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”

“They’re all my family,” Jo said.

And the demons fled.

Carmen, of course, knew what Jo was doing, but why should he start questioning her actions now?  They all had what they needed.  Luxuries were for others who depended on such things for happiness.  He dreamed sometimes of the mountains in the Abruzzi, of the village of Barrea, of himself, in the cool evening, perched on the wall near the church at the top of the village, talking and singing with his friends.  The beautiful mountains and the pure air that to him were Paradise.  The only Paradise, he believed, when he was forced to leave it.  And now a lifetime and a world away, where the near horizon offered only man-made stacks billowing gray or black clouds into the red sky, he had found in the family around him a Paradise of another sort, with which he was well-satisfied.

He had learned long ago that Jo instinctively knew the right thing to do.  He instinctively accepted that.

Aunt Mary, with her little ones in tow and a wagon and a bushel, walked down Rose Street and across Wilson Avenue, down over the hill to the railroad tracks, and  picked up whatever pieces of coal had fallen from the coal cars.  The toughest part was getting the loaded wagon back up the hill onto the sidewalk without losing any of the coal.  The younger ones always stayed at the bottom to retrieve, one at a time, the coal chunks that fell as the loaded wagon was pushed and pulled to the top.   Sometimes they were able to find enough coal to heat the house for a day.  Aunt Mary split the day’s take down the middle with the Leones.

Though the Rose Street lots were small, each family had a vegetable garden.  The men with their garden forks turned over every inch of ground that could be spared.  Seeds were cheap, more often than not saved by the men from last year’s harvest.  It was like planting pennies and reaping dollars.  Hotbeds produced tomato and pepper plants that were transplanted in narrow rows at the end of May, when the danger of frost had passed, except for those freak Ohio nights when the plants had to be covered one by one with newspaper or rags.

Because fertile ground was at a premium, tomato plants were placed closer than they should have been and later staked so they would climb up instead of sprawling.  Rain barrels placed at down spouts provided water for the many dry spells of the summer.  Sometimes the men mixed manure in the rain barrels and stirred it into a “tea” to nourish the plants.

Carmen’s brother Joe had taken a farm at McKelvey Lake on the outskirts of the city.  He  was able to supply his brothers and friends with cow manure.  At lunch time on a day in the spring, Carmen took the company’s dump truck to Joe’s, and he and his crew of Dan and August filled it with manure.  Then they dropped off one third of it at each home.  Carmen shared his third with the neighbors.

Besides tomatoes and peppers, the gardens always had a good supply of garlic, planted in the fall, and onions, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots–whatever could be squeezed into the limited space.

Some of the men were fortunate enough to have a fig tree at a corner of the garden, transported from Italy.  Since Ohio winters were so severe, the trees had to be tipped over each fall and buried under leaves and old blankets to keep them from freezing.

The men took great pride in their gardens, keeping them carefully manicured.  They were more than a food supply for a hungry family.  They were the works of art, albeit mortal, of skilled artists who didn’t have the fortune or the leisure to attempt other art forms, as so many of their more illustrious countrymen had done throughout history.

As the decade progressed, there chanced to be a widow living on a small farm on Early Road, several miles east of Rose Street.  With her husband gone, the good, fertile land lay unused.  She offered the Leone brothers the use of her farm for gardening.  All she asked in return was a share for her table of the vegetables they grew.

By then Carmen had bought a used 1931 Chevrolet, the perfect vehicle for picking up his brother Dan in the evenings after supper and driving out to work the huge garden on the widow’s farm.  Sometimes Carmen brought along his little son Toots to help.  The men were already tired from their day’s work, but they still labored at the farm until dark.

Then when Carmen dropped Danny off at his house on Shehy Street, he stopped in for a glass of wine before driving down the hill to Rose Street.  When Toots was with them, he too sipped at a small glass of wine.  He hated the bitter taste, but did not want to insult his uncle by refusing it.  The brothers conversed in Italian.  The boy became fidgety, waiting for the buona seras to begin, a sign that they would soon be leaving.  But not too soon.  The brothers, though they worked together by day, still warmed to each other’s company in the evening and were reluctant to part.  Toots counted the buona seras they exchanged at every lull in the conversation, wagering with himself on which one would really mean “good evening” and they could go home.

