Monthly Archives: July 2013

Williamsburg, the Journey Continues. My Grandfather’s Grotto…

In 1966 John Sebastian penned a number one hit song for his group The Lovin’ Spoonful titled, “Summer in the City.”  The lyrics aptly state:

Hot town, summer in the city . Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty . Been down, isn’t it a pity?  Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city. All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head!”

I bring this up because it not only conjures up the true feeling of a stifling hot summer day in an urban jungle but because when James and I went to Williamsburg to revisit my childhood, New York City had begun the biggest heat wave it had known in years and it was precisely how the two of us felt. I was unable to get the song (which by the way, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked #401 of the 500 greatest songs of all time) out of my head. Needless to say that as a coupe of overweight, out of shape, middle-aged men suffering from a number of ailments not the least of which is high blood pressure, we were uncomfortable to say the least.

That said, there was still a very important place for me to revisit. In 1938, my grandfather Vito Abate, built an incredible grotto on the grounds of his local parish church, Saint Francis of Paola. Yes I know that this is the third church I mentioned in as many blogs, but there ARE that many Catholic churches in the area. It seems as though you stumble across another one every few blocks or so. The remarkable thing is, as a child, every one of them was packed full for each and every mass! Anyway, I digress… I knew that I absolutely had to take James to see my grandfather’s work no matter how oppressive the heat.

After stopping off (even further north on Bedford Avenue) we took a break to cool off and grab a bite to eat. We found a cute little place called, “Sweet Chick” that is known for their chicken & waffles. Outside the shop sat one of the famous food-trucks “Van Leeuwen’s Ice Cream” that was preparing for what was sure to be a huge crunch on this big feast day. After taking some time to share a scone, a couple of tall iced teas, and of course some chicken and waffles, we were ready to do an about face and head south to Conselyea Street, where St. Francis church is located.

Sweet Chick Restaurant on Bedford Avenue

Sweet Chick Restaurant on Bedford Avenue

Chicken & Waffles

Chicken & Waffles

As a child I remember passing by the structure thinking “oh, that’s grandpa’s grotto,” but because I was only a child, I was unable to truly appreciate the craftsmanship or the incredible hard labor of love it took to complete the task.

Please allow me to tell you about my grandpa.

Vito Abato was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. He settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and was drafted into WW1 shortly after marrying his wife Maria Petrocelli. A spelling error on a US army document changed his last name from Abato to Abate. Vito’s battalion was captured by enemy forces who attempted to execute them by lethal gas. Left for dead, Vito actually survived and was later awarded a medal of honor for his plight. The gas however did do irreversible damage to Vito, causing him to become yet another disabled veteran casualty of that Great War. Never one for self-pity, Vito worked wherever he could to raise money to support his wife and six children. He and Maria scrimped and watched every cent of his meager earnings, eventually saving enough money to fulfill the “American Dream,” when they opened a small mom and pop’s grocery store. However the couple eventually lost everything during the depression, when they freely gave away the store’s stock to the struggling families in the neighborhood. I remember asking my grandmother why they gave away all the food. Her answer was simple, “These were the people of my neighborhood. Their children were hungry and I had shelves of food. What else could I do?”

Vito’s greatest loss came in 1938, after the death of his youngest daughter, Anna who passed away from pneumonia at age eight. Heartbroken, he decided to build a grotto at his local parish church, Saint Francis of Paola, as an offering to the Virgin Mary in hopes that she may look after the daughter he could no longer care for himself. A poor and unhealthy man, Vito would walk from his apartment in Williamsburg, over the Manhattan bridge to Canal Street and through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, where he would collect the stones that were being discarded there during work on the tunnels. Hunched over his little wooden wheelbarrow, he hauled 6-8 stones at a time back to Brooklyn to be used to erect the structure. I can’t even imagine how much his back ached from the journey or the countless miles he logged, gathering the hundreds of stones needed to complete his beautiful grotto.

