He Is Wheezing– Easters in Brooklyn

(Photo by Bustem' Down, Maryland)

A lot has been written about Christmas in Brooklyn; in fact, I myself have gone on and on and ON about that holiday as it is performed– yes, performed!– by Italian families in the borough of Fageddaboutit. (You can find some in this blog’s archives.) But not much is written about Easter, probably because it’s usually so exhausting and reliving it all can be a chore.

I figure, since it comes in Spring, it was particularly excitable because the sap was running high in the trees and the snow was almost all gone. The first bulbs were making an appearance in my grandmother’s garden, sometimes poking through a slightly icy lawn, and you knew that school would be ending in a couple of months. THAT was exciting.

We always got new Easter outfits for the Big Day. My little sisters Lois and Gina were usually dressed in something matching, and they looked like little cupcakes when we took pictures of them holding hands in front of the fire hydrant. All the week before, the sewing machine would have been running, a contraption built into a desk that lived in my bedroom. What’s a young guy in the throes of rampant puberty supposed to do when he wakes up because his mother and grandmother are seated six feet away at their economy-sized sweatshop, adding bric-a-brac to Easter hats? He tries to close his ears against the Italian mutterings and says a few Hail Marys, and then gets out of bed, only to step on several straight pins which have lodged themselves into the green shag carpet.

I was not immune to fashion, though my clothes came off the rack– one year I was sheathed inside a brown wool Nehru jacket that made me look like a miniature version of  one of the Smothers Brothers while appearing on the Johnny Carson show.

We colored eggs, though they never quite looked like the examples pictured on the boxes. Dad would get adventurous and mix colors, and by the end of the session we’d end up with a lot of softly-tinted gray eggs. We pre-dated Martha Stewart!

Dressed and off to a packed Mass, I would notice that all the people would be whispering indignantly in the pews: “Look at her! You never see her in here except fror the holidays, the old cow. And she’ll leave right after Communion so’s she can be first in line at the bakery.”  “It’s about time she got her hair done, but why bother if she was gonna wear that stupid hat?”  “Willya get a load of that perfume? What’s she doing, keeping away horseflies?”  It was comforting to know that I was surrounded by such freewheeling Christianity; I would have been suspicious if suddenly everyone had been on their best behavior. And if I was lucky, I’d get to sit behind someone with fox furs dangling in front of me.

We usually had the Big Meal at my grandmother’s upstairs; a lot of people from her side would gather there, which meant the Magnanis from Sunset Park and further out Bay Ridge. These were our quieter, Northern Italian family, diametrically and culturally opposed to my father’s louder and more boisterous Neapolitan family. My second cousin John and I didn’t know about cultural divides, however, and usually ended up fighting like Sicilians on the linoleum floors.

One year we went to the Magnanis instead; the whole lot of us piled into cars and drove to Sunset Park, which is the neighborhood my mother’s family started out in when they moved to Brooklyn in the 1930’s.   [A couple of years ago she and I went to visit my Uncle in the hospital, a few blocks from where Mom lived. I asked if she wanted to see the house again, and she said “not really, but I know you want to.” So we drove to 50th. Street below Third Avenue, and there it was. Mom stared, and was very quiet. I’d never seen her so transported into the past like that. And I knew the instant it was time to drive away.]

The Magnanis lived a block up from the actual Sunset Park, where my friends and I used to bike ride to swim and where I had my first dose of guys my age who were remarkably advanced in terms of growing up bodily; let’s just say that my little pink buddies and I felt terribly inadequate next to these brown Puerto Ricans.

The Magnanis had a rabbit for Easter dinner that year, an animal dear to Italian hearts. I don’t remember that any of us children actually ate any; we were sitting at a table to ourselves, probably having chicken pot pies. I can’t remember. What I do remember is cousin John taking me downstairs to his basement lair and showing me a little white box wrapped in tape and rubber bands. I had to guess what was inside– earrings? Money? Like a young Frankenstein, he dramatically opened it up and revealed two marble-shaped objects: “These are the rabbit’s eyes.” I remember knocking the box out of his hands and then running back upstairs to the safety of the pot pies and my Easter candy. And later that evening I accidentally knocked over my grand-aunt Nella’s lava lamp, all all hell broke loose. Suddenly that Tuscan woman was acting VERY Neapolitan.

I was an allergic child, suffering through years of needles and scratch tests and bearded doctors in faraway offices (Flatbush). One of the things I was allergic to was chocolate, and so I only received WHITE chocolate at Easter– which everybody else coveted. [Yes, Carol– we’ve discussed this before. I don’t get it either; they were only trying to make me happy. But I never wheezed when I ate white chocolate!]

When you think of Easter, you’re supposed to think of the risen Christ, and renewal, and the promise that life goes on regardless of the horrors called to mind on Good Friday. That’s the idea, but when I think of Easter I immediately picture my two little sisters dressed in matching blue coats with patriotic piping sewn around their tiny white hats, waiting patiently to open their baskets to find real, dark chocolate– a treat that they were forbidden to share with their staring, wheezing older brother.

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13 responses

  1. I remember the new outfits every year – one year we were going to some fancy gathering in Fort Hamilton and I hid under the dining room table and refused to come out until my mom agreed that I could get black patent leather shoes instead of white ones. That was 41 years ago and I still have an impressive collection of black patent leather shoes. :)
    Thanks for the great Bklyn memories!!

  2. OMG That was Great!! I don’t remember You guys coming to Nella’s it was 43 st, and we are from Bayridge not fort Hamilton…just in case your writing that book!!!I will need to post pics of easter past My mother was and still is a seamstress, therefore I had to endue being dressed like her!!! I hated it.. I didnt have a sis so I guess she felt and still does we could be sisters!!! NOT!!..capes were in and she made em I had some beannie type hat and she had the big hat on..mine was yellow I think her’s was purple will post pics if I can dig em out!! A restaruant here in PHX wants to serve rabbit and the whole community is in an up roar!!! sacriligious!!!!I remember one time My mom made it and its good, people do not know this in red sauce with olives my favorite meal, and Aunt Eva took a freakin fit!!!I’ll never forget it!!! Keep writing these stories are great!! My truly only real Memory of cuzzin John is him always taking us to the basement to hear him play guitar and sing “The house of the rising son”!! LOL! he is living his dream and plays and sings Great!!

  3. Pingback: Easter Madness in 1960's Brooklyn - City-Data Forum

  4. Mass sounds like the GCB (Good Catholic Brooklynites) of it’s time. I can associate with the white chocolate. I was allergic to the regular kind myself (terrible rashes). I always got hard candys and lots and lots of jelly beans. Guess my family didn’t know about White Chocolate or it wasn’t available in our little part of the Midwest at the time. Great story Jim. Loved it.

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