(pp.207-212)

It was an easy walk from home down to Wilson Avenue and over the Elephant Bridge to Federal Street and downtown.  The bridge was called the Elephant Bridge most likely for some political reason:  It was a white elephant: there was no money to maintain it.  But the kids assumed that it got its name from the fact that when the circus came to town it paraded, with the elephants, from the downtown train station over this bridge toward the circus grounds at Oakland Field.

Aunt Mary and Jo often took the younger ones shopping with them, and sometimes Lena walked them down to one of the movie theaters.

Walking downtown, just over the bridge, they passed the Tesone Coal Company, Ponzi’s Shoe Repair, and numerous little stores, where the children stopped to look at the live chickens and ducks and sometimes rabbits in the windows.  They held their breaths as they approached the fish store, where the sightless eyes of fish on ice stared at them in horror as they passed by.

The great stores and movie palaces were down at the square and beyond.  Youngstown’s two big department stores were Strouss-Hirshberg and the G. M. McKelvey Company, both locally founded and owned.  Aunt Mary called the first one “Zizi Strouss.”  The family spent so much of its time and money at the store, it was like a rich uncle that they felt obliged to stay on good terms with.

The children especially looked forward to the Christmas season at these two stores.  Each tried to outdo the other with its window displays, the great mechanical Santa Clauses and the reindeer and elves, surrounded by wonderful toys, always out of the family’s price range.  Inside, Strouss’s was more fun, because the kids got to ride the magic stairs, the escalators, down to the basement for a “frosted malted.”

There were several five-and-dime stores: Woolworth’s, of course, and Kress’s, McCrory’s, and Murphy’s.  The kids were always lured by the smell of fresh roasted nuts in any of these stores.  Sometimes Jo or Aunt Mary bought a bag for them to munch on as they shopped.

Jo and Aunt Mary seldom had time for the movies, but Lena sometimes took the children to the Palace or the Paramount or the Warner, the city’s three beautiful theaters, to watch a first-run double feature.

But most of the movies they saw were at the Wilson, the neighborhood theater, which they walked to with Lena on Saturday afternoons and almost every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when the movies changed.  They plunked down their dimes, which bought them two feature length films, with cartoons, previews and various short subjects sandwiched between.

They were as young as Snow White, as naive as Pinocchio.  Somehow the magic of film mixed with the magic of God in their young lives: if you were good, you lived happily ever after, no matter how much Strombolis or wicked queen-witches tried to harm you.

*****

All in all, those years before the war were good years.  The younger Leones didn’t know anything about a Depression.  They were together.  They were happy.  They had good food–always that–and clothes to wear.

The family celebrated holidays alternating between the Leone house and Aunt Mary’s. Everybody came.  Those who didn’t live on Rose Street were close enough to walk.

Carmen and the other men set up saw horses and placed long planks across them so they could all sit at one table stretched from one room through wide sliding doorways into the next.

Once the food started coming, it never stopped.  The anti pastos were followed by “wedding” soup with the little cheese croutons and soda crackers to drop in it.  Then came the main course of ravioli or cavatelli or lasagna, followed by chicken and sausage and veal cutlets, and the special Marchagianni meatballs that were breaded and deep-fried, with the green olives inside.  Always there were artichokes and sweet potatoes and a huge salad or other side dishes.  Finally came the fruit and chestnuts and other mixed nuts, with dried figs and dates, and depending on the holiday, cookies and pies.  Before, after, and during there was a variety of flavored “pop” for the children, wine and beer for the adults.

The Christmas Eve meal was different.  Absolutely no meat could be eaten before midnight, so the meal consisted of a variety of fish: fried smelts, bacala, calamari (which was called devil fish), anchovies, eel, shrimp.  The pasta–there was always pasta–was made with a tuna or calamari sauce, and for Lena, because she did not like tomato sauce, there was a special agli oglio (with oil) sauce, that the kids all mispronounced “alleluia.”

After the meal, Santa Claus came.  Not during the night while the children slept, but that evening.  He came to whichever of the two houses the meal was eaten, with his bags of gifts.  The children took turns on his lap, laughing or crying according to their ages.  Sometimes he looked a lot like Zizi Shmack, sometimes like Aunt Mary’s bachelor brother, Nick, sometimes like Aunt Mary herself.

There were few gifts in the Depression years, and they were never extravagant.  While money could be splurged on holiday food, there was not yet that tremendous commercialization of Christmas that has evolved since.  Maybe an orange, some chocolate, and a small toy sufficed.  As the forties approached and some small prosperity could be seen on the horizon, the toys and stocking stuffers got better for the younger ones.

