Category Archives: memorials

My Christmas Card List.

When Mum found out she was terminally ill, I remember her smile of resignation as she looked from one to the other of us, sitting there on the front porch, together, nearly all of us in the family. It was almost apologetic, as if somehow she’d disappointed each of us by not getting the “good” diagnosis. That was Mum, always determined to do the right thing, the acceptable thing, the thing which was expected.

But, then she set about, to plan, as plan she would whenever anything presented to be addressed. With a noticeable sense of urgency, her ability to verbally communicate rapidly deteriorating, she insisted on finding [managing to get me to find] her box of Christmas cards. In methodical if repetitive silence, she flipped through them all, searching for names and their addresses. Since organized thought was diminishing with the tumor’s encroachment, this was a trying task. She enlisted me, yet again, haltingly explaining that she needed to “let everybody know.” I would compose a letter, to copy and send out to everyone on her list. These were the people who meant the most, who would care to know; these were those whom she loved.

Most everyone I knew who still sent out Christmas cards did so dutifully; there were endless, extended family and both present and former coworkers, that end of year stock taking of those still considered part of the relevant realm. But, to Mum, the list was precious; these were her dearest friends.

In her world, actually spending time with others just for fun had to take a back seat to the needs of the family. Dad had his shop; he could never leave his haircuts. There was no time in a given year to travel – except for that one week in August, south of town to the college campus about 90 minutes away where everybody on her Christmas card list would convene for seven full days of heavenly Christian fellowship.

These were people she’d known, together with all the cousins out east, since childhood. They’d kept in touch every year, for the entirety of their lives. Most had married, raising children who would represent inter-familial connections from within the fellowship. They were all joined at the heart.

Or, at least, Mum thought they were. She carried them all in her mind, as she sat every day at the sewing machine, revisiting any number of brief encounters across the whole of her life. Her thoughts devoted to every detail of a vivid recall, so each person would materialize in her memory. It was inside her head that she would sustain her relationships with each of them, tucking her favorites into their own corners for reference as they came into the frame of her story.

I’d sat, perusing the list we’d gathered. Many of them were totally unknown to me; surely, I had never met these, at all. Some were familiar, among the few ministers who would visit yearly with their wives; still others just names I’d heard spoken over the phone, in conversation with a sister or two. Mostly, had we ever actually seen these people cross the threshold of the front stoop, our house would have been filled every week to flowing with the glow and glitter of live laughter, of real life interchange. I was certain, sitting there next to Mum in the chair beside her bed, that they’d all have felt her love just as much as she did without them present in the room.

But, they hadn’t been, and they weren’t, and now she was about to die without them. She would send my letter, and some would call. Most would send cards, and set reminders to order flowers. But, she would know them, well, as well they ever could have been known, with a kind of devotion unseen and unspoken. And, every Christmas thereafter, maybe she would occur to them, and they would finally know.

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I was the second born, the love child of a reunion marriage. Often, I’ve been known to declare myself the embodiment of both my parents’ strongest and weakest traits. Among these, I bear Mum’s willingness to love from afar, her inability to materialize relationships, her life of wistful imaginings. If you are on my Friend list, I carry you in my heart. Whether we live or whether we die, you will have been loved, if only by me.

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© 3/11/21 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for respecting, in whole and part, the entirety of this story – by leaving its contents intact and untranslated. Sharing permitted via blog link, exclusively. Thanks, again.

My Mammy’s Touch.

Mae Elisabeth [Learn] Sweet was my maternal grandmother. Her first grandchild, Alan Marshall, called her “Mammy”, and it stuck; she, and her husband, would be Mammy and Pappy to all 19 grandkids, thereafter. Let me tell you about her.
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Mammy (seen in this photo, at about 95 years) was widely regarded by all who knew her as a human saint. She was the absolute sweetest, most loving, most gentle, most prayerful, hardworking, resourceful, generous, forgiving person anybody knew. Her character made most men whither. She prayed, daily, for everyone she knew, whenever they “came to mind.” I am not alone in believing that she was nearly psychic, able to attune to the slightest and most immediate needs among her brood, and beyond. And, when mum met dad on the train and began to write letters to him, placing those letters in the iron mailbox just outside the front door on the porch wall for the mailman to pick up and deliver, Mammy would discreetly take those letters and cross off the final two syllables of dad’s surname. Mum told me this, having discovered the act. Why did Mammy do that? Mammy did that, not because she wasn’t a loving, caring, forgiving, generous, prayerful, hardworking, resourceful mother and grandmother, but because systemic racism had borne itself out, in her; dad was Italian, and he was a source of shame to her. She had to remove the final two syllables of his last name, to make it appear different than the identifying  ” – zillo” which appeared naturally.
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Was it Mammy’s fault, that she behaved this way? Did her actions arise out of some corrosive gangrene in her soul? No; it did not. It emerged because she had been taught by her Eastern Pennsylvanian, Danish/English/Germanic societal roots, to regard Italians as second class citizens, as shameful members of American society.
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And, it is just such deeply rooted, largely subconscious behavior toward people of color which those of American “white” society have and continue to portray, however subtley however fleetingly however rarely, in their actions throughout the generations.
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In 1944, mum married dad. Almost ten years later, after a nearly decade long divorce, they remarried. I was their second child, and favored my father; my hair was black, my skin was dark. And, Mammy was fond of stroking my face, doing so every time I would sit beside her. She would regularly exclaim at the beauty of my skin, its softness, and smile with deep fondness into my eyes.
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It’s my belief that my birth changed my Mammy, ever more; she realized, and thereafter made conscious effort, to appreciate that which she had been taught to shame. And, in just such the same manner, only when we reach out and touch that which we are taught to revile will we ever hope to heal from hate.
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© 6/28/2020     Ruth Ann Scanzillo.     All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for respecting the rights of authorship.
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Paul Yoculan Younger, Epic Prince of Entertainment.

