Reindeer in the Sky (Chapter 1 Part II)

Mrs. Jelianti.jpg

Chapter 1: 504 Thatford Avenue Part II

By late afternoon, Mom had showered and both of us had napped. Tanta, my great aunt and titular head of the Schumann clan, would soon return for dinner with her entourage.  Grandma Rose was upstairs checking on her sauce. Sauce, in our house was only one kind; tomato; Napolitano-style. Grandma’s recipe, while never written down was a tribute to melting-pot-America. Its roots came through Marie Jelianti, Tanta’s friend who became her sister-in-law.

Before Rose married Robbie, she was Rose Schultz, second daughter of Benjamin and Goldie.  The first born was Bess. Called Tanta; German for aunt, by everyone in our house, she usually entered complaining, “Rose, is that mangy mutt still stinking up the hallways?” Spotty was an easy mark, but often her complaint was about one of her sister’s brood, “Why are you washing the baby-that’s Jeannie’s job!”

Tanta’s only daughter, Fanny was studious and shy. Although round-faced like her mother, Fanny’s skin tone was far from our Northern European milky white. Her olive complexion and rich chocolate eyes made her look more like the Italian girls from Bensonhurst. Mrs. Jelianti’s son, Joey from her first marriage was a high school drop-out with a re-built 1933 Indian Crocker Speedway motorcycle. On sunny afternoons, Joey, in his Salvation Army thrift shop leather jacket would rev the engine in front of Tilden High School until dismissal. When Fanny and her friends emerged, he would croon; Ramona, I hear the mission bells above. Ramona, they’re singing out our song of love. Fanny would hop on behind him, ready to speed down life’s highway. It was hardly scandalous. Tanta, Grandma Rose and their baby sister, Edna were former Roaring Twenties flappers who would rack up six husbands, seven if I count Tanta’s live-in man between her legal marriages. The shame of Fanny and Joey’s love was their religions. Mrs. Jelianti was a faithful Roman Catholic. Tanta believed God was a children’s fanciful notion. The two women clashed, but made-up in time for a City Hall wedding.

Thatford Avenue returned to its springtime activities: Sandy ran three houses down to Barbara Cacciatore’s. The girls, in pastel cotton dresses, played jacks while waiting for their other friends. Sandy jiggled her wrist, to show off Evie’s golden bracelet, but when Barbara asked to try it on, she refused. My youngest aunt’s impulsive theft was only out of spite when Evie said I was the sweetest baby she ever saw, but now she would have to hide it under her sister’s bed for the vacuum cleaner to find in the morning.

Grandma gave the sauce a final stir, piled her meatballs onto a platter and set them into the low-heated oven. One back stove burner was topped with a cauldron of boiling water while the other warmed chicken fricassee in case someone didn’t want spaghetti. Since there’d only be 10 for dinner, Evie set the kitchen table with plates from movie dish nights as elegantly as if royalty was expected. She placed a sectioned grapefruit half on each setting and added the sugar bowl for passing, since Grandma deemed the vorspeise* bitter.

Dinner was ready.

As if by telepathy, Tanta, with blue eyes so bright they sparkled like stars, opened the front hallway door and called upstairs to her sister. “Rose…Rose! We’re here.” It didn’t matter that the house was home to her other blood relatives. It was clear to everyone who watched them, the sisters cherished each other’s company.

Close behind Tanta was ‘Aunt’ Fanny whose delivery date was next month and ‘Uncle’ Joey holding my cousin Louis’ hand. Louis was GG’s first great-grandchild, but I was the first girl of the fourth generation. In exactly one month from my birthdate, Fanny would give birth to a girl, my second-cousin whom Uncle Joey named, Ramona.

Long after the meal was eaten, the schnapps glasses were emptied, the leftovers packed and sent home with Tanta, I emptied my 2AM bottle and went down for the night. Mom tip-toed back to her bedroom to find Dad awake and waiting. “Jin-jee,” he used his pet name for her. “I…well, I want you to remember…even with the baby, we still come first for each other…right?”

Mom slipped off her fuzzy pink slippers, got into bed with her husband and answered, “Right.”

vorspeise* - German for first course.  Grandma’s was grapefruit until the summer months when she served cantaloupe or honeydew

The Sauce Then and Now

As I try to think of what made friends out of the three old ladies, whom to me seemed very different: Tanta was bossy, Mrs. Jelianti was stern and Grandma was sweet but seriously conniving, the common bond hit me; their disappointment in their husbands (and to be fair, they married teenagers expecting them to be knights.) They were, at some point, single moms who raised healthy children during The Great Depression, long before EBT cards and Medicaid. Mrs. Jelianti had the additional trial of emigrating from Italy with two babies. To the neighbors, she was a widow, but whispers on the front porch as Tanta and Grandma peeled apples into wooden bowls told me she hadn’t buried the violent Mr. DeNoto, but rather rescued her children and herself from him by coming to America.

My favorite Mrs. Jelianti story came from Grandma. We were in my kitchen making the sauce soon after Tanta had passed, and I was pregnant with my son. Grandma cut a chunk of salami off its rope and tossed it into the already boiling canned tomatoes, onion and garlic mix. “I gave birth to Uncle Bert in ’21 and then your mother in '23 and there I was, ten months later, pregnant again. I couldn't afford another mouth to feed, even if abortions were safe back then, I didn't have the money for one. Marie had stopped by and all I could do was cry." I hadn’t remembered that Mrs. Jelianti’s first name was Marie. Growing up, I called grown-ups by their surnames and although many of Grandma’s friends were called Aunts, Mrs. Jelianti wasn’t. Her dour features carved out her title; Mrs. Jelianti.

Grandma opened a can of Sauce Arturo and stirred it into the sauce. The piquant scent of sausage rode along a spray of steam making my mouth water. My grandmother wiped her hands on the apron I kept in a closet for her visits and continued, “Marie looked me straight in the eye. ‘Rosie, you pregnant again?’ Everybody knew she had the gift, so I listened to her advice: ‘You wait until there’s a full moon, then go out in the backyard and pick all the dandelion leaves. Then you make a soup with them and drink the whole pot. Don’t leave a drop, capito?  Every drop! You go to the bathroom in the morning, you see…no more baby.’”

My pregnant hormones craved a slice of bread dipped in sauce, but the Schumann Family rules forbade what we called eating from the pots. It was deemed unsanitary. I asked my grandmother if she took Mrs. Jelianti’s suggestion.

“Of course, tasted awful.”

“So, what happened?” This was getting interesting.

“What happened? Ha, your Uncle Herby happened.”

By the time my son was ten, I had stopped making the sauce that used only canned tomato products, a garlic clove, an onion and tinned dry herbs to create my own version; easier and fresher.

The Now Sauce

(This recipe will be added only after copious trials)