Dolores and Carmen Junior, arriving within a year and a half of each other, and seven years after the family had seemed to stop growing, were like a separate generation.  They had more in common and were more of an age with their aunts’ and uncles’ children than with their own brother and sisters.  Yet even their aunts and uncles were like brothers and sisters, since they had been raised in the same house.  The true relationships blurred.

(pp. 244-259)

Before TV they had to get all the war news from the papers, the radio, and–though it was always rather old news–the March of Time and News of the Week between movies at the Wilson.

Their favorite neighborhood game was War, nothing more than a transformed “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers.”  No one wanted to be the Japs or the Germans.  Angelo, Dolores, and Sonny usually made Junior and Georgie be the enemy.  If Georgie cried enough, the older kids relented and let them all be Americans fighting the imaginary enemy.

The kids learned a war song from somewhere and sang it to the grownups whenever they asked:

Remember Pearl Harbor

When you strike down the barrel on your gun.

Remember Pearl Harbor

Here’s a job you can do, everyone.

Give ’em bomb for bomb,

Give ’em shell for shell.

Kill a million Japs (Here they said “rats”

sometimes)

For every boy that fell.

Remember Pearl Harbor.

Kill a Jap!

Let him rot!

Give him HELL!

That last word they really sang out.  Normally they wouldn’t have gotten away with using it, but here no one minded.

Junior had little metal soldiers, dozens of them, that he lined up and played with sometimes when the other kids weren’t around.  They were all in American uniforms, so here too he had to imagine the enemy.  Sometimes the playing card train became German, so his soldiers could attack it.

Jo gave the children one dollar each week, over and above the dollar Carmen gave them for their allowance, to take to school and buy war stamps that they pasted in little books with the Minute Man on the cover.  When they filled a book with $18.75 worth of stamps, they traded it in for a $25 war bond.

Daily food changed a good deal.  Instead of butter there was a strange white substance called oleo margarine, that came in a plastic bag with a bright orange bubble inside.  They popped the bubble and squeezed the bag until it changed to the color of butter.  They had to go easier on sugar and coffee and everything that was imported.

Gasoline also was rationed.  People were encouraged to walk or ride bicycles, so there would be more fuel for war transportation.

There was little complaining about this.  Those left at home felt helpless enough.  Anything they did for the war effort they were glad to do.

Rose Street had more than its share of service men for such a short block.  In the middle of the war the Youngstown Vindicator printed an article about the number of boys from Rose Street serving their country.  There was a shot of the street, surrounded by photographs of each of the twenty-two boys in the army or navy at that time.  Before the war ended there would be over thirty.

Almost every window on Rose Street had a card in it with at least one star, indicating that a service man or woman lived there.

*****

At night in bed, Carmen snoring beside her, Jo continued her prayer she had started kneeling at the bedside.  She prayed until she fell into sleep.

Then she dreamed.  She stood before someone she seemed to know as God, who, sometimes as she recalled it, had the face of her father, sometimes of Father Franco, sometimes of some dignified, bearded man she had seen in the movies, sometimes the combined faces of her brothers.  Sometimes, strangely, the face was that of the beautiful lady, the angel, who had come to the dinner for Commare Filomena so many years ago.

Jo pleaded to be with her son, because he was in the infantry someplace in Italy , which meant he would be on a battlefield, shooting and being shot at.  She saw him lying somewhere in the dark, in the mud, with a rifle in his hands, gunfire all around.  She needed to be with him, to protect him.  But the face she confronted said she could not protect him.  In war young men die.  It can’t be helped.  Not even God could prevent it.  We all die anyway.  But in war many more die, especially young men.

“But I didn’t raise him to die like that,” she dared to protest, ” before he’s even lived, in some strange place, far away from his family.”

But the face would not relent.  It said only, “There is nothing you can do.”

“At least let me be with him!”  she pleaded.  “Send me to be with him, like you send your angels!”

But the face showed no sign to relent.  “There is nothing you can do,” it repeated.  Then it became again many faces–her father, her brothers, Father Franco, even the faces of the other mothers on Rose Street,  of Delia Febo, Mary Vagnarelli, Donna Cecilia Palumbo.  Even Aunt Mary’s face was there.  Jo collapsed to the ground, but many voices repeated, “There is nothing you can do.”

