Grandma's House in the Country
By Anthony Buccino
'It was so bountiful and grandma was so loving and treated us real good,' cousin Marie remembers. In those days, there was only one other house on Gless Avenue.
The first ten years of my life my family lived in a four-room cold-water flat on the second floor of the house Grandpa Domenic built on Gless Avenue in the 1920s.
My parents moved in years earlier as newlyweds when Dad came back from overseas. In 1946 my sister was born. Three misses later, I came along in June, 1954. That was it. So, the four of us got along okay in the two-bedroom flat. My sister got to sleep on the fold-out sofa bed. By the time I played on the paved street the neighborhood had become civilized. But not too long before, life was different in Grandma’s house in the country.
Grandpa Domenic and Grandma Lucy lived as if they were still farm folk where they were both born in Laviano, east of Naples, Italy. She harvested vegetables, figs, pears, grapes and eggs. On Sunday she would cut the head off a chicken and hang it to drain in the sink, or later the bathtub, then cook it and serve it to the family with garden tomato gravy (we never called it sauce) for Sunday dinner.
She drew water from one of two deep round stone-rimmed wells using a bucket held in place by a thick clothes line. A dipper was always handy for a cool drink. When Domenic and Lucy moved here from the top of the hill, Grandma’s farm was just about the only house on the hill. Her green lush farm seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see although it was only a hundred feet in any direction.
Grandma Lucy had chickens and goats and her beloved grape vines that had borne fruit for wine my grandfather pressed in the cellar and stored there in oaken barrels.
In the 1920s, Grandpa Domenic, a laborer who dug ditches to feed his family, and his compares built the two-story house on the dirt road called Gless Avenue. He owned the two-story next door, too. That house they had moved with horse and wagon from four blocks up the hill on Passaic Avenue. Public Service needed the original lot for power lines they were planning.
Grandpa Domenic built the shed and he worked in the back yard where they grew vegetables galore and raised chickens, pigs and had a cow, too. Grandpa cherished visits of his oldest daughter Susie, her husband and their children. They lived in a three-room cold-water flat on the fourth floor, front, on Fifth Street in Newark. The children grew to love his bald head, ruddy but light complexion and bright blue eyes. Grandpa Domenic visited them with his horse and wagon. He took them for rides around the block and gave each child a nickel before he left.
Susie’s children thought Grandpa was rich because he and Grandma “had good food to eat and there was food available all the time and they lived in a big house with a big, big yard and we could run as much as we liked and not worry about getting run over and no one seemed angry. And when we left, we carried bags of vegetables from the garden and fruit from the trees” from Grandpa’s farm in the country called Belleville. “It was so bountiful and grandma was so loving and treated us real good,” my cousin Marie remembers. In those days, there was only one other house on Gless Avenue.
Grandma’s bushy grapevines weaved through our backyard on tender trellises clear up the hill to the raggedy fence marking her property line on the next street. Grandma owned property through to the next block in spite of the Great Depression. On February 4, 1929, Grandpa Domenic died of pneumonia at age 59. He left five young children, Connie, Dottie, Joe, Angelo and Val, in the farmstead with Grandma.
All through the Depression and long after, Grandma had rents coming in, and her “farm” full of fresh food in the dead end that was Gless Avenue. On her open-air back porch, she left on the railings in the sun her tomatoes, peppers, and gourds.
Cousin Marie remembers Grandma owned all the property and the farm took up the whole block, she gradually sold it off as the years passed. Grandma was loving, my older cousins tell me, but not a good housekeeper, she preferred the outdoors with her animals and garden. She tended more to her fig trees and grapevines than her house. A robust woman, she never got sick. She was convinced, long ago, people only go to the hospital to die.
In winter Grandma and her second husband, Tony Pavone, lovingly wrapped our few fig trees as mummies ready for their tomb. Then as spring beckoned, she unfurled the long sticks that would deliver the fruit of her childhood.
After her second husband died, Grandma, who only ate what came from her garden, her chickens and eggs, all the greens and animals went too. Grandma no longer trusted anyone, and stayed alone. In her house everything accumulated into mounds. She stacked newspapers in the bathtub and piled clothes on chairs. Before long Grandma went into the hospital, pleading with my mother that people only go to the hospital to die. And there she died of malnutrition at age 79 in June, 1959, when I was four.
In our neighborhood 35 years ago were other people like my Grandma. They, too, were old, and spoke to each other in thick accents, Italian, Polish, or Greek. It’s a wonder anyone understood anyone in our neighborhood of Babel. Yet, none of their properties compared in size or flavor to Grandma’s little piece of Italy. It is no wonder we kids thought that when we got old we would have to speak another language.
Adapted from Sister Dressed Me Funny.
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.
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