Pop was never my thing, back then.  But, I secretly wished it could be.

Raised on two part a capella worship music, performed by the untrained, first listening to my father croon into my ears while he fed me the bottle I always had an affinity for a grown man who could really sing.

Paul was definitely grown. His skin betrayed his age, but he still wore a shag to the shoulders as if it were the coolest, and a denim jacket same.  And I think, but I’m not sure, that the day I stepped into Larry’s basement for my keyboard “audition” he might have already been there.

The Classmates were a vocal quartet of high school friends circa 1957, which was the year I was born. Frank, Jim, Larry, and Ronnie, three out of four second generation Italian and one black American with voices to blend. But, Paul was their friend, and became a final set fixture at nearly all our gigs. The reason he was in that set was because we always closed with “Peppermint Twist”/”SHOUT” – and, these were his signatures. Paul had spent his heyday singing them with his band, The Epics, both in Vegas and at the “World Famous Peppermint Lounge” – in New York City. The Epics were the band The Beatles came to see and hear after they played New York. It’s true; look it up.

I’d always had a solo voice, of sorts, suited for weddings and funerals, a solid Debby Booner. But, when our tenor couldn’t quite carry the Frankie Valli leads, and Frank asked me if I could, these became my own semi-signature tunes from behind the keyboard for the second set. “Big Girls Don’t Cry”; “Sherry, Baby”; my choice, the Ronnie Spector “It’s My Party” and, nod to the Beatles, “Twist and Shout”.

To Paul, I was probably the furthest cry from a female singer. I didn’t dress the part and, worse, I didn’t carry it. Frank had saddled me in the shoes of the same name when I produced my own pair and, when he acquired royal blue bowling shirts with white cuffs and collar for the guys, I got one too – along with one each of the violet and pink ruffled tuxedo long sleeves to match with black pants.

Never sure if this were on consult or his own idea, but one day Paul had me come over to his house and meet him in his basement. He wanted to coach me into singing lead. Out front. Like a real girl singer.

His wife, sweet and accommodating, provided iced tea on a serving tray. I squirmed. This man sucked on a Throat Disc and wailed like his life depended on it; how could I possibly learn from him? Ah. The arrogance of youth.

I actually don’t remember all of what happened during that session. He told me stories of his days in the circuit, and we listened to some forty fives and he talked about style. I concluded that I was probably the only female singer he’d ever met who would not be groomed for the front. He must have been convinced; we never met again, over iced tea or anything else.

But, what we did do was play out. Paul got us the best work in the big bars. He’d always be our finisher, and he was so good at it – stirring the crowd into a frenzy, pushing his cords until I thought they would just splinter out every time, I was content to crank the keyboard bass until the woofers jumped from the floor and ride all the way to the end on that Roland Hammond B3 preset like a boss. I was so happy just to be part of his show.

Paul’s show kept on, too. Long after I left that band to accept my first public school teaching job, he’d still be found singing. Few of us musicians knew he also coached baseball, and well enough to do so for major high school programs in our region. But, he would not stop singing. That voice which, to my ear and experienced vocal nodes, was always on its last legs just never gave out.

I don’t know what happened, really. Something about a heart problem, requiring major surgery, and complications, and the ICU, and then death. How does that occur, in our time, anymore? Yeah. Paul was 82. But, from the first time and every time I’d seen him over the years he was always, already older than me, old – but young. Younger than all the rest. Paul Younger.

Rest in Peace, you old crooner. Or, keep on wailing. It’s your call, Paul. You were our prince of Pop.

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© 12/29/19    Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose first hand story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Please respect this tribute, exactly as it is written. Thanks.