Then Carmen approached her and reached down for her arm.  She drew away from him.  She would not leave until she had convinced them.  But Carmen did not pull her away.  Instead he stood next to her and spoke to the faces.  “Let her go to be with our son.  There is nothing she can do to protect him.  But let her go.  Send her like an angel to be with our son.”

And the faces, moved by his words, relented.

Then she was there.  She saw her son.  He lay flat in a ditch.  He wore a helmet down almost over his eyes and clutched a rifle in one extended arm, like John Wayne in the war movies at the Wilson.  But she knew him.  Gunfire was all around, lighting up the sky.  She was in Italy.  There were mountains.  She hovered over.  She wanted to be there with him, down in the mud, but she could only watch and pray.  She saw, though it was dark, the other boys–many of them–face down on both sides of a river.  She prayed for all of them.

The guns jarred her awake.  She sat up in a sweat and caught her breath.  Around the room, the moonlight from the window pointed out familiar objects.  The Sacred Heart statue on the dresser and the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague.  Carmen’s work pants hooked on the end post of the bed.  The alarm clock ticked louder than she had ever heard it.  God would hear her prayer.  She felt strangely at peace.  She lay back and studied the face of Carmen in the moonlight.  She placed her arm over his and pulled closer.

*****

At the foot of a mountain in Italy, not far from the villages in the Abruzzi where the family had its roots, was the town of Cassino.  At the peak of that mountain stood an old monastery that the Germans had occupied.  It gave them a view of Allied troop movements for miles around.

The Allies were stuck here at Cassino.  Company B of the 143rd regiment, 36th Infantry Division of the Fifth Army was just about wiped out.  Forty men from the platoon had crossed the river and were cut up by German artillery.  Only eight came back.  All along the line there were similar casualties.

PFC. Horace R. “Toots” Leone lay among several other GIs face down at the edge of the Rapido River, in the dark, shells flying overhead.  Machine gun fire pinned them down.  In one hand he held the rosary beads his mother had given him.  He clutched them so tightly his fingers bled from the crucifix.

A shell hit nearby.  It was a dud.  Another dud.

“Made in Czechoslovakia!” someone yelled out. The others repeated in chorus, “Made in Czechoslovakia!”

Every third or fourth shell that whistled in failed to explode.  Each time the cheer went out, “Made in Czechoslovakia!”

A rumor had spread through camp that the Germans were using ammunition sabotaged by workers in the slave labor factories in Czechoslovakia.  Toots thanked God that the stories were true and blessed whoever risked their lives in that factory sending out duds.

And he prayed, clutching the beads, that he would live to see his family again.  He pictured his mother leading the family, kneeling around the dining room table as they had so often done, in a recitation of the rosary.  It had bored him when he was a child and Mama got the notion to have everyone say the rosary, as she often did when something was troubling her.  He would look up at the big clock on the buffet.  It always took between eight and nine minutes, unless she or one of the girls threw in something extra.  But he gradually came to appreciate the ordeal, even to desire it.  Mama knew it worked.  Praying worked.  When he looked into her eyes, he knew too.

He had wondered if he could kill,  if he could bring himself to kill.  Here he had no choice.  It was only darkness and the shells –some of them now– exploding.  He could see nothing to shoot at to save his soul–or to lose it.  He could only pray and, thankfully, every few moments join in the chorus, “Made in Czechoslovakia!”  That became part of the prayer, though it sometimes made him lose track of the “Hail Marys.”

Between “Hail Marys” he sometimes interjected his own words: If I live, Dear Lord, if you let me live, if I never have to kill or be killed, I will thank you every day.  I will say a rosary every day to thank you.

But others, so many others, his friends, were gone.  Who was he to be spared?  What did God have to do with this Hell he had fallen into anyway?

But he knew God was even here.

Yet who was he to live?  Why should he, when the others…

Another scream from the black sky.  Waiting.  Waiting.  Waiting.  Nothing.  Another dud! “Made in Czechoslovakia!”  The cross of the rosary beads dug into his fingers.

At that moment Toots felt the rhythmic movement of the tall G. I. immediately to his right, sobbing silently.

“Herm?  You okay?”

“My feet.  They’re hurtin’ bad.  They’re freezin’.”

Then Toots realized that they were jammed so close together there was no way for the man to pull his feet up out of the icy water.  Toots’s feet didn’t even reach the water, but if the six foot five Herrmann raised his they would be in the line of the German machine gun fire that had them pinned down.

