After 90 years, a gathering

by Brian Clarey

Lewis Pagano, DDS (retired), shifted somewhat uncomfortably in the ladder-backed chair in his youngest daughter’s living room. It was his 90 th birthday party, and Lewis, the last of seven children born to Italian immigrants in Morristown, NJ, must have experienced a form of d’j’ vu. His older brother — Tony Pagano, 91 — made slow laps around the buffet table as each new course appeared. And his older sister, Olympia Falgione, who is 93, shouted questions at her daughter, Aleta, concerning exactly how these people at the party are related to her.

“Which one is that?” “That’s Bobbie, ma.” “Bobbie?” “Bobbie! She’s Lew’s daughter!” “And who is that one?” “Ma!” This is the family into which I was born in 1970. Lew is my grandfather; Aleta my cousin. The room is filled with people who have the same nose as me, the same crinkle about the eye and Neanderthal brow, the same receding hairline and predisposition to gout. We shout over each other and talk with our hands, swarm over the cheese plate, step down into the basement to see what the children are up to.

It’s the kind of thing my family used to do all the time when I was growing up: gather together in someone’s house for a birthday, a holiday, a fresh bottle of scotch… whatever excuse was handy for assembling a big tray of baked ziti and a few loaves of fresh, crusty bread.

Only we haven’t done anything like this in decades. I haven’t seen my cousins Aleta and her sister Lynette in a good 10 years. Uncle Tony, who was a vibrant, swarthy man lumbering about the Pagano junkyard in Morristown the last time I saw him — which may have been 20 years ago — is now, well… an old man. And my Aunt Olympia, who used to remind me a little bit of the Bride of Frankenstein because of the twin white streaks she maintained in her jet-black hair, is still as feisty as a 93-year-old woman can be, though these days you have to be conscious of which one is her “good” ear.

“Which one is that? Is that Lisa? Who are the little ones” “Ma!” It’s all coming back to me: the bus in the junkyard where the brothers would eat crackers and drink scotch, Christmases at my grandfather’s house in Morristown with torrone candy and Italian cookies, aging relatives sitting on lawn chairs at family barbecues, the weddings, the funerals, the card games, the gossip.

And always there was the roar of conversation, the stories that gain power in the retelling, the exclamations of made-up words in Italian.

“Disgustinad!” says my cousin Joe. I had forgotten we could do that.

This event, unlike all those ghosted memories, is a catered affair, with rare roast beef and onion marmalade piled atop crostini, raw vegetables and dip, a wedge of horseradish cheddar, pigs in blankets. But come dessert time our heritage asserts itself in the tray of cake-like tarralle cookies Aleta made, my cousin Geraldine’s ricotta cake which gets swept up in about a minute and the recipe for which Geraldine will not share, a couple buckets of sfogliatelle, that flaky pastry that looks like a clamshell filled with ricotta custard, procured from a local Italian bakery — no one in my family makes sfogliatelle anymore.

Around the house rest pictures of my grandfather at various stages of his life: his graduation from dental school at the University of Pennsylvania; his marriage to my grandmother, the former Josephine DeSantis; his time in the Army towards the end of World War II; a shot of him in his 50s, at the top of his game with a cigar and a grin.

There are a hundred stories here, some of them colorful family histories that my grandmother says I can only write about after she’s dead — a statement that may sound morbid to non-Italians, but rest assured that Italians make pronouncements like that all the time. There is the immigration song written when Pellegrino Pagano brought his wife Brigida to the new world, sired seven children and began to prosper. There are the sad ballads of those we’ve lost along the way — my grandfather’s brother Nujay and his twin Carmen, who passed when I was only 10 years old; Olympia’s husband Art and his son Artie; the long list of cousins who did not make it to see this day.

A few hours in, Uncle Tony makes his way around the conversation pit, wiping crumbs from his jacket. He espies his younger brother Lew, my grandfather, taking in the whole scene with his 90-year-old eyes, perhaps not as blazing as they once were but still able to take in this generational display.

Tony looks down at his brother. “I don’t remember things so good anymore,” he says.

My grandfather smiles up at his big brother, 91 years old and still able to eat like a teenager.

“That’s too bad,” my grandfather says, and his eyes return to the family, to his party, to his blood. It is his birthday, and we are all together once more.