Built by my grandfather's hands in 1938 the grotto holds a small plaque dedicating the structure in his honor

Built by my grandfather’s hands in 1938 the grotto holds a small plaque dedicating the structure in his honor

This grotto was erected out of a father’s undying love for his daughter and has been standing as a testament to his incredible faith for over 75 years.

I was fortunate, honored, and above all, blessed enough to call Vito Abate my grandfather and I could not be more proud – or more humbled – by such an inspirational and devoted man. God bless you grandpa, I love you.

Untill next time,

Don

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My return to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Part Two…

As James and I continued our journey through Williamsburg, we headed north on Metropolitan Avenue. Directly diagonal to my old building, still sits the tiny square, corralled in by the very same cast-iron posts. In spite of the fact that the poor little square sat directly under the BQE (Brooklyn-Queen’s Expressway) as the only patch of nature in the area, it was where all our outdoor photos were taken. In my mind’s eye I could see us kids posing for Easter Sunday photos as well as my sister Maureen’s First Holy Communion.

Maureen and me posing at "the Square" many moons ago!

Maureen and me posing at “the Square” many moons ago!

A short walk under the BQE and we emerged at the playground where we kids would go to cool off in the community sprinklers. Occasionally… and I DO MEAN occasionally, we were permitted to go to the playground alone (well as a group of kids) and have fun swinging to and fro on the swings or blistering our butts and thighs on the shiny steel slides that sat heating up in the oppressive summer sun! Hahahaaa…No coddling back in those days. We kids climbed iron monkey bars 15 feet high with nothing but the pebble studded concrete to break our fall, should we be unfortunate enough to miss our grip. There was also a sand-box and of course, those cursed wooden see-saws where a big kid would always hold a smaller child hostage in the air, until they sufficiently begged for release. What I liked most about going to the park as a young child was that it had trees around its perimeter. They weren’t terribly big, and for sure not the healthiest specimens but still, they were trees in an area where trees were scarce. Ironically, fifty years later they have not seemed to grow one iota larger!

My childhood playground as it is today

My childhood playground as it is today

James and I continued our northward trek, towards North 5th Street. Within moments we were standing before The Church of the Annunciation. Two of the most significant events in my family’s life were marked by services at this majestic house of worship. It is where my parents were married on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1963 and were my brother’s funeral service was held in November of that same year. It was 10:30 AM and James and I wanted to attend mass there this Sunday. Unfortunately for us, the eleven o’clock service was to be held in Spanish, so we went inside the church to say our prayers privately.

Church of the Annunciation

Church of the Annunciation

Annunciation was exactly how I remembered it. I had long wondered if the reason I thought of this church as a small cathedral was due to my childhood memory recalling things larger than life, but it was indeed as “cathedral-like” as I remembered. From the tile floor in the vestibule, to the original pews, which still have the clips once used to hold a man’s hat, to the statues, to the stained glass windows, the Church of the Annunciation was, is, and I suppose always will be, a magnificent tribute to a time when such glorious workmanship was commonplace, especially when building houses of worship regardless of religion.

Inside Annunciation looking down the asile to the alter

Inside Annunciation looking down the asile to the alter

The Alter

The Alter

Something quite unexpected happened to me that morning as I knelt to pray. I felt as if I had been somehow transported back to the day when my mom and dad were wed there. I could feel my nana’s hand holding mine in the vestibule as the doors opened and my mother entered (backlit by the bright afternoon sun) on the arm of her dad (my Poppy). I recalled looking up at my nana to ask, “Nana… doesn’t mommy look like an angel?” I remembered thinking that my mother (as a bride) was the single most beautiful vision in the entire world. I relived taking my place in the first pew with nana as we watched my gorgeous mother slowly “glide” down the aisle all dressed in white, holding a lovely bouquet of flowers in one hand while she held Poppy’s arm with her other. Outside the church, by the tall, black iron gate that still surrounds it, I could see my Aunt Del (in her pillbox hat and new coat) bending down to tell me what a handsome little man I was in my tiny tuxedo! It was as though time stood still for fifty years to be rerun again at this moment just for me. 