Toots turned on his side and had the soldier turn on his, facing him.  Then he had him pull up his knees until his large boots rested between Toots’s thighs.  Toots stuffed the rosary beads into his pocket and took the soldier’s boots in his hands, massaging, boots and all.  He had no idea whether this helped the circulation, but it was at least a distraction.

After a while the soldier, calmer now, said, “Leone, you saved my life.”

Another shell whistled in.  Nothing.  Another dud.  “Made in Czechoslovakia!” the cry went out.

Someone, in the confusion that followed, located a huge log across the river at a narrow spot, and the men, one at a time, retreated back across to safety.

Incredibly, the next night the division, devastated from the battle the night before, was ordered to try again.  This time, the Germans had strung barbed wire across the river and the Americans, trying to cross, got hung up in the wire and were cut down by German fire.  Again they had to retreat.

Finally, the Allies decided to bomb the monastery.  The battle of Monte Cassino had served its purpose.  The Germans had been focused here while Allied troops landed at Anzio Beach and moved up toward Rome.  Hundreds had died before the monastery, like the town below, became a pile of dust.

PFC. Leone survived.  He didn’t know the fate of the soldier, Private Herrmann, whose frozen feet he had tried to warm.

Shortly after Cassino, Toots was transferred from the infantry to the Military Police and was sent to guard the train station in Rome after the Allies took the Eternal City.  Then he was sent for guard duty in Luxembourg.  Weeks afterwards, of all assignments, he was sent to be a cook in France, as his father had been in the First World War.

Back on Rose Street, Carmen told Jo to ask Toots when she wrote her next letter if he could look up the two little French girls, Margarite and Marcella, that he had befriended in France during the First World War.

*****

Toots didn’t forget his promise of a daily rosary.  Many years later, one of his sons would hand him a gift, a black pouch containing brand new rosary beads.  “You wore out your last ones,” the son joked.

When Toots pulled the beads from the pouch, a tiny tag spiraled to the floor.  He picked it up and read the words: MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA.

Fifty years after the war ended, someone sent Toots a book on the Rapido River battle.  It listed the soldiers who were killed, wounded, or missing in action at Monte Cassino.  He found the name and home address of Private John Herrmman among those listed as wounded.  A series of phone calls tracked him down.  The two relived by telephone the memory of that night at the Rapido.

*****

Toots, in that kitchen in France, often thought of his buddies who had died at Cassino. Why should he not have died with them?  There was something unfair about it all.  He sometimes even blamed himself that he prayed so hard, and he wondered if it was fair that God answered him and not them, who, he was sure, also prayed.

Toots didn’t find Margarite and Marcella.  He did find a French family who welcomed him into their home frequently for dinner.  Oddly, the wife was named Margarite.

One afternoon the baby, playing on the floor, picked up a coin and swallowed it.  It lodged in the child’s throat.  He couldn’t catch his breath.  His father shook him and slapped him on the back, but to no avail.  The baby turned blue and began to lose consciousness just as Toots arrived.

Toots grabbed the child and placed his mouth over the child’s mouth, slowly breathing in and out.  The family looked on in terror. They had never seen nor heard of this strange procedure.  In seconds the baby began to breathe again.

The American soldier had saved the life of their child.

Meanwhile the war progressed.  The summer of 1944 had brought the Normandy invasion, the beginning of the end for Hitler’s forces.  In May of the following year, the Germans surrendered.  The war in Europe was over.

*****

A few weeks back, while visiting at my brother’s house, his wife Louise handed me a letter that she had found among his papers.  Here is that letter, exactly as it was written in Mom’s hand:

Youngstown 6- Ohio

July-30-1944

Dear Toots,

Received your letter of the 20 of July and was very pleased to hear that you are well and I can say the same here.

Toots about explaining the dreams I fully understand what happened and believe me when I say that for some reason or other I just knew all the while what was happening there and that you were taking part in it.  All though everyone here was telling me that I was just imagining it but my heart was with you believe me.  I just prayed that everything would be all right with you and God sure was good and answered my prayers.  So I will say let’s forget about it now and I’m asking you to keep faith always in God and He knows best.

