By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, New Year’s Eve was the one holiday my father, “Daddy,” celebrated with my mother and my two kid sisters and me. And Bapy, our Polish immigrant granny!
My father was a rover, an Italian Romeo, who my poor minimum-wage-working mother fell in love with cuz she felt the magic with Daddy (lust!), after dutifully going with a dutiful, church-going Pole from the neighborhood for years. “Stan” had loved her, was romantic: he gave my mother an engagement ring. He once took off his coat and laid it over a big mud puddle so my mother could walk on it and not through the puddle! He was a furniture delivery kid for Millbury Furniture on Millbury Street, who went on to become a school teacher.
But “Ma” chose foolishly: she dumped good boy Stan for bad boy Daddy, the hot Mediterranean with killer profile – Daddy’s high, red pompadour (his moniker when he was a kid? “Red”!), his long elegant Roman nose! Swoon-time! – and attitude. Daddy came with the complete bad boy package: a big-boned German German Shepherd dog named Heidi (tougher than the American breed), a big dump truck where Heidi sat in the passenger seat and hard, calloused, workman hands that had caressed many a’ ghetto-girl breasts and hot rod tires, and a true rock n roller outsider stance. Daddy was taciturn, even gruff, kept his demons close to his chest. He didn’t talk to us kids, his children! – or any kids, for that matter. What was the point? He was in and out of our lives but always managed to make a pit stop at our Green Island flat when he needed to recover from whatever shit he had stirred up around Worcester.
I remember: Daddy walking into our Lafayette Street tenement after days or weeks or MONTHS away from home, MIA, looking like the January winds had blown him into our poor flat! His pale hazel eyes red and teary, his now auburn hair wild and swept-up. He had axl grease on his hands and under his fingernails and on the front and back of his blue work shirt. Seeing this junkyard dog of a man, Ma would (to our consternation) … melt!! Like goo. Get all flustered and start running – running!! – to their closet to get Daddy a clean tee shirt, run to another closet to get Daddy a clean white hand towel. And as the Prodigal Daddy washed his dirty face and dirty hands in our kitchen! sink, Ma pulled out the big T Bone steak from the refrigerator (her pretty round ass filling out her snug house coat) she had bought special for Daddy at Supreme Market on Millbury Street. Just for him alone – an entire steak! We kids never got steak! Neither did Ma, who only allowed herself to gobble up Daddy’s leftovers – the steak’s “tail” – all fatty – after Daddy had finished eating. I remember seeing her eat the tail end by the kitchen stove, stealthily, her pretty mouth shiny with its fat – only after clearing the TV stand on which she had served Daddy his big meal, in their bedroom, where he lounged on their bed, solitary as a lobster. He couldn’t be bothered with or by his three little girls…. Today I make the same special salad dressing Ma once made for Daddy: a saucer of olive oil; add one clove of garlic, finely diced …
… a teaspoon of vinegar and pinch of salt. Stir with a salad fork and voila!
We kids would stay in the “front” room quietly watching The Carol Burnet Show on our black and white Philco while Daddy feasted on his steak in the bedroom. We were 8 and 7 and 7 (twins) and expected nothing. “Good little soldiers,” as Ma used to call us. We kids, Ma – and, of course Bapy, who got Daddy’s number from day #1 and hated his guts – had grown accustomed to Daddy’s ways: no birthday gifts on our birthdays, no candy Valentine’s hearts on Valentine’s Day, no Christmas gifts during the holidays. Daddy was a cheapskate who kept his money to and for himself; he had zero interest in making his little girls smile during their birthdays or the holidays.
Except during New Year’s Eve, a time when something magical stirred in Daddy. For two or so years he was a night watchman at the Worcester Country Club. Night time was his time, and he worked the holidays at the country club for time and a half pay. So… Daddy worked his shift New Year’s Eve and, way past midnight, after watching the club, but also watching (or hearing) Worcester’s well-heeled drink champagne, dance past midnight to a local big band, ring in the New Year with party favors that cranked, whirred, buzzed, twirled and honked… After the big ball room New Year’s countdown, after the big night, after all the Merry makers had departed for their nice homes in Burncoat or the West Side, the ones with big back yards and flowers trimming front lawns, so quiet in the moonlight…only then would Daddy stoop and pick up all the spent favors, the discarded tin foil caps, the popped poppers on the dance floor and take them home to us. He’d even take the ceiling and wall decorations off their perches! The big tissue paper silver balls and the big crepe-paper New Year’s bells that hung from the country club’s ballroom ceiling were not safe from Daddy’s nimble fingers!… And the big cardboard New Year’s Babies that had hung from the ceilings and had floated above all the dancers and party goers in their top hats and cute diapers, like the champagne bubbles… floating off to happy land… would float right into our third-floor Lafayette Street tenement, in Green Island!
So much fun to hear Ma yell to us: “Look what Daddy brought you from the Country Club!” It was past 3 in the morning but no difference! Ma wanted us up! My two sisters and I jumped out of our beds and, in our pajamas, ran into our big kitchen where Daddy was gingerly placing (on the kitchen floor) our New Year’s treasures. We squealed and picked up the used party favors and streamers and began running in big circles on our big kitchen floor. We took the white big paper bells and lifted them high over our heads into the air and yelled: HAPPY NEW YEAR! We ran with the streamers – our New Year’s Eve’s kites – all over the apartment! I grabbed a big cardboard New Year’s Eve baby! Tomorrow Ma would help me tape my diapered little prince on my bedroom wall!
Ma made sure silly Belle, our English Setter mix …
… was on her dog pillow, an old chair cushion bestowed to her by Bapy, her true mistress!, away from all the tinsely temptations!