My mom & Poppy emerging from the limo outside the Church of the Announciation 3-17-1963

My mom & Poppy emerging from the limo outside the Church of the Announciation 3-17-1963

I tried my best to tell James what I was feeling, but foolishly, found myself crying as I did my best to explain. These were not by any means tears of sadness, but more tears of joy. Joy because of all the good things that began for my family on that day, and joy for having such a wonderful “forever memory” so clearly etched into my mind. 

As it turns out, today (July 21st) is the tenth anniversary of my mom’s passing. As I sit here writing this blog I can’t help feeling blessed beyond measure to have had Trudy Wilson-Massetti-Abate as my mother. Although it is mostly due to luck that such memories are so instilled into my brain… it is without a doubt because of my beautiful mother that they are so safely tucked into my heart.

More about Williamsburg to come in my next blog!

Until then…

Don

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Who Said You Can’t Go Back?

James and I had to head to New York City for a few meetings so we decided to seize the moment and make a weekend of it.

After five decades, I returned to my roots to visit the neighborhood I came from, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We had been hearing a lot about it on television lately; as crazy as it seems, the old area of run down walk-up’s and tenements had made a 360 degree turn to become one of New York City’s most sought after communities! When you think about it, it actually makes perfect sense, as it’s literally 10-minutes (2 subway stops) from Manhattan with majestic views of the famous NY skyline. I guess the bigger surprise should be; why didn’t someone think of it sooner?

The ability to not only go back to Williamsburg, but to be able to take the time to visit some of the very places so significant to my childhood, was both exciting, and at times, quite emotional. I plan to Blog about the various experiences separately (in about three different Blogs) to give each of them the attention and the respect that they deserve.

At 14th Street in Manhattan, James and I boarded the “L” train for Brooklyn and four stops later we emerged out of the subway on the very block of my young childhood. Of course there were a few changes but for the most part, things had stayed so eerily the same, I almost felt a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” half hearing the “ghosts of my childhood past,” laughing and playing on the sidewalks  along with the Muldoon kids.

The biggest change noticed was to my old building, which was now sans its beautiful slate steps, and cast iron, cannonball banister. The antique, glass paneled, wood framed double doors had been removed in lieu of a very 1970’s government office building style aluminum framed door. Yuck! What were they thinking?

524 Metrolpolitan Avenue

524 Metrolpolitan Avenue

I learned before our trip that Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, one of the many neighborhood parishes, was in full “feast” mode, celebrating the annual Festival of Saint Paulino, a local patron saint to the Italian immigrants who had settled there from the town of Nola. It is a tradition that is over fourteen hundred years old and culminates with the carrying of the Giglio throughout the streets of the area. One hundred men haul the seven story structure (that holds an entire twelve piece musical band) on their shoulders to the delight of the cheering crowd.

Back when my family lived in Williamsburg, the Giglio was carried down our block (Metropolitan Avenue) and actually dropped in front of our very building! These days it seems the Giglio takes a different (and smaller) route down the street in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church but is just as exciting as ever.

A vey busy Lady of Mount Carmel Church on the afternoon of the feast.

A vey busy Lady of Mount Carmel Church on the afternoon of the feast.

Now easy to see that the Giglio is really 7 stories high while it waits to be carried in front of some new construction
Now easy to see that the Giglio is really 7 stories high while it waits to be carried in front of some new construction

The book I am writing about my mother, “Unforgettable (Trudy’s Story)” has a small story in it that covers the feast and the Giglio and I was excited to see how well my memory fared after a half century. I had given James the pages from the chapter which covered the feast to get his take on it. Turns out; he was astonished to see how accurately I remembered the details, noting that by visiting the scene, he could almost picture our family (along with the neighborhood locals) filling the streets in celebration.

As poor kids from a Brooklyn tenement, this annual feast was a highlight to our summers and to have the opportunity to go back after fifty years to the sights, sounds and the smells of a bygone era, was a remarkable experience that reignited cherrished memories that I will forever be grateful to hold in my mind and in my heart.

Until next time,

Don

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