Now about Dunne [Michael Dunne was a soldier Ray met in boot camp.  They became buddies, but got separated when they were sent overseas.] I haven’t heard anything else but expect Dorthy to call me to-morrow.  I sent her a special delivery today and I know she will phone me.  Only Toots please believe me when I tell you that we didn’t know before May what had happened to him.  I don’t think you could of done anything or went to see him for you already were where you are now, and if you found out how he was please let me know.  His family found out everything I told you in May in fact after the 21 of May so I kept still about a month without telling you but I just had to in hopes you could go to him.

Now let me tell you about these two babies.  They are just two little devils but I love them.  They make me so mad sometimes but they come with the cutest little words such as Mama kiss me and she puts up her little doll mouth, I’m talking about Maryann.  She can’t say Granma so she says Mama.  And Jimmy he just follows her and does what she does and makes sure he gets into everything.  They both know all the pictures.  Uncle Amie, Uncle Toots, Daddy, and Maryann if you ask her where is your Daddy she sings it and says My Daddy’s in the Navy.  My Daddy’s in the Navy.  But breaking things they’re the berries, always breaking anything they can grab.  I could go on and on telling you all the things they do.  I can’t even walk in the back yard they’re both ready to go bye bye with me.

Well I’ve said enough and I want to write to Amie yet so I’ll say take good care of yourself and love from everyone here but most from your mother that loves and thinks of you always.

P.S.  I forgot to tell you I got a letter from Amie yesterday, and he is well.  Today we mailed you another package so be on the alert for it.  I hope you like whats in it.

P.S. Jr.  As you see I’m sending you Mr. Young’s picture [He was one of the Rose Street neighbors]. I hope you will like it.

God Bless and take care of you and all the boys.

*****

On a September afternoon at the Wilson Theater, without warning the lights went up and the film stopped.  A buzz of anger rose in the young audience.  Not another broken film!  Then gradual silence moved like a wave from the back to the front row as the manager, whom everyone called Uncle John, rushed down the center aisle and leaped up onto the stage.  “It’s over!” he shouted.  “The Japanese have surrendered!  The war is over!”

The theater emptied.  Lena and the kids ran up Forest and down Rose Street, Lena crying all the way, the kids dancing.

The houses were empty.  Jo and the other Rose Street mothers were already over at St. Francis.  Lena and the kids ran through Conti’s yard and into the church where mothers sang out the words of the Hail Mary as Father Sofranec, kneeling at the altar, led them in reciting the rosary.

On December 12th, Junior had the best birthday present he could have imagined.  His big brother came home.  Nothing could ever go wrong again.

Of course, some things did .  The boys, all of them, came home to Rose Street and tried taking up their lives again.  So did their families.  For the most part it worked.  Sometimes it didn’t.

Toots, whom everyone now tried calling Ray, his middle name, got a letter early in the new year.  His French family had a new son.  In gratitude for his saving the life of their other son, they wished to name the new baby Horace, Toots’s real first name.  They asked him to be the godfather by proxy.

Toots decided then that it was all right that he survived Monte Cassino.  God had other plans for him and this was a sign.

Junior, in the meantime, still looked for that something special God had planned for him, according to the nun at the hospital when he swallowed the peanut.  But he was young yet.  There was time.

*****

As I write this, I am no longer young.

I’m not sure what was the something special that the nun referred to sixty years ago, but I think she was right, probably because I think there’s something special planned for all of us.

It could be my eleven kids.

It could also be that I’m the Ishmail of this family, the one destined to tell a story that needs to be told.

Life went on.  Lots of good things happened.  Some bad.  Grandpa was gone.  Mama was older. Papa was older.  Somewhere in there the kids started calling them Mom and Pop.  Some even started calling me “Carmen.”

We all got older.

The year after the war ended we sold the house on Rose Street to the Febos and moved away.  It was just several blocks away, up the hill off Shehy Street to Garland Avenue, still on the East Side.  We all knew that, whatever was ahead of us, another world had ended.

Someday, not too many years hence, all of us who lived on Rose Street in those golden days will be gone.  I want my children and theirs to know about these people- -and there were many others of other families like them- -who lived when the world was no kinder than it is now, but who had a burning love for those around them and an unquenchable faith in God, that made it possible for them not only to survive, but to prevail.

They were children, far more innocent than we.  They had neither the education that we’ve had, nor the constant exposure to horror that we get daily from the media.  We’ve become jaded, cynical.  They believed.  They looked for and found their angels.

We need to find again that innocence.

My Rose Street family was neither rich nor famous.  But they are the heroes of my life.

My mother and father were the heroes of a lot more lives than mine.

I want my children to know them.

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