Daddy’s New Years Eve was as fun to me as another winter tradition in our flat: when Ma hung the laundry to dry in our kitchen! On two long ropes she had strung up from one wall to the opposite one! We were too poor to have a clothes dryer, so Ma always hung our laundry outside on the back porch clothesline. Except for below freezing days like today when she brought the operation indoors and my kid sisters and I would clap our hands and giggle and hug each other as Many hung the big white sheets out to dry. We’d run under them touching them with our hands, our little faces, screaming!, Ma smiling. They smelled so nice, our make-believe snow mountains, drowsy and deep and white in Green Island!
So News Year’s Eve at our house was just as exuberant! Ma smiled as she watched us play and Bapy, sitting in her over-stuffed wooden easy chair at the head of the kitchen table, sipped her cup of Sanka instant coffee and sang a Polish nursery rhyme while tapping our little butts with the palm of her old hand as we ran by her giggling, glitter on the soles of our feet!
Bapy loved music and encouraged us to sing and make joyful noise year ’round! Our house was filled with music 24/7, except for nighttime when we slept. But during the days the radio blared Bapy’s polkas and Ma’s Beatles and Herman’s Hermits and Top 45, Wolfman Jack, baby! On special occasions I cranked up Bapy’s Victrola and played Ma’s old 33s, from when she was a maid in the Bishop’s house in Springfield: Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney …
… The Dorsey Brothers, even Al Jolson! I used to love to belt out, with Al: “Hallelujah, I’m a bum again!!”!
Come January 2, Daddy was a “bum” again, as Bapy sputtered into her cold Sanka, cursing him in Polish (“Dog’s Blood” spoken in her native tongue sounded deadly). He was gone from the flat, our lives, once more. With feeling. He had made his getaway early in the morning, while we kids were still sleeping, as was his custom, usually around 5:30 a.m. Ma would wake up at 5 to make him his breakfast and fresh coffee. See him off!! My sisters and I got to keep our New Year’s Eve paper regalia, but the bells and streamers now sat crumpled in a corner, on the kitchen floor. Except for my cardboard New Year’s baby which still delighted me and, like I said, Ma would help me tape to my bedroom wall later in the day.
Looking back, I now see that our peripatetic Daddy was almost as poor as we were. Once he was beaten up by a goodfella for a Shrewsbury Street loan shark who didn’t get the dough Daddy had borrowed from him – and still owed him. I remember Daddy coming through our backdoor (of course), sheepishly – so unlike his usual entrances. I remember Ma putting her hand to her mouth, which had fallen open, then running to Daddy to examine his big cauliflower ears…
So, today, I catalog some of the gifts a poor Daddy gave to his poor daughters. At the time, I considered them more his plunder than our gifts, but still… He always placed them on our big kitchen table or big ol’ kitchen floor, like sacred junkyard offerings (when they weren’t too cumbersome):
1. A Frank Sinatra album
2. Two Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons albums (one of them double!)
3. Barbershop equipment – all the mirrors, stand up and wall, which he picked up somewhere in his truck – got paid by the shop owner for hauling them away. I remember running downstairs to see all the mirrors in his truck, glinting in the sun, and helping him lug them all upstairs, to our third floor tenement!
4. A cast iron baker’s rack, which I also helped him lug upstairs! It became my plant and ceramic animal stand. For years!
5. A rusty old Maxwell House Coffee can, filled haphazardly with dirt and in the middle of the dirt: a lovely pink lady slipper, puffy in full bloom! My sisters and I rushed to the old coffee can when Daddy placed it on the kitchen table. We ooohed!! and ahhhed!! at the lovely flower, touching its velvety, prickly hot pink petal. We had never seen a lady slipper in our lives! Not even pictures of them in our school books! I was mesmerized….Daddy had picked it during one of his many walks in the woods up by West Boylston. We didn’t walk in the woods, like our father. And he’d never dream of taking us – especially three GIRLS! – along with him, though I remember one of my sisters, the Tom Boy and his favorite, always pleading with him to accompany him.
I never asked to go along…
And those are all the birthday and holiday gifts my father gave to me and my two sisters. Ma got squat. But she kept her costume jewelry from Springfield, gifts from Stan, in a box lined with purple crushed velvet and wore her twinklers to our schools’ Parent Nights where she was told what good girls she had. And Rosalie! So smart! All A’s again!
My gifts to my mother!
… I still have a few of Ma’s earrings. She used to let me wear them around the house when I had a cold and was too sick to go to school or play outside. They were a quick pick-me-up! But I never wear them these days – I don’t want to lose them, lose the memory💜.
These days, I live in Green Island, again. I see on my old Millbury Street the new old Millbury Street…today’s poor …
… walking, as once my sisters, mother and I had walked, sometimes trudged, during winter in the inner city: wearing layers of cheap clothing, heads down, heading home with treasures like a bag of bread, a fish sandwich, a scarf or two from friends more comfortably off…And I look up to see the snowman, angel, snowflake or Santa decals pasted to the frozen-shut crap windows above the storefront windows. And my heart flies straight up to meet those windows’ Santa’s and snowflakes! I love them so much – best of all! I see my Green Island childhood in them: poor families making the best of things, making things Merry and Bright in spite of the fact! The decals pasted up by poor kids or their mothers or fathers or their uncles or aunts. Or big brothers, sisters … cousins. No matter! It’s all done with the same love! And hope!
These Green Island Christmas windows will stay decorated through January, and I will look up at them every time I go by them!
Happy New Year’s Eve!
P.S. We remember Maggie Roche, who died this year. 💜 you, Roche Sisters!