The year 1961 was “just another year” for many people. Some had visions of a better future, some just wanted the year to be over, and some were surprised that we had sworn in a Catholic president. I know that Maspeth was all abuzz about it for weeks.
I had just turned 7 that summer and as the world turned I was starting a fast journey into adulthood. I was told that my father had died of high blood pressure and that he was never coming home again. The process of understanding this was overwhelming, but with the help of my Uncle Joe and my mom it became easier as time went on.
The summer came to its end, as usual, way too soon. Back-to-school was looming overhead like a black cloud, only this time it felt like it would be a raging storm.
My mom and uncle were talking in the kitchen at our home on Mazeau Street and they asked me to come in. I was standing there and immediately felt something funny. I didn’t know what it was because I was just a kid and had no reference. The happy yellow kitchen for some reason did not feel the same. My uncle said, “Paulie, sit down here next to me.” (It’s been more than 50 years, and I’m still called Paulie by some.) He said there were going to be some changes and they wanted me to hear them and understand that they were the best thing for me and my mom.
There was lots of talk about being understanding and being a man, but the bottom line was that I had no choice, and that was that. Here’s the deal: My mom and I were going to move soon, and I was going to a new school. I would have to leave P.S. 102 and attend P.S. 78. The news was a double whammy.
Within a few days, my mom, her sister, and my aunt Stella were going thru dresser drawers and closets and washing, folding and stuffing clothes, and whatever else they could find, into cardboard boxes. This went on for days. Every morning I woke up to more of my childhood and memories being put into cardboard boxes. I felt empty, cold, and scared. The last closet to be emptied was my father’s. I recall both my mom and aunt crying and discussing who would want this or that while taking out ties, shirts and suits from the only closet that I was not allowed to touch. I felt myself shaking inside and wanting to scream out, “Stop it, put it all back, and make it go away!”
I ran downstairs to be with my grandfather with whom I often found solitude and peace. He always seemed to know when I was upset, and just what to do. He said in his broken English, “Ok, you now comma helpa me widdah garage.” We spent hours cleaning and shoveling sand and moving bricks into his cement truck that would be used for his masonry jobs coming up. We talked about everything else but what was about to happen. He allowed me to release my anger through hard work until I was tired, and at the end he brought me a Coca-Cola. We sat and talked about moving. He said the move was only a few blocks away and that I would always see him. I’ll never forget the last words in that garage that day. He said, “No matter how far away I move, we will always be grandfather and grandson, and that never changes.”
Moving day had arrived. My mom’s brother was outside with the car running waiting for us. My grandfather, Aunt Stella and mom had tears in their eyes, but I stood strong and wouldn’t, and couldn’t cry, because I just didn’t have anything left. Mom and I walked to the front gate for the last time together, turned and waved goodbye. My uncle turned to my mom as she closed the car door, and asked, “Is everyone ok?” I turned to look out the back window and watched them both walk slowly into the house and close the front door. I couldn’t help but think that no matter what anyone says or tries to make me do, that the house I just left would always be my home.
Before I knew it, I was walking to the new school with my mom to be enrolled. We had one more block to go and I could see this large Gothic evil structure that was P.S. 78. Later on in years, I grew to admire the architecture, and was sad when it was torn down for P.S. 229. The walk up and into this medieval castle had my heart beating like a drum. Everything seemed old and dark, not like P.S.102, a newer school with lighter colors. We arrived at the principal’s office. It had an old oak door with a satanic-looking doorknob. My mom took my hand as we entered the office, and we were asked to have a seat. I never had seen chairs so big, thick and heavy, ever.
The principal’s name was Mr. Landau. He seemed to be very pleasant and friendly. He wasn’t a very tall man because my mom in heels was taller than he was, and she was a petite 5'2″. In a flash, we were inside my new classroom, and I noticed that I didn’t know anyone, and the desks were nailed to the floor. My mom left with Mr. Landau, and I was in my seat alone, wanting to go home.
As time had gone by I seemed to settle in, but not in the way that P.S.78 wanted me to. Yeah, I had a few fights – one or two I clearly won, and a couple where I definitely held my ground. My grades were good, but my attitude, well, was not so good. I know now that losing my father left me with unexpressed anger. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Parent-Teachers Day was either a day of reckoning or a day of joy, depending on what kind of kid you were. I was getting the feeling that for me it would, maybe, fall somewhere in the middle, and it did. My mom came home that night with a half-smile that assured me that my life as I knew it would not end. I got the “Paulie, come sit next to me” routine again, but this time it was different. She opened with how good my grades were, and my teacher thought I was bright, but then she went into my attitude, and wise cracking mouth, and this cockiness that she didn’t raise me with, and where did it come from, but it’s going to stop right here and now, mister. She actually said the word “mister”, the word my dad used when he was mad at me, so I knew she was serious.
I made it past that and tried to keep my mouth in check, along with my fists, while I was in school. Everything seemed to be going OK. I later learned that’s the time when you need to watch your back. Sure enough, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on my little head. My mom was getting ready for a date and tried to explain that she just needed to go out, and asked me to understand, and be ok with it. I was – because it didn’t sound like a big thing, however mom didn’t quite tell me everything.
The doorbell rang, and this man started up the stairs. I noticed the top of his head and a present under his arm. I wish I could stop there, but no such luck. The man got to the top, and in the light I saw that it was Mr. Landau, my principal! My heart stopped, I took one step back, swallowed, and then in my head I heard violins play like in the movies. (Yent-Yent-Yent!) I don’t remember much from that point on, except being in the living room and opening the gift. It was Stratego, a board game meant for a kid that was six years older than me. Nice going, Landau! From that day on I learned to ask, “Is there anything else I should know?”
Anyway, my mom came home and said he was very nice, but she still loved my dad and would probably never date again. She was right, she never did, and I never got sent to the principal’s office ever again, either. Let’s just say that the both of us stayed out of each other’s way.
A lot of change was thrown at me in a very short period of time, and I learned to accept that change happens. I had lost my dad, we moved out of the house I was born in, I attended a new school with new kids and its principal visited my house. To this day, I have issues with change. I have learned to deal with things, and push through and accept change, but it’s still very hard for me, and for so many others. So, if you know someone with change issues, try to be understanding. There could be more to their story than meets the eye.
[The story entitled “Christmas Eve on Mazeau Street, 1959” on the back cover of the December 2017 edition of the Juniper Berry was also written by Paul DeFalco. We apologize for inadvertently omitting his byline.]