I’ve been getting up early lately, and the smells, sounds, and sights remind me of when I was a kid in Sag Harbor.
Our house, at the foot of Howard Street, was the epicenter of our extended family during the summer, since the three Forcucci sisters who grew up in it all shared the house.
Papa’s garden, amazingly full for such a small place, was brimming, overflowing with goodies ripening by the hour. The rabbits and squirrels rustled in and around the vines. Buzzing bees hovered over the flowers.
My uncle Tom, Aunt Lucille’s husband, was larger than life, a six-three former semi-pro baseball player who must have weighed a good 240 by the time I was nine or 10. He, in the words of my father Stanley, “liked to spend more than he made.” He was always coming home with some big-ticket item we all knew he couldn’t afford, like bicycles for the kids or the electric bread slicer that Papa had seen in the bakery.
My Aunt Adelia, a widow, would usually invite a couple of friends out. My big brother Stanley, a sailing buff, would come around with his friends from the yacht club.
It seems Adelia, who dropped out of Pierson High School to help Papa work the fruit truck, had been subjected to one too many putdowns by our neighbor, Patricia, whose husband Bob was a top shelf writer for Look magazine. They had ascended to the rarified air of Camelot and became friendly with Jackie and Jack. Their son Brian was my brother’s age, and he invited my brother to go to Devon for summer camp. Pat smugly remarked that “our kind” couldn’t possibly afford the camp, and even if we could Stanley wouldn’t be “accepted.”
Adelia had become quite wealthy — she started by investing in AT&T at the advice of an acquaintance, Ed Sullivan (yes, that Ed Sullivan).
Livid, she told my brother he could indeed go to camp and the sailng school as well. “Do you know how much it costs?” Pat snarled.
“It doesn’t matter,” Adele replied. Stanley Junior was quickly “accepted” when he presented the bank check at Devon.
Every once in a while Tom would bring a huge steak home and make a big show of barbecuing it. When lobster bakes became the rage, he bought a garbage pail, grabbed a bunch of seaweed, and followed the recipe he was told about in the bar, until after three or four times it was perfected: wood at the bottom, then a layer of seaweed, then potatoes wrapped in tin foil, and then a layer of corn, and then the lobsters, claws snapping, and then clams. The top of the garbage pail, with a couple holes in it, would go on. He’d light the fire beneath the pail, carefully time it on his watch, and then open it, the steam filling the backyard. If the lobsters were red, it was game time.
When Papa bought the house at the turn of the century (the 20th century!) it was divided in two: split right down the middle.
The reason was, two families — immigrants from Italy — had to share the house to afford it. The thing was 140 years old already, and looked it. No one complained when the poor but industrious foreigners started cleaning the old place up and cleared the brambles to make a garden. No one believed anything would grow down there in those lowlands but Papa had the knack.
A couple of years passed. Once the wine had aged sufficiently in the giant oak casks in the dank basement, neighbors became friends.
There was no bathroom until the 1930s when Papa finally installed one where the coat closet was. I never remember having only one bathroom being a problem. My mom would say, “If you really have to go, use the outhouse,” which was still there, in the back of the garden. I never did, and no one else did, either. In fact, I never opened the door in all the years I lived there, not once.
Years after Papa and Grandma were gone, Adelia wanted to do something for St. Andrew’s Church in their honor. The pastor suggested a statue of St. Andrew. My aunt had one carved in marble and sent from Italy. By the time it arrived, Father Soave, the new pastor, soured on the idea and put the thing in the garage. When Adelia complained, he said it needed a base. So, my aunt had one of those built as well. Still, no statue. So my aunt sent one of those “big shot lawyers from the city” to visit Soave. The statue went up the next day, and it’s still there now, right in the front yard. Check it out next time you are in Sag